An evening in 1997—Fr James E. Cantler was presiding at the Holy Eucharist at the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrating the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. I was assisting in the sanctuary. My wife Christine was in the choir. Near the conclusion of the liturgy, Christine saw (yes, saw) an angel (yes, an angel) standing behind Fr Cantler at the altar. Its face radiated with delight and pleasure in this man who had faithfully served as a priest of the Church for over forty years. She describes the guardian angel as simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, massive yet human-size. I have never seen an angel, but I do not doubt that my wife saw one that evening. She is open to spiritual realities in a way that I am not.
I thought about this event while reading the four chapters devoted to angels in Paul J. Griffiths’s book Decreation. Orthodox and Catholic Christians, as well as many Protestants, believe in angels. This belief has never needed to be dogmatically defined. Their presence at important events in salvation history is mentioned in Holy Scripture, and their reality affirmed in the liturgies of the Church. We even know some of their names—Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, Jeremiel. In the Old Testament, Raphael visits Tobit and his son and introduces himself: “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One” (Tobit 12:15). The Gospel of Luke tells us that Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Forerunner, and to Mary, the Mother of the Lord. In the Book of Revelation, Michael is depicted as waging war against the Dragon, who is defeated and cast out of heaven. Both Michael and Gabriel are iconically represented on many iconostases in the Orthodox Church. The Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers is celebrated on November 8th. How do we know angels exist? Because we venerate them and invoke their intercessions.
But what are angels? According to the teaching of the Church, they are immortal intellectual beings, brought into existence by God from out of nothing. St John of Damascus describes them as “a sort of spirit or immaterial fire.” They enjoy spatio-temporal relations with the creaturely ensemble. If they did not, then by definition they would not be creatures. As Griffiths comments, the cosmos “is saturated with temporal relations as a chronic condition … Temporality is a constituent of creaturehood” (p. 81). Angels inhabit timespace and are capable of interacting with other beings. Yet their mode of existence is unique.
Since the 13th century the dominant Latin tradition has affirmed that angels are incorporeal and disembodied. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, asserts that angels are pure intellects, composed of existence and form but no matter, thus entailing the consequence that each angel constitutes a species unto itself. We cannot differentiate Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael as distinct individuals belonging to a single kind of being; each, rather, belongs to a class of which it is the only member. Griffiths deems this a desperate solution and therefore sides with St Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, as well as with an older patristic tradition:. St Basil of Caesarea speaks of angels as aerial spirits or immaterial fire, “wherefore they exist in space and become visible, and appear in their proper bodily form to them that are worthy”; St Augustine speaks of angels as having “airy-ethereal” corpora. Angels do have bodies, though of a very different kind than that of animals, protozoa, hemocytes, meteors, and quasars. A body, stipulates Griffiths, is “the capacity for location in timespace, and thus for availability and responsiveness to other creatures with such location” (p. 5). If angels lacked bodies altogether, they would be incapable of causally relating to other creatures, including the flesh of the incarnate Christ. He identifies six kinds of bodies:
- fallen fleshly bodies: common to all animate creatures, characterized by weight and extension in timespace;
- risen fleshly bodies: common to all animate creatures in heaven after the general resurrection—at present, only the risen Jesus Christ and the Theotokos possess such bodies;
- temporarily discarnate animate bodies: possessed by all human beings who have died and now live between the separation of body and soul and the general resurrection;
- permanently discarnate animate bodies: possessed by the angels;
- inanimate material bodies: possessed by minerals, rocks, sticks, bodies of water, etc.—all characterized by weight and extension in timespace;
- discarnate inanimate bodies: subatomic particles with mass.
