The City Council would like to remind you about the tiered Heavens and the hierarchy of angels. The reminder is that you should not know anything about this. The structure of Heaven and the angelic organizational chart are privileged information, known only to the City Council members on a need-to-know basis. Please do not speak to or acknowledge any angels that you may come across while shopping at the Ralph’s or at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. They only tell lies and do not exist.
—Joseph Fink, Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 1: Pilot
✠ ✠ ✠
One of my patented one-off posts,1 this one is about the doctrine of angels. With Michaelmas, the feast celebrating St Michael and all the angels (including St Gabriel, from whom I took my name), coming up on Thursday, the topic’s been on the brain, and anyway it’s a fun subject to think about.
We don’t in fact know a whole lot about angels. Catholic academic history gives us some educated guesses that are super cool and kind of sci-fi, or, in more scholarly language, some extremely interesting speculative angelology. But the actual, authoritative data we have from Scripture and dogmatic tradition is limited. We know that the holy angels are intelligent, free beings; that they adore God and signify his presence; that they appear in a wide variety of forms, from basically humanoid to bizarre myth-like animals to wheels of golden fire; that they at least sometimes deliver God’s messages and at least sometimes enact his decrees; and that they minister to us spiritually somehow, some of them being given charge over individuals and others over groups of people (such as nations and churches). We also know that some of the angels have rebelled against God, of whom the one called Satan or ‘the adversary’2 is the principal rebel—these are the same kind of beings as the holy angels, but they are, by choice, depraved.
That’s about where our hard data ends; but we do have a trove of generally accepted Catholic thought, which I’d like to go over, because this is seriously one of the most coolly sci-fi things about Catholicism and it’s just so awesome, you guys! But do please understand that what follows is speculative theology, not formal Catholic teaching.
The various angelic beings are divided3 into three spheres, each of which contains three choirs, for a total of nine different types. The spheres are defined by where their activity is oriented: the first sphere are focused on the worship of God, the second on the government of creation in general, and the third upon human beings. The spheres and choirs are believed to be as follows:
In the first sphere, the Seraphim—seen by Isaiah in his vision in the Temple—are those beings who, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, love God with the greatest depth and power. Their adoration is frequently compared to being aflame, and the Hebrew word literally means burning one. Scripture describes them as being six-winged, though otherwise more or less human-like (having both faces and feet): this is, presumably, a symbolic depiction for human benefit, but then the symbolism was presumably chosen to be significant to the human mind.
The second choir are the Cherubim. Forget the pudgy babies that disgrace Hallmark cards everywhere. Cherubs seem to have been borrowed from the mythology of the ancient Near East, and especially from the sphinx-like lamassu of Mesopotamia. The Four Living Creatures from Revelation appear to be Cherubim, and they’re freaky as all get-out: most of them shaped like animals, but all with wings and covered all over with eyes. The eyes are, first of all, gross. But they symbolize their role: as the Seraphim love God more than any other creatures do, so the Cherubim know him better than any other creatures do.5 Cherubs were depicted on the Ark of the Covenant, covering the Mercy Seat with their wings.
The third choir are the Thrones, who may be the same as the Ophanim or wheels of Ezekiel’s trippy vision: gigantic, nested circles of sea-green fire, full of eyes, moving in straight lines without turning or rolling. Like the Seraphim and Cherubim, the Thrones are only ever encountered in the immediate company of the Lord. Their special activity is wonder before God’s authority and judgment, and accordingly bear his throne, hence the name. If you will, the orders of the first sphere at once adore and mirror the three great attributes of the Deity: love, wisdom, and power.
The second sphere begins with the Dominions or Dominations. Their work is to receive the knowledge and glory communicated downward by the higher choirs, and convey it to the lower, so governing their operations—they are, as it were, revelatory powers. St Paul tells us that the Torah was originally given to Moses through the mediation of angels (and the author of Hebrews implies the same thing); it is thus possible that the Dominions first delivered the Law. The commonest depiction of angels, as humans with two feathered wings, is generally associated with them, sometimes wielding scepters or swords that bear orbs of light.
Next we come to the Virtues. The name is, nowadays, a little misleading; though the holy angels of all orders are, well, virtuous, the name of this order is a holdover from an older meaning of the term—something like efficacies or forces would do in more modern terms.6 These are the angelic beings that govern the forces of nature; indeed, in a real sense, they are the forces of nature. Gravity and electricity and so forth are not abstractions, but the personal operations of invisible, potent, hyper-intelligent minds. This is also how miracles happen: the Virtues suspend their normally patterned activity. If you like, there’s nothing supernatural about miracles from that perspective; or, there’s everything supernatural about every process, because every process is as much the deliberate choice of supra-dimensional intellects as any miracle is.7
The sixth choir are the Powers. These are generally depicted as armored soldiers, and are thought to regulate the flow of history, especially the fluctuations of power. They may be synonymous with the Watchers (called the Grigori in Slavic texts), who feature prominently in the apocryphal Book of Enoch as corrupters of mankind before the Flood and progenitors of the nephilim, human-angel hybrids of monstrous size. The recording angels, mentioned in the book of Malachi and hinted at in other places in the Bible, may be Powers. However, the activity of the Powers is still conjectured to be one of generalized authority: they deal with history as an abstract phenomenon, and with the ebb and flow of power, not with individual people or even with groups. That ministry belongs to the final sphere, to which we now turn.
The Principalities, sometimes shortened to Princedoms, are the seventh choir. I’ve found difficult and, to some extent, conflicting information about the Principalities: it seems hard to distinguish between them and the Archangels. Some authors identify them as directing the last two choirs, rather as the Dominions govern the choirs beneath them; others consider them sources of ‘inspiration’ for men, in pursuits such as the arts, the sciences, and philosophy—thus making their role in history the particular to which the Powers are general. Both could be true.
The eighth choir are the Archangels. These are the guardians of nations, people groups, churches, cities, and specific locations; though all of the same kind, Archangels are not necessarily equivalent in function. St Michael is an Archangel, described in Daniel as the guardian of Israel and accordingly taken by Christians as the protector of the universal Church. This also makes him the chief angelic foe of Satan, as described in the epic war in heaven in Revelation 12, despite the fact that most theories of Satan’s nature posit that he came from a much more elevated choir. St Gabriel, who appears in the books of Daniel and Luke, may be of this order as well, but it isn’t clear. Since he generally works as a revealer of divine truths (explaining Daniel’s visions to him, and bringing word of the conceptions of the Baptist and Christ to their respective mothers), he could be a Dominion, even though he is mostly referred to as St Gabriel the Archangel.8
Finally there are the ninth choir, the Angels proper. These include our guardian angels, and most kinds of supernatural ministering, except the sacraments, come through the activity of Angels among men. They bring messages to people, are widely thought of as encouraging good impulses in us (the angel-on-the-shoulder routine is a vulgarized version, quite possibly correct in essentials), and are recorded in the Gospels as serving and strengthening Jesus, particularly after his temptation in the desert and during the agony in Gethsemane.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, anonymous Orthodox iconographer, 12th century
✠ ✠ ✠
1No one else can do one-off posts now. I’ll sue.
2This term can be understood in the general sense enemy, or the specialized legal sense plaintiff. The latter forms an interesting contrast to the title Paraclete or ‘Advocate’ for the Holy Ghost.
3The list here derives ultimately from the De Cœlesti Hierarchia, ‘On the Celestial Hierarchy,’ a work purporting to be by St Dionysius, the first convert of St Paul at Athens (though in fact it probably dates to fifth-century Syria). St Thomas Aquinas also subscribed to this list, and cited biblical justifications for doing so. There are other speculative arrangements of the angels, but this is the most common in Catholic thought. Curiously, even the variant systems nearly all agree in defining nine angelic orders.
4Note that the name angel therefore applies technically to the lowest order in particular, but is also used by extension of all nine types of superhuman intelligences. It’s thus a little like the word bug, which applies strictly to certain specific species of insects, but is also vaguely applied to all insects and even all creeping things that creep upon the earth. Archangel also occasionally, and less usefully, serves as a term for all the orders above angels.
5St Thomas held the opinion that Satan was a fallen Cherub. Some other thinkers have asserted that he was a Power.
6Even today we can speak of the virtue of a magic jewel, or something of that kind; partly because such language will usually arise in a fantasy setting, and fantastic literature, like religious, is far more tolerant of archaisms.
The word virtue ultimately descends from the Latin vir, meaning ‘man, hero.’ Virtus is therefore something like ‘manliness, courage,’ coming later to mean more generally ‘efficaciousness, power,’ and thence specifically moral power. Vir is a fascinating word in its own right: it goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, and reflexes show up in Sanskrit (where Mahavira ‘Great Hero’ was the name taken by the founder of Jainism) and even English (where the fossilized term werewolf comes from the now extinct Anglo-Saxon word wer ‘man’).
7This thesis about the Dominions and the Virtues opens up another weirdly awesome avenue of speculation. Now, it involves math, which I’ve long been bad at, but here goes.
The Virtues, being the governing forces of nature, are—unwittingly and indirectly—the implicit subject of all scientific inquiry. What governs all the sciences? Mathematics. Does that mean the Dominions are numbers? Probably not, because I can’t imagine ‘numbers are personal’ having any real content: we could dismiss the theory of the Virtues being the forces of nature as anthropomorphic, but it isn’t primarily incoherent, whereas ‘Dominions are numbers’ does seem to be.
Ah, but. Numbers are, among other things, signifiers of measurement, and all measurements are statements of relationship between one thing and another thing. Baffling though they are, irrational numbers may display this more than any others; numbers like φ, e, and π can be shown to exist—they’re, like, right there on the geometric figure you’re studying, they measure the relationship between two parts of a line or the arc of a circle; and yet, they measure something that can never be resolved into a simple, definite ratio of two whole numbers. They are numerical relationships that cannot be finally expressed in numerical terms; almost as if you would have to change your frame of reference to grasp them …
So—and this may blow your mind, convince you I’m crazy, or both, but hopefully at least one of those—what if irrational numbers and twin prime patterns and all those weird math things are, in fact, reflections of, or works of, the Dominions? What if mathematics is an indirect study in the nature and operations angels? How fucking cool is that!?
8St Raphael is another problem child. His work in the book of Tobit is clear enough. But, since Tobit (like Judith, probably Job, and possibly Esther and Daniel) is likely meant as a kind of historical novel rather than an account of history, how far the depiction of him in Tobit is, or is meant to be, accurate is a separate and perhaps unanswerable question. Anyhow we call him an archangel too, just because.