THE ANGELIC WORLD
(Q. 50-53; 61)
Banishment of the angels
AS THE moderns edit it, the first dreadful chapter in human history has been recast, the roles changed so that the victim is now victimizer. Originally the angels stood at the gates of Paradise, inexorable, their swords flaming, as the first man and woman trudged out of the Garden disconsolate to begin their long, lonely exile. Today it is the angel who is banished and man who stands, inexorable, his words a flaming sword, guarding the barriers of the world. Of course, an angel is a difficult person to get at, even with a flaming sword; but the moderns have done the best they could. If it were possible to imagine a bedraggled angel, the victim of the modern decree would be a sorry sight; for here there is no promise of a redemption or a Redeemer. Indeed, if the angels had to take this stern exile seriously, their lot would be much more serious than was that of Adam and Eve: the first man and woman were forbidden a corner of the earth and made to climb the hill to heaven; the angels, if the moderns had their way, would have no corner of the earth left to them, nor any place in heaven or in hell. They would be ruled out of existence.
By the ancestors of modern philosophy
In the modern picture there is little room for an angel, however economic an angel might be with space. Certainly the immediate ancestors of our modern philosophers left little ground for angels to walk on, none to call their own. The materialism of the nineteenth century made a closed shop of the world, its machines purring along smoothly in a mechanical pride at their monopoly of the past, present and definitely predictable future. Machines and angels have little in common; and this was a completely mechanical world. No account could be taken by it of the angels for, by its own confession, it could handle only the material; the rest was ruled out of existence.
By the moderns
The naturalism, which supported this machine-like world, identified the known with the seen, the observed; only that which could be weighed, measured, dissected was real. An angel was much too slippery to be real. Rationalism, at least in its earliest beginnings, admitted human reason and its immaterial character into the world of reality; but then it slammed shut the gates. There were no seats left, certainly none for a being that claimed superiority over that human spirit, Rationalism expected to destroy the angels by snubbing them; instead, it has come perilously close to destroying the human reason it professed to champion.
The modern attitude is a jumble of all three of these views of reality. Some men, pushing naturalism to its logical extreme, deify science and so, of course, brush the angels aside impatiently. What can a scalpel, an atom smasher or a list of cleverly arranged words do with an angel? There cannot be angels. A logical consequence of this is the denial of reason itself; reason, you see, has not as yet been strapped to an operating table. Their flag proclaimed them to be mechanistic and psycho-analytical psychologists but they were, none the less, pirates preying on humanity who made even that feeble offspring of spirituality which rationalism spared walk the plank. The step was not far from the insistence on the absolute supremacy of reason to its complete extinction.
Today, many legions of men insist on the complete independence and supremacy of man, refusing to have anything to do with a creature, or even a God, superior to man. Modernity again bites off its nose to spite its face; the trick is so ingenious that we have not yet tired of it. To spite reason and extol the scientific method, reason is ruled out and so science is killed; to spite authority and rule mystery out of the universe, reason is elevated to the highest rung of the ladder and nothing is left for the ladder to stand on. The moderns have made the defense of man by putting him at the crown of existence, a kind of three ring circus with no publicity barred; but when the noise dies down and the crowds file out, the hero of the whole performance is crawling about on all fours. Obviously angels have no place in such thinking as this; neither, for that matter, have men.
This modern contempt for things angelic has, as a matter of fact, had its effect on those who have no slightest doubt about the angelic world. Not that it has shaken their belief in any way; it has rather made them self-conscious about angels. They would hesitate to drag an angel out in public. Belief in angels is made to seem just a little childish, like believing in hobgoblins or Santa Claus; it is as though angels belonged in the world of make-believe that may be dissolved at any moment by the call to dinner. There is just the faintest odor of suspicion that by such belief we are not being entirely true to our reason, we are a little too credulous for manhood, a little too hopeful for an adult.
