St. Michael and All Angels
​​In our modern, rational world we do not talk about angels very often – or at least, I do not talk about angels very often. Angels figure less prominently in our worldview than they did in the worldview of Christians in ancient or in mediaeval times: this is not because we have less faith or devotion than they did, but simply because we speak a different language, see things differently – certain categories of thought which existed for our ancestors no longer exist for us, and that is all there is to it.

Angels however are still with us, still doing whatever it is that angels do. Every time we celebrate mass, we recognise the presence of angels with us when we say “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name...”

So what are angels? Angels are like us in so far as they are creatures – they come into being at a certain time, created by God to serve him and worship him and enjoy him. Having no bodies, they are not subject to death, and continue for ever; they have a beginning, but no end (God alone has neither beginning nor end).

Angels differ from us in that while we are created as body and spirit, angels are created as spirit alone, pure spirit without body or any corporeal dimension. This does not mean that angels are just abstractions or impersonal forces like the law of gravity; they are individual, concrete entities, which are endowed with consciousness; as the story of the fall of Lucifer shews, they not merely have the ability to make decisions, they even have the ability to make wrong decisions.

So far so good. Philosophically, and even scientifically, there is no problem about positing the existence of some other order of creation different from the material world with which we are familiar. Indeed, the nuclear physicists who talk about dark matter and parallel universes, tell us not merely that such other orders of creation can exist, but that such other orders of creation must exist, in order for the figures to add up.

The problems arise when we try to imagine how two different orders of creation can ever come into contact – how immaterial, bodiless angels can ever have any dealings with material and corporeal human beings, or how they can ever impact the material and corporeal world in which we live. If they have no bodies, how can we ever see them? If they have no voices, how can we ever hear them? If they have no hands, how can they ever hold us up “that we dash not our foot against a stone”?

That angels do indeed interact with human beings is the consistent testimony of Scripture and of Christian tradition. The New Testament word is “angelos”, the root of our word “angel”, and means primarily “messenger”: angels in the New Testament generally appear as messengers of God, bringing his word to his people, as the Archangel Gabriel brought glad tidings to Mary. The Old Testament word is “mal’akh”, which means something more like “workman”: angels in the Old Testament generally appear as not just bringing a message on God’s behalf, but as doing a job on God’s behalf – and not always a pleasant job, since there are angels of destruction and death and retribution!

St Augustine established the principle which has been accepted ever since, that the interaction of angels and men can only take place as a miracle, a suspension of the normal laws of nature, and only by means of an intermediate entity created for that purpose. Put simply, when someone says he sees an angel, he is not really seeing an angel at all, since angels have no bodies to be seen; what he is seeing is an image created by God to bridge the gulf between the two worlds. That image can either be subjective, created in the mind of the observer (“imaginary vision”), or objective, created in the external world (“corporeal vision”). The character of that image will depend on culture and expectations; if you think of an angel as a beautiful youth with blond hair and white wings, then that is what God will show you, because that is the picture you will understand. If God wishes to communicate with us, he must do so in our language – and we have not just a language of words, but also a language of pictures and images and symbols, which, like the language of words, changes over the years.

(There is a lovely mediaeval stained glass window in Doddiscombeleigh in Devon – the story is that the window was never destroyed by the Protestant reformers in the way so much mediaeval glass was, simply because, in the sixteenth century as today, Doddiscombeleigh is almost impossible to find! The window there shows St Michael the Archangel dressed in feathered tights, which probably reflects the way he was presented by an actor in the mediaeval mystery plays!)

We today may find it a lot harder to picture angels than our ancestors did, but we should not be any less confident of their existence and their aid.

There is a beautful story about angels in the Second Book of Kings, when the King of Syria sends a great army to capture the prophet Elisha, and Elisha’s servant is understandably frightened; Elisha prays that God open the eyes of the servant – and the servant’s eyes are opened, and he sees a heavenly host gathered around Elisha to protect him: “Fear not”, says Elisha, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

So let us pray that our eyes are opened too, and that our lives be enriched by the knowledge that there is more to this world than meets our bodily eyes, and that the hosts of heaven are always there and always watching over us.

-Fr Richard Bowyer, October 2012