Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where are the archangels among the choirs of angels?

September 29th, Feast of the Archangels
Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are the only three angels mentioned by name in the Scriptures, and they all belong to the same choir of angels: The archangels.
From St. Dionysius and St. Gregory the Great, we learn that there are nine choirs of angels which are gathered into three sets of three. But where are the archangels in this list? Are they toward the top of the bottom? The answer may surprise you!

The nine choirs of angels, according to the Angelic Doctor
“We know on the authority of Scripture that there are nine orders of angels, viz., Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Throne, Cherubim and Seraphim. That there are Angels and Archangels nearly every page of the Bible tell us, and the books of the Prophets talk of Cherubim and Seraphim. St. Paul, too, writing to the Ephesians enumerates four orders when he says: 'above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Domination'; and again, writing to the Colossians he says: 'whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers'. If we now join these two lists together we have five Orders, and adding Angels and Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, we find nine Orders of Angels.”  - So, St. Gregory the Great (Homily 34, In Evang.)
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, reconciles the theology of East and West when he unites the reasoning of St. Gregory with that of St. Denys (i.e. St. Dionysius the Areopagite). He lists the angels in three orders of three:
I.     1. Seraphim
       2. Cherubim
       3. Thrones
II.   4. Dominions
       5. Virtues
       6. Powers
III.  7. Principalities
       8. Archangels
       9. Angels
St. Thomas points out that each angel fulfills his own proper office, but as the angels are far above our natural human knowledge, we cannot know of the distinctions among the angels by our own powers. Thus, because our knowledge of the angels is imperfect, we can only distinguish among them in a general way – and hence, we recognize the angels according to the nine choirs.
These choirs designate the offices of the angels and are only approximations to the reality. “That special distinction of orders and offices, wherein each angel has his own office and order, is hidden from us.” (ST I, q.108, a.3, ad 2)
The Angel of the Schools speaks of the archangels
It is worth noting that St. Thomas Aquinas (following both St. Gregory and St. Denys) places the archangels in the lowest sphere and at the second lowest choir of angels. The archangels are, in fact, superior only to the angels. This may be surprising to some – for it means that Raphael, Gabriel, and even Michael are not among the greatest angels.
However, if St. Michael and the other archangels are toward the bottom of the choirs, we may wonder why it is that they are called “arch”-angels. Why is St. Michael, in particular, called the “prince” if he is toward the bottom?
“The "Archangels," according to Dionysius (Coel. Hier. ix), are between the "Principalities" and the "Angels." A medium compared to one extreme seems like the other, as participating in the nature of both extremes; thus tepid seems cold compared to hot, and hot compared to cold. So the "Archangels" are called the "angel princes"; forasmuch as they are princes as regards the "Angels," and angels as regards the Principalities. But according to Gregory (Hom. xxiv in Ev.) they are called "Archangels," because they preside over the one order of the "Angels"; as it were, announcing greater things: and the "Principalities" are so called as presiding over all the heavenly "Virtues" who fulfil the Divine commands.” (ST I, q.108, a.5, ad 4)
Thus, the archangels are rightly call “arch” insofar as they are above the angels – hence, they are “arch”ANGELS and not “arch”PRINCIPALITIES or “arch”SERAPHIM. Below the others, archangels still rule over the choir of angels as princes. Further, we point out that it is primarily the angels and the archangels who are sent to men as messengers – thus, from the perspective of salvation history, the archangels are generally the greatest princes of angels whom men encounter.
St. Michael, the prince of the heavenly hosts
From the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Regarding [St. Michael’s] rank in the celestial hierarchy opinions vary; St. Basil (Hom. de angelis) and other Greek Fathers, also Salmeron, Bellarmine, etc., place St. Michael over all the angels; they say he is called "archangel" because he is the prince of the other angels; others (cf. P. Bonaventura, op. cit.) believe that he is the prince of the seraphim, the first of the nine angelic orders. But, according to St. Thomas (Summa Ia.113.3) he is the prince of the last and lowest choir, the angels. The Roman Liturgy seems to follow the Greek Fathers; it calls him "Princeps militiae coelestis quem honorificant angelorum cives". The hymn of the Mozarabic Breviary places St. Michael even above the Twenty-four Elders. The Greek Liturgy styles him Archistrategos, "highest general" (cf. Menaea, 8 Nov. and 6 Sept.).”
While the Catholic Encyclopedia seems to side against St. Thomas, we respond that it is very much possible to call St. Michael the prince of the heavenly hosts without claiming that he is in a choir above the choir of the archangels. If we recall that the heavenly hosts would probably only include the archangels and the angels (since the other choirs are directed towards higher works), then it is very much possible that Michael could be the prince of the army of heaven and yet be below the seraphim, cherubim, et alia.
Indeed, there is something of the divine plan revealed in this: The Lord constantly favors the lowly over the great. Thus, as Lucifer was from the choir of the seraphim, it is fitting that he should be defeated by one of the lowest of the ruling angels – i.e. an archangel. St. Michael defeated Satan’s pride and power through his own humility and meekness.
Even among the angels, our good God casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly!

