The assistance of the angels that is given to the soul at Baptism is to continue throughout the whole course of its life. Not even sins can suppress it. They can only sadden the angel of the soul. But angels do not merely protect the soul against the attacks of the Devil; they also try to make it progress in the spiritual life. This is the first aspect under which the spiritual life appears in relation with the angels. On the other hand, following a teaching that has its source in the Gospel itself, the spiritual life appears as an imitation of the life of the angels and a participation in their life. It reintroduces the soul into the angelic creation. But the fact remains that the ascension of the soul leads it even higher than the angels. The Christian mystery is the exaltation of humanity above the sphere of the angels. This mystery, which is true first of all of Christ Himself, is true of the whole of human nature, which He leads along with Him as a retinue.
Gregory of Nyssa applies a verse of the Canticle of Canticles to this activity of the angels: “The guards who go about the city struck me.” These guards, he says, are the ministers of the one who watches over Israel. The blows they strike the soul, and the veil they lift from it are a figure of the purifying operations they accomplish in it. Gregory compares the verse of the Canticle to the passage in Isaiah: “Just as here the bride says that she is struck and wounded by the guards and robbed of her veil as well, there, in the same manner, in place of the veil, it is the heavenly lintel that is drawn up so that the realities in the sanctuary can be contemplated without obstruction. In place of the guardians, there is mention of the Seraphim. Instead of a rod, there are burning coals; instead of blows, a bright fire.”
Pseudo-Dionysius likewise describes this purifying activity, connecting it with the Seraphim; but, in conformity with his hierarchical view, he explains that it is through the intermediary of lower hierarchies that the Seraphim perform this activity. “The theologian learned that purification and all the functions of the divine Lordship, reflected through the degrees of higher essences, are shared by all the other essences in proportion to the part each of them plays in the divine work. . . That is why he attributes the property of purifying by means of fire first of all after God Himself to the Seraphim.” The purifying operations come from God as their one source; but the principal ministers are the Seraphim, who perform the purifications through the lower angels.
United to the function of purification is that of illumination. This role of the angels is particularly dear to St. Thomas Aquinas, who studies the modalities in it. Before him, Gregory Nazianzen had described it. It is in his writings that the role of light receives a position of importance:
God is the supreme light, inaccessible and ineffable, incomprehensible to the mind, unspeakable by any word, illuminating all of the spiritual creation. He is in the world of intelligibles what the sun is in the visible world. The more we purify ourselves, the more we know Him; and the more we know Him, the more we love Him. . . The second in the order of light is the angel, an emanation or participation of the first light, illuminated by turning toward it and following it. It shares in this illumination, according to the degree of its nature, unless perhaps the degree of its nature is determined by its illumination. The last sentence marks his hesitation between Origen’s conception of hierarchy according to grace and the conception that will prevail in Pseudo-Dionysius of a hierarchy of natures.
Now, illuminated by God, after having turned toward Him, the angelic powers illuminate in their turn those who are lower than they. If someone were to say something in praise of the angels, he might say that they are illuminated from on high by a most powerful illumination, each in his own manner, in accord with his nature and rank. They are so informed and imprinted by the source of all beauty that they themselves become lights and thus illuminate others with the light that is derived and communicated to them from the first light; for they are servants of the divine will and penetrate forcefully everywhere both by nature and by grace, leading all to unity under the sole command of the Creator of all.292 In these texts, a descending hierarchical order can be observed, in accordance with which the light of the Trinity is communicated through the various angels to man. That is the doctrine Pseudo-Dionysius develops at length.
What he really does is systematize this concept more vigorously and in particular set it in relation with the doctrine of the nine choirs of angels. Here the whole Celestial Hierarchy could well be quoted, but there is one passage that sums up its teaching:
The oldest rank among the intelligent beings who surround God, initiated into the mysteries by means of illuminations that have come to them from the Source and Principle of all illumination and toward whom they rise without the office of any intermediary, receive the office of purifying, illuminating, and finishing. After them, in proportion to the nature of each, the second order, and after the second the third, and after the third the hierarchy of men, in accord with a divine system of proportions, each rises hierarchically toward the Source and Goal of all harmony. These orders are each to serve as revealers and messengers for the orders that precede them.
