|Not a helpful image for understanding angels|
Angels are beings far greater than men, far exalted over men, far closer to God than men. If we are to have any hope of coming to some understanding of these marvelous creatures, we must first admit our lowliness. We must submit our reason to Revelation and to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. Then, we must begin to think…and we must be very, very careful…
St. Thomas Aquinas on the angels: Fundamentals
The Angelic Doctor is a veritable storehouse of wisdom when it comes to the angels! Not only was he brilliant, he was also very humble in accepting the received tradition regarding angles; but, at the same time, he was not afraid to apply what he knew from his philosophical training. This wonderful harmony of faith and reason, something which characterizes the Common Doctor’s work, is particularly palpable in his treatment on the angels. What follows is based, almost exclusively, on ST I, qq.50-64.
St. Thomas’ writing takes three points as fundamental to his whole doctrine on the angels:
1) Angels are CREATURES – they are not God, but they are greater than men.
2) Angels are IMMATERIAL – they have no bodies, but are pure spirit.
3) Angels are PERSONS – as rational beings, they have an intellect and a will; and so, they are able to choose either for or against God.
Angles are creatures
Because angels are not God, but are only creatures, we know that they cannot be perfectly simple beings. Their existence cannot be their very nature – to do not exist as the one perfectly necessary being, which is God alone.
Thus, although angels are more simple than men, they are not as simple as God. St. Thomas discovered that, in angels and in all creatures, there is a distinction between the act of existence and the nature – they do not exist by their own nature, but have to be created by God. While this might seem very theoretical, it leads us to a very practical conclusion: angles change. Angels are not immutable, as is God alone; rather, angels undergo change. This leads to another conclusion: angels are not outside of time in the way that God is outside of time. Time (in the philosophical sense) is the measure of change; thus, since angels change, they are within “time”. The time in which angels exist is not time as we know it – our time is the measure of change in the material world. For angels, time is the measure of change in the mental world – time is the measure of the change of thoughts.
God has only one perfect thought, one perfect act; and so, for God, all time and all reality is PRESENT. God is completely and entirely outside of time because he does not change. Angels and men and all the rest of creature are, to varying degrees, subject to change and, therefore, are within time. This is an important point to remember, because most everybody seems to be confused about it: ANGELS ARE NOT OUTSIDE OF ALL TIME…they are outside of space-time as we know it, but they are not sempiternal (wherein all reality and time is present as one eternal now), because they are not God.
Angels are immaterial
The fact that angels do not have bodies (something attested to by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 328) was not always as readily accepted by Catholic theologians as it is today. There was a great problem which had to be solved – Because angels are creatures, we know that they cannot be purely simple like God; yet, it seemed that the only way to introduce complexity into angels was to say that they are made up of body and soul, like human beings. Thus, because God’s simplicity was identified with the fact that he is pure spirit, it seemed to be necessary to maintain that angels were not pure spirits but were in some sense material. This was the thought of St. Bonaventure.
St. Thomas, in a superb work of metaphysics called De ente et essentia, proved that there is good reason to maintain that the angels could both be immaterial and not be perfectly simple. He introduced a whole new category of thought by making a distinction between the essence or nature of a creature and that being’s act of existence. Thus, God is perfectly simple because he is not merely pure spirit, but pure activity and pure existence. The angels are complex beings, not because they are material, but because they do not exist by virtue of their nature – their essence is distinct from their existence. Human beings also have a nature distinct from existence, additionally we have bodies in addition to our souls.
In this manner, St. Thomas was able to affirm that angels are pure spirits, immaterial, and completely incorporeal. Angles are intellectual substances. St. Thomas then discovered that, if each angel is purely spiritual, then there cannot be two angels of the same nature. What makes men to be different from one another is our bodies; but if angels have no bodies, the only thing that can make one angel different from another is their natures. Thus, each angel is its own perfect nature, its own perfect species! It is for this reason that angels do not have gender: they are the full realization of their nature, not merely one half of a species.
However, although angels are immaterial, they can act upon the material world. Whenever they act upon matter, they are “present” in that place by virtue of their activity. Thus, angles are not essentially present in any place, but they are said to be in a given location by virtue of their activity. Now, an angel is in a place only when he is the complete immediate cause of activity on matter in a given place. This means that only one angel can be present in one place at any one moment – since only one angel can be the complete and immediate cause on a particular body. Thus, only one angel can dance on the head of a pin – or, if we consider all the molecules moving around and each angel acting on the individual molecules, we could say that there are many angels dancing there. Because angels are not God, they cannot be present in more than one place at the same time – though they can be present in one very large place if they act upon that whole place immediately and completely.
Finally, I would add that there are many, many angels. Human beings and other creatures are divided by matter. And so there can only be as many material creatures as there is matter in the universe – though this allows for a lot of possibilities, it is limited. Angels, on the other hand, are divided by nature only and not by matter. Thus, the possibilities for diversity among angels is equal to the possibility of the diversity of thoughts – this is incomparably greater than the diversity allowed by matter. Even the human mind (feeble as it is) can divide and distinguish far more than matter can be diversified. Thus, St. Thomas tells us, it is likely that there are incomparably more angels than there are physical beings!
Angels are persons
Any being which is rational is a person – therefore, angels are persons. Angels have both an intellect and a will and, therefore, are capable of choice. They have a conscience. They are the type of creature which is subject to divine judgment. Moreover, as persons, they are the type of creature which is the subject of that special aspect of divine love known as created grace.
As persons, it is most likely that angels were created in the beginning in the state of grace. Just as Adam and Eve were created in grace, but then fell; so too, it seems that the angels were created in grace – some of the angels persevered and were admitted into heaven, others fell and were condemned to hell.
The rise or the fall of any particular angel was immediate upon his creation. He was given a knowledge of many things (but not all things) and was also given a choice – either to seek his happiness in God, or to seek his happiness in a creature. Lucifer chose to seek happiness in himself; the other fallen angels sought their happiness in Lucifer. Most of the angels, however, humbled themselves before God and received from him the joys of life everlasting!