Sts. Micheal, Gabriel, and Raphael, Pray for us!


Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan,

While reading the Office this morning, I came across St. Gregory's homily on the Gospels. He states, (sorry, it's in English, not the original Latin) "It was only fitting that the highest angel [referring to Gabriel] should come to announce the greatest of all messages."

I have been stumped by one of my students in the past (it still wounds my pride that I didn't know the correct answer!) with the question of the highest rank of angels - the Seraphim. Is St. Gregory suggesting something else, perhaps? Or when he talks of the angels in this case is he simply referring to the lowest rank not the entire host. (I pondered for a while about what to call the entire collection of angels - is there a good term that encompasses all nine choirs?)

- Mark

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Very good question!
St. Gregory is there speaking of the angels who are sent as messengers ... and of these, St. Gabriel has a special place -- indeed, the greatest messages are always given to him! (whether in the book of Daniel or in the Gospel of Luke)

Hence, he is not setting Gabriel higher than the Seraphim ... just before that line which you cite, St. Gregory specifies that the angels with lesser messages are called "angels" and the angels with greater messages are called "archangels" ... but from his other writings we know that there are even higher angels which do not deliver messages at all (and among these the Seraphim are the highest choir).
So Gabriel is the highest of the angels in terms of delivering messages, but not the highest simply speaking.

Hope this helps and makes sense! +

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

Please give me a response to the last two questions here:

I waited it so long.

Thank you!

A Sinner said...

Hmm. I'd tend to side with Catholic Encyclopedia (and the Christian East) and make a distinction between the "lower-case" archangels and the seven "capital-A" Archangels (the one taking "angel" to mean just that choir, the other using it in the sense of all the bodiless spirits).

Also, though I think Aquinas denied that Christ learned anything of infused knowledge through the mediation of angels, have you anything to say of the pious opinion that Michael was the Guardian Angel of Christ's humanity, Gabriel of the Virgin Mary (and Raphael possibly of St. Joseph)?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A sinner,
while I would definitely say that Christ was not taught by the angels, nor was he subject to their ministry, it is a theological certainly that our Savior did have a guardian angel.
Who this angel was, I do not know ... probably one of the archangels, perhaps Michael (as you say).
Likewise, I think it would fitting if Mary had Gabriel and Joseph had Raphael, but I don't make that as any definitive statement ... just a pious thought.

As to whether Michael was in the choir of archangels (second from the bottom), I would stress that it is clear that he is not among the seraphim who praise God day and night without ceasing and who remain in the divine presence always.
Michael is a working angel, a messenger, and thus he deals regularly with the things of this world.
The seraphim, however, are the highest angels and deal solely with the worship and glory of God.

This is the main reason for St. Thomas' position (which is based on Denys and Gregory).
Certainly, there is freedom of opinion in this matter! +

pete salveinini said...

In the reading of the little chapter for midafternoon of the Feast of the 3 Archangels from Tobit one hears: "I am Raphael, ONE OF THE SEVEN ANGELS WHO LENTER AND WERVE BEFORE THE GLORY OF THE lORD..."(!) thus Dionysius and Aquinas got it wrong!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Wow! You are SO smart! Don't you just wish that St. Thomas and St. Denys had read the Bible?!

If only St. Thomas had prayed the breviary! Maybe then he would have known something about the angels!

Oh well, I guess YOU are the "angelic doctor" after all!

... Come back when you want to have a serious conversation.

[ps. could you tell me what it is to "werve"?]

