A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part X

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part X March 21, 2011

Introduction and Part II

Celestial beings are immortal because they have divine goodness within them; whereas earthly beings have become mortal because of the self-incurred evil within them. This evil comes to the mindless through their laziness and ignorance of God.

Death, when understood by men, is deathlessness; but, when not understood by the foolish, it is death. It is not this death that must be feared, but the loss of the soul, which is ignorance of God. This is indeed disaster for the soul.[1]

Those angels, those heavenly or celestial beings, who did not follow the devil in rebellion against God, have been given “divine goodness” or grace as a reward, strengthening their will and making sure they will never falter from their allegiance to God. They will never reject God; they have already been tried and proven true to God. They have completely opened themselves to God and have found God – they have been granted a knowledge of God, a vision and experience of God which has brought them into beatitude. Having come to know God, they have thus been sent (hence, the name, angel) to us, to help guide us by what they know, by the abilities God has given to them. Their nature, as with all natures, is good, but, because they opened themselves to God, they represent God and not just themselves as they come to us and do God’s bidding with us.

Dionysius tells us that, “It is characteristic of the universal Cause, of this goodness beyond all, to summon everything to communion with him to the extent that this is possible. Hence everything in some way partakes of the providence flowing out of this transcendent Deity which is the originator of all. Indeed nothing could exist without some share in the being and source of everything.”[2] Everything, in their existence, partakes of God, but a blessed immortality, eternal life, requires more than mere existence, but to personally open oneself up to God, making room for all that God can provide. The angels which did not follow the devil opened themselves up to God. They have come to know God through their self-emptying, to know God as their happiness, and so will never abandon God. Those which did not follow the devil have seen the effects of the fall, have seen what happens if one does not open oneself entirely to the will of God and follow it. Of course, one can, like St Anselm, say this is the reward of virtue,[3] but we must remember, the reward of virtue is to attain that which virtue aims to see, the Good, God. So, in attaining that Good, the reward of the Good is that good which provides for one’s happiness, one’s eternal beatitude. Those angels which followed God, attained God, and in attaining God, they will not fall, will not turn their back on God – for they know God and know God’s ways, not by opinion, but in themselves, in their union with God’s will.  And, as they have come to know God to the fullness of their being, they have come to know love, for God is love. They follow God in the path of love, seeking to enlighten others, to help lift them up, thus they have been given the task of revelation, of revealing what they have come to know to us, according to the time and place God has deemed their revelation is fit.[4] They are messengers (angels) because they lovingly reveal what God has revealed of himself in them to us, and they do so according to the nature they have been given (each angel, being different, reveals its revelation differently, thus not all will be Gabriels or Michaels, but all reveal, through their mission, the glory of God given to them). “They have the first and the most diverse revelations of the divine hiddenness. That is why they have a preeminent right to the title of angel or messenger, since it is they who are firs granted the divine enlightenment and it is they who pass on to us these revelations which are so far beyond us.”[5] What they reveal is based upon their experience of God, first before the incarnation, secondly, after the incarnation, and prophetically, of how things will be in the eschaton, where the hierarchy is reorganized because of the incarnation (angels, while closer to God and so of greater being before the incarnation, find humanity their superior in the eschaton, because the incarnation has brought humanity in the closest possible proximity to God).

Humanity, on the other hand, while it has experienced the eschaton in Christ, is coming to that eschaton in history. This means we are still coming to terms as to who we are, and we are still capable of opening ourselves to God, to come to knowledge of God, or to close ourselves to God through sin, and find ourselves, like the fallen angels, entirely closed off from that union with God which provides for eternal happiness. Those who entirely close themselves to God and say no to God have to find happiness within their own limited self;  such happiness is possible until that limit has been attained, and then, such happiness will turn to suffering, a suffering which knows no end because one has attained, within, the limits of one’s own happiness contained in one’s own self-enclosed nature. Thus, to become spiritually mortal, is to limit ourselves, to close ourselves to God and his infinite, eternal grace. To become mortal is to attend to ourselves and become one with some finite form of existence; and for most of humanity, since the fall and the reorganizing the priorities of the body over the soul, this finite form of existence is the purely empirical and material form of life, entirely entwined to what is possible merely with matter alone. Matter is that which is limited, and indeed, its nature is shown (in science and in philosophy) to be that which is next to nothingness; it exists, it has a nature, a limited value given to it by God. To be distracted by it and close ourselves to it alone is to become that which matter is, deterministic and dead, incapable of self-transcendence. We have a spiritual nature which has joined us with matter; the two are one, and both are good, but the spirit is what provides us freedom and the ability to overcome our personal limitations by opening ourselves to God; when we, however, choose to focus on the material alone, we turn our back on God and the infinite realm of being, for that which is limited, leading, as such limited nature much, to an end to our happiness, and therefore, leading to what must be experienced by us as that which is against our nature , subverting it, making it less than itself: evil. And, as long as we close ourselves to this limited nature, this limited, parasitical form of existence, this evil existence, becomes all we know, limiting our ability, making us lazy and sluggish (in spiritual matters).