The angels and the ages: Universality of belief in angels
Testimony of men
If a Christian must have his angels, then he must stand off to one side of the modern world, in a sense sharing the banishment of the angels, isolated. Yet, strangely enough, it is only in these last few centuries that an angel was made to feel like an outsider or the believer in angels to feel naively credulous. The anthropological findings on primitive man certainly indicate that an angel would have been taken for granted in the days of pre-history, at the very beginnings of human life. The belief in beings, superior to man and matter but inferior to God, was then almost universal. Sometimes these spirits were good, sometimes they were bad: at different times they were identified as belonging to a river, a tree, a rock, an animal. But their essential characteristics of immateriality, their superiority to man and inferiority to God, crop up as constant factors.
Testimony of philosophy
As history grew up and began to scribble its account in the copy book that will never be filled, it found the world positively crowded with beings exhibiting these same angelic characteristics, beings who bore the names of spirits or demi-gods. The richness of Greek and Roman mythologies, to give just one instance, is evidence of this among the people themselves and in the literary expression of this popular attitude. Lest this be discounted on the grounds of popular ignorance, it might be well to notice that the philosophers did not escape this universal belief. Thales and Pythagoras placed them in the vestibule of the divine world; Socrates talked familiarly with one of them; Plato and his disciples filled the world with separated intelligences or secondary gods; to Aristotle they were the movers of the heavenly bodies. Indeed the angels are not newcomers to the world of men.
Testimony of history
Putting the popular accounts, mythology and philosophy to one side and coming to strict history, we find the most thoroughly authenticated and extrinsically corroborated of historical books — the Bible — parading the angels across almost every page. It was an angel that stayed the hand of Abraham, that slew the first-born of Egypt, that led the way to the Maccabean victories; the angel’s message was a little too much for the aging Zachary but not for the maid of Galilee or her trusting husband; God Himself stooped to angelic comfort after the long days of desert fast and the long hours of Gethsemane’s agony. Down through the centuries, the lives of the saints, not to be sniffed at even by the most historical of noses, have not found room enough for all the angelic details; nor were their writers seriously disturbed, knowing full well there would be all of heaven’s eternity to listen to the full account.
Explanation of this universality:
It is not the angels who are lonely in the world of men; rather it is the age that banishes the angels that finds itself a stranger among its fellows who have harbored human life. Such universal belief deserves better than to be treated contemptuously; surely it is too huge a thing to be cast off like a shawl by a shrug of the shoulders. At the very least, it deserves some examination, and considerable explanation. From the Catholic’s point of view, the view of faith, a quite obvious explanation is primitive revelation; an explanation, by the way, that has many a likely looking corroboration in the folklore of primitive peoples with its accounts of a virgin birth, a creation, a flood and so on. This is one way of knowing about the angels, indeed one of the very best ways of knowing about anything — being told by the first truth Who can neither deceive nor be deceived and Who is the first cause of everything.
Putting aside the question of a primitive revelation, there are many facts pointing plainly to the existence of the angels. To the medieval mind, with its solid Catholic outlook on all of life, even angelic life, there was no particular difficulty connected with such things as Peter’s release from prison or the collapse of the chains that had bound him: nor with the case of Peter of Verona whose lonely cell was flooded by brilliant light long before the days of electricity and voices were heard talking to him as he prayed alone in his cell. Quite obviously the angels were responsible for these things. When one of the brethren was obsessed by the devil, it was not necessarily an epileptic fit nor congenital insanity; for after all there were devils and the fact remained that the afflicted one was returned to perfect normalcy through an ecclesiastical exorcism.
There is at least a suspicion creeping into the cynical modern mind that there is more to the world than bodies, more to thought than measurement, more to activity than the bouncing of electrons. A modern philosopher, for instance, admits in print that there are many psychical phenomena that have not been satisfactorily explained, giving as examples such things as authenticated activities of a seance room, the mischievous, cheap little tricks of poltergeist origin and so on. A long established psychical research laboratory in London, and a like institute in Boston, frankly admit numerous examples of things that defy explanation on the grounds of a materialistic philosophy. Indeed some modern scientists have been so overwhelmed by these phenomena as to go to ridiculous lengths of childish credulity in originating a cult that has often been a rich harvest field for knaves and tricksters.
