From the Again Magazine – Volume 18 Number 3 Summer 1995 Page 20-24
It was early one morning, when I was seven years old, that I saw the angels. I am as sure of it now as I was then. I was not dreaming nor “seeing things”—I just know they were there, plainly, clearly, distinctly. I was neither astonished nor afraid. I was not even awed—I was only terribly pleased. I wanted to talk to them and touch them.
Our night nursery was lit by the dawn and I saw a group of angels standing, as if chatting, around my young brother’s bed. I was aware of this, although I could not hear their voices. They wore long flowing gowns of various soft-shaded colors. Their hair came to their shoulders, and differed in color from fair and reddish to dark brown. They had no wings.
At the foot of my brother’s bed stood one heavenly being, a little aside from the others—taller he was, and extraordinarily beautiful, with great white wings. In his right hand he carried a lighted taper; he did not seem to belong to the group of angels gathered around the bed. He clearly stood apart and on watch. I knew him to be the guardian angel.
I then became aware that at the foot of my own bed stood a similar celestial creature. He was tall; his robe was dark blue with wide, loose sleeves. His hair was auburn, his face oval, and his beauty such as I cannot describe because it was comparable to nothing human. His wings swept high and out behind him. One hand was lifted to his breast, while in the other he carried a lighted taper. His smile can only be described as angelic; love, kindness, understanding, and assurance flowed from him.
Delighted, I crawled from under the bedcovers and, kneeling up against the end of the bed, I stretched out my hand with the ardent wish to touch my smiling guardian; but he took a step back, put out a warning hand, and gently shook his head. I was so close to him I could have reached him easily. “Oh, please don’t go,” I cried; at which all the other angels looked toward me, and it seemed I heard a silvery laugh—but of this sound I am not so certain, though I know they laughed. Then they vanished.
I was but a child when I saw my guardian angel. As time passed I still sporadically remembered and acknowledged his presence, but mostly, I ignored him. Paradoxically, it was evil and distress that brought me up short and cleared my vision.
Perhaps due to all I had witnessed and undergone in the
One day, in looking through a collection of old icons, I came across one done in three panels representing the guardian angel; in the middle panel, he is defending his sleeping charge from bad dreams. Later, when plagued once more by one of my most fearsome of nightmares, upon wakening I suddenly remembered the icon, and with overpowering clarity I recollected that as a child I had seen my guardian angel.
With utmost certainty, at that instant, I turned to my guardian angel as I had not done since my childhood; and I knew positively, as I had when I saw him, that he was standing by me to protect me. Reassured and at peace, I fell back into deep, restful sleep.
This, my own experience, stands both at the beginning and at the end of my interest in angelology. Without it I would probably never have started upon my study. Also, without all I have studied this experience would have remained simply a remarkable experience (at least to myself), but unexplained and meaningless. Today, for me, it has a very real and uplifting significance.
The angels and their activity among us have become to me a vital, positive reality. I no longer seek to see them; the knowledge of their presence is enough. To try to have a vision of angels or to hope or ask for such a thing is wrong. To seek intimacy with them by any other means than the grace of God is useless; Christ is our only way of union with the Father and with all His creatures.
THE NATURE OF ANGELS
As we begin our discussion of angels, we should understand that the term “angel” is loosely and inaccurately used, for in Greek it simply means “messenger.” As Saint Gregory the Great points out. “The name angel refers rather to their office, and not to their nature. For these holy spirits of our heavenly fatherland are indeed always spirits, but cannot always be called angels for then only are they angels when by means of them certain things are announced.”
Angels are pure spirit, but they do not necessarily lack a consistency, the nature of which is beyond our ken. When we see them we behold a reality. I do not believe that the angels materialize in the physical sense of the word, yet they do have a spiritual concreteness. They are not transparent like ghosts, but appear to those who see them as completely substantial.
An angel has character, individuality, and a will of his own, much as we have; but in other ways angels do not resemble us. When, to make himself manifest to us, an angel takes on human semblance, he never is physically like a human being, but only a mental image of one. Saint John of Damascus wrote, “They take different forms at the bidding of their Master, God, and thus reveal themselves to men and unveil the divine mysteries to them.”2 However, contrary to the impression created by most Western art since the Renaissance, angels do not take the forms of beautiful women, plump little children, or weakly sentimental young men. When they appear to human beings, they usually appear in the form of a strong, awe-inspiring man—the “man of God.”
