by Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P.
In this Age of Disillusionment, as Carlton J. H. Hayes calls it, we have come to the conclusion that materialism and optimism do not mix, at least not for long. Men and women are appreciating more each day that their diet has been exclusively of husks, and their nature will stand it no longer. Because the soul has been undernourished so long, men today are forced to decide either that they have no soul and pessimism is their only goal, or that they have a soul that has been cheated of its food, its companionship, its ideals, its goal, and something must be done about it.
The task of the priest today seems to demand a delicate hand for souls dangerously near the point of starvation and a mailed fist for the pessimism of materialism. This is no news to the alert priest. But among many excellent means proposed for this task, there is little said of one that is mentioned “on every page of the Scriptures,” according to St. Gregory,1 and which is so satisfying to the human nature and reason that men of all ages have had recourse to it, or some perversion of it, as a response to their craving for spiritual companionship, namely—the Angelic world.
We are careless today about insisting on a more intimate acquaintance with the Angels. Yet, surely there could be no more potent defense against materialism than the application of its direct opposite; and no more invigorating nourishment could be offered to a weak and lonely soul than friendship with spirits enjoying the full vigor and power of spiritual life with God.
Doctrine of the Angels as an Antidote against Materialism
Undoubtedly the materialism of the nineteenth century, the atmosphere of Protestantism and a misplaced respect for the test tubes of science have done much to make men shy in speaking of the Angels. We are constantly with “men of the world” who have been sniffing at the suprasensible world for a century; human nature is very timid about sniffs. But today the sniffs haven’t the hearty, disdainful energy of a good old Victorian sniff; they are affairs of habit rather than of conviction. The walls of the materialistic Jericho have crashed, leaving its citizens exposed to the public gaze; and, lo, they are just men and women groping for a crumb of comforting truth!
If we are to retain our place in a collapsing materialistic civilization, the obvious step is to offer men a spiritual world in its stead. It is a psychological fact that the emphatic cultivation of one appetite in that complex creature which is man, does very much to weaken his other appetites. We have seen this work out rather disastrously during this past century when men concentrated on the appetite for power, for wealth, or for pleasure. And it has long been the doctrine of the Saints that the appetite for God and the things of God can approach its fruition only when the other appetites cease to interfere seriously with it. The establishment of this spiritual world and the encouragement of this spiritual appetite is the aim of Catholicism. Interest in and devotion to the world of the Angels, in their nature and activities, is only one of our Faith’s positive remedies against the materialistic appetite. But it is one that should not be neglected.
A most comforting aspect of the Incarnation is that it brought God so close to us. It was so very much easier for man to love a God he could see, talk to and touch, than to fix his heart on the infinitely distant, though intimately close, Pure Act who was and is the Beginning and End. It is quite impossible for us to form an adequate conception of even one of the attributes of God; we can proceed only by way of analogy and negation, attributing to Him all perfections while stripping off the defects of the creature and finally coming to an accurate, although imperfect, idea of the Divinity. Naturally, it is through God’s creatures that we get some glimpse of His perfection. These little reflections of divine beauty and goodness, these tiny drops that overflow from the full cup of divine perfection, must be the bridge over which our thoughts pass to God. The more perfect the creature, the easier is our step over the gap between the world of trivialities and the infinite sea of being. Perhaps an example of this is the influence, the efficacy, of a holy priest on the people under his care : his participation in the divine perfections shines through the imperfections of his human nature clearly enough for the tear-dimmed, world-weary eyes of the greatest sinner.
In the natural order of things, it is the Angels that stand just below God. The Eternal Wisdom decreed that the Angels were to be His most perfect image among all creatures; they were closest to that divine fountain of beauty, with their nature a cup ready to hold the first and deepest draught. It was no wonder that Abraham fell down and adored the Angels in the vale of Mambre; it was a natural mistake for one having even only an imperfect glance at the Angelic nature.2
The subjection of the world around us to our mysterious gifts of intellect and will may bloat us with pride or inspire us with humble awe. But the same gifts in the Angels reduce our mightiest efforts to the prattle of an infant. After years of painful groping from fact to fact we come to the edge of a great truth; the Angel in one swift glance, a momentary attention to one of the ideas that have come to him directly from the Eternal Truth, sweeps the domain of the same truth. Compared to this, St. Thomas could well judge all his efforts mere trash. Our intellectual life is to a great extent a cautious creeping along the precipice of error, or, perhaps it would be truer to say, a constant process of climbing out of the shell holes of error to set our feet again on the arduous road of truth. Error is now impossible to the Angels; and reasoning or judgment, in our sense of the word, is for them a totally unnecessary instrument, which is furnished only to naturally inferior intellects. In the Angelic world there is none of that timid resolving of the will, no procession of broken resolutions, but rather one rapier thrust of eternally enduring choice.
