Did you know that it is Whole Grains Awareness month? Were you aware that it is also National Yoga Awareness Month? In fact according to the National Health Information Center, the month of September is marked by thirty-three distinct “Awareness” celebrations. It seems all you need is a cause and you too can declare your own Awareness period. What if the Church got in on this? They could have something like Passion Awareness Week or maybe each week they could celebrate Resurrection Awareness Day or maybe even yearly celebrate Faithfully Departed Souls Awareness Day. If they did, then maybe they could even declare the week between September 27th and October 3rd “Angel Awareness Week.” They could even distribute little blue bracelets with wings and halos on them. We would celebrate the week by getting to know the angels a little better and maybe even have special celebrations honoring two groups of them, Archangels and Guardian Angels. Think of what raising angel awareness could do for the Church and for the world!
More than anything else, the discussion thus far probably reveals that I need a personal Liturgical Calendar Meaning Awareness Week. Nevertheless, with the feasts of the Archangels (the 29th) and Guardian Angels (October 2nd) this is an excellent time to get to know the angels and develop a relationship with them.
Perhaps the best place to go to learn about the angels is to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. In the Summa he summarizes the teachings of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. While knowledge of angels comes from divine revelation, St. Thomas argues from analogy to show why it is reasonable that angels exist.
If we examine creation we find two things. First that it is clearly ordered and second that there is something like a hierarchy of being in which each thing that exists acts as a bridge between the thing beneath it and the thing above it. Broadly speaking if we start with something like animals, we could see how they act as a bridge between plants and man. They share in the plants’ vegetative powers in that they are alive but also share in man’s sensitive powers. We could do this all throughout visible creation and find that there are no gaps. Now when we come to man, we find that there is a great gap between man who shares materiality with the animals but the spiritual powers of knowing and willing with God. In fact this gap is too large unless we posit that there is a creature who is pure spirit (like God). We call this creature an angel. This is why St. Thomas says it is “fitting” that angels exist and concludes that universe would be seriously lacking in order and completeness if angels are not part of it.
Turning to what Divine Revelation says about the angels we are immediately struck by what a vital role they play in God’s plan. This is why belief in angels is a dogma of the faith. They are mentioned in 31 of the 46 Old Testament books and 158 times in the New Testament. In nearly every instant we see them as somehow acting for the benefit of mankind. In essence they act as intermediaries between God and man.
Unlike any other book of the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews instructs us as to what they do exactly. Their role is to act as “ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). In fact they served as mediators of the Old Covenant and the author uses this fact to show the greatness of the Mediator of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 1-8).
Angels are intimately involved in the affairs of mankind. In reading the first creation account in Genesis, there are two different Hebrew words that are used to describe the act of creation. The author uses bara to describe the creation of the heavens and the earth, the sea creatures, and man. This word literally translated would be “to create out of nothing.” The rest of creation is described by the word Asah which translates as “brought forth.” It is the angels who do the brining forth. In other words, the angels play a role in governing the physical universe. This does not in any way make the physical laws superfluous but it acts as an admission that in the physical universe there is a tendency to decay and disorder. The angels maintain the order of the universe.
Scripture also testifies that nations are entrusted to angels. Not only is Israel (and subsequently the Church) entrusted to St. Michael but also Greece and Persia (see Dn 10:31-21) have angels guarding them as well. In fact Deut 32:8 says that God “appointed the bounds of people according to the number of angels of God.” In other words, each nation has its own protecting angel. In this time of great turmoil in our own country we should be seeking the aid of the Angel of America.
All of this reveals a very important Scholastic Principle about God’s tendency to use secondary causes in everything that He does. What St. Thomas says is that, “God never does directly Himself what may be achieved through created causality… For any result which does not require actually infinite power, God will sooner create a new spiritual being capable of producing that result than produce it Himself.” This is because God is love and wants to bestow dignity upon His creatures by making them share in His goodness and love.
St. Thomas defines an angel as a “pure, created spirit, called angel because some angels are sent by God as messengers to humans. An angel is a pure spirit because he has no body and does not depend for his existence or activity on matter. ” To be a spirit means that they are a capable of knowing and willing. To be a pure spirit means that they are always knowing and willing (as opposed to us who are a body/spirit composite that takes breaks from knowing and willing like when for example we sleep).
