Angels: A Six Part Series

Part VI: The Hierarchy of Angels

St. Gregory the Great, Pseudo-Dionysius, and St. Thomas Aquinas all speak of the hierarchy of angels. Aquinas points out that it is inevitable that the multitude of angels should form a hierarchy; for each angel is its own species. This is true because an angel has no matter, and matter is one of the principles of individuation. It is dimensive quantity that enables a form to be multiplied into individual instances, just as the one form of a cookie cutter can be multiplied into many instances through the matter of the dough. But if an angel has no matter, then that which distinguishes one angel from another will be located in the form. Hence, one angel is formally (specifically) different from another, as one number is formally different from another number. And just as one number will be either higher or lower than another number, so too is one angel either higher or lower than another angel. All human beings, however, are equal because all humans have the same nature, and so each one is different not by virtue of the form, but on the basis of matter, inherited traits, and the act of being.

Tradition speaks of three hierarchies, each composed of three "orders" of angels. The highest of the angelic orders is the Seraphim, a name which means "carriers of fire." Scripture speaks of God as a "consuming fire" (Heb 12, 29); fire is a symbol of the divine love. If one gets too close to a fire, one will inevitably catch fire. The Seraphim are so close to God that they are "on fire" with the divine love. Pseudo-Dionysius writes:

For the designation seraphim really teaches this -- a perennial circling around the divine things, penetrating warmth, the overflowing heat of a movement which never falters and never fails, a capacity to stamp their own image on subordinates by arousing and uplifting in them too a like flame, the same warmth. It means also the power to purify by means of the lightning flash and the flame. It means the ability to hold unveiled and undiminished both the light they have and the illumination they give out. It means the capacity to push aside and to do away with every obscuring shadow (The Celestial Hierarchy 7, 1).

The next order on the first hierarchy is the Cherubim, a name which means "fullness of knowledge". These highly intelligent creatures are below the Seraphim because love is greater than knowledge -- at least in regard to things higher than man. According to Pseudo-Dionysius, the name "cherubim" indicates the power of these angels to know God and to receive the greatest gifts of His light. These angels contemplate Beauty Itself, and their intellectual penetration of the divine splendor far exceeds that of any of the angels of the lower orders. They receive the greatest gifts that bring wisdom, and they generously pour out their wisdom to the angels of the second hierarchy (Hierarchy 7, 1).

The angels of the third order on the first hierarchy are called the Thrones. They are characterized by their super-eminent humility. Pseudo-Dionysius writes:

The title of the most sublime and exalted thrones conveys that in them there is a transcendence over every earthly defect, as shown by their upward-bearing toward the ultimate heights, that they are forever separated from what is inferior, that they are completely intent upon remaining always and forever in the presence of him who is truly the most high, that, free of all passion and material concern, they are utterly available to receive the divine visitation, that they bear God and are ever open, like servants, to welcome God (Hierarchy 7, 1).

The angels of the first hierarchy enlighten all the angels of the second hierarchy. The angels of the first order of the second hierarchy are called the Dominations, or Dominions. Below these are the Celestial Virtues, followed by the Powers. By virtue of the generous and total outpouring of the angels of the first hierarchy, these angels are elevated as much as they are capable. They in turn generously pour out all they have been given to the angels of the lowest hierarchy, which are the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The work of the angels of the second hierarchy is to direct these latter, who are directly involved in human affairs.

The Dominations are rulers, as their name suggests. But their rule is uncorrupted, or as Pseudo-Dionysius puts it: "unfettered by earthly tendencies" (Hierarchy 8, 1). Their dominion is not in any way tyrannical or condescending, unlike authority exercised by human persons, which almost always contains an element of narcissism. A true leader cannot exercise authority rightly without at the same time being himself under authority. The Dominations exercise their authority invisibly, and they do so untyrannically because they have submitted themselves to something higher. They are elevated by the outpourings of the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones. These latter enable them to strive toward the source of all dominion, and to receive the semblance of that true dominion.

The Celestial Virtues do not so much direct the angels of the third hierarchy as they strengthen them. Their name, from the Latin 'vir' (a man of courage), points to a masculine and unshakable courage, one that knows nothing of softness and laziness. The Celestial Virtues have their eyes fixed on the divine omnipotence, and they transmit their power to the inferior angels, by turning their attention to them.

