A group of friends and I had just finished watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose with our priests, Fr. Richards and Fr. Meyers, and Fr. Richards assigned me a book report. We were in the middle of a fascinating discussion about what the Catholic Church actually believes about the Devil, possession, and exorcism, and I asked the following question(s): If the Book of Revelation reveals to us that the Devil doesn’t win, why does he bother trying? Can he hope to change the outcome? Can the Devil hope at all?
The short answer was a supposition: that the Devil, being consumed with his own pride and envy, is likely so inwardly focused that it doesn’t matter what God does or what scripture reveals. The longer response concerned ancient teachings about the heirarchy of angels in heaven and an inverted but parallel heirarchy of fallen angels in hell — Father Meyers spoke to this topic, and I must’ve responded positively, because Fr. Richards then said, “I don’t know as much about this topic, but I have a book that was given to me to read — since you’re interested, why don’t you borrow it…then you can summarize it for me.” He went to his office and retrieved the book. “So that about that report…should I expect it in a few weeks?”
The book was The Angels and Their Mission According to the Church Fathers by the theologian Jean Danielou, first published in Belgium in 1953. Father’s edition is a thin hardcover English version from the 1950s. At 114 pages, it is a quick read, though not always easy; it assumes a familiarity with who (and when) the Church fathers were, and the ability to untangle English translations of ancient writings. I’m sure much of it went over my head.
That said, it is organized very simply, which is helpful with a largely unfamiliar topic. Each chapter addresses the Church’s age-old beliefs about angels with regard to a specific topic: The Angels and the Law, The Angels and the World Religion, The Angels of the Nativity…all the way to The Angels and Death and The Angels and the Second Coming (bringing us full circle, back to our discussion). Each chapter explains the role of angels with regard to that topic, citing scriptural references and ancient writings dating to the Middle Ages, the Early Church, and even ancient Jewish traditions. And while some of the passages and references may have been beyond me at this point, the structure made it easy to pick up the main points of each chapter.
The introduction is worth a read: it begins by sagely acknowledging that angels may be regarded as an odd topic for an entire book, however brief, and admitting that we live in a world in which many people “deny the personal character of celestial spirits.” It then goes on to touch upon a few of the mistakes people make when trying to make sense of angels. Don’t skip it, even if it doesn’t all sink in.
Three primary points stuck with me from the body of the book:
- Angels ought not be regarded as supernatural, but as spiritual. This point may not have been explicit in the book (that’s my way of saying I can’t find the passage again), but it was certainly underscored by it — just because we can’t see angels doesn’t make them supernatural; it just means they are spiritual, and not corporal. Angels are created beings, created for a purpose, just like us. Their existence is natural because it comes from God and is sustained by God. This is reassuring, somehow, for someone who finds the supernatural nerve-wracking.
- Angels are extraordinarily active in our world. The Church fathers believed that angels don’t only show up on the scene to deliver extraordinary news (St. Gabriel), to do battle with evil (St. Michael), or to assist in deliverance (St. Raphael) — they oversee the laws and order of the universe and nature; they minister to each nation and to each individual, working to draw them nearer to God and the Truth (with widely varying results; we do, after all, have free will); and they are constantly working with the Trinity to bring God’s plan for the world to fruition.
- Angels long for that fruition of God’s plan, just like we do. Based in part on the first bullet, although angels are often closer to God than we are, they are not one with God and do not know His mind. They are amazed to see it unfold (God becomes man!?), and, based in part on the second bullet, they are working hard, like us, and long for the joy and peace and rest promised in the end.
As I read back over this post, my skeptical streak asks, “Do you really buy all this?” While I struggle answering that question with an unqualified yes, I can truthfully say, “More and more every day.”
One more thing: I found an inexpensive copy of this book on eBay — should be here today or early next week, if you want to borrow it. (Or perhaps, after he reads this, Fr. Richards will loan you his.)
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