Like us, the holy angels are created in the image of God, as Saint Gregory the Great wrote:
“Since the Lord created the natures of both men and angels to the end that they might know Himself, and willed that they should endure forever, He made them without doubt to His own image.”3
Saint John of Damascus wrote, “An angel, then, is an intelligent essence, in perpetual motion, with free-will, incorporeal, ministering to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature.”4 Although they have free will, their will is completely attuned to God’s will, because of their utter love and adoration of the Lord.
Saint Basil the Great describes angels as “outstripping the limits of time, eternal and infinite . . . intellectual and invisible natures, all in orderly arrangement of pure intelligences, who are beyond the reach of our mind and of whom we cannot even discover the [true] names.”5 Crystal clear and faultless, knowing no pain or frustration, unhindered by doubt or fear, neither male nor female, they are beauty, love, life and action welded into individual unutterable perfection. In a certain sense, if it can be so expressed, they are the individualized selfness of God’s own attributes.
The holy angels stand in the presence of God beholding the face of the Lord. Their being is sustained by God’s goodness, and they participate in His might, wisdom, and love. They are uplifted by their perpetual praise and thanksgiving. Uplifted Godwards, from their beginning it has been the angels’ greatest joy to choose freely for God and to give Him their undaunted flow of life in unending love and worship. The entire heavenly host partook from the first in the execution of God’s will. They have ever stood bent on God’s intentions, unerringly fulfilling His design.
From earliest times, these angelic hosts were conceived as divided into three hierarchies, which are in turn divided into three ranks each: Saint Dionysius the Areopagite called them “choirs.” This is the most fitting term as their whole activity is like an eternal song of praise and thanksgiving to the Most High. All nine ranks are named in Scripture.
First come the Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2-6), Cherubim (Ezekiel 1:10), and Thrones (Colossians 1:16). These are counselors and have no direct dealings with man, but are absorbed in unending love and adoration of God. No other creature is so intensely capable of loving God.
Second come the Dominions (Ephesians 1:21), Virtues [Authorities] (I Corinthians 15:26), and Powers (Ephesians 1:21). These are understood to be the governors of space and the stars. Our orb, consequently, as part of the galaxy is under their dominion; otherwise, we have no direct contact with the second choir.
Third come the Principalities (Romans 8:38), Archangels (Jude 9), and Angels (many references). These have this earth of ours in their special charge. They are the executors of God’s will, the perpetual guardians of the children of men, and the messengers of God. Our study deals chiefly with this third choir of angels.
The Principalities combine divine lordship with perfect service. They guide the soul away from worldly pursuits towards the service of God. The Archangels have distinct individualities and are an order of celestial beings in themselves, partaking of the nature of both Principalities and Angels. Yet they are also messengers, like the Angels. There are seven Archangels, the first four of whom are mentioned by name in the books of the Bible: Michael (Who Is Like God?), the leader of the heavenly host; Gabriel (The Man of God), the Angel of the Annunciation; Raphael (The Healing of God), the chief of the guardian angels; and Uriel (The Fire of God), the interpreter of prophecies. The other three are named in various apocryphal writings.
Here, in the utter simplicity of the interpretations of the archangelic names, we get momentary glimpses of their personalities, through which their relationship to God becomes more apparent, as does their power and influence.
The more we become aware of the angels of light, the more strengthened we are in our capacity for good, and the sharper becomes our ability to detect and resist the snares of our bitterest enemies, the angels of darkness.
THE FALLEN ANGELS
Although our primary purpose is to deal with the “good” angels, we cannot fully comprehend their role in man’s destiny unless we are familiar with the role of Satan, the “prince of this world,” and his angels, the angels of darkness.
Saint John of Damascus describes Satan thus: “He. . . was not made wicked in nature but was good, and made for good ends, and received from his Creator no trace whatever of evil in himself. But he did not sustain the brightness and the honour which the Creator had bestowed on him, and of his free choice was changed from what was in harmony to what was at variance with his nature, and became roused against God Who created him, and determined to rise in rebellion against Him: and he was the first to depart from good and become evil.”6 Thus he was cast out of heaven, and lost for all time the place for which he was created. Now he and his angels do unceasing battle with the heavenly hosts, led by the Archangel Michael, their standard-bearer.
