What is an Angel?

archangelsWith the feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) on September 29, and the Guardian Angels on October 2, September is a good time to think about angels. What are they? What do they have to do with us? This week we will learn about angels generally. Next week we will learn more about Guardian Angels.

The angels seem a pretty uninspiring meditation. The tradition says they are “immaterial intellects,” disembodied minds. It’s hard to say which word is less exciting. Immateriality seems doubly alienating: they have nothing to do with us, but somehow they make us feel bad about our bodies. And intellects sounds like something intellectuals talk about to alienate normal people.

On the other hand, the artistic world gives us some grossly bodily pictures. The tradition started painting them with wings to show that they are not bound to place – but since we are, and since you can’t really picture something that is nowhere, the wings have become part of a terribly sentimental image. On the “liberal” side are those for whom angel just means fluttery and nice. On the “conservative” side are some really goofy modern novels, with angels that look and act like pro wrestlers.



Well, first, some traditional doctrine. According to, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Angels are disembodied intellects. They know and love. They are capable of forming matter, turning it even into a human body, and so they can take shape and appear as men, or as anything else. But disembodied means they are not constrained to any particular time and place.

There are good angels and bad angels. Being disembodied means not living in the progression of time, but in a kind of eternal now. That is freedom, not a constraint; because they are not bound to one particular time, they can act in every instant of history. But one consequence of their kind of eternal now is that the choice they make for or against God does not change at some later date.

The bad angels are identified with Lucifer, or Satan. Lucifer is a Latin word that simply means “light bearer.” It reminds us of the original goodness and “brightness” of all the angels. “Satan” is a Hebrew word that means “adversary” or “accuser.” It points us to his opposition to God, and to all who stand with God. Lucifer’s motto is “I will not serve!” (non serviam!) The bad angels are so great, they want to be their own gods.

The good angels are identified with Michael, a Hebrew name that is a rhetorical question: “Who is like God?!” To those who want to be their own gods, Michael says, “ah, but God is so much greater!” The old-fashioned image of a baby head with wings is weird – but it comes from a tradition that paints with symbols, instead of sentimental images. The baby is like Michael, who lets God be God, and does not grasp after power. The wings remind us of the angels’ freedom from the constraints of time and place.


The angels can teach us some things, by comparison. They can teach us humility. The wings are meant to remind us that we are constrained in a way that not all God’s creatures are. They remind us of our limits, and that there are others who are infinitely more intelligent than we are.

They also remind us to embrace our materiality: we are not angels! Our way of sanctity and happiness can only be through the little here and now where we live.

And they can remind us, too, of God’s greatness. God is not an angel, not just an especially smart immaterial creature. The angels can speak to us, and enlighten us – but God made us, and he made them. Angels are awesome, but need a creator; God needs no creator. Angels cannot create, and do not cause us to exist; God does. It is worth pondering sometimes whether we realize just what an awesome being God is.


Finally, not only can we learn from the angels by looking at them; they can actively teach us. The old cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other is not far from the truth.

Although angels can work in the material world, that is not the main thing they do. They see more than we do, and they can show things to us. Good angels remind us of the greatness of God, and can show us where he is acting now: just as Gabriel (whose name means “God is mighty”) taught Mary her vocation, and Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) showed Tobias where to find God’s healing.

And, of course, as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters shows us, the bad angels can plant bad ideas in our minds, to lead us away from the one God. We should be aware of where these ideas come from.

Are we aware of the influence of bad angels? Could we practice greater devotion to the good ones?