Griffiths thus distinguishes between material (fleshly) bodies and immaterial (spiritual) bodies. Angels have the latter. In other words, angelic “incorporeality” (to use the traditional term) only excludes the corporeality pertaining to mundane creatures; it does not exclude the embodiment that pertains to spirits and discarnate souls:
The bodies of the angels are always discarnate, in this like inanimate bodies such as quarks and electrons. Discarnate animate bodies, though fleshless and with capacities for apparently (and perhaps really) discontinuous motion in time and space, are nonetheless bodies precisely because they have spatio-temporal location—which in terms of contemporary physics, is just what it means to have mass. Angelic bodies, according to this definition, have mass, but not, or not necessarily, matter. “Matter” is a word that has no generally agreed definition in contemporary physics, and no consistent pattern of use in ordinary English. “Mass,” by contrast, names, in the discourse of physics, a body’s resistance to acceleration by a force acting upon it (inertial mass), and its gravitational attraction to other bodies (gravitational mass). These may be properties of bodies without matter, which is to say of bodies consisting only of energy; I had this in mind when writing above of availability and responsiveness as proper to bodies, indeed definition of them—availability and responsiveness name, at the level of theoretical physics, these two specifications of the concept of mass; to speak of a body’s mass, then, is another way of speaking about its availability and responsiveness to other bodies, without necessarily attributing to them the weight and aggregated extension in space characteristic of animate fleshly bodies. Angelic bodies, I should think (in this like the bodies of the separated souls), are bodies whose mass is immaterial, where this means certainly discarnate, and with small gravitational and inertial mass—but not with no mass, because then they would be incapable of spatio-temporal location, which, so far as I can see, the entire Christian tradition, speculative and magisterial, takes them to be, exactly because they are creatures. (p. 122)
A question arose when I first read this passage: if angels lack matter, then how are they locatable? But then Griffiths reminded me that this poses no more of a problem for angels than it does for electrons, neutrinos, and quarks. Traces of subatomic particles become visible to us under specific conditions. Analogously, angels also become “visible to us under equally specific conditions, conditions made providentially possible by the LORD. They are, or may be, patterns of energy that are lives with a history, capable under certain conditions, of coalescence and visibility to us” (p. 125). Griffiths conjectures that angels move through the cosmos in a discontinuous manner. Unlike terrestrial beings, they can transport themselves from one location to the next in the blink of a discarnate eye. “They can be here at one moment in metronomic timespace and somewhere else, far distant, at an immediately subsequent moment,” explains Griffiths. “This is not difficult to understand if the angelic body consists of quanta of energy; such bodies are not subject to the metronome, and thus not limited by the requirement that they move continuously in timespace” (p. 125). Perhaps like the spacing guild in Dune they can fold space. Perhaps. We can only speculate and write our science-fiction novels.
Griffiths’s proposal thus allows us to affirm an angelic kind of being (species) and to individuate each member by their spatio-temporal accidents: Gabriel is the celestial spirit who announced the virginal conception to the maiden Mary; Michael is the celestial spirit who led the holy angels against Satan and his demons and cast them out of heaven; Raphael is the celestial spirit who visited Tobit; and so on.
(Question for Griffiths and readers: If angels are locatable in timespace, does that mean that they are potentially discoverable by a more advanced physics, or does the nature of their mode of existence preclude such future discovery?)
As discarnate intellects, angels apprehend reality, and most particularly their eternal Creator, differently than do physical beings. According to the long tradition of the Church, they know the Holy Trinity in an unmediated vision “of a kind largely impossible for enfleshed beings like us. Since they have no fleshly eyes, they cannot see the LORD’s risen flesh as we do; their mode of availability and responsiveness to that flesh is instead that characteristic of a body of energy” (p. 127). We have little experience in this life of nonsensory cognition of divinity, though presumably the saintly men and women who have been granted noetic union with the uncreated Light have enjoyed something akin to the angelic vision—yet even here a critical difference may obtain: if St Gregory Palamas is right, the disciples on Mount Tabor were able to see Christ in his glory because they had been granted “eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Homily on the Transfiguration [I]). At the general resurrection, when souls are reunited to their bodies, now transfigured and deified, the saints will see the Lord differently than do the angels (and discarnate souls). As Griffiths notes: “Those with a resurrected body have eyes of flesh; and those eyes see the resurrected flesh of Jesus and the assumed flesh of Mary” (p. 220). They will apprehend the incarnate God both intellectually and sensorily. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Such will be the beatific vision of redeemed humanity.
At this point readers of C. S. Lewis are no doubt thinking about the Space Trilogy. The Oxford don’s fictional cosmos is peopled with spiritual beings known as the eldila. The protagonist of the series, Elwin Ransom, first encounters these beings in Out of the Silent Planet. He converses with a sorn about the eldila and asks if they have bodies. The sorn replies:
“Of course they have bodies. There are a great many bodies you cannot see. Every animal’s eyes see some things but not others … Body is movement. If it is at one speed, you smell something; if at another, you hear a sound; if at another you see light; if at another, you neither see nor hear nor smell, nor know the body in any way. But mark this, Small One, that the two ends meet.”
“How do you mean?”
“If movement is faster, then that which moves is more nearly in two places at once.”
“That is true.”
“But if the movement were faster still—it is difficult, for you do not know many words—you see that if you made it faster and faster, in the end the moving thing would be in all places at once, Small One.”
“I think I see that.”
