The Human Side of Angels
Angels seem to live in horizons foreign to us, so foreign that we can only babble two words about them, make an act of faith, and soon forget about them. Although not accurate, this can hardly satisfy your legitimate curiosity to delve into the angelic state.
Angels are God’s highest creatures. The Nicene Creed alludes to them when speaking of God’s creative act which made all things ‘visible and invisible... those in heaven and those on earth.” They inhabit neither a material body nor the material world. They live in a place rather by acting upon other creatures: just think of the way the devils have power from God to possess humans. Angels are the greatest creatures that came out of the hand of God. Their keen mind can perceive immediately and infallibly the consequences of their acts. One mental leap suffices for them to reach the highest causes of things. Their will, too, wants to jump directly to the infinite. St. Thomas admits that, from the purely natural perspective, the angel cannot sin. No angel could love himself without loving firstly and more intensely this God found in the depth of his nature.
I realize that you are eager to get to the question of the angelic sin. Yet, perhaps, we need to consolidate our understanding of the angels by contrasting them with men.
Angels indeed surpass men in natural perfection, especially our spiritual faculties. Our intelligence and will could never measure up to them. Man lives in a material physical world and knows everything from sense perception, groping through thick matter, slowly, painfully and with much error. Likewise, his love may be biased because the good he yearns for can be colored by his passions and his sinful habits: the lustful man runs after his mistress as the drunkard after the bottle, and both are rushing to their own ruin.
If this is correct, and it is, could we not call man the diminished version of the angel?
Is man a “diminished version,” a second rate angel? This description would not go well with Christian writers. Like the angel, man is created in the image and likeness of God. Like him too, he possesses intelligence and will and is called to the same supernatural destiny. Indeed, it would be difficult to speak of diminution when speaking of the beatific vision of the greatest saints in heaven compared to angels. There is no second class citizen in heaven and the natural distinction of angels and men does not seem to apply to Fra Angelico’s frescoes of paradise. So, definitely no! Man is not a diminished angel no more than he is a fallen angel.
To compare man and the angel makes the mind want to reach the skies. It seems idyllic.
Man’s life is an adventure whose history is made of multiple histories of men saying yes and no to choices. He may dream of flying over the skies with wings outspread, of becoming pure spirituality. He may imagine shooting a single arrow reaching its target with an assured mind, and moving a will with no hesitation and no flaws. He may aspire to being absolutely free while resting in the immutable good. This ideal scenario exists perhaps in fictional novels, never in real life. And to dream of the angel’s life is also to forget that this dream of a perfect life could also be a nightmare. And for aspiring to become angelic, man may well turn into a beast.
By the “nightmare” of “turning into a beast”, are you hinting at the sin of the angels?
I am indeed! The fall of the angels has always fascinated the medieval writers, because it is a choice topic to understand angelology. St. John Damascene explains that “death is to man what the fall is to the angel”: its crucial existential moment. St. Anselm’s de Casu Diaboli—of the fall of the devil—is a classic along with St. Thomas’ treatises on angels and evil—de Angelis, de Malo. St. Anselm, a Benedictine contemplative, studied man through angelic lenses. The monastery provided for him a spiritual vantage point, and it gave him a quasi angelic nostalgia of shedding off ignorance and errors inseparable of men buried in worldly affairs. His view of man is angelic: man is the obscure negative of the angel, of this spiritual sunflower ever turned to God. The perfect man must look always up to heaven and get his feet off the ground!
Is this elevated vision shared by all medieval writers?
St. Thomas Aquinas, for one, has another view. He, too, is fascinated by the fall of the angels and uses it as a point of contrast, but also of contact, with men. Unlike St. Anselm, he studies angels through human lenses. We could sum it up by saying that his angelology is an anthropological angelology. If his study of man does not draw much from the angels, that of angels constantly gets its light from man. For St. Thomas, in the act of sinning, in that eternal instant, the angel goes through a crisis and becomes, so to speak, almost human. And this quasi humanity tells a lot about man’s humanity. Man constantly has to navigate in midstream between the banks of good and evil. His liberty too is irresolute, incapable of a definite choice. This very imperfection is the reason for his ability to promise and betray, and to repent again.
To speak of the human power to err and to sin is a daily experience. And St. Paul spoke eloquently of that: “law of the flesh which struggles against the law of the spirit” whereby “I do what I should not and do not what I should.” But what about the angels, these pure spirits naturally unable to commit a mistake and to have a misplaced love?
All this is very true. True also is the fact that angels naturally have the capacity to know and contemplate God in his effects. They know Him as one knows an artist through his masterworks. This being said, every intelligent creature as such is fallible and subject to a moral choice, angels not excepted. And, when God makes a sudden intrusion into the angelic world and offers another mode of knowledge and a supernatural life, then the angel is out of his natural depth and is liable to drown. St. Thomas nonchalantly explains that angels can err incidentally regarding the special dispositions of divine Providence.
What does this intellectual error consist of?