A Sinner said...

"I would definitely say that Christ was not taught by the angels, nor was he subject to their ministry"

I can accept this, though I don't understand it.

I mean, we speak of Christ having three types of knowledge, or knowledge by three means; experiential, infused, and by the beatific vision.

Obviously, in the last case, He knew all that a created mind could know, which I think is everything that God knows by knowledge of vision (though not the infinite possibilities He knows by "simple knowledge")

However, in the case of experiential, we do not consider it to detract from Christ's dignity that He would learn from, say, His Mother or St. Joseph on that level of knowledge as acquired in the regular human manner (of experiences that encode themselves on the brain, etc).

So I'm not exactly sure why in the "middle" type of knowledge (infused)...we would consider it unfitting for Christ to gain infused knowledge as mediated by angels given that His human soul was of a nature (human) lower than the angels.

"I would stress that it is clear that he is not among the seraphim who praise God day and night without ceasing and who remain in the divine presence always.
Michael is a working angel, a messenger, and thus he deals regularly with the things of this world."

Though, you must also admit that this notion of how the bodiless spirits work is a scholastic construct.

The idea that seraphim cannot preform any external acts or acts in the material world because that would constitute ceasing to be in God's presence or something like that strikes me as unnecessarily "rational." I mean, as Christ Himself said, "I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven."

I'd think a seraphim could deal with the world AND constantly be worshipping God too. I mean, if Saints can still intercede for our prayers (can the seraphim under this model??) I don't see why not exactly.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You have mentioned a couple times (here and in other comments) a negativity toward the scholastics.

The simple fact is that you can't blame the choirs of angels on the scholastics, it comes from Denys (an easterner) and from Gregory (a westerner).
The idea of the seraphim being dedicated to divine worship is not from the Scholastics, it comes from the Church Fathers.

Chatto said...


as blunt and triumphant as it was, I think Pete does raise a point that needs an answer. We tend to associate being 'before the face of God' with the Seraphim (rightly or wrongly), yet both St. Raphael and St. Gabriel (in Lk 1) make references to being in the LORD's presence - both say "standing before Him" in the Vulgate, so perhaps Pete's translation is a little freer.

Is it simply a matter of all angels having the beatific vision? Who are these seven angels, who by that signification seem to be in a 'unit' by themselves? Is '7' here merely the biblical sign of fulness i.e. all the angels serve before Him?

Thanks in advance.

A Sinner said...

Yes, but then where did THEY get such an idea?

It certainly doesn't seem to be necessarily implied by Scriptures regarding the offices of the various choirs of angels (though it may be one possible interpretation), and Gregory or Dionysus aren't allowed to just assert things either (though they did).

Pleading Authority is not really an argument if the authority didn't receive any sort of Revelation on the matter; at that point, their guesses are as good as ours, and if there seems to be something screwy about the argument (especially on something as speculative as angelology), there is no reason not to question it at least.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@A Sinner,
You said, "Where did THEY [Denys and Gregory] get such an idea?"
Well, Denys was a mystic (and may have been the disciple of St. Paul).
Gregory was also a mystic and was very clearly led in his theological reasoning by the Holy Spirit (not infallibly in every case, but certainly he was given many insights).
What is more, countless theologians and saints of both East and West have accepted the basic structure of the division of the angelic choirs -- something of the sensus fidei is at work here.
[granted, as to whether Michael or Gabriel are Seraphim or Archangels (referring to the choirs) there is room for debate ... but as to whether there are the choirs, this seems to be nearly unanimous among the saints and doctors; not that it is a matter of certain Dogma, but it deserves much more respect than you are giving it]

You said: "Their guesses are as good as ours" ... that is absurd. Simply absurd.
It is a silly thing to say.
You shouldn't have said it.
Sts. Denys and Gregory (and St. Thomas) are not simply "guessing" ... they have reasoned and prayed intensely on this issue ... they were mystical theologians ... your words offend pious ears.

Further, given that you speak so dismissively of the saints and the traditions, I don't think that your "guess" would be "just as good" as theirs (even if they were only guessing [which, of course, they weren't]).

If you are serious about learning the tradition and the reasoning of the saints on this point ... take a look at ST I, q.108 - there, St. Thomas gives a good overview of both Sts. Denys and Gregory, and unites this mystical