“Well, then, that is the thing at the top of all bodies—so far that it is at rest, so truly body that it has ceased being body at all. Start from where we are, Small One. The swiftest thing that touches our senses is light. We do not truly see light, we only see slower things lit by it, so that for us light is on the edge—the last thing we know before things become too swift for us. But the body of an eldil is a movement swift as light; you may say that its body is made of light, but not of that which is light for the eldil. His “light” is a swifter movement which for us is nothing at all; and what we call light is for him a thing like water, a visible thing, a thing he can touch and bathe in—even a dark thing when not illumined by the swifter. And what we call firm things—flesh and earth—seem to him thinner, and harder to see, than our light, and more like clouds, and nearly nothing. To us the eldil is a thin, half-real body that can go through walls and rocks: to himself he goes through them because he is solid and firm and they are like cloud. And what is true light to him and fills the heaven, so that he will plunge into the rays of the sun to refresh himself from it, is to us the black nothing in the sky at night.” (chap. 15)
Whereas we tend to think of bodies as the stuff that ties us down, constraining and limiting us, Lewis invites us to think of bodies as movement and energy. We do not normally see the ministering spirits because they are moving too fast for us, perhaps too fast to ever be measured by any instrument we might ever invent. No doubt this is why the angels are typically pictured with wings—to intimate, as Lewis words it, “the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy” (Screwtape Letters).
Ransom is summoned to Meldilorn to meet the Oyarsa of Malacandra. As he draws near, he gazes upon the island:
In the most abstract terms it might be summed up by saying that the surface of the island was subject to tiny variations of light and shade which no change in the sky accounted for. If the air had not been calm and the groundweed too short and firm to move in the wind, he would have said that a faint breeze was playing with it, and working such slight alterations in the shading as it does in a cornfield on the Earth. Like the silvery noises in the air, these footsteps of light were shy of observation. Where he looked hardest they were least to be seen: on the edges of his field of vision they came crowding as though a complex arrangement of them were there in progress. To attend to any one of them was to make it invisible, and the minute brightness seemed often to have just left the spot where his eyes fell. He had no doubt that he was ‘seeing’—as much as he ever would see—the eldila. (chap. 17)
Whereas in the first weeks on Malacandra Ransom was unable to see the eldila, now after many months he is able to glimpse them, yet only as a shimmering of light in his peripheral vision. His meeting with the Oyarsa is very much along the same lines: “The merest whisper of light—no, less than that, the smallest diminution of shadow” (chap. 18).
In the second book, Perelandra, Ransom is visited by the Oyarsa of Malacrandra:
What I saw was simply a very faint rod or pillar of light. I don’t think it made a circle of light either on the floor or the ceiling, but I am not sure of this. It certainly had very little power of illuminating its surroundings. So far, all is plain sailing. But it had two other characteristics which are less easy to grasp. One was its colour. Since I saw the thing I must obviously have seen it either white or coloured; but no efforts of my memory can conjure up the faintest image of what that colour was. I try blue, and gold, and violet, and red, but none of them will fit. How it is possible to have a visual experience which immediately and ever after becomes impossible to remember, I do not attempt to explain. The other was its angle. It was not at right angles to the floor. But as soon as I have said this, I hasten to add that this way of putting it is a later reconstruction. What one actually felt at the moment was that the column of light was vertical but the floor was not horizontal—the whole room seemed to have heeled over as if it were on board ship. The impression, however produced, was that this creature had reference to some horizontal, to some whole system of directions, based outside the Earth, and that its mere presence imposed that alien system on me and abolished the terrestrial horizontal. I had no doubt at all that I was seeing an eldil, and little doubt that I was seeing the archon of Mars, the Oyarsa of Malacandra. (chap. 1)
At the conclusion of the tale, Ransom encounters the Oyeresu of Malacandra and Perelandra. They make a couple of unsuccessful attempts to present themselves in a way that would not overwhelm or confuse him. Finally, they settle on humanoid forms, yet even when stationary they are in constant movement, almost as if they exist in a different dimension and must carefully contrive their visible appearance:
Whenever he looked straight at them they appeared to be rushing towards him with enormous speed: whenever his eyes took in their surroundings he realised that they were stationary. This may have been due in part to the fact that their long and sparkling hair stood out straight behind them as if in a great wind. But if there were a wind it was not made of air, for no petal of the flowers was shaken. They were not standing quite vertically in relation to the floor of the valley: but to Ransom it appeared (as it had appeared to me on Earth when I saw one) that the eldils were vertical. It was the valley—it was the whole world of Perelandra—which was aslant. He remembered the words of Oyarsa long ago in Mars,”I am not here in the same way that you are here.” It was borne in upon him that the creatures were really moving, though not moving in relation to him. This planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world—the world, in fact—was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind by the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun. (chap. 16)
The universe is a mysterious place.
O Angel of God, my holy Guardian, keep my life in the fear of Christ God, strengthen my mind in the true way and wound my soul with heavenly love, so that guided by Thee, I may obtain the great mercy of Christ God. Amen.