1. The angels are pure spirits. They can, however, take a visible form.
The angels are pure spirits without bodies, whereas men have both body and spirit. Yet the angels can take to themselves a bodily form, as did St. Raphael (Tob. v. 18), when he undertook to accompany the young Tobias on his journey. At the sepulchre of Our Lord, after the resurrection, the angels appeared in the form of young men, and the same was the case after Our Lord’s ascension (Mark xvi. 5; Acts i. 10).
The nature of the angels is nobler than that of man; they have greater knowledge and greater power.
The angels excel all other beings that Our Lord has created. Our Lord says that not even the angels know when the Day of Judgment will come (Matt. xxiv. 36), thereby indicating that their knowledge is greater than that of men. So also is their power. An angel destroyed all the first-born of Egypt. Another angel caused the death of one hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers of the King of Assyria, who had blasphemed God (Is. xxxvii. 36). An angel protected the three young men in the furnace at Babylon (Dan. iii. 49).
God created the angels for His own glory and service, as well as for their own happiness.
Among all the creatures that God has made, the angels resemble Him the most, and therefore the divine perfections shine forth the most brightly in them. They also glorify God by ceaselessly singing hymns of praise to Him in heaven. The angels also serve God. The word angel signifies messenger. “Are they not all ministering spirits,” says St. Paul, “sent forth to minister to them that shall receive the inheritance of salvation?” (Heb. i. 14.) Even the bad angels promote the glory of God, for God turns their attacks on us to His glory and our profit. Goethe rightly describes Satan as “a power that always wills evil, and effects good.”
The number of the angels is immeasurably great.
Daniel, in describing the throne of God says: “Thousands of thousands ministered to Him; and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before Him” (Dan. vii. 10). Holy Scripture calls them the heavenly host. In the Garden of Olives Our Lord said that if He were to ask the Father, He would presently send Him twelve legions of angels (Matt. xxvi. 53). The number of the angels is greater than that of all men who ever have lived or ever will live. “The number of the angels,” says St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “is greater than that of the stars in heaven, or of the grains of sand on the seashore.”
The angels are not all equal; there are nine choirs or ranks among them.
The rank of the angels is determined by the amount of the gifts that God has given them, and according to the office assigned them. Nearest to the throne of God are the seraphim, who burn more than the rest with the love of God; next to them are the cherubim, who are distinguished by the vastness of their knowledge. We also read in Scripture of thrones, dominations, principalities, powers, and also of three archangels, St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael. There is also a corresponding division among the fallen angels.
2. All the angels whom God created were, at the beginning, in the grace of God and well pleasing to Him. But many of the angels sinned through pride, and were cast down by God into hell forever (2 Pet. ii. 4).
When God created the angels, He created them all in His grace. But none can be crowned without a struggle (2 Tim. ii. 5), and God subjected the angels to trial, that so, according to the universal law of the universe, they might earn their reward of eternal happiness. In this trial a large number of the angels fell. They desired to be equal to God, and refused to submit their will to His (Cf. Is. xiv. 12-14). They did not abide in the truth (John viii. 44). Hence arose a great war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. The dragon was cast out and all his angels with him (Apoc. xii. 8, 9). They were all cast down to hell; not that they were confined to any local hell, for they are allowed to wander about the earth tempting men, but they carry their hell with them wherever they go, inasmuch as they everywhere suffer the torments of hell. Their leader was Satan, or Lucifer, for this was his name before he fell, and he is said to have been the highest of all the angels. The number of the fallen angels is less than that of those who remained faithful. The fall of the angels was the more terrible, because they had previously enjoyed such a high estate. The higher the place from which we fall, the worse the fall. At the Last Day the evil angels will be judged, and their wickedness and its punishment will be made known to the whole world (Jude 6; 2 Pet. ii. 4). To deny the existence of the evil angels is a grievous sin against faith.
3. The evil angels are our enemies; they envy us, seek to lead us to sin, and can, with God’s permission, injure us in our bodies, or in our worldly goods.
The evil spirits are our enemies. With all their spite they can do nothing against God; so they vent their fury against men, who bear the image of God. Many theologians have asserted that the places of the angels who fell will be filled in heaven by men. “The knowledge that a creature of earth will occupy his place in heaven,” says St. Thomas, “causes the devil more pain than the flames of hell.” It was the devil who led our first parents to sin, and also Judas (John xiii. 27). The devil can also, so far as God permits, injure the bodies and the goods of men, as in the case of Job and the possessed in Our Lord’s time. The devil’s great object is to effect the ruin of the Church, which he knows is to be the means of destroying his power on earth (Matt. xvi. 18; Luke xxii. 31). He also knows that he and his angels will one day be judged by the saints (1 Cor. vi. 3). Many believe that as God assigns to each child at its birth a guardian angel, so the devil assigns to each a special devil to tempt it. Hence we must imitate the Jews when rebuilding the Temple (2 Esdr. iv. 17). We must work with one hand and with the other defend ourselves against the foe.
Yet the devil cannot do real harm to any one who keeps the commandments of God and avoids all sin.
The dog that is tied up cannot do any harm to those who keep out of range of his chain. The devil is like this dog. He can work on our memory and our imagination, but he has no power over our will or our understanding. He can persuade us, but he cannot compel us to evil. We must therefore energetically and promptly repel all bad thoughts that the devil puts into our heads. “Resist the devil,” says St. James (iv. 7), “and he will fly from you.” Our Lord dispatched the devil very promptly when He said “Begone, Satan!” It is a great thing to treat the devil and his temptations with great contempt, and also to turn our thoughts to other things, and not allow ourselves to be disturbed or troubled by his suggestions. He who allows himself to dwell on evil thoughts draws near to the dog who is chained, and is almost sure to be bitten by him. If the devil were allowed to use his full power against us we could not resist him, for when he fell he did not lose any of his natural powers, though he lost eternal happiness.
God gives the devil special power over some men:
1. God often allows men who are striving after high perfection, whom He especially favors, to be tried by the devil for long years in some extraordinary way, in order to cleanse them from their imperfections, and thoroughly humble them.
God allows His elect to be constantly besieged by the devil for years, and to endure temptations of extraordinary violence. Sometimes the devil appears to them in visible form; sometimes he assails their ears with hideous sounds; sometimes he is permitted to strike them and to throw them on the ground. God protects their life, but allows the devil to torment them with bodily pain and with sickness. They suffer the most terrible temptations against faith and against purity. The evil one has no power over their souls, but sometimes God allows him power over their bodies, so that they do and say the most extraordinary things in spite of themselves, in order that so they may be humbled in the eyes of men. Sometimes they even pour forth blasphemous words, and have no power to prevent themselves from doing so. These assaults of the devil are called obsession. Holy Job was assailed by the devil; and so was Our Lord in the desert; so were St. Anthony, St. Teresa, St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, the Cure d’Ars, and many other saints. These holy persons knew that God would never allow them to be tempted beyond their powers of resistance, and that God permitted these temptations for their greater sanctification. They were perfectly resigned to the will of God, and at length drove away the devil by their fearless resistance to his assaults. Thus when the devil threatened the life of St. Catharine of Sienna, she answered, “Do what you can; what is pleasing to God is pleasing to me.” St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi said to him, “You do not seem to know that you are preparing for me a glorious victory.” St. Anthony in the desert defied him, saying, “How feeble you are! I suppose that is why you are bringing such a crowd of devils to tempt me.” When those who are tempted meet the devil with the courage of a lion, he has no more power against them than a startled hare, but when they fear him, then he comes on with all the force and boldness of a lion. He can always be driven away by the means of grace provided by the Church; by the sign of the cross, by invoking the name of Jesus and Mary, by holy water, by earnest prayer, by the use of relics, etc. The more violent the assaults of the devil, the greater will be the protection afforded by almighty God to His servants; often during times of trial they have revelations from God, or saints and angels appear to them to console and strengthen them. Those who deny the reality of these occurrences, of which we so often read in the lives of the saints, show very little acquaintance with the spiritual life. Yet it is the spirit of the Church to receive all accounts of these preternatural and supernatural occurrences with great caution, as there is always a danger of illusion or deceit. Nor need ordinary mortals fear such special attacks of the evil one; they are reserved for the special friends and favorites of God.
2. It also sometimes happens that God allows men of vicious lives, or those who sin against faith, to be punished or led astray by evil spirits.
God sometimes permits that the bodies of men who have given themselves over to the indulgence of their passions be possessed by evil spirits, as a town is occupied by a general who has conquered it. This state is called possession. In the time of Our Lord there were many thus possessed, and who in consequence were dumb (Matt. ix. 32), blind (Matt. xii. 22), and exceeding fierce (Matt. viii. 28). God permitted that then there should be many such, that He might show the power of the Son of God and the feebleness of the devils in His presence, and that He might drive them forth from those whom they tormented. Yet it does not follow that all who were possessed were necessarily so through their own fault. Some children were possessed from their birth (Mark ix. 20). Sometimes God allowed even holy men to be possessed for a time; but more often it was a punishment for grievous sin, and especially for a deliberate friendship with the devil, as was the case with the witch of Endor (1 Kings xxviii. 7 seq.; Cf. Acts xvi. 16). Such cases are not unfrequent now in pagan countries. God also permits the evil spirits to mislead those who practise spiritualism, which consists in the invoking of the spirits of the dead in order to discover things secret, or that are taking place at a distance. The devils personate the spirits invoked, and by their superior knowledge are able to reveal many things, by which they delude those who deal with them into thinking that they are really conversing with some departed relative or friend. On these occasions the spirits will sometimes take a material form. Spiritualism leads to the loss of faith or of morals, or at least to the ruin of the peace of mind of the person practising it. Very often it is mixed up with a great deal of imposture.
4. The angels who remained faithful to God behold the face of God continually and sing His praises.
Our Lord says of our guardian angels, “I say to you, that their angels always behold the face of My Father Who is in heaven.” The angels at Our Lord’s birth sang the praises of God. Their songs of praise are different, just as their knowledge and their love of God are different. The angels are sometimes represented as children, because they are immortal and therefore ever young; sometimes with wings to express the swiftness with which they pass from place to place, and their promptness in carrying out the will of God; sometimes with lilies in their hands to show their perfect spotlessness; sometimes with harps to signify that the praise of God is their constant employment; sometimes without any body, but only a head and wings, to show that they are intellectual beings. The holy angels also possess exceeding beauty and splendor. If an angel were to appear in the firmament of heaven in his full glory, the sun would disappear before his brightness, just as the stars now disappear before the brightness of the sun. When St. John saw an angel in all his glory, he thought he must be God Himself, and fell at his feet to adore him (Apoc. xxii. 8). In appearing to men the holy angels hide their glory. The angels will be our companions in heaven. This is why they take so great an interest in us while we are on earth, and rejoice over the sinner doing penance. They often intervene to help us in our spiritual and temporal needs, if we do not, by our resistance to grace, put obstacles in their way.
5. The holy angels are also called guardian angels, because they watch over us (Heb. i. 14).
Jacob saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, and the angels ascend ing and descending (Gen. xxviii. 12). This was to signify that they come down on earth to protect us, and ascend back to heaven to sing praise to God. The guardian angels watch over us, as a shepherd over his flock. They count it as their happiness that they are appointed to watch over the servants of God, and promote the welfare of souls, and no wonder, when we remember that the King and Lord of all things came “not to minister, but to be ministered unto.” The service they render us causes them no trouble or anxiety, but rather joy and happiness, for their one desire is that the will of God should be done, and they rejoice in contributing to this. The general opinion of theologians is that every one has a special guardian angel, who watches over him all through his life. The dignity of the angels given to us depends on the dignity of the persons to whom they are assigned. Ordinary Christians have one of the lower orders of angels; priests, bishops, kings, etc., have nobler spirits to guard them. Cities, countries, parishes, religious houses, have each their guardian angel.
Our guardian angels help us in the following ways:
1. They put good thoughts into our minds, and move our will to what is good.
The angels who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem, and who were seen at the tomb of Christ, and after His ascension, made themselves visible and spoke to men; but generally they influence us with out being seen or heard by us. They move us to some step that is conducive to the welfare of our souls or bodies, and often save us from some impending danger by a secret impulse, without which we should have incurred death or misfortune.
2. They offer our prayers and our good works to God.
Thus St. Raphael offered the prayers of Tobias (Tob. xii. 12). The angel in the Apocalypse offers the prayers of the saints in a golden censer (Apoc. viii. 3). This is not because God Himself does not hear our prayers, but the angels mingle their prayers with ours, and so make them more acceptable to God. “In all the benefits we receive from God,” says St. Thomas, “our guardian angel takes part, because he helps in obtaining them for us.”
3. They protect us in danger.
Thus. St. Peter was delivered from prison by an angel (Acts xii. 7 seq.), Daniel was kept safe in the den of lions, and the three young men in the fiery furnace (Dan. vi. 22; iii. 49). We read stories sometimes of children being run over, or falling from a height, and escaping unhurt. We can scarcely doubt that this was owing to the intervention of their guardian angels. God has commissioned the angels thus to help us. “He hath given His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. In their hands they shall bear thee up, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. xc. 11). But the chief office of our guardian angel is to preserve us from the snares of the devil; the holy angels have powers over the evil spirits, who fly away at their approach (Cf. Tob. viii. 3). We must therefore commit ourselves to the care of our guardian angels in all times of danger, and before undertaking a journey, or any new enterprise, and we should wish our friends when they start on a journey, the good wish of Tobias when his son was leaving his home, “May the angel of God accompany you!”
4. They often reveal to men the will of God.
Instances in point are the sacrifice of Abraham, the message of the angel to Zacharias and to Our Lady. The appearance of an angel sometimes causes fear at first, but it soon changes to consolation and joy. It is just the opposite with the appearances of the evil angels; they give consolation to begin with, but this soon changes to confusion and fear.
If we desire the protection of the holy angels, we must try and imitate them by a holy life; we must also honor them, and often invoke their aid.
Experience teaches us that innocent children enjoy a wonderful protection from the angels. Innocence attracts them, and sin drives them away, as smoke drives away bees. We cannot expect our guardian angels to take care of us when we are doing what we know is displeasing to God. We must also beg for the aid of our guardian angel; we must congratulate him on his faithfulness to God; we must salute him when we go out and when we come in; we must thank him for all his benefits. We must say with Tobias, “What can be worthy of his benefits, and what can we give him sufficient for these things?” (Tob. xii. 3.) The Church honors our guardian angels on the second of October; in some places on the first Sunday in September.
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