Satan’s fall from heaven left him with a great consuming fury, for it is on earth alone that he has power. Satan is doubly angry because his power is limited to our world, and he knows fully that when our world is ended, his power to deceive mankind ends with it. His time for each one of us is shorter still, as his ability to reach us as individuals is limited to the lifespan granted us on the earth. Furthermore, it is limited by our own will to listen to him, as Saint John continues:
“All wickedness, then, and all impure passions are the work of their mind. But while the liberty to attack man has been granted to them, they have not the strength to overmaster any one: for we have it in our power to receive or not to receive the attack.”7
ANGELS AND MEN
Angels are of a superiority all but incomprehensible to us, but they are a part of our lives, as the Scriptures abundantly testify. By God’s boundless mercy, they are destined, in the great moments of history, to be the heralds of the Most High to man below; they are, as well, our guides, guardians, mentors, protectors, and comforters from birth to the grave. They call us, they coerce us to love and to obedience. They lead, teach, advise, punish, and reward. They guard and protect us; they become our companions on the road to heaven.
Saint John Chrysostom describes their ministry thus: “ ‘Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?’…It is an angelical work, to do all for the salvation of the brethren. . . . And we, though servants, are yet Angels’ fellow servants. .. . They are servants of the Son of God, and are sent many ways for our sakes, and minister to our salvation. And so they are partners in service with us. .And yet the space between angels and men is great; nevertheless he brings them down near to us, all but saying, For us they labor, for our sake they run to and fro: on us, as one might say, they wait. This is their ministry, for our sake to be sent every way.”8
To worship the angels, in the heathen sense, is definitely wrong and forbidden by the Scriptures and the Church, but to pray for their help and to reverence them is quite scriptural. Prayer is the great bond of unity, the welding substance by which all God’s creation stands as one before Him. Our personal angels and also the guardians of our different nations mingle their prayers with ours, carrying them to God on High.
When Christians come together in corporate worship, angels are in our midst. It is not so much that they join us, as that we join them in their continual praise of God Most High. When we sing the Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory; hosanna in the highest,” we are participating in the song of praise the angels sing before God’s throne—the highest song that any created being can offer (see Isaiah 6:3). The icons of angels on the iconostasis and elsewhere are not merely reminders, but the actual visible manifestation of the presence of angels in the house of God.
To find the angels, to discover them, to come into intimate contact with them requires the humility of a Christian soul that is governed by the simplicity, the directness, the guileless curiosity of the unsophisticated child. Saint Augustine wrote, “It is not incongruous and unsuitable to speak of a society composed of angels and men together. . . . It is not in locality we are distant from them, but in merit of life . . . for the mere fact of our dwelling on earth under the conditions of life in the flesh does not prevent our fellowship with them. It is only prevented when we, in the impurity of our hearts, mind earthly things. . . . We are brought near to them by faith, if by their assistance we believe that he who is their blessedness is also ours.”9
This fellowship between men and angels is seen most clearly in the relationship of believers to their guardian angels.
Each person, each parish, and each nation has its own guardian angel. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 18:10 in reference to children, but as baptized Christians we are all children of God; therefore we all have guardian angels. Origen comments on this: “To one angel the Church of the Ephesians was to be entrusted; to another, that of the Smyrneans; one angel was to be Peter’s, another Paul’s; and so on through every one of the little ones that are in the Church . . . and there must also be some angel that encampeth round about them that fear God.”1’
Our guardian angel is believed to be the spiritual image of all our true and good qualities; this renders him intensely personal and our very own specific angel. He is, accordingly, nearer or farther from us, as we are nearer or farther from our true nature. This belief is based in part on the story of Peter’s escape from prison in Acts 12. When Peter appeared at the door of the house where they were gathered, the disciples, not understanding that Peter had escaped, said, “It is his angel”—implying such a close connection between a person and his angel that one could be mistaken for the other.
