Angels: A Six Part Series

Part II: The Life of Angels

When discussing the life of the angels, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas betray a tone of relative uncertainty. All we have is divine revelation, and interpreting the Scriptures, especially in regard to the life of angels, is not easy and is often uncertain. Above all, we have to be careful about taking our imagination too literally. Our thinking, as was said, depends in some measure upon a phantasm in the imagination, and so when thinking about angels and their activity, we inevitably form pictures for ourselves. We cannot help but do this. Nevertheless, we must ever keep in mind that such pictures should not be taken literally, for they can be misleading. The images presented in the Scriptures are both metaphorical and analogical, and they are there for us to use precisely in order to move beyond them.

As a starting point for investigating the life of angels, let's begin with the book of Revelation, chapter four. John has a vision in which he sees a number of angels from the Seraphim and Cherubim orders, represented in symbols borrowed from Ezekiel.

Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come. (Rv 4, 8)

The angels clearly behold something inexhaustibly marvellous. They contemplate the three Persons of the Trinity (thrice holy). They marvel at His inexhaustible perfection, His immutable and eternal nature. He exists most supremely and perfectly, and this they see directly, which is the vision in which heaven consists.

Whenever we behold something marvellous, such as a beautiful night sky or a mountain range, we are moved to cry out, that is, to utter as far as possible the beauty that we behold. These angels behold the very source of goodness and beauty, and so they do not stop exclaiming, uttering the unimaginable marvel that fills them. All the perfections of the created order exist in God most perfectly, and so God is unlimited beauty, goodness, knowledge, justice, mercy, and any other perfection. Whatever we imagine these angels to be experiencing, we can be certain that our understanding falls well short, for we lack the direct apprehension of God as He is in Himself. They delight, beyond our ability to conceive, in the knowledge and love of God.

It is not possible to get bored of such activity precisely because God is infinitely knowable and loveable. To possess the Supreme Good is to desire nothing else. All our activity, no matter what it is we are doing, is ultimately ordered towards possessing the good. All other goods besides God are partial goods, but they are goods nonetheless, and we seek to rest in them, for example, in the knowledge of truth, the story of a good novel, or in leisure, or in the very presence of a good friend, or in the experience of beauty, etc. To possess God, who is the Supreme Good, is to have acquired perfect rest, and in all our pursuits of particular goods, we are seeking that perfect rest. And so it is true that we naturally seek God (bonum universale: the whole good) in everything we do. That is why the free decision to reject God in favor of partial or temporal goods is irrational and contrary to the fundamental thrust of human nature.

Angels, who are exceedingly superior to human beings, are always prostrate before God. They live forever within the indivisible aevum of their decision to prostrate themselves before Him. Each angel manifests in some way an aspect of the divine glory, and they perpetually give thanks to God in recognition that ultimately He is the creator of the free choices that merited their glory.

There are myriads of angels beyond counting, or in the words of St. Thomas, "far beyond all material multitude".

In my vision, I heard the sound of an immense number of angels gathered round the throne and the living creatures and the elders; there were ten thousand times ten thousand of them and thousands upon thousands, loudly chanting: 'Worthy is the Lamb that was sacrificed to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.' Then I heard all the living things in creation everything that lives in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and in the sea, crying: 'To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory and power, forever and ever. And the four living creatures said, 'Amen'; and the elders prostrated themselves to worship.' (Rv 5, 11-14)

Try to imagine what one thousand million human beings with perfect voices singing the praises of God would sound like. The beauty of such a sound is unimaginable. But here, we have a multitude of angels beyond all material multitude, each one of an exceedingly superior nature, glorifying God and "singing" His praises, recognizing that the Lamb of God alone is worthy to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing. They delight especially in his love for the lost sheep, that is, in his decision to become a lamb, to be sacrificed, in order to redeem that lost sheep (humanity).

It is hard to know what angelic singing really means. We sing because what we want to say exceeds the capacity of our words to express. Music is the communication to others of the composer's joy, which is why a beautiful melody fills us with joy and allows us to know, without words, what it is the author contemplates and rejoices in. Angels are not material, and so they have no vocal chords. But they "sing" nonetheless. Their singing is the harmonious communication of what they know, the bursting forth of the joy that fills them from contemplating subsistent Joy. We can only imagine this as words and music, but it is something far greater and inconceivably more refined. Just as angelic communication occurs without sounds, so too angelic singing is soundless. It achieves immediately everything that sound, melody, and harmony seek to achieve indirectly.


The book of Revelation describes the Cherubim as having eyes in front and in back. This is a way of indicating that even the highest angels are concerned about human affairs; one pair of eyes is directed towards God, the other towards the lower angels and man. Jesus refers directly to the guardian angels in Matthew:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father (Mt 18, 10).

But how secure is angelic guardianship? If a person turns his back on God, does his angel turn his back on him? St. Thomas argues no, not entirely:

...the angel guardian never forsakes a man entirely; but sometimes he leaves him in some particular, for instance, by not preventing him from being subject to some trouble, or even from falling into sin, according to the ordering of the divine judgments. (ST. I. Q. 113. a. 6)

When we choose to enter into darkness, we forfeit a great deal; for angels "await" our decisions. We empower an angel to act on our behalf by the choices that we make. The opposite is also true. As we can stifle the Holy Spirit (Eph 4, 30), so too can we stifle the work of an angel in our own lives. In the book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel says to him: "...from the first day you made up your mind to acquire understanding and humble yourself before God, your prayer was heard. Because of it I started out..." (Dn 10, 12). The kinds of things angels do in our lives depend in large part upon our own free choices, especially the ones that establish a relationship to truth and wisdom. Not everyone chooses to seek after wisdom. The decision to pursue wisdom (knowledge of things from God's point of view) has, as its precondition, a more fundamental decision, namely the love of it and the acceptance of our radical limitations. The love of truth requires humility, the recognition that I am not the measure of what is true and good. Daniel's decision ("the day you made up your mind") to acquire understanding and humble himself before God freed Gabriel to act on his behalf.

Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael

Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael are the three angels mentioned by name in the Scriptures. The mystery of who they are is disclosed, to some degree, in the meaning of their names. Let us next turn our attention first to the angel Raphael as he is depicted in the book of Tobit.

Next Page: Part III: The Angel Raphael
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