The Catholic of today might very well experience that sinking of the heart that tried the courage of many of the first Christians when they looked on the power, the organization, and ruthless determination of the Roman Empire. In the myopic experience of the individual American Catholic of today, the powers of the material world have always been overwhelmingly superior in numbers, in wealth, in organization. The historian can bolster his courage by a glance at the centuries behind the Church and the empires that have stamped into her presence and then slunk to their corner of oblivion. In the darkest moments faith whispers: “If God be for us, who is against us?”3 But it is a comfort to remember that 185,000 of the enemy of Israel fell in a night before an Angel of the Lord;4 that the first-born of all Egypt perished at the visitation of an Angel.5 A modern Russia or Mexico can effect a persecution from one end of the land to another by means of a costly, complex organization that will crumble in a few years; material place or distance represents no obstacle to the mighty workings of an Angel. The scale of divine imitation is not limited to intellect and will; the Angels stand at the very top of the scale in power. And, like our Master, we have more than twelve legions of such ministers eager to assist us.
The ordinary Catholic might stand, very humanly, in just a little awe of the forces opposed to his Faith. But not if he realizes that the Angelic armies are on his side, that he has a personal protector whose assistance need only be accepted to make the opposition grotesquely unequal to the battle.
The humble mission church or the ugly little brick dwelling of the Eucharistic God in the heart of the slums may not have much to offer the aesthete. But the Faith those churches serve has the original storehouse of beauty. The Angelic world is a means of realizing that all the beauty the world of matter can offer is only a breath of the fragrant beauty that is God. Every phase of beauty in creatures is an imperfect image of God; and, of all creatures, the Angels are the most perfect image of Divine Beauty. It is a source of inspiring thought for the lover of beauty to grasp the fact that the Angels do not portray just one angle, one shadow, of that Divine Beauty, as does, for example, the bloom of the cherry tree. But each individual Angel is a specific mirror of the beauty of God; that is, each is as different from all other Angels as, for example, is the fragrance of the locust from the blossom of the cherry tree.
The white light of Divine Beauty is only partly appreciated by us when it passes through the prism of creatures, wherein it is broken up and divided into thin rays of color which may seep through the narrow openings of our mind and senses. The shower of rays of beauty from the Angelic world can be dimly sensed from their terrifying numbers. “Ten times a hundred thousand”6 stand before the face of God—countless multitudes of these beings, each more perfect, more startlingly different from the next, each in its own way showing something of the Divine Beauty.
The world of the Angels tears a little slit in the curtain that hides the face of Eternal Beauty. It offers a glance to the hungry soul in its search for the beauties of God. It gives some antidote for the soulless beauty and glamorous sensuality that is offered as food to a starving soul.
Invigorating Effect of Doctrine on Catholic Life
Upon the life of the Catholic, familiarity with and devotion to the Angels has much the same effect as the release of a boy from boarding school, introducing him to the world where he will spend the rest of his life. It is the release of a naturally, or rather supernaturally, cosmopolitan personality from the shackles of provincial existence. It gives room for movement in a congenial atmosphere, in surroundings that smack of home. Here in this world of the spirit his outlook takes on the scope of eternity, his spirit the energy of a dynamic world unfettered by matter, his love the undying loyalty of a race that does not know how to look back.
With this broadening of his point of view, the Catholic devoted to the Angels attains a sense of personal dignity that is not merely refining but is eternally significant. Here he gets an inkling of the stuff of which he is made, of the ends to which he is ordained, and of the gifts which have been placed at his disposal. He can see why he alone, of all creatures in this material world, is individually important, for he alone—in his own poor way as the Angels in their magnificent way—is an image of the eternal life of God. His soul, like the spiritual substance of the Angels, can know no corruption, no cessation of life, no dimming of activity, none of the rusty wearing down and weary creaking of old age. He is above the common, the ordinary, the ephemeral; he is not only related to a long line of spiritual nobility, but he is himself an enduring heritage. His is a name to be kept honorable because he himself, like the Angels, must live with that name for ever and ever. Here is indeed a Catholic pride of race.
The daily life of a Catholic who is constantly rubbing elbows with the Angelic host will be one of vigor, of inspired energy in its Catholicity. Realization of the power of his guardians and the helpers of the Church wipes away the dust that keeps the light of life from shining brightly through the windows of his soul. There is none of the grime of discouragement clogging his lungs as he breathes in the free air of grace. His feet are not to be weighted down by despair, his back will not be bent beneath the burdens life lays upon him, for he knows that never for an instant is he journeying alone, never for a moment is he out of reach of the strength, the skill, the cheerful help of his Angelic friends.