Existence of the angels
All this may or may not appeal to the mind of a man of today as a rational jumping-off-place of an argument in favor of the angels. There might, as a matter of fact, be serious difficulty from this angle in arguing to the activity of the good angels; such suprahuman activity might be a direct divine effect. No such difficulty, however, presents itself in arguing to the activity and existence of the bad angels, the devils. For such satanic activity, while obviously suprahuman, is just as obviously not divine; surely the divinity does not play the poltergeist’s cheap tricks of breaking dishes, cuffing surprised victims or slipping in a sly pinch just for the devilment of it.
There is still another way of getting at the existence of the angels by reason alone, a solid enough way and old enough to have proved its solidity. Indeed, this was the method adopted by many a scientist with remarkably fruitful results; thus it was, for instance, that Descartes, arguing to the way other things had to be by the way things are, uncovered so many of the mysteries of the spectrum long before there was tangible evidence to support his theories; thus, too, the table of atomic weights was drawn up in neat completion long before many of the tardy elements had found their way into the narrow opening of a man’s mind; it was in this way that Einstein proceeded in evolving his mathematical theories.
This way of arguing can bring out the possibility of angels, or even the sublime fittingness of angels in the ordered scheme of things; it cannot demonstrably show that they do exist There simply is no way in which we can set about proving the existence of angels a priori neither from the side of their cause, God, Who creates with complete freedom; nor from the side of the angels, His effect, who, like all other creatures, do not include existence in their very nature. Before setting out, then, on the arguments reason offers, it is to be noted emphatically that, for the Catholic, the solid grounds for the existence of the angels is the word of that first Intelligence, the source of all truth, i.e., the infallible revelation of God Himself assuring us of the existence of these supreme creatures of the created world.
The importance of angels to human life may be estimated from the overwhelming character of the evidence of the revelation of their existence we have already spoken of the familiar frequency with which the angels stride through the pages of Scripture. These examples could be multiplied indefinitely, from the wandering visitors of Abram, through the unemployed Raphael’s ready acceptance of a position as guide, to the business-like brusqueness of Gabriel. Even more impressing is the part the angels played in the human life of God Himself: they heralded His birth, ministered to His weakness in the desert, comforted Him in His agony, announced His resurrection and on the mount of the Ascension drew the curtain after the short drama of His life That there be no mistake about its importance, the existence of the angels is reasserted in the earliest statements of belief, the creeds or symbols. The same truth is proclaimed again and again in the Councils in solemnly impressive language: “We firmly believe that there is one God, creator of all visible and invisible things, spiritual and corporal; Who by His omnipotent power from the beginning of time made both the spiritual and corporal creature, the angelic namely and the earthly, and then the human creature from both spirit and body.” (Fourth Council of Lateran.)
In both Scripture and the Councils it is insisted that these angelic creatures are intellectual substances superior to men. These essential characteristics of the angelic nature have been stressed with complete universality by the Fathers, both Greek and Latin. This is the more remarkable in that there was no particular dispute about the angels and there were enough fundamental doctrines under heavy attack to occupy the hands and heads of all the Fathers all the time. It was as though each one considered his life and writings incomplete until he had paid his intellectual tribute to these big brothers of humanity.