Angels naturally know things by bending back onto themselves, and digging within their own essence to find things previously infused into them at creation. From this angelic way of knowing, of itself inoffensive, we can surmise that angels tend to rely on nothing but what they have within. Added to this, their natural knowledge of all things, in clear day light, is amply satisfying, even if it is limited. Faced with an intrusion of God—they could say an encroachment—Who offered them to embark in the adventure of salvation, by submitting to His own terms, some angels must have hesitated. They must have thought twice and, instinctively, had refused to subject their minds to something alien and outside of them, to something offered to them in the obscurity of the faith.
We always speak of the angel’s rebellion as a sin of pride. Is this correct?
Church tradition has always maintained this. Each angel, created immediately in grace according to St. Thomas, was given the choice of rejecting or of entering the plan of salvation offered by God. This rejection, this disobedience of God’s plan, stemmed from pride. It was because he positively loved his own excellence that he rejected God’s dominion over him. The angel chose himself and refused to be chosen. He wanted to remain master and ruler of his destiny. So doing, he dug his own hell, and his state became worse than that of the worst beast.
We speak of rebellion. This suggests a group insurrection behind the leader of the pack...
Tradition has it that many angels fell prey to this pride and went headlong into the fire of hell which, said Our Lord: “was created by God for Satan and his followers.” Another interesting light is given by St. Thomas on the sin of the angels. Angels, unlike men, received at creation a supernatural gift proportionate to their nature. This means that the highest ranking angels—and there are traditionally nine choirs of angels—were more graced than any others. This means that Lucifer, the greatest angel was granted greater graces and was more loved by God more than any other. This suggests strongly that Lucifer, when offered to submit to God’s plan, went back upon himself and contemplated creatures in his own essence, and found that he was higher and better than anyone else, short of the invisible God. Unable to venerate lesser creatures, and unwilling to bow before God, he fell into self adoration. His sin was to refuse God, the greatest being, and fall into narcissism, embracing a warped self love and self aggrandizement.
Yet, did we not say angels naturally are bound to love God?
There is a dual movement within the fallen angels. Although they are at enmity with God and hate His punishment, each fiber of their being has that natural propensity towards its Creator and Lord. To me, this inner contradiction, this schizophrenic attitude describes best the struggle and hellish despair of the bad angels: thrust with great force to love God with all their powerful spirit, they have forever rejected his company and He, in turn, says to them forever: “Depart from Me, ye cursed!” Likewise, I believe heaven and purgatory are explained by this same inclination of the human soul.
Are you trying to say that there is a point of union between the damned and the elect?’
I believe so. Let me explain myself: In heaven, the blessed souls are free from any obstacle which could halt their possession and enjoyment of God. Their natural inclination is in perfect harmony with the supernatural reward: God appears to them face to face, throwing them into an endless ecstasy of love. In purgatory, souls suffer from this same thrust towards God, and yet, they cannot yet enjoy His presence due to their own imperfections. And this eagerness of wanting God is their purge and their purgatory. Hence, the natural love of the creature for its God has opposite effects for souls tuned up differently. It turns into a hatred of love for the damned; into a delayed thirst of love for purgatory; and into the zenith of full love for the blessed.
Our poor mind finds it difficult to reconcile God’s justice with the eternal punishment of one instant of madness. Is there a flip side to this hard punishment in the huge reward of the other angels? Or does this short lived trial lessen their merit?
I do not believe so. The fall of the bad angels was so culpable as to force God to create an eternal hell for them, which suggests a grave and indelible sin. This is because, without extenuating circumstances of passion or error as for men, they chose their ultimate end in that one decisive moment. This moment of liberty knew no repentance, and therefore, could know no pardon. By contrast, we must say that the decision to submit to God’s supernatural offer was of great merit to the good angels. We know only the names of three angels—archangels rather—as given us in Sacred Scripture, and St. Michael is said to have answered the ‘Non serviam’ of Lucifer with the battle cry of ‘Quis ut Deus’—who is like God? This angelic cry signifies the perfect act of submission to God’s will. It echoes the other historical intrusion of God in the material world when Mary answers the angel with her “Fiat.”
Who is freer in the last analysis: the angel before the fall, or the good angel after the fall?
No one has any doubt that men have much liberty compared to the angels, whose liberty leaves no room for a U-turn. But, in fact, we view liberty as the ability to choose: the more choice, the longer we enjoy it, the freer we think we are! Thus, we conclude that more liberty is given to angels before the fall since they face a choice, a single and unique choice unlike men. Angels ‘enjoy’ the precarious and fragile liberty as they are about to make an eternal choice: a jump either into the abyss of hell or through the bridge to heaven.
You seem to have reservation with this interpretation of “liberty as the ability to choose.” Why is that?
True liberty must lead to one’s perfection. If this is so, it must be found eminently in God and the blessed. Yet, neither has the choice of sin. In Christian territory, liberty is never mistress of the end but only of the means. Using my God-given liberty to rebel against Him and rush into a wall is self-destruction, not self-perfection. The ability to sin denotes slavery and lack of liberty. Using my liberty to change the goal posts, to reject my last end, is an act of enslavement. This is what St. Thomas says, not without nostalgia: “This is why the liberty of the [blessed] angels is superior to ours, since we have the ability to sin.”