ANGELS: What Is An Angel?, by Pascal P. Parente

From The Angels

“The angels are spirits,” says Saint Augustine, “but it is not because they are spirits that they are angels.  They become angels when they are sent, for the name angel refers to their office not to their nature.  You ask the name of this nature, it is spirit; you ask its office, it is that of an angel, (i.e., a messenger).  In as far as he exists, an angel is a spirit; in as far as he acts, he is an angel.”  The word, “angel,” comes from a Greek word meaning, “messenger.”  In the scriptures of the Old Testament, the most frequently used name to designate the angels is mal’akh, which means, messenger or legate.

This generic name, “angel,” does not reveal anything about the real nature of those celestial beings besides the fact that they are occasionally sent on a mission as messengers or legates of God to men.  Because only on such occasions, and in such a quality, they make themselves visible to men, they have been given the name of messengers from the most common duty and office they fulfill towards God’s children here on Earth.  “And to the angels indeed he said: ‘He that maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.'” (Hebrews 1:7)

The office of being a messenger, an angel, is neither the most important nor the most common among the duties of the celestial spirits in the court of Heaven; it alone does not offer enough ground for speculation on their true nature and operation.

Heaven is the true country of the good angels: “Their angels [of the little ones] in Heaven always see the face of my Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 18:10)  Even while engaged here on Earth as guardians of the little children, they remain the blessed comprehensors, enjoying the vision of God, “the face of my Father.”  They are by grace the happy citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem from the beginning.

“Let us remember,” writes Saint Bernard, “that the citizens of that country are spirits, mighty, glorious, blessed, distinct personalities, of graduated rank, occupying the order given them from the beginning, perfect of their kind. . . endowed with immortality, passionless, not so created, but so made – that is, through grace, not by nature; being of pure mind, benignant affections, religious and devout; of unblemished morality; inseparably one in heart and mind, blessed with unbroken peace, God’s edifice dedicated to the divine praises and service.  All this we ascertain by reading, and hold by faith.”

All this is really what we gather and ascertain by reading the sources, scripture and tradition, regarding the nature, character, and blessed condition of the Angels.  All the qualities of the Angelic spirits listed here by Saint Bernard are most beautiful and they are theologically correct.  However, we have omitted one of the qualifications from the above passage in order to make the quotation perfect.  The words omitted are these: “having ethereal bodies.”  On this very important point of the perfect spirituality of the Angelic nature there still remained some confusion in the days of Saint Bernard, as it had been the case for several centuries during the Patristic period.  Saint Bernard expresses his doubts and hesitation on this point when he adds: “As regards their (the Angels’) bodies some authorities hesitate to say not only whence they are derived, but whether in any real sense they (the bodies) exist at all.  If anyone is inclined to think the derivation of these bodies a matter of opinion, I do not dispute the point.”  It is Catholic doctrine today, even though not yet an article of faith, that the Angels are pure spirits, incorporeal substances, free and independent from any material body, ethereal or otherwise.

By “pure spirit” we understand a subsistent intelligent being whose subtle and transcendent nature is in no wise whatever composed of matter, however refined and ethereal.  An angel then is such a spirit.  Both his existence and operation are free and independent from matter; nor is the angel related to a body, like the human soul, which even though perfectly spiritual, is naturally related to the human body as an essential part of the whole human nature.  The angelic nature is wholly spiritual, man’s nature is composed of body and spirit.

One of the reasons why so many of the ancient writers, including a good many among the Fathers, attributed subtle bodies to the angels, even while admitting their spiritual nature, is the fact that for them the words “body” and “spirit” did not have that definite and perfect philosophical meaning which those words acquired especially during the Scholastic period of Christian philosophy.  Such a cloudy philosophical notion, for example, appears manifest in the Catecheses of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem.  For him, whatever has not a gross body can rightly be called a spirit; so that the air we breathe, any vapor or gaseous matter was called spirit or spiritual body.  They attributed such kind of bodies to angels.  Others made a distinction between Earthly bodies and Heavenly bodies, attributing a subtle, rarefied nature to the latter.  They were confirmed, it seems, in this erroneous opinion by a false interpretation of Genesis, chapter 6:2 ff., according to which the “sons of God” mentioned there, who took to themselves wives and procreated children, were human beings, the descendants of the religious and devout Seth and Henos.  Then again, they were led to believe that those ethereal human forms assumed by the angels in their various apparitions here on Earth were part of their angelic nature.  Saint Basil the Great believed that the angelic nature was a “breath of air or an immaterial fire.”  This is why they are localized, he said, and become visible, in the form and shape of their own bodies, to those who are worthy to see them.  We find these notions about ethereal bodies both among the Greek and the Latin Fathers.  While Saint Jerome has nothing definite regarding the nature of the angels, he rejects the argument in favor of a corporeal nature inferred from Genesis.  Saint Augustine thought it more probable that they had subtle bodies.  According to him the demons, before their fall, had such Heavenly bodies; since their fall, however, their bodies consist of damp, thick air.  Cassian clearly expresses the same opinion in these words: “Even though we define as spiritual some of the substances, such as the angels, the archangels, and the other powers, as also our own souls and certainly this subtle air, nevertheless they are by no means to be regarded as incorporeal, for in their own way they possess a body whereby they subsist, even though it is a much more subtle one than our own.  Hence it appears that God alone is incorporeal.”  It is more surprising to find the same opinion expressed by Saint John Damascene, who knew the writings of Pseudo Dionysius on this subject for which he had great admiration.  While expressing some hesitation regarding the true nature of an angel and while defining him as asomatos (without a body) he finally agrees with the current philosophy of calling the angelic nature “gross and material” if compared to God.  “An angel is an intellectual substance, endowed with liberty, perpetually active, without a body, serving God, having attained immortality by a gift of grace, the form and the limits of whose substance only its creator knows.  However, it is said to be incorporeal and immaterial only in reference to us, for anything compared to God, who alone is incomparable, is found to be gross and material.  The divine nature alone is immaterial and incorporeal.”  In the West, Saint Gregory the Great, while not completely free of the philosophy of “spiritual bodies,” inclines vigorously towards the opinion of Pseudo Dionysius that makes the angels pure spiritual beings.”