Far from abandoning its godlike movement out of cowardice, it looks undeviatingly to that transcendent power which is the source of all power. Indeed this courage becomes, so far as possible, the very image of that power to which it shapes itself, being powerfully returned to it because it is the source of all power. And at the same time, it transmits to its own inferiors its dynamic and divinizing power. (Hierarchy 8, 1)

The Powers are the lowest angels of the second hierarchy, and their work is more specific than the two prior orders. It belongs to the Dominations to appoint those things which are to be done, and to the Virtues to give the power of carrying out what is to be done, but to the Powers it belongs to order how what has been commanded or decided can be carried out by the angels of the third hierarchy (ST. I. Q. 108. a. 6).

The Principalities are the guardians of nations, under the direction and influence of the angels of the second hierarchy. The Archangels are guardians of persons, perhaps leaders of state or other important personages. The Angels are the guardians of ordinary people. And although these angels are intimately involved in human affairs, we remain largely unaware of it. It is in this way that they share in the sheer generosity of divine providence; as God's gifts go largely unacknowledged, so too the activity of the angels among us.

Concluding Thoughts - The Incarnation and Existence in the Flesh

Even though we speak of inferior and superior angels, there is no desire for superiority among the angelic orders. Their ruling desire is that God be loved, which translates into the desire to lift up the inferior angels as far as they are capable of being lifted. The life of angels is characterized by total generosity. If an angel could lift another higher than itself, there would be no stopping it. But each angel is its own species, and so in each angel there is a natural capacity that is essentially limited, as there is a limited capacity to human nature.

An angel elevates another by illuminating it, that is, communicating to it the manifestation of known truth. The benevolent outpouring is as complete as it can be. The higher the angel, the more universal and penetrating its apprehension or conception. The intellect of the inferior angel is not sufficiently powerful to receive such a conception in its universality. It is natural for the inferior angel to receive the truth in a more particular manner. And so the superior angel particularizes the truth that he conceives universally, somewhat like a teacher who adapts what he knows to the capacity of his students.

Does this mean that the angels of the lower two hierarchies do not behold the essence of God immediately? Not at all. All the angels see the divine essence immediately. But one angel will behold more of the divine essence than will another angel. St. Thomas refers to the exemplars of the divine works, which are known in God as in their cause. God comprehends Himself perfectly, and no other creature can comprehend God, but a superior angel will know more about the exemplars of the divine works than an inferior angel, and it is concerning these exemplars that the superior illumines the inferior.

There is no sorrow in being an inferior angel, and much less is there sorrow for the beatified man in being the lowest creature on the hierarchy of intelligent creatures. Supernatural charity delights in having others to look up to. For it desires the lowest place. That is why the Word became flesh. In fact, the Incarnation sheds a whole new light on existence in the flesh and brings about a kind of reversal in the order of creation. Angels will always remain superior in nature to human beings, but the order of the Incarnation makes it possible for the human person to rise higher than the Seraphim. For in his ascension, Christ has risen higher than the entire order of angelic natures (Cf. Hebrews 1, 3-13).

Jesus is Jacob's ladder. And in him we too, in principle, can rise higher than the Seraphim angels. Aquinas writes: " the gift of grace men can merit glory in such a degree as to be equal to the angels, in each of the angelic grades; and this implies that men are taken up into the orders of the angels" (ST. I. Q. 108. a. 8). By virtue of Christ's ascension, human nature has acquired a new dignity. This is so much the case that we can even speak of a holy envy in the angels; for they cannot suffer, and thus enter into and share in the sufferings of the Incarnate Word. We can be like the God-Man; they cannot. Because we are subject to time, we can labour to acquire the abject virtues of patience, endurance, forbearance, and humility, and thus become more conformed to the image of Christ. We can climb Jacob's ladder by descending, by entering more completely into the mind of Christ, who did not deem "equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2, 6-7).

Mary is a prime example of this; for she is superior to all the angels, not according to her nature, but by the fullness of grace. For she is "Queen of Angels", according to the Litany of Loretto. Her charity is superior, and just as it is the ardor of charity that makes the Seraphim higher than the Cherubim, so too the ardor of the love of the Mother of God renders her greater than the highest orders of angels. Her love endured a suffering more acute than anything that will ever be visited upon another human being; for she witnessed the suffering and death of her son, whom she loved with a love stronger than the death that engulfed him.

The death of Christ is the most perfect act of justice, for it is the perfect religious act. It is because of our existence in the flesh that we can become part of that perfect act of religion that took place on Good Friday. We do so through communion. But angels cannot receive the flesh and blood of Christ, given up for us, in the Eucharist. Angels cannot die, and so they cannot die his death as we can by abiding in his flesh (Jn 6, 53-57).

This is the genius of the divine love, to take what is lowest and, through the impotence of the cross, transform it into what is noblest. Only pure omnipotence can transform the ignominy of the cross into the image of perfect Beauty. What a blessing it is to be less than the angels.

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