Angels: A Six Part Series

Doug McManaman
Date: Summer, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Part I: Introduction

One of the more striking features of some modern existentialist thinking is its depiction of individual human existence as alienated, isolated, and pervaded by a deep-seated anxiety. According to atheist Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. He argues that it is theindividual existent who alone determines his nature, and thus his own value system or moral standards to live by. Consequently, there is no essential communion of persons of the same nature, and thus no common good to speak of. In other words, man is alone. He is alone and anxious in this absurd and fundamentally unintelligible universe.

One cannot find a perspective more opposed to a Christian worldview. Nor can one find, I might add, a perspective more true to contemporary human experience. Many human beings indeed feel alone. But are we alone? We don't believe so. Firstly, we live among human beings of the same nature as ourselves, and so we simply do not have the onerous task of determining our own nature, as Sartre maintains; for that nature is already what we are. A communion of persons is possible, and it is something we long for, which is why the experience of loneliness is so difficult to endure. But more importantly, we live in the midst of a preternatural world, a world that most of us are practically unaware of. In some ways we are asleep, like the child in the crib who is not aware of what is happening outside the narrow perspective of his own room. But we are not alone. We are surrounded at every instant by myriads of angels, pure spirits exceedingly superior in nature to human beings.

The human person is a unity of spirit and matter, but spirit has a certain priority. We tend to identify what is real with what we can see and touch. If we can't see or touch it, it isn't real. But the truth is very much the opposite. There is a sense in which spirit is more real than matter. It is the soul that gives life to matter. Without the immaterial soul, there is only a corpse that is rapidly decomposing.

The person who is not awake to what is around him is spiritually asleep. Complete unawareness that we live in the midst of angelic creatures is somewhat tragic, because man is an "enfleshed angel", the only spiritual creature in the natural world. He has a foot in both worlds, so to speak. He is like an angel in that he has intelligence and will, and he is like the animals in that he is physical and sentient. He is the highest being on the scale of the hierarchy of beings in the physical universe. At the same time, though, man is the lowest being on the scale of the hierarchy of intellectual creatures. The rest of those intellectual creatures are above him, yet outside (praeter) the world of nature -- albeit intimately present to it.

The Nature of Angels

An angel is, by definition, an immaterial substance, a pure spirit, not a unity of spirit and matter as are human persons. Angels, therefore, do not have senses. Sensation is a kind of knowing entirely dependent upon matter (one cannot see without eyes, or hear without ear drums). All our knowledge begins with sensation. We have to see and observe the behaviour of a thing before we can understand its nature. The human mind abstracts this "nature" from the particular phantasm that exists in the imagination, which is why we have an understanding of human nature, or the nature of a frog, or a plant, etc., that is more than a particular image. But angels do not have matter. They are pure spirits. It follows that angels do not know the natures of things through intellectual abstraction from a phantasm that exists in the imagination. Rather, angels know what they know from the beginning of their existence, that is, from the first instant of their creation.

Furthermore, consider that time is the measure of motion. If everything in the universe were to stop moving, time would come to a stand still. But only material things move. If angels are not material, then they are not subject to time. Moreover, because they are immaterial, they have no size, mass, and shape. And so it follows that angels are not subject to place. Thus an angel cannot be in a room as we are in a room. And since they have no quantity, they have no parts, and thus no wings. The depiction of angels with wings is merely a product of Greek and Roman mythology and is purely symbolic. If they have no quantity, they have no surface, and thus no color. Hence, angels cannot be seen.

Angels and Time

To say that angels do not exist in time does not mean that they are eternal. As St. Augustine says: "God is the only one who has no beginning". Angels have a beginning. But this does not mean that they have a temporal existence. Angels have volition, and so they make choices. Such choices, though, are not eternal because the angel itself is not eternal. And so there must be a kind of duration that is proper to the spiritual existence of an angel. This is called aeviternity, which is neither eternity, nor time, but the mean between the two.