Discussing the term “incorporeal” Origen writes: “The term ‘incorporeal’ is disused and unknown, not only in many other writings but also in our own scriptures.”  He then explains the expression “an incorporeal demon” by saying: “It must be understood that he [Christ] had not such a body as demons have, which is naturally fine and thin, as if formed of air (and for this reason is either considered or called by many incorporeal), but that he [Christ] had a solid and palpable body.  Now, according to human custom, everything which is not of that nature is called by the simple and ignorant incorporeal; as if one were to say that the air which we breathe was incorporeal.”

From what has been said so far we must conclude that the terms “spirit” and “spiritual” were not taken by all in the same sense in which they are taken and understood today, in reference to the angelic nature.  A number of the earlier Scholastics retained the view of ethereal bodies in the case of the angels, as Rupert of Deutz, Saint Bernard (as we have seen), and Peter Lombard.  On the other hand Robert Pulleyn and Hugh of Saint Victor contended that the angels must be regarded as pure spirits and immaterial beings.  Owing to the position taken by the IV Lateran Council, the latter view became more common during the first part of the the thirteenth century.  Even though the doctrine had not been defined by the council, it had nevertheless been made quite clear to what class of creatures the angels belong.  The council divided all creatures into three classes: the purely spiritual, the angels; the purely material, the material world; and the partly spirit, partly matter, human beings.  By one of his subtle theories, Scotus is said to have ascribed bodies to angels but in an entirely different sense.  Saint Thomas with Saint Albertus Magnus, Henry of Ghent, Durandus, and many others were in favor of the spirituality of the angels in the strict sense of the word.

This opinion of the Angelic Doctor regarding the nature of the angels has become the common doctrine.  They are pure spirits, not composed of matter and form, but composed of essence and existence, of act and potentiality.  This doctrine is found already in the writings of Pseudo Dionysius and of a few of the Fathers, whom Saint Thomas follows closely in this question.

In his work on The Celestial Hierarchies, Pseudo Dionysius thus describes the Godlike immateriality of the angels and their superiority of nature above all other creatures: “Those natures which are around the Godhead (the angels) have participated of it in many different ways.  On this account the holy orders of the celestial beings are present with and participate in the Divine Principle in a degree far surpassing all those things which merely exist, all the irrational living beings, and rational human beings.  For molding themselves intelligibly to the imitation of God, and looking in a supernal way to the Likeness of the Supreme Deity, and longing to form the intellectual image of it, they naturally have a more abundant communion with him, and with unremitting activity they tend eternally up the steep, as far as is permitted, through the ardor of their unwearying divine love, and they receive the primal radiance in a pure and immaterial manner, adapting themselves to this in a life that is wholly intellectual.”

Because of their wholly spiritual and immaterial nature, the angels occupy the first and highest place in the scale of created things.  Man himself is second on the scale of creatures: “Thou hast made him [man] a little less than the angels.”  Just like an angel because of his spiritual, immaterial soul, less than an angel because of his material body.

Every angel is a distinct being, an individual subsisting in an intellectual nature; consequently every angel is a person.  The classical definition of a person, by Boethius, applies to them most perfectly: A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  Every angel is an individuated nature, endowed with intelligence and liberty, placed outside of its cause in the world of reality.  All the essential elements of an individual personality are clearly manifest in those manifold accounts of angels appearing in this world and dealing with man, as reported in the Bible, for example, the Archangel Raphael and young Tobias; Gabriel and the Virgin Mary; Gabriel and Saint Zachary.  Rightly, therefore, Pope Pius XII condemns the opinion of those who “question whether angels are personal beings.”

Not only are the angels real personal beings but because of their spiritual nature wholly untrammeled by matter, their personality is far superior to human personality.  Human beings differ from each other merely as individuals of the same species; angels on the contrary, according to Saint Thomas, differ from each other specifically; so that we may say that there are not two angels of the same species; each of them is his own kind.  This fact implies a far more perfect individuality, a higher form of personality than the one known to us.  Because of this specific difference, it follows that every single angelic creature reveals an entirely new aspect of the eternal beauty and glory of God.  To them apply the words of Saint Paul: “Star differeth from star in glory.”

This is the wondrous angelic world that the Lord created at the beginning of time.  In our Earthly way of thinking we may conceive it as a living diamond whose myriads of facets reflect constantly and harmoniously the divine splendors of the eternal glory of God.  Among all created things the angels are the best reflectors of the divine light: “As our sun, through no choice or deliberation, but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the [supreme] good sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of its undivided goodness.” (Pseudo Dionysius)

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