Coming down to individual virtues, it is distinctly unfair to send the ordinary Catholic out to battle for the salvation of his soul in ignorance of the enemy he will have to face. Usually it is the experienced structural worker who plunges down from the skeleton of a skyscraper; it is the old mill hand who gets mangled in the machinery; for these old hands have lost that wholesome fear that makes a man cautious. The friend of the Angels realizes that even such noble creatures as these, with their brilliant intellects, swift unyielding wills, their freedom from the tangle of error and sweep of passion, these beings not only could sin but actually did sin and condemn themselves to hell for all eternity. And he will stop and take thought.
These fallen Angels, deprived of none of their natural powers, roam about the world like raging lions seeking whom they may devour; our battle is not against mere flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers (Eph., vi. 12). It is not hard for a man, familiar with such thoughts as these, to see that it behooves him to go slowly, to think twice before brushing against an occasion of sin. He will be more likely to mistrust himself in his surest moments and to put his hope more in the help of God and His Angels than in any pride or satisfaction in past performances or supposed strength.
Such knowledge is in a sense humiliating. It puts our feet on solid ground where the view is realistic but not always so agreeable. Yet, Catholic life can be vigorous only when it proceeds from just such a deep humility.
The Catholic with a ready knowledge of the Angels and a sincere love and devotion to them, appreciating their crystal purity, their constant vision of God, their complete freedom from passion, will have an anchor to hold fast his soul as he meets the tide of immodesty in daily life. He has a source of strength and inspiration for his modesty in its clash with the temptation to follow the crowd. Mary, the Mother of God, and the Virgin Saints have long been the help of Catholics in matters of modesty; so also must be the Angels, who are naturally the purest of God’s creatures.
An enumeration of the virtues that are aided by devotion to the Angels is far beyond the scope of one article. There is, for instance, the spontaneous gratitude awakened in the heart of the Catholic who appreciates the love and protection of the Angels. There is the stalwart thought for the poverty-stricken that, as the Angel’s whole perfection and complete happiness is had without recourse to any object outside God and the Angel himself, so also is the greatest happiness of man. There is the significant thought for the rich in their appraisal of their goods, when the Archangel Raphael quickly refused the fortune offered him by Tobias; it was time for him to return to God who had sent him.
But all these things are hinted at in the life of Our Lord Himself. It was not without meaning that a multitude of the Angel chorus filled the skies above Bethlehem on the night when He was born; they had opened this drama of love by their appearances to Mary and Joseph. Christ’s youth was protected by Angels’ warnings to Joseph. In His agony, God could send Him no more potent comforter than an Angel. A curtain was drawn over the face of nature lest it look on the death agony of its Maker, surely by the Angelic “movers of the heavenly bodies,” as the Middle Ages pungently phrased it. As He breathed His last, the Angels were busy ripping the veil of the empty Holy of Holies, opening the graves of many of the Saints. It was for our guidance that Angels guarded the tomb of the Risen Savior and chided the Apostles for their idle gazing into heaven at His ascension.
The Church in her liturgy reminds us constantly of the Angels. The Fathers of the Church, busy defending the fundamental truths of Christianity, yet found time and place in their precious writings for the Angels. Theologians have devoted their keenest thought and deepest metaphysics to the investigation of the Angelic nature. One of them, St. Thomas (whose doctrine has been explained here), has come down to us as the Angelic Doctor, perhaps for the very reason that he left us such a masterly treatment of the Angels.
From every point of view the Angelic world is a Catholic treasure which should be placed in the hands of the Catholic moving about in a spiritually bankrupt world. Like so many Catholic truths, the Angel world has a fascination for children and yet cannot be exhausted by the deepest thinkers. The simple beauty of the logic in theologians’ treatment of the Angels has a great attraction for the trained mind; the historical account of Angelic activities as given in Scripture offers a rich field of investigation to the parish study club; the wealth of narrative and dramatic interest in this same historical account offers much material to the preacher.
Catholics today in this country are living in an atmosphere that makes an outcast of the soul. For the Catholic there is no need of this isolation; there is no need for an immortal spirit to be lonely when it can be put on intimate terms with a spiritual world where the soul is at home, entertained, edified, inspired, and invigorated.
1. Hom. xxxiv in Evang., vii, in Migne, LXXVI, 1249.
2. Gen., xviii. 2.
3. Rom., viii. 31.
4. IV Kings, xix. 35.
5. Exod., xii.
6. Dan., vii. 10.
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