Through these purifications and illuminations, the angels lead the soul to the peaks of the spiritual life. In revealing the beauty of God, they awaken in the soul a more burning thirst for union with Him. Thus, they are the friends of the Bridegroom in a new sense, leading the soul to the wedding chamber where it will celebrate its mystical marriage with the Word. It is these angels that Gregory of Nyssa sees in the Canticle of Canticles: “After having testified to the beauty of the soul, the friends of the Bridegroom who make ready His spotless wedding chamber and form the escort of the pure Bride, show her the beauty of the royal couch to stir up in her an even greater desire for a divine life and a holy union with Him.” Thus, the activity of the angels accompanies the soul all during its ascent. “The souls make their way toward the Almighty in happiness and joy, protected and escorted by the angels.”
spiritual life assimilates it to the life of the angels. This theme can be found already in the Gospel, where it is said that the “elect will be like the angels of God in heaven.”296 The perfect life is an anticipation of this final eschatological transformation. The spiritual life reintroduces the soul into heavenly familiarity with the angels. Thus, Origen writes, “But set forth, nor be afraid of the desert solitude. Soon even the angels will come to join you.”298 This theme is developed by Methodius of Olympia in the Banquet of the Twelve Virgins and is taken up again by Gregory of Nyssa. For him, the spiritual life makes the soul enter into the world of the angels. Thus he writes of his sister Macrina: “Living in the flesh, she was not held down by the weight of the body, but her life was light and ethereal, and she walked upon the heights with the Powers of heaven.”And likewise of his brother Basil: “Having risen above the zone of this sensible universe, he would abide in the world of intelligibles and converse with the Powers of heaven, without any carnal weight to impede the progress of his spirit.”
Our participation in the life of the angels
But this return to a place among the heavenly Powers signifies a participation in their being. The soul that rises toward God is declared to be like to the angels. “The beauty of the soul is likened to the cavalry that defeats the Egyptians — that is, the army of the angels [Cant. 1:8].” And elsewhere, commenting on the comparison between the Bride and an army drawn up in battle array, he writes, “These armies in battle array are those where the Powers are in perpetual sway, where the Dominations rule forever, where the Thrones are established, never to be changed, where the Principalities abide independent. Since these powers have been ordained by God and since the order of the powers above this world always remains without confusion, with no evil ever attacking their good order, the soul, in their image, does everything with moderation and thus provokes as much admiration for her as the orderly battle array.”
What allies the soul to the angels is its detachment from the life of sense. “Scripture admonishes our souls to contemplate the stable nature of the angels, so that our stability in virtue will be fortified by their example. For since it has been promised us that the life after the resurrection will resemble the condition of the angels — and He who made that promise does not lie — it follows that already our life in this world should be in conformity with that which will follow, so that living in the flesh and finding ourselves upon the battlefield of this world, we ought not to live according to the flesh and join forces with this world, but we should already begin to conform with the life we hope for after that of this world. That is why the Bride exhorts the souls to turn toward the powers of heaven, in imitation of their detachment, to attain to the purity of the angels.”
This is the whole of the doctrine. Men are destined to participate after death in the life of the angels; the spiritual life makes them anticipate this condition; finally it is the apatheia (impassibility) that constitutes the imitation of the angelic purity. This occurs again and again in Gregory. One more image expresses this return to the angelic nature: that of the night-watch, which makes man like those angels whom Scripture calls night-watchmen. “The soul illuminated by the Word becomes a stranger to the slumber of illusion. It is a type of angelic life to which He thus introduces us.”
More particularly, virginity is an anticipation of the life of the angels. The idea is developed by Methodius of Philippi: “The wings of virginity lead to the borders of angelic life.” Gregory of Nyssa repeats it: “Since the Lord has told us that life after the resurrection is like that of the angels and since a characteristic of angelic life is that it knows nothing of marriage, those who practice virginity are already imitating the incorporeal beings.”
In those authors in whom the theme of an angelic hierarchy appears, this idea of an assimilation to the life of the angels takes on the form of a successive assimilation to the different orders of the angels. The soul takes on the form of each of them in the measure that it rises in the hierarchy. This doctrine appears in Clement of Alexandria; according to his curious conception of things, the soul is instructed first of all by the angel who is immediately above it, then it takes on the nature of that angel and is instructed by the next angel of a higher rank. Under this form, the doctrine cannot be held, since it supposes that natures are not fixed. St. Thomas, however, keeps the idea of an “assumption” of the soul into the various angelic orders, on the plane of grace. Actually, according to his doctrine, the grace of the angels is proportionate to their nature, whereas that of men is not.308 The grace of any man, therefore, can lead him first to the degree of grace of one angelic order and then to that of a higher order.