Aeviternity is difficult to understand, let alone explain. But consider time for a moment. You, a living material substance, make a decision to do something, for example, to go shopping. You put on your coat, get into the car, and proceed to the grocery store. There is always a before and an after in time. You are standing at the check out, but your decision to shop, to get in the car and drive to the store all happened before that indivisible instant you are standing at the checkout. A whole host of things will follow after that instant of standing at the checkout. You will pack the groceries, drive home, unpack, etc. But an angel is entirely immaterial and substantially immutable, so all of this is outside of its experience. There is no looking back at its footprints, so to speak. Rather, every decision made by an angel marks an indivisible aevum which does not pass, but which remains. It did not come from out of the future, so to speak, to go into the past, but rather arises from the angel itself and remains with him. So when Gabriel reveals the good news to Zechariah, it is not as if he waited hundreds of years after explaining to Daniel the meaning of his vision. Gabriel's decision corresponds to a moment of our time, but aeviternity is not time. The angel dwells forever within the aevum created by his own decision.

It is by virtue of this non-temporal existence that angels do not repent of their decisions. One could say there is "no time" to repent, and that would be true enough. But a better explanation concerns the degree of knowledge involved in an angel's choice. We make decisions on the basis of what we know, feel, and will. Our knowledge is acquired gradually, so we are limited by a number of things, such as ignorance and excessive passion. Our conscience is not entirely formed, and we often experience the pressure of human emotion, which can cloud our judgment. But an angel does not have emotion to contend with, nor does the angel need time to grow from his experiences. An angel's mind is completely enlightened about its choices from the very beginning, and so the decision an angel makes is perfectly and entirely free.

Because our decisions can be made on the basis of a clouded judgment, we can repent of them. But this sort of experience is not something angels are subject to. Their decisions are entirely enlightened, and so there is no "reason" that is eventually uncovered that would change their course of action. Hence, the fundamental orientation of their lives is unalterable (by their own choice), and all the choices they make are an outflow of their original decision to either serve God or rebel against Him.

Angels and Place

Angels are also not subject to place. This may sound counterintuitive, for the Catholic faith holds that everyone has a guardian angel: "Each soul has an angel appointed to guard it from its birth", writes St. Jerome. Furthermore, where there is a tabernacle containing the Body of Christ, myriads of angels from the choir of Thrones are present there adoring the humility of the Son who has made himself substantially present in the Eucharist. If angels are not subject to place, how can we speak of angels as guardians of human persons who occupy place, or as present in every church in which there is a tabernacle?

Angels are present to place not by being contained by the place, as we are contained in a room, subject to the limits of three spatial dimensions. On the contrary, the angel contains the place to which it is present. To make this somewhat easier, consider that it is not the body that contains the soul, as if the soul is located somewhere within the body, as Descartes mistakenly believed. Rather, the body is in the soul, that is, the body is contained by the soul. The body is what it is by virtue of the soul. Similarly, matter does not contain spirit, but spirit contains matter, and so an angel is not contained by place, but contains the place to which he turns his attention.

Human persons are present to one another through physical proximity. The less physical distance there is between us, the more we are present to one another. Angels, on the other hand, are present to us through their attention. Human beings can be present to one another physically yet separated by a huge spiritual gulf. What separates them is indifference or a conflict of wills (love unites, hate separates). Conversely, persons can be separated by miles from one another, but united by their love. Nevertheless, as human persons existing in the flesh, they are really separated from one another, which is why they long to be united in physical proximity. But an angel can be really and entirely present to another locally without being subject to the three dimensions of space. In fact, in this way an angel is more present to a person than is anyone who happens to be sitting right next to him. Angels are substantially present through the power they exercise on that place. We don't have that ability to apply our power to a place without being subject to that place because we are essentially material.

And so, if an angel turns his attention to the person to whom he has been appointed to guard, protect, enlighten, and inspire, he is present to that person really and intimately. And if angels of the choir of the Thrones continually turn their attention to the Incarnate Word in the act of making himself present under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine in a particular church, then angels are present to that place as containing it. And that is why it is possible -- if one's spirit is sensitive enough -- to "intuit" the presence of angels in an ordinary church containing the Blessed Sacrament.

Next Page: Part II: The Life of Angels
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