In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say ‘There, there.'”
So writes C.S. Lewis in the Preface to The Screwtape Letters. An apprentice devil, Wormwood, corresponds with his Uncle Screwtape concerning how best to lead astray the soul of a man who has recently found the Lord. No spoilers here, but it’s an entertaining yarn that charts the movement of sin and, more importantly, grace, in the life of a human being. Our concern, however, is not devils so much as their benevolent counterparts, the angels. As Pope St. Gregory the Great points out, “angel” refers to a function—messenger—and not a nature. Our ancestors in the faith have always recognized the existence of heavenly spirits who, while not themselves God, yet manifest divine perfections like power, wisdom, and goodness. The Bible attests to their activity: Michael (“who is like God”?) leading the angelic hosts against Satan (Rev. 12:7); Raphael (“God heals”) restoring sight to Tobit (Tobit 11:7); and Gabriel (“the strength of God”) announcing the birth of Jesus to Our Lady (Luke 1:26).
If Lewis bemoans the popular notion of angels in his time, the situation is more lamentable today. Our age obstinately refuses to entertain even the possibility that something beyond the reach of technology might exist. Catholicism is far more open-minded; we say that God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas (the “Angelic Doctor”), spirits occupy a privileged place in the “order of being”: pure bodies (physical/living things), compounds of body and spirit (i.e. human beings), and pure spirits (angels, ST Ia 1: Q. 50-60). God, of course, is pure Spirit, but he is the Creator of all things; so an angel is a limited creature that is pure spirit, “midway” between God and us.
Several things follow from this. We human beings gain knowledge from our senses imperfectly, through the body; and while we have the capacity to grow in love and virtue, this occurs over time, and again imperfectly. Yet angels, who have no bodies or senses, understand directly by means of their intellect; their intellect in turn is completely united to their will. And so, angels, each with its own limited way, know and love naturally, immediately.
Wonderful as the life of angels is—seeing God immediately, knowing the world directly, loving each other purely—it would be a terrible mistake to think that we could actually attain it here below. For one thing, it’s impossible; denying the body God made leads to spiritual ruin. Moreover, it fails to appreciate the unique privilege we enjoy, that God’s Son, who is superior to the angels (Hebrews 4:4-5) took on flesh to live with us. Yet the example of the angels still benefits us, as we admire the saints, in whom the mind and heart cooperate—more or less—with each other. (St. Ignatius sums up the life of chastity in one sentence: we are “to live in angelic purity”. If only!) And how amazing it is to think that the Lord guides the universe through the activity of these spiritual creatures. We, the children of Adam, are the voice of the material world, singing the praises of God along with the angels: Holy, Holy, Holy!