Spiritually speaking, death leads to deathlessness. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25 RSV). We must die to the self, to focusing in on the self, in being a self-enclosed existence. To destroy such a self-enclosure, to die to the self, leads to union with God and his infinite grace, leading, not to our destruction, but our eternal beatitude, eternal life. But, if we want to be all that we can be, by ourselves, independent, without opening ourselves to others, we will find that we will get what we want, ourselves, our limited nature, and our soul will experience spiritual death, the limited existence which brings only misery and not happiness. It is a disaster for the soul to try to hold onto itself without giving in to God, to God’s infinite grace, because its limited nature will not satisfy for infinity, and so in infinity, it will be infinite grief as that soul, so limited in itself, finds itself stretched out, to become like nothing but a mere shadow of existence.

This text offers difficulties in attributing it to Anthony.

For example, one would expect him to speak of angels if he is talking about angels, instead of the more philosophical “celestial beings.” In his letters, he points out that spiritual beings, and this includes fallen ones, are named according to the way they work, though they share one and the same origin, one and the same intellectual substance.[6] It is therefore possible that Anthony would find be able to call those angels who did not falter “celestial beings,” because they remain heavenly beings. And, if we accept that Anthony might have studied ascetic ideas from many traditions, than it is possible he came to see this term and used it in this work. However, there is all conjecture, and based upon little evidence, and can only be used to explain its inclusion here if one accepts the rest of the work is Anthonite.

The paradox of death leading to deathlessness, though having support in Christian theology because of the Gospels, nonetheless makes this passage read more like the Bhagavad Gita or a Mahāyāna text than a Christian one. Nonetheless, the sentiment can be and is often interpreted by Christians, and so its similarity to Indian thought should not detour us from seeing this as being an Anthonite work. Moreover, if Anthony had any contact with Buddhist monks, and had any ascetic training by them, this concept would have been easily picked up by him and Christianized.

That evil comes into the soul through ignorance of God is what we would expect from Anthony, especially as his understanding of Arius and Arius’ errors lie with Arius’ ignorance (of himself, and through his ignorance of himself, ignorant of God). “For if such a one had known himself, his tongue would not have spoken that of which he had no knowledge. But it is manifest hat he did not know himself.”[7] In this way, we must know ourselves, to know our limitations; Arius did not know himself, and so did not know his limitation, and was willing therefore to speak beyond his capabilities, causing him to err.

And so, for this section of the text, we must rely upon the evidence of the text as a whole, to allow us to validate it as being Anthonite. While the vocabulary is suspect, it does not, of itself, prove that this text cannot be by Anthony or his immediate disciples. We can say no more here.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 336 (#48, 49).

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Celestial Hierarchy” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Col, Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 156. Whoever Pseudo-Dionysius is, I believe it is fine to call him Dionysius, knowing of course, he is not the Dionysius of Scripture.

[3] See St Anselm, On the Fall of the Devil, c25.

[4] This is not their only task, but it is the task which makes us know them as “angels.”

[5] Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, 157.

[6] See Chitty, The Letters of Saint Antony the Great, 20 [Letter VI].

[7] Ibid., 13 [Letter IV].


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  • Chris Sullivan

    They will never reject God; they have already been tried and proven true to God.

    Would I be right in reading that as more in the realm of theological speculation than defined Catholic dogma ?

    God Bless

    • Chris,

      The position that angels will not fall I think is higher than mere theological speculation; it is a consistent position found in discussions of angels – what level of teaching it would be, I don’t know.