Down through the centuries, the angels were a subject to be cherished by every Catholic author. They played such an intimate part in the lives of Mary, her Son and the apostles, they took the beginnings of Christianity so much to heart that Christian authors, now that Christianity had grown up, frankly hailed the angels as the friends, the champions, the defenders they really were. It is not surprising, then, that the Doctors of the Church labored lovingly on their treatises on the angels. Thomas put such exquisite touches to the delicately firm lines of his tract as to merit the name “Angelic Doctor” and to have the tract draw the eye of every intellectual connoisseur by the sheer boldness, Penetration and beauty of its conception; its execution has left it unparalleled as the supreme treatment of the angels. That supremacy, however, has not discouraged theologians since his time from doing their bit towards establishing the angels solidly in the heart of Christians of every age.
From the perfection of the universe
To get back to the elusively inconclusive but subtly persuasive argument from reason, it might be well to point out that the angels do properly fall within the scope of a natural investigation. The angels are decidedly an integral part of the natural order because they are suprahuman, some men have jumped to the conclusion that they are supernatural; it is a naive conceit that forgets that to a plant a worm might as reasonably seem supernatural, to a worm a dog, to a dog a man. When, in a rare moment, we emerge from pride’s fog, it is not difficult for us to admit that we are not so utterly perfect as to make unthinkable a natural perfection superior to our own; especially in the morning before breakfast. It is from this obvious limitation of man and the clear perfection of the Author of man that the arguments of reason for the existence of angels proceed.
The first, and very beautiful, argument might be summed up in the dry words of the principle that the effect is perfect in proportion as it resembles or images its cause. The principle comes to life as soon as it is brought from the abstract to the concrete: we agree without demur to the contention that reflected light is more perfect as it can itself illumine others; knowledge is more perfect when it can enlighten others; love of God is more perfect in our hearts when we can set the hearts of others on fire. We cannot picture the perfect architect of the universe bungling the job; the universe, for God’s purpose, is perfect. His purpose was the communication of His perfection, the manifestation of His goodness. Thus, things existing mirror the existence of God, things living give us a faint picture of the life of God; but of the operation of God, of His own most inner life, of the intellectual activity proper to Him we have no adequate image unless there be angels intellectual substances, independent of the world of matter, whose entirely immanent activity is one of intellect and will.
From the imperfection of the human intellect
It is true that man does mirror God in some little way; compared to the creatures beneath him, man is far and away king. He seems infinitely above them by his power of thought and of love. But even to our feeble eyes, there is a jagged gap between the operation of God and the operation of man. Man’s spirit is incomplete without a body; he needs matter for the very stuff of his thought; in every action, every thought, he must use his material body; it is through the material that he attains his intellectual and moral perfection. What a contrast to the complete independence of spirit that is God’s! If man stands at the peak of the created universe, the table of perfections is incomplete: there is existence, life, sense knowledge and love, intellectual knowledge and love dependent on matter; the missing grade is obvious — intellectual life, knowledge and love completely independent of matter. A scientific mind meeting a similar situation in the scientific world has no hesitation in proclaiming the existence of the missing grade and setting out in search of it; the mind of man, scientific or otherwise, meeting the same situation in the wider world of the universe, has had even less hesitation in proclaiming the existence of angels. Nor has the search for them been far or long.
Whether a man preen himself, looking over the world with a proud eye, or debase himself, insisting on identification with the world beneath him by ingeniously devised camouflage, the fact remains that he is neither at the top nor the bottom of creation. He stands on the lowest rung of intellectuality. In him the native independence of intellectuality is walled about by the world of matter. And this feeble flicker of intelligence in man itself proclaims the existence of a more perfect intelligence. In treating of the life of God, we have seen that intelligence does not of itself need the material of the physical world; to intelligence as such the material is accidental, something peculiar to intelligence as it exists in the composite we call man. This fact tells quite a story. It is accidental to animal life to flaunt wings; so we find some animals without wings. It is accidental to legs to be bowed; so we find some legs that are not bow-legs. It is accidental to living things to have legs, so we find some living things without legs. If, then, it is not essential, but rather accidental, to intelligence to be bound up in matter, there will be some intelligence, even created intelligence, independent of matter.