Even as our good characteristics are given us by God, so is our angel given to us, to protect and foster these traits, until we grow into the full maturity of our God-given and God-like nature. He is indeed our guardian and our mentor, and beholds the face of God. As Saint Gregory the Great explains, “This also we firmly hold regarding the angels who are sent to us, that when they come they so outwardly fulfill their mission that never for a moment are they withdrawn from divine contemplation. They are therefore sent and at the same time they assist before God’s Throne; for though the angelic spirit is circumscribed, the supreme Spirit of God is not.”11
Our angel is incorruptible and always with us, but he may not always be able to reach us, because of our willful perversity. The evil angel, or demon, on the other hand, can only approach us as far as our bad qualities, or rather our indulgence in them, make him our shadow.
The Shepherd of Hermas teaches us to know each spirit by his works: “There are two angels with a man—one of righteousness and the other of iniquity. The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When, therefore, he ascends into your heart, forthwith he talks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and of every righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you.
Look now at the works of the angel of iniquity. First, he is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish, and his works are evil, and ruin the servants of God. When, then, he ascends into your heart, know him by his works.. . . You may trust the works of the angel of righteousness, and doing them you may live to God.”12
When we are tempted to sin, our demon is on hand to encourage us to give in, just as our guardian is nearby to exhort us to resist. However, neither angel can actually influence our decision, because we are created by God with free will. We can and must choose either to give in to temptation or to resist it, of our own will. Once we have made the choice to resist, our angel will strengthen, uphold, and protect us in our resistance; but if we choose to sin, we put ourselves beyond his reach.
If we cling to our guardian throughout our lives, he will also be with us in the hour of death, to bear us to heaven. How comforting to know that we do not go out upon that last journey alone!
Therefore let us pray to our Guardian Angel:
Angel of the Lord, my holy guardian, who art given me of God to shield me: I earnestly pray thee, enlighten me this day and from all harm protect me; in all good things advise me; and on the path of redemption guide me.
May God enlighten our minds and make us ever thoughtfully aware of the angel at our side.
AN ANGELIC VISITOR?
During the fall of 1994, Gretchen Dunn of Hiram, Georgia, was going through a difficult pregnancy. Confined to bedrest, her doctors hoped that if she could carry her child until at least the end of December, it might be strong enough to live. When Gretchen began early labor, she and her husband knew there was a strong possibility the child would not survive. David Bradford Dunn was born on December 18. Father Andrew Moore was present at the hospital during the delivery, and immediately baptized the child. David lived for only two hours.
David’s funeral was the first for the small parish of Saint Stephen’s, set in the countryside just west of Atlanta. The funeral liturgy was beautiful, and the family and people of the parish, though grieving, felt “the Spirit of God was marvelous among us.” The funeral took place on a cloudy, overcast afternoon just before Christmas. David was buried in the new graveyard just twenty yards away from the church. After the grave was closed and the service had been completed, most of the parish members went back inside the church. Gretchen and her family returned to take several more photos of the gravesite.
Some time later, Gretchen called up Father Andrew to let him know that one of the graveside photos showed a subtle light just above the new grave. None of the other photos taken moments before or after showed this presence of light, and Gretchen said, “I just know that this is of God.”
The family had the photos examined by a professional photographer, who concluded that the light was neither from a defect in the film nor a problem in the developing process. It was a completely overcast day, and there was no glare from any natural source of light-something was there. [In the original color photo, you can see the hint of a wing and head more clearly than in this black and white reproduction.]
Father Moore reports that “overall, it has encouraged the church. . . . it wasn’t a flamboyant thing: no trumpet blaring, no leaves rustling, but just a subtle presence of light. From the beginning, the family sincerely felt it was an angel. I believe (based on stories told by monks who have seen angels) that the photograph shows an angel coming to receive the soul of the infant David immediately after his burial.”
The family has shown the photo to other people who are grieving, and it has been a blessing to many.
The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Vol. III. trans. and ed. by M.F. Toal, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., pp. 201-210.
Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II. chs. III and IV. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Eerdmans, Second Series. Vol. IX, p. 20.
The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, loc. cit.
St. John of Damascus. op. cit., p. 19.
The Hexameron, Homily 1, 5, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VIII. p.54
St. John of Damascus. op. cit.. p. 20.
Homilies on Hebrews, Homily III, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series. Vol. XIV. p. 377
The City of God, Book XII, ch. I. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series. Vol. 11. p.226
“De Principiis.’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV. p. 265.
St. Gregory the Great. op. cit.
12. The Pastor of Hermas, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, p. 24