The necessary angel

It has been the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels today, with all that we associate with that, in Christendom. One cannot be Christian and deny that angels exist: the most literal will find several actually named in the Bible (Old Testament and New), and their messages received, and their presences acknowledged, page after page. Their choirs ascend, in greater and greater proximity to God in the highest: Angels, Archangels, Principalities; Powers, Virtues, Dominations; Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim.

There was a post on this topic one year ago. I tried to supply a suitable affront to the contemporary mind, which is indifferent to angels. Merely to mention them is probably enough, to set scientistic eyeballs rolling. The more poetic will accept them as figures of speech. But let us insist on a religious hard line: that angels be not only publicly recognized, but deferred to in their spiritual place, delectated in the liturgical order, and comprehended as Beings about whom we can know little, but much more than nothing.

In his poem, “The Necessary Angel,” written by an atheist about to lose his faith, Wallace Stevens accepts “the Angel” as metaphor, needed to save reality from cliché; then comes so close to prophetically accepting that angel itself as real, that he makes the reader’s hair stand on end. (He died Catholic, to the scandal of his wife, daughter, and the extended tribe of his liberal-agnostic admirers.) By reason alone, that is as close as one may come to angels.

In Christian teaching, the angels were created, as we were created; but prior to, or before us. They defeat our conceptions of space and time. But Love itself defeats our conceptions, and Faith and Hope are anchored in an Eternity that remains bottomlessly mysterious to our human minds — richly repaying contemplation, but solving no riddles. For a Mystery is not a riddle or puzzle, with a set answer waiting overleaf; and our modern attempts at this sort of reductionism all end in farce. Our own Being is anchored in Mystery, and what can we do about it?

As I grow older, I become more amazed by the “materialism” that must necessarily deny its own foundation; which cannot account for the primal existence of a single particle within the void. What once seemed merely glib, now strikes me as more deeply monstrous: a purposeful refusal of Grace.


I haven’t mentioned Darwinism in a while, let me dredge it back up.

There will be no comprehension of “the origin of species” unless we accept the reality of angels. William Blake came closer than Darwin, to an understanding of evolutionary process, in his depiction of the Soul of a Flea. From the Bible itself, and from early Christian literature, we receive a sense of the angels, assigned to their places in the cosmic order of things. (Consider, for instance, Saint Paul at Troas, receiving the “man of Macedonia,” in Acts XVI.) What Plato conceived as “forms,” Christians have perhaps discerned as “angels,” in their nested hierarchies. It could be said that they are “living forms.” That would not exhaust what could be said, but might serve as an orienting start. For in any broad view of things as they actually are — of the universe as we may perceive it — the place of the angels must not be overlooked.

I had a dream or “vision” of this once, which I will exchange for a small share of public ridicule. It had to do with the lemurs endemic to Madagascar, who filled the forest niches of that island near to, and yet isolated from, the great continent of Africa. Over the last sixty million years or so, they came to range over that large island: from wee “mouse” lemurs, barely an ounce in weight, to others (only recently extinct) on the scale of gorillas. For all this variety, each is unmistakably a lemur, perfectly adapted to its habitat.

In my dream I imagined the operation of an “Angel of Lemurs,” among God’s messengers to that place. I imagined that Angel, by whose higher and exalted consciousness each new forest niche was detected, as it appeared or developed in the unfolding narrative, told in earthly flesh by the descending choirs, and innumerable other agencies of the Divine Will. I imagined this Angel presiding over the metamorphoses of the lemur clade, filling each opening corner with another of these creatures, and therefore with its irreducible joy in the echo of its Maker; or parting one species from another to serve the forest in its overlapping heights, and from its variously breathing angles; and then withdrawing each species of lemur in its turn, upon the completion of its season, and place or station in the dance of Time. And the Angel itself: as perfect expression of the godly idea of lemur-ness, bearing the spiritual countenance of the Lemur-before-all-lemurs. And likewise I imagined the descent of the lesser Lemurian Angels: the guardians of these animals in each kind, and bearers of God’s love towards them, “telescoping” from that guardian spirit of all lemurs, through the wormholes of space and time.

And then, the tribes of primitive men who, living undisturbed in this place before its despoliation, honoured and instinctively propitiated these angels — because their ability to know them had not yet bled away. Who knew them in ways that could not be explained, to those who honour nothing; who understand nothing, and cherish nothing, and therefore despoil everything they touch. (As I write, I am listening to their jackhammers.)

The incredibly subtle and complex, yet often sudden adaptation of old species to new niche, cannot “just happen” — as we know a coin will not land consecutive heads, a million million times. Not ever, within a universe that was itself expressed into Being less than fourteen billion years ago — with all of its potentialities presented in a singular moment. A larger intelligence must not only invent but coordinate, as I imagine: provide the metaphysical “RNA” to choreograph the supernatural dance, from the boldest outward attributes of impossibly gigantic and sophisticated creatures, down to the finest flections within the molecules from which they have been composed. And from this we may reasonably infer the action of angelic forces.

Which cannot be studied by the dead reckoning of empirical science because — in biology, or even chemistry sometimes — we are not dealing with simple, predictable “laws of nature,” rather with living, sentient powers; with Beings, who turn and act according to a nature that is not ours, nor answerable to our wishes. Who cannot be approached, except by supernatural means. We may trace effects, solve technical puzzles, to the modest limits of empirical science; but above and beneath and beyond lie angels.