Thus, the angels accompany the soul throughout the length of its spiritual life. Still, this should not obscure one final point: namely, that their role remains above all one of preparation. They lead the soul toward Christ, but leave it there alone with Him. They are the friends of the Bridegroom who withdraw when the Bridegroom is there. Origen was the first really to emphasize this characteristic of the action of the angels, the fact that it is concerned with the beginnings of the spiritual life: “Look and see if it is not above all the children, led by fear, who have angels; and if in the case of the more advanced, it is not the Lord of the angels who says to each of them, ‘I am with you in tribulation.’ To the extent that we are imperfect, we have need of an angel to free us from evils. But when we are mature and when we have passed the time for being under teachers and masters, we can be led by Christ Himself.”
Here Origen stresses a general aspect of the doctrine of the angels: their relation with beginnings and preparations. It is they who prepared the path of Christ in the Old Testament; they are the friends of the Bridegroom whose joy is perfect when they hear the voice of the Bridegroom and who leave the Bride alone with Him; it is they who, as the Gospel teaches, have a particular relationship with children. So their role remains connected with the beginnings of the spiritual life. They draw the soul to good by noble inspirations, and they give it a horror of sin. Thus, they dispose it to receive the visitation of the Word. But they withdraw before Him. In the course of its spiritual ascent, the soul passes first of all through the angelic spheres, but it goes beyond in order to arrive at the realm of God. The whole mission of the angels is to lead souls to the King of the angels and then to disappear before Him.
This idea that the soul, after having entered into the sphere of the angels, goes through it and passes beyond it, appears in a beautiful extract from Clement of Alexandria, who recalls the role of the angels as friends of the Bridegroom whose only duty is to lead the soul to the threshold of the wedding chamber:
The priest, upon entering within the second veil, would take off his mitre beside the altar of incense. He himself would enter further in silence, with the Name engraved upon his heart. Thus, he showed that the setting aside of the golden mitre which had become purified and light by the cleansing, as it were, of the body, was really a setting aside of the heaviness of the soul. . . He puts aside this light mitre when he has come with it inside the second veil in the world of the intelligible, that is, the second veil, alongside the altar of incense, beside the ministers of the prayers that are being offered, the angels. Then the naked soul, having become in reality a high priest, is thereafter moved directly by the Word. . . Passing beyond the teaching of the angels, she goes on to the knowledge and understanding of things, no longer merely betrothed but dwelling with the Bridegroom.”
This beautiful text is a fine résumé of the doctrine: the soul, having entered into the angelic world through the illuminative life, then passes through it and enters into the unitive life, which is that of the Bride, and there it is moved directly by the Word. Gregory of Nyssa develops the same theme, but in relation to a different image: that of the Bride in the Canticle, who begs each of the guards of the city, the angels, for her Bridegroom: “In spirit she runs through the intelligible world of the Principalities, the Powers, and the Thrones to see if her Beloved is among them. But they keep silent. Then, leaving all that she has found, she recognizes Him whom she is seeking.”311 It is after having left the angels behind that the soul takes hold of God. Beyond the images that they leave upon her, she reaches Him as He really is, in the darkness of faith, through the grasp of love.
That is how the angels assist in the ascent of the soul. They see it leaving behind the darkness of sin, rising up to them by the life of grace, ascending even beyond them in the glory that the Word of God conferred on humanity when He united Himself to it. Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on this verse of the Canticle, describes their admiration:
Could it be that we, too, shall rise with the perfect dove who goes up toward the heights and that we, too, shall hear the voice of the friends of the Bridegroom admiring the beauty of her who comes up from the desert? What seems to me to cause the astonishment of the friends of the Bridegroom is that first of all they had seen this beautiful soul, but beautiful insofar as it was among women, and that, after having thus compared her beauty to gold set with silver stipples, now they admire her as a column of incense smoke rising from the desert. The very fact that they inquire among themselves about her always appearing under a different form from the one she formerly had is the greatest praise for the soul that progresses in holiness.”
So the soul rises, from transformation to transformation, up to union with God, amid the worlds of angels who cry out in their amazement. “Quae est ista? Who is this soul?” Christ rose toward His Father in the same way, amid the choirs of angels, who said one to another in admiration and amazement, “Quis est iste? Who is this man?” In reality it is the selfsame mystery. The ascension of the soul is a form of the Ascension of Christ. St. Ambrose, we recall, pictures the angels wondering at the ascent of the newly baptized from the baptismal pool and crying out, “Quae est ista?” Similarly, the angels who assist at the ascension of a martyr cry out, “Quis est iste?” Throughout all the planes of the Christian mystery, therefore, there is one same ascension through the midst of all the choirs of the angels.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in The Angels and Their Mission, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.