  • Since the Church affirms, and does not merely opine, that the blessed angels glorify God in his presence, i.e. enjoy the beatific vision, it follows necessarily that they will never reject God, since the grace of this vision allows precisely the capacity to see the good which we long for in every other act of choosing and the confirmation of love to embrace the good thus seen. Every other, lesser good, is seen as such, as is anything contrary to the good that is God, and so, finally and perfectly free, the blessed angels, like the saints in heaven, will unfailingly choose God in unassailable freedom and joy.

    • Right, but I am not sure what level of teaching authority this would fall under, which is a different question. I expect it is quite high (authoritative), and it could be infallible, but I do not know if it has attained infallibility.

      • That the angels gaze upon God’s face (i.e. share in the beatific vision) is a matter of Revelation, and is affirmed continuously in the teachings of the Church, viz. in the ordinary Magisterium. The teaching is also affirmed, indirectly but clearly, in Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII, itself an extraordinary exercise of the pope’s teaching authority. While specifically defining the immediacy of the beatific vision for the souls of the just after death (those, that is, without need of purgation), it affirms that this enjoyment of the beatific vision is a joining “to the company of the holy angels.”

        • Dominic that they gaze upon God is in revelation; that they cannot fall is not in Revelation. This is secondary; and just because a Pope affirmed it does not make it infallible. You will need to do more than this to propose a declaration of the level of Magisterial authority contained in this teaching.

        • While admittedly the Church has never provided a list of all extraordinary exercises of infallible papal teaching (which itself problematizes every request to know what level of teaching authority any given doctrine has), Benedictus Deus is anything but simple something the pope affirmed. As the bull begins, “By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following …” Note also that whatever necessarily follows from something it itself contained in that which it follows. Since it follows, from Catholic teaching, that the vision of God is enjoyed eternally by those who have it (which is, after all, what is meant by the eternal rest promised to the saints in Scripture), then anyone whom the Catholic Church affirms to enjoy the beatific vision the Church also affirms to have that vision without possibility of loss.

          One of the ironies about this question is that it has never been doubted, and constantly affirmed, that the joy of the blessed angels is unassailable and incapable of being lost. To expect a clear exercise of the magisterium in an extraordinary way in this regard is not in keeping with the normal mode of Catholic teaching.

          • While the Pope indeed took such language, we must also remember, the limits of the authority contained within a Bull — and how that applies to the question of the authority contained in those words.

  • Ronald King

    Henry, Do or did all angels have the same knowledge of God at the same point in their existence? If so, did they know and experience the Love that is God? If so, how could any creature turn away from that pure Love which, in my experience and observation of self and others, is impossible to do since we are instinctively constructed to join with that Love.
    Is ignorance of God’s Love the lack of openness to this awareness the fault of the creature, or, is it a developmental stage of existence for spiritual and mortal creatures who must then choose different paths to gain knowledge of the unknown? In the second sense it seems that to sin is to err based on ignorance rather than something that is evil.

    • Ronald

      The idea that is generally given is, at their origin, the angels did not have the full vision and knowledge of God, but were given a choice; afterward, those which remained with God, know and experience God as love — but also, find themselves in wonderment nonetheless with God and God’s plan (the incarnation is said to be an example of this). How this all works becomes quite complex, and raises many questions, nonetheless, it is certain that those angels, who stayed with God, know God according to their own personal nature (each does not have to be equal, but each is as much as each can be according to the angel in question).

      There is a kind of ignorance involved with sin, but we must understand, it is also an act of will, does one stay in that ignorance and act as that ignorance is the whole of the truth, or does one open oneself up and go beyond oneself to allow oneself to see and know more? It is ignorance which is willed that becomes reified and closes one up, which then, makes for the evil, which is, a serious privation of the potential good. So, in the development, there is a chance to prove oneself — will one transcend oneself or reify the self as it is? The one which learns the first will be able to experience theosis, the second will not.

    • Ronald, you are quite right that no creature who, directly and in an unmediated way, sees the Love that is God will turn from him. Of course, this type of vision (or, in your words, experience) is a grace, and necessarily so, since no creature, however exalted, can by its own powers, see the face of God. Still, it is not a mere binary, viz. to have the beatific vision or to be ignorant of God. We can certainly know God’s goodness indirectly through natural powers, and the angels even more so. We also hold that the angels, like the original human persons, were at first endowed with the grace of righteousness, but not in such a way that such grace could not be forfeited or lost. Even so, such knowledge would have been given them, as to Adam and Eve, to be sufficient for a morally justifiable decision for God, and to render the decision against God culpable.