The Trouble with Angels: These Celestial Beings Are Elusive and Mysterious-But Totally Necessary

By Camille, Alice | U.S. Catholic, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Angels: These Celestial Beings Are Elusive and Mysterious-But Totally Necessary


Camille, Alice, U.S. Catholic


ONCE UPON A TIME I believed in angels. Then I got older and gave up childish ways. Then I got even older and became a child again. Once more I believe in angels. You may be presently too old to put your faith in such creatures; or not yet old enough. Wherever you stand on the "angel issue," you've got company.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There are troubles with angels that can't be denied. There are also myriad references to them within our tradition from wall-placed sources. In this season when angels play a distinct role in the narrative of salvation, the topic is worth further reflection.

The first problem with angels is one of definition. The word means "messenger," but not all angels carry messages. According to tradition relatively few engage the human realm at all. This muddies the waters: If these celestial beings have little to do with the terrestrial realm, what difference could resolving the question of their existence make to us? The biblical witness gives us pause here. If only a handful of angels have engaged humanity throughout history, they've still had, for all their lack of chattiness, a disproportionately large effect.

TRY SIPHONING ANGELS from salvation history and what do you get? Some fractured fairy tale fit for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Consider: No one guards the gates of Eden as Adam and Eve take their leave. So they slip back in and find that dangerous Tree of Life. Abraham and Sarah entertain no strangers. Sarah never learns she could have a child by her ancient husband and repels his advances. Lot's family is smashed by brimstone in Sodom. Jacob sees no dream ladder; he wrestles only with his demons at night.

The Israelites get so lost in the desert without guiding pillars of cloud and fire that they give up on Canaan. Balaam never talks to his ass (donkey, that is). Gideon has no one to put to the test. Samson's unusual birth is not announced to his mother, which causes marital distress. Elijah dies of despair under a broom tree. Isaiah remains a man of unclean lips after the first vision and never talks about it. Ezekiel sees crazy things with no guide to see him through and takes to drinking. The see-er Zechariah gives up prophesying after a few chapters. Daniel's three young heroes are incinerated in the king's fiery furnace. Tobit's son never meets Sarah, who dies celibate, while Tobit remains blind.

The old priest Zechariah comes home from the temple, finds Elizabeth pregnant, and they argue about it for the next nine months. She wishes him mute. Meanwhile Joseph finds out about Mary's condition the hard way, and, being a good man, he divorces her quietly. Mary may or may not give birth in a barn, but no shepherds arrive to welcome the baby, and no Glorias fill the air to comfort her.

If Jesus lives long enough to be tempted by Satan, no angels will offer support afterward. He may weep blood in Gethsemane, but who will notice? On Easter morning no one rolls away the stone. Mary Magdalene and friends go home defeated. If and when Jesus ascends to heaven, his disciples remain rooted to the spot, so forget Pentecost. If Peter goes to jail, he stays there. The New Testament gets shorter: Hebrews and Revelation are scrapped for want of a plot.

The point being: Angels fill a lot of holes in the story of scripture. And the Bible's only one of three tiers of sources regarding angels. The second tier is tradition. The Church Fathers have much to say about angels well into the 13th-century writings of the Angelic Doctor himself, Thomas Aquinas. Which brings us to the third tier of information: the experiences of mystics both ancient and modern, who've written a great deal about their encounters with angelic beings.

WITH SO MUCH SOURCE MATERIAL CONCERNING ANGELS, what does the church teach about their nature? Angels are spiritual beings that serve God. Created before humanity, they are unlike us in that they are pure spirit, without bodies.

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