Angels 101: What we should know about God’s messengers

Photo: UMB-O/Shutterstock

When we think of angels, we tend to conjure images from Renaissance paintings: chubby cherubs with tiny wings; long-haired figures with flowing robes; or perhaps a heavenly warrior, outfitted in Roman armor. These depictions leave us with the impression of angels as something between greeting card characters and prototypical superheroes. But the Church’s teaching on these heavenly creatures presents us with a much richer and awe-inspiring understanding of these heavenly creatures.

Rather than being the name of a type or species, like “human” or “lion,” the word angel is really more of a job description. It derives from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger.” It’s a fitting title, as in Scripture angels most often act as God’s couriers. We see them appearing to Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Mary, among many others, speaking on God’s behalf and delivering God’s message to humanity.

Carrying messages is what angels tend to do, but what they are is pure spirit, like God — though unlike God, they are limited and created, receiving their nature and their existence from God. Whether angels were created before the physical world or along with it is a question the Church Fathers were divided on. Either way, they are truly a part of God’s creation.

Like human beings, angels are persons, possessing wills and intellects; but unlike human beings, angels have no bodies, no physical or material part to them. They fill a gap in the great chain of being: between humans, who are physical, limited persons, and God, who is personal, non-physical, and unlimited. Angels are non-physical, limited, and personal. (This “logical fittingness” is how Aristotle reasoned his way to the existence of what he called “separate substances,” which are very similar to the Christian understanding of angels.) This shows the fullness, the plenitude, in God’s creation.

Unlike human beings, angels have no bodies, no physical or material part to them.

Having free will, the angels were given the choice to love God or not to love God. Like human beings, they were offered God’s grace. Some rejected it, seeking to seize for themselves likeness to God rather than accepting it as a gift. The angels’ choice in the moment of the offering of grace was fixed: For those who loved God, they became his messengers; for those who chose against God, they became demons. Their choices are fixed, because, having beheld God “face to face,” what could possibly draw away those who loved him, or bring back those who had rejected him?

Because angels do not have bodies, it raises the question: Where are they? Or, to put it more directly: What does it mean when I pray for my guardian angel to be “at my side”? Because angels are intellects and wills, St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned, an angel must be present to whatever it is thinking about or willing something for. So, if your angel is by your side, it is thinking about and loving you right then!

What does it mean when I pray for my guardian angel to be ‘at my side’?

Also, angels aren’t bound in time like we are, but neither are they eternal like God is. They exist in a sort of middle state called “aeveternity.” They do not age, but they are not statues, either. Does this mean they know the future? Not exactly. Angels can predict some future events because, being supremely intelligent, they understand cause and effect very well, so they can tell that this event now will cause that event later.

But an angel cannot know the future free choices of human beings. Likewise, an angel cannot directly know the secret thoughts of our hearts, though they can discern much from observing us. Just as we can tell someone is embarrassed when they blush, angels can “read” us and tell what we’re thinking in many instances.

Guardian angel, German postcard, 1900. Photo: Public Domain

Angels have wills and intellects, but they aren’t quite the same as those humans have. Because human beings have bodies as well as souls, we learn through experience, step by step, and form general ideas from our experience. Angels, on the other hand, know immediately, intuitively, with their knowledge of universal ideas coming “pre-programmed.” Yet not all angels are created with the same knowledge. Their knowledge depends on their own particular mission or responsibility.

In addition to serving as messengers, angels also fill the other roles, serving as God’s intermediaries and subordinates in governing creation. The traditional nine choirs of angels, which find their origin in the patristic author Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, assign angels by areas of responsibility.

The lowest group, simply called angels, serve as guardian angels for human beings. Archangels, such as Sts. Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, are God’s chief messengers. Principalities are the guardians of nations and kingdoms. Powers fight against demons. Virtues govern the workings of the natural world, while dominions command the virtues. Thrones sit in contemplation of the wisdom and judgments of God, cherubim contemplate his providential ordering of the universe, and seraphim perceive God’s love with a burning clarity.

Stained glass window depicting Sts. Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Photo: Tiberiu Stan/Shutterstock

Though we assign them to these nine categories, each angel is utterly unique. Think of it this way: Each human being possesses the same basic human nature, and one is different from the other because they possess individual physical bodies — like copies of the same image on different pieces of paper. Because angels don’t have bodies, though, they have to be individualized not on a physical level, but on the level of spirit, so that each angel is as different from the other as a horse is from an ant, and a whale is from an eagle. Each angel has its own nature, its own mission, its own knowledge and power.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the angels exist “in exceeding great number, far beyond all material multitude.”

Think of how gloriously diverse the heavenly realms must be!

“The Annunciation” by Joos van Cleve, circa 1525. Photo: Everett-Art/Shutterstock

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