In fact we can push this farther, making it a more general argument, by insisting on the point that human intelligence is an imperfect grade of intelligence. In every class of beings, the imperfect presupposes the perfect, perfection is something posterior to perfection, something that happens to perfection, like the twisting of a word through a crooked mouth. The appearance of an imperfect grade assures us of the existence of the perfect grade of that perfection.
At any rate, our study of the different grades of life in which we traced the intrinsic activity of creatures up to the intrinsic activity of God that is the Trinity gives us more than room enough for an angel or two in the scheme of things. Certainly the story of creation would have been halted in the middle of a chapter if angels had not been produced by God. For all their high perfection, angels are not to be confused with God Himself. They are not uncaused, nor did they make themselves; they are not utterly self-sufficient. Rather, in common with all creatures, they are utterly dependent on the sustaining hand of God which brought them into being and alone keeps them there. Their stupendous perfection is only a wavering silhouette of the infinite perfection of God. Theirs too, like our own, is a borrowed, a participated perfection, a loan made from the essential perfection that is divine.
Nature of the angels
They were created in time, not from eternity; though any attempt to prove this statement is foredoomed to failure. This is one of those truths that are not material for proof but for belief; obviously, if the temporal beginning of the universe cannot be proved, the existence of any one thing in it cannot be dated with the stamp of eternity or time. Proceeding on faith’s solid assurance of the temporal beginning of angelic life, theologians have no hesitation about plunging into the question of the relative time of the production of the angels: were they produced before, after, or simultaneously with the physical world? Again, reason cannot get very far. From the language of the definitions of the Church, and because they are such an integral part of the natural universe, St. Thomas concludes that the angels were created together with the physical world. Here reason is left entirely to itself; walking alone in this territory, it rapidly loses its swagger, its voice sinks to the whisper of an opinion and, while the darkness endures, humility is no effort. Thomas’ opinion is reasonable where decision is impossible; though he stands opposed to the Greek Fathers, he is not alone, for his opinion is the quite natural universal opinion of the Latin Fathers.
Those superior intellectual substances which we call angels do exist. What are they like? The picture that reason draws of them is necessarily negative. At least it is clear that they are not bulky giants whose great strength makes men look anemic. There can be no question of bulk in an angel for there is nothing material in an angel. Moreover the possibility of ever dissecting an angel is precluded hy the fact that they are without matter: there is no inside and outside, top and bottom, fore and aft, arms and legs to an angel. This spiritual being, precisely because it is spiritual, is completely simple, utterly devoid of parts. In fact, an angel has not even that essential composition of matter and form so universal in all of nature beneath the angelic order; and this is no more than to insist again that these beings are spiritual, completely spiritual, altogether independent of the material. True, this conception comes hard to us because our minds are necessarily entangled in the material; as much as we agree that the angels are spiritual substances, subsisting forms, the flavor of matter haunts our consideration of the angels like a disembodied memory of a vague perfume. It is somewhat of a help to remember that the angel’s normal existence is like that of the soul of a man after death and before the resurrection of the body; though, of course, the human soul has a lonely incompleteness about it in this state which is altogether absent from the full life of the angels.
There is nothing in an angel that might fall out, come loose, or be cut off. An angel is totally incorruptible. Being completely simple, it cannot break up into parts; nothing of its nature can be lost for there is nothing composite about that nature. In simple terms, the angel does not go through that dress rehearsal for death which we call a change; above all it does not have to play the leading role in the drama of death. Thomas, rightly, says that every change is a kind of death; for in every change some thing is lost, even though something is also gained.
