It seems that regardless of whether or not someone considers themselves a believer, there is a universal fascination with the angels. This is even truer for those who profess belief in Christ because they know how important a role these spiritual creatures play in God’s plan for mankind. Yet the average Christian knows very little about the angels. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps more than any other man, has shaped the Church’s teachings on the angels. In order to foster greater devotion to our heavenly ministers, we ought to familiarize ourselves with his teachings.
Nearly all of his teachings appear within a fifteen questions in the first part of the Summa Theologiae (ST I, qq. 50-64). He puts them at the very beginning of his section on creation because they are the most perfect of God’s beings. What makes his teachings so profound is that they really all naturally follow from one of the very first thing he says, namely that “the angels have not bodies naturally united to them” (ST I, q.51, a.1). From this he traces all the implications of being a spiritual substance that is not united to a body. For our purposes, there are three very important implications that pertain directly to our interaction with them.
First, each angel has a wholly unique nature and represents its own species. What I mean by this will become clear when we look at what makes each of us unique. Both author and reader have a human nature. What is it that actually makes us different persons? It is the matter that is “attached” to that human nature. Philosophically speaking it is said that matter is the individuating principle. All human beings have identical human natures, but what makes them separate is their material part. Now if there is no matter, then there is no individuating principle. So all the angels must have different natures.
That being said, how is it that angels sometimes appear with bodies? St. Thomas says that angels can sometimes assume bodies for the purpose of ministering to mankind. These bodies however are not true human bodies in that they do not have souls united to them, but are simply the material parts that make up a body. While we do not know where the material that they use comes from or where it goes when they are done, it is still a material body and not something like a hologram. The material itself is selected so as to make “the intelligible properties of the angel known” (ST I, q.50, a.2, ad. 2). To see what he means specifically, let’s look at an example from Scripture.
In the Book of Tobit, Tobiah meets a young man (the angel Raphael in human form) who volunteers to accompany him to visit his kinsman in Medina. After providing the means for both Sarah and Tobit to be healed, Raphael reveals himself to Tobit saying that “God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah” (Tobit 12:14). St. Thomas’ point is that Raphael reveals himself as a man in order to reveal his intelligible properties—namely that he is God’s healing angel (Raphael—“God heals”). As an aside this is why most of the Church Fathers think it is also St. Raphael stirs the waters in the Pool of Bethesda by which those entering it are healed (c.f. John 5:1-8).
It is important to mention a further aspect of this idea that the matter the angel takes on is meant to reveal something about the angel. Whenever an angel appears, it always appears as a man. Why is that? It is the same reason why we refer to God as “He”—it is the masculine that reveals the fact that the angels come from the outside of visible creation. This is also why exorcists warn about angelic visitations in which the angel presents itself as a woman.
The second implication has to do with the manner in which angels know. Because we are a composite substance, we come to know things in and through our senses. An object of knowledge first presents itself to us through our senses and our intellect abstracts the essence of the thing. Our knowledge grows through repeated contact with material things. Angels on the other hand must have all of their knowledge infused directly by God in their creation. This means their ideas are both universal and concrete. The angel’s infused idea of the lion, say, represents not only the nature of the lion, but all individual lions that either actually exist or have in the past been objects of the angel’s intellect. In other words, angelic ideas are direct participations in God’s own creative ideas.
This is why angelic knowledge is so superior to our own. They comprehend the object of their knowledge fully. But their knowledge is not unlimited. Angels cannot know the future in itself. So like us they can only know it by cause and effect. Certainly their knowledge is greater and they can “guess” the future more accurately than us, in its cause but because they know more excellently they can know the future more acutely but knowledge of the future, which depends on the free will activity of human agents, belongs only to God.
Likewise they cannot know things in the order of grace, unless God reveals it to them. The traditional interpretation of Psalm 24 (especially vv 7-10) shows that when the angels accompany Our Lord in His ascension and meet the angels of the gates of Heaven, the latter do not recognize Him until the guardian angels tell them. The Son, in being made visible to man was made invisible to the angels who do not see His glory as one Church Father has said.
In an attempt to understand the third implication, the Scholastic theologians asked the question “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” This was not meant to be an esoteric and speculative theological question, but meant to understand how angels act. In particular, if an angel does not have a body, how do we say he is “present?”
An angel is spiritually present at whatever place in physical space happens to be occupied by the body on which it acts. As opposed to the fact that when a body occupies a physical place it is said to do so by taking up space with its bulk, an angel occupies a place by surrounding it with its power. An analogy might make this clear.
Suppose you are in a dark room and you open the shades on the window. The room is now filled with light. But this light cannot be trapped in the room by pulling the shade back down. The light was merely operating in the room while the shade was open. This is the same manner in which angels operate. Where there power is in operation, they are said to be occupying that space. This means that two angels cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Therefore only a single angel could dance on the head of a pin.
How do they act specifically? They can act on any material thing simply by willing it (assuming God permits it). This is how our guardian angel can be both at our side and in heaven simultaneously. It is not as if when we call upon them, they must leave heaven, but instead they will to be acting in both places.
There is a further aspect of this that has great implications for our spiritual life. If an angel can act on any material thing simply by willing it then they can greatly aid us in our battle against the flesh. When our imagination runs amok, our anger or lust is out of control, or our memory fails us (all of which are part of our “material” powers), we can invite our guardian angels to assist us in regaining proper use of these corporeal faculties. Because only one angelic being can operate on a given material substance at a time, they can chase away any demonic powers that may be vying for control of those powers. This is one of many reasons why we need to come to develop a deeper relationship with our guardian angels and regularly thank and praise God for the tremendous gift that they are to us.
Angel sent by God to guide me, be my light and walk beside me. Be my guardian and protect me, on the path of life direct me.