Three things follow from St. Thomas’ statement that “the angels have not bodies naturally united to them.”
First that each angel is its own species. Each of us have a human nature—this is what is common to all of us. Yet we do not all share one human nature because we have bodies. Matter is what allows human nature to be multiplied and makes each of us individuals. Angels on the other hand do not have bodies and so have no inherent individuating principle. This means that each angel must have a unique nature (or species) in order to separate it from the other angelic creatures. These natures exist in a hierarchy.
Second, angels come to know differently than we do because they do not have bodies. As human beings we rely on our senses to know things. We encounter a particular thing and from that particular thing we are able to abstract to a universal idea. For example, a man encounters a particular lion in the jungle. He has never seen that particular lion and it is different from any other lion he has seen. He is able to abstract the universal essence of “lion” from the individual lion using his intellect. This is why Aristotle (and St. Thomas afterwards) said “that which is in the intellect was first in the senses.”
Angels on the other hand, because they do not have bodies, must have their knowledge infused in them by God at the moment of their creation. Because it is directly infused, the angelic idea is at once 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. Angelic ideas are thus participations in God’s own creative ideas.
It is also important for us to understand that angels cannot know the future in itself—that belongs only to God—so like us they can only know it in its cause. However because they are far more intelligent than us they can know the future more accurately. Although God alone can know the secrets of our hearts, angels can deduce them because our movements often betray our thoughts (even things like our interior emotions and our heart racing).
Finally, without bodies angels move and will differently than us. An angel is spiritually present at whatever place in physical space happens to be occupied by the body on which it acts—this presence is an occupation of the place. As opposed to the fact that when a body occupies a physical place it is said to do so extensively by filling it with its bulk, an angel occupies a place intensively by surrounding it with its power. Think of sunlight coming into a room through a window. The sunlight is “in the room,” but if you were to cover the window, the light would not be trapped in the room but would cease to be present. The sun is no longer acting upon the room by lighting up and so it is no longer present, just like an angel ceases to be present when he ceases to act on a physical space. Practically speaking what this means is that two angels cannot occupy the same place at the same time. To answer the age old question, only a single angel could dance on the head of a pin.
Why have I spent so much time talking about the angels when I emphasized at the beginning that we needed to develop a deeper relationship with them? Because they are not visible most of the time, we can only see them through their effects. Because we can only see them through their effects we have to know how and when they tend to act.
A word about why we should strive to enter a relationship with them. One might argue that they are hidden and they are doing their work so why not leave them alone? Of course the same thing could be said about any of the saints as well, but in the case of the angels it is easy to forget that they too are members of the Church. Our belief in the Communion of Saints includes the belief that we share in the merits and in some respect the powers of all the saints. Angels as the first saints are no different.
We also owe them a debt of gratitude for all the ways in which they have acted in our lives. Next to God Himself and the Blessed Mother, there is no one who loves us more than our guardian angels. Your Guardian angel was assigned to you at the beginning of time and his test somehow had to do with whether he would serve you or not. Think of the great love he has for you and how deeply he wills your good. Now I am not saying he is tested somehow on whether he helps save us or not, but whether he wills to act as a servant in saving us. At the very least we ought to strive for friendship with him and the rest of the angels who assist us directly or indirectly.
As to how we might do this, I would say the approach is no different than our exercises of devotion to any of the saints. It is particularly striking when you compare the human response to angels in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Angels are met with great awe and fear in the Old Testament while they are met with a spirit of friendship and equality in the New. They truly desire friendship with us. Speaking regularly to Our Guardian Angel and thanking him is certainly one way. Even speaking to thanking the guardian angels of those closest to us as well is a good practice. Many of the saints (Padre Pio and St. Gemma come to mind) had the habit of sending their guardian angels on missions to other guardian angels to help another person in difficulty.
Personally, I have found that the Chaplet of St. Michael is a great way to honor this powerful Archangel along with the other nine Choirs of Angels. Servant of God Antonia d’Astonac had a vision of St. Michael in which he told Antonia to honor him by nine salutations to the nine Choirs of Angels. In return St. Michael promised that whoever would practice this devotion in his honor would have, when approaching Holy Communion, an escort of nine angels chosen from each of the nine Choirs and he promised his continual assistance and that of all the holy angels during life.