Corruption, as we understand it, is the result of the separation of the principle of unity and life from the matter it unifies and vivifies. Obviously this implies at least the fundamental complexity of form, or unifying principle, and of matter. Looking at it in the concrete, we can destroy a fresco by scraping it off the wall or by tearing down the wall it beautifies; that is, either by destroying the thing itself or that upon which it depends. There is no chink in the armor of the angels into which we might plunge the lance of destruction. The angel cannot be taken apart or erased; it cannot be destroyed by destroying that on which it depends, for it depends on nothing but God. God could, of course, destroy an angel; not by a blow of an almighty fist or the roar of a thundering fiat, but by the simple recall of the loaned existence the angel enjoys. In common with every other creature, the angel is not self-sufficient, its nature is not its existence; it lives by a borrowed, a participated existence. It too continues in being only because of the sustaining hand of God; there is no positive action necessary on the part of God to annihilate an angel, merely the withdrawal of that conserving hand without which an angel, and indeed a universe, falls into the nothingness from which it sprang.
Their variety and number
On the basis of their spiritual natures, we can spear of the angels as we would of members of the same family, emphasizing common characteristics such as immateriality, simplicity and incorruptibility. That generic sameness must not, however, betray us into conceiving of the angels as indefinitely numerous facsimiles of the one model. There is as much difference between one angel and another as there is between a horse and a man, for each angel is a distinct species, complete and entire in itself. In other words, angelic nature is not said of the angels in the same way as human nature is said of men; we differ among ourselves only by individual differences, specifically all men are the same. In each angelic species, on the contrary, there is only the one individual in whom the species is complete.
There is no point in a multiplication of individuals within an angelic species. In material things, such multiplication is absolutely necessary to assure the continuation of the species, for the individuals, reaching their allotted term of existence, cease to be; in the angelic order, the incorruptible nature of each angel is itself a guarantee of the permanency of the species. It might be argued that God’s purpose in creating — the mirroring of His divine perfections — is better served through the multiplication of individuals within a species. But; as a matter of fact, it is by the variance of the species that finite creation achieves some little likeness to the smile of divinity, not through the material differentiation of individuals within the species.
With one exception, it is true that, throughout the created world, the individual is unimportant but for the part it plays in perpetuating the species. That exception is the world of man. There every individual is of supreme importance, for every individual is possessed of an eternally enduring soul, a soul that will outlast every other species in the material order. Really, the human exception is no exception at all. Throughout all of nature, it is the enduring, the permanent that is the object of nature’s ceaseless care; because the individual’s spark of life is so momentary a thing, it is unimportant in comparison with the constantly renewed existence of the species. It is on the basis of this identical principle that the human soul is so terribly important — because it is not destined for the life of a moment, of a year or even of a century, but of all of an eternity. On the same grounds, men who see nothing spiritual, eternally enduring, in themselves arrive, with devastating logic, at the tragic conclusion that individual human life is a cheap, common, unimportant thing.
Even if there were some point in multiplying angelic individuals within the one species, it could not be done. Let us say we are discontented with our human souls and decide to do something about it. If we remember that our soul, being spiritual, has no parts, we can readily understand that there can be no question of trimming rough spots or rounding off curves. That soul, like all forms in matter and like all substances in the spiritual order, is utterly simple; if we could induce any change whatsoever, however small, we would have changed the whole thing. We might have produced something very pleasing but we would have destroyed a man. Any slightest variation in a substantial form results in a substantial change; and the rational soul of man is precisely that substantial form by which he is differentiated from every other creature in the universe. The angels are subsisting substantial forms; any slightest differentiation would not mean multiplication of individuals within a species, but a specific, a substantial change. There is, in fact, a possibility of multiplication within a species only when an essential element of that species can suffer modification that is not a substantial modification; or, in plain language, the principle of individuation can be found only in matter. The angels are completely independent of matter.
The implication of this specific character of every angel, taken in conjunction with the number of the angels, is staggering. For their number is beyond all computation. The Sacred Scriptures hint at this in such passages by: “thousands of thousands (of angels) ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him”: It is right, eminently right, that the number of angels should dwarf the number of all other created things. The beauty of creatures is an imperfect image of the beauty of God and the whole purpose of creation was to mirror in creatures something of that divine beauty; the more perfect the creature, then, the greater the image, of divine beauty; the angels, as the most perfect of all created beings, are the most perfect image of divine beauty. By their multiplication the divine purpose in the universe is most effectively attained. Each angel portrays an angle, a shadow of the divine beauty, each much more distinct than the fragrance of the locust tree from the blossom of a cherry tree.
The white light of divine beauty is only partly appreciated by us when it passes through the prism of creatures. There it is broken up into the thin rays of color which alone may seep through to our mind and senses. The terrifying numbers of the angels give us some little idea of the streaming rays of beauty that pour from the world nearest divine beauty, the world of the angels.
Consequences of the angelic nature:
in relation to bodies.
Perhaps it was some vague appreciation of this angelic beauty that introduced the words “angel” and “angelic” into love’s vocabulary. Actually, to look like an angel is a dubious accomplishment; at least to human eyes, an angel is not much to look at. Insisting on their independence of the material, we have already made plain the fact that bodies in no sense belong to angelic nature; angels are immaterial, completely spiritual substances. Yet angels stood, sword in hand, at the gates of Paradise, they came walking down the road to Abraham, made the long journey with the young Tobias. These angels certainly had bodies. Where did they get them?
Obviously, these bodies could not have been the angels’ own bodies; angels do not have bodies. Since they did have them, they must have taken them for the particular occasion, somewhat as a man might hire a dress suit in the penury of college days. As to where they got the bodies, well, any answer is no more than a guess. After all, this particular body was only for appearance’s sake; it was not necessary that it have a back as well as a front, that it be complete, a human body. In their search for the kind of body they needed, the angels were not reduced to grave-robbing. St. Thomas suggests, timidly, that the angels used compressed air as the material of these bodies. He was, of course, only guessing. There are many questions relative to these angelically assumed bodies more important than their source. Could, for instance, these bodies produce vital acts: could they see, take nourishment, grow, get old, rheumatic and creaky? The angel Raphael, declining the hospitality of Tobias, gave the answer: “I seemed indeed to eat and to drink with you; but I use an invisible meat and drink which cannot he seen by men.” No, these bodies were not capable of vital acts. Only living bodies, bodies informed by a substantial form proper to them, can do these things. Without bodies, devoid of matter and consequently of all quantity, an angel cannot be in place as we are; the surface of our bodies is, in a sense, surrounded. How can an angel be surrounded? It cannot be locked in a closet or folded up in the ectoplasm of a medium. Yet angels must be some place; they do not enjoy the ubiquity of God. The difficulty comes, as it so often comes, from our effort to conceive of everything in human terms. The angels are in place, not by a contact of quantity as we are, but by a contact of power. In other words, an angel is where he is at work. The philosophers have put all this in two words by saying that men are circumscriptively in place, while angels are definitively in place.
In relation to place
However we phrase it, the fact remains that an angel can operate in four corners of a room at one time; yet these four corners will be but one place for an angel. For an angel’s place is where he is working: it may be that one material place exhausts the angel’s power and then the material and the angelic place coincide; but it may also be that a dozen material places do not exhaust the angel’s power and then, because our minds are so wedded to the material, we begin to insist that it simply cannot be so. The truth becomes plainer, and more startling, when we push it further. The fallen angels who chose the swine for then next habitation, were speaking literally when they told Christ their number was legion. An angel, you see, does not need a defined space; there is no danger of any number of angels crowding each other, tussling for the same strap, or blocking a doorway. There is no limit to the number of angels assignable to any one material place for the crucial question of quantity is one that does not come up in the angelic world.
In relation to movement
The manner in which the angels move, then, represents little difficulty since it follows their manner of being in place. If this particular angel has assumed a body, then, by reason of the body, the angel moves locally, step by step, trudging up one hill and down another. Otherwise, that is, without the assumed bodies, the angels are in place by their operation which is by intellect and will; they move as they change operation, with the speed, the ease and completeness of thought or desire. Gabriel was not out of breath on his arrival in Nazareth. It is true that the angels sat on the tomb of Christ the morning of the resurrection; but we must not read fatigue into that position. What could be more natural, having a body handy, than to sit it down. We might almost say that the process of sitting down might well be one an angel could take pride in. For no one having a body merely sits down: they may drop themselves into a chair and heave themselves out of it in open confession of aging bones; they may collapse into a chair as though from the sudden disintegration of bones, and drape themselves over it as formlessly as a rug; or they may make of the process a demonstration of suave serenity, sitting down as smoothly as a cat stretches, as bewilderingly as a mirage disappears, as swiftly graceful as the glide of a swallow. From the practical point of view, it was unfortunate there was no twentieth century commentator on etiquette present to discover just how one should sit down.
Conclusion: Companionship of the angels:
Undoubtedly we can accomplish the complicated operation of sitting down without angelic help; but to eschew the companionship of the angels entirely is to suffer a serious loss that may well lead to a misunderstanding of human nature itself. For a man is a cosmopolitan being alone in a provincial-minded world; he alone is spiritual, which is to say that he alone is impatient of matter, that only his thought scales the barriers of the universe, only his love holds fast to the dream of an eternal surrender, only his soul is dedicated to a task that only ceaseless energy and unending duration can possibly finish. It has never been good for man to be alone; it has always been good for a man to be in the company of those who cling to finer ideals, are possessed of greater talents, who strive for higher goals. His play in the game of life is steadily worsened if he meets only equals or inferiors; it is steadily improved if he moves in faster company where he has something to learn, something to imitate, something to urge him on every minute of the game.
An acceptance of the limits of man
Alone in the material world, a man is apt to develop eccentricities as absurd as the quirks that twist the recluse into a caricature of a man. He has, as a matter of fact, made the absurd mistake, looking about the world, of thinking that his was the supreme intelligence, his the supreme love, his the supreme achievement; he has made an angel or even a god of himself — and then, reasonably, given in to despair. He has missed the companionship of the angels that would have opened his eyes to the feeble stumblings of his slow mind, the waverings of his love, the ready fatigue of his energy; he has missed a realization that would have given him hope, pride in the intellectual family of which he is the humblest member, and confidence in his efforts, knowing he did not work alone.
An insistence on the excellencies of man
On the other hand, from this same loneliness, he is apt to make, and in fact has made, the mistake of completely underestimating himself. His supremacy to the material world was too great to be believed, its responsibilities too heavy to he carried by his narrow shoulders; so he brushed aside that supremacy and plunged to the level of the things beneath, a level that seared and withered his lonely soul. He missed the companionship that would have opened his eyes to his own incorruptibility, the speed of his thought, the timelessness of his love, the height of his goals.
The appeal of the angels
In other words, being alone, man has taken himself apart; and, as so often happens, one of the parts was lost in the reassembly of his powers. It is not, however, men as men, but philosophers or scientists who take man apart. Men do not break themselves into parts; they take man as a whole. Perhaps that is the secret of the universal appeal of the angels to the mind of men. In that angelic world, the soul of man is at home as it can never be at home in any lesser world; there the soul of a man finds the common language of the spirit, the ready understanding, the quick sympathy and unquestioning helpfulness that allow him to be completely himself, relaxed but intense, at home. For this is the world of the spirit.
Room for the angels
There is room enough in the world of nature for the angels. It would be a narrow, confining place without them. And room will be made for the angels as long as a man trudges the length and width of the world knowing his loneliness, humbly conscious of the limitations of his powers, awed by his superiority over the material world in which he moves. The hope, the vigor, the inspiration and the comfort of the companionship of these big brothers of humanity will not easily be surrendered; to one dedicated by nature to a search for the beauty and goodness of God, there will be slight challenge to the angels who most perfectly mirror that beauty and goodness. There is room enough in the world of nature, there is room enough in the heart of a man, for an angel who takes up no room.