David Russell Mosley
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Today is the feast of Michaelmas. For those unfamiliar, Michaelmas (also known as the feast of St. Michael and all Angels) is a day the church celebrates the existence of angels and their actions on our behalf. I have been, not fascinated, but perhaps engaged with belief in angels for some time. Ever since I had a vision of them in a small Anglican church (that dates back to the 13th century) in Beeston, Nottinghamshire when my son was undergoing cancer treatment, angels have had a more or less fixed place in my theology and in my imagination.
Now, to get something absolutely clear, you must understand that angels are not humans who have died and gone to heaven. Angels are a different kind of being altogether. For most of the Church, angels are pure intelligences (that is they have no physical bodies) and are among God’s first created beings (insofar as we can talk about creation being ordered or taking place in time). Angels are guiding principles of creation. Stratford Caldecott goes so far as to identify the kinds of animals mentioned in Genesis 1.24 (not each specific animal but the fact that God created them of, or according to, every kind) as angels. He writes:
“I am sure the Book of Genesis still contains many mysteries. We read the story of Adam naming the animals, and then we discover that at least one of the animals in the Garden is an angel. The serpent is that creature of God sometimes called the Archangel Lucifer. What if all the animals in the story were angels? In fact, what if the story is about the relationship of the archetypal Man with archetypal Angels: and the archetypal Animals are none other than the angels of tradition” (The Radiance of Being, 54).
Caldecott goes on to suggest that the angels stand behind, as causes, the various kinds of animals. That is, as animals change and evolve it is an angel who guides their course. Caldecott goes on to argue that this has implications for a theology of ecology:
Angels, for me, are something of a gateway belief. The moment you allow them to exist as part of God’s created order new ideas and realities are opened up to you. Belief in angels, particularly belief in angels that function like Maximus’ logoi suggests that perhaps every aspect of creation is caused or directed in part by an angel. That perhaps one of the methods by which God is closer to created beings than created beings are to themselves is through his angels (I say one method for we are yet another and Christ is the ultimate example of this).
“Ecology is therefore a serious business; a theological business. If (as I have suggested) the animals are angels––not each cat or dod, centipede or flamingo a distinct angels, but each species or family of animals the fragmented instantiation of an intelligent, immortal angelic force, a constituent element of the cosmos––then surely we have to recognize a new seriousness in the heinous crime of extinguishing a species from the face of the earth: an angel is being thrust out of God’s creation by man” (TRB, 92).
When I think of angels I nearly always think of John Milbank and an old interview he gave about Radical Orthodoxy. In the interview, which I have cited more than once in these letters, John says:
“I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Nottingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, ‘Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about
this?’ Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy.”
When John says he believes “in all this fantastic stuff” he means things like pilgrimages, sacraments, relics, visitations, the saints, and more. I think belief in angels can help open us up to these other realities. The moment we realize that the cosmos (created existence) includes the angels, we are opened up to the possibility that angels do in fact interact with humans. The moment we allow that, we allow the possibility that now dead humans who were particularly holy can interact with us as well (and perhaps those who were particularly wicked as well, since demons can also interact with us). When we open up the possibility that angels serve as intelligent forces behind aspects of created reality it becomes much easier to see that created things can be imbued with God’s presence. Yes, I think angels are something of a gateway belief to the deeper things of Christianity.
So today, on this Michaelmas, thank God for the angels. Ask your guardian angel for help as you combat the various temptations you face. And look for the face of an angel as you contemplate birds and beasts, trees and flowers and rocks. The angels are here with us and many even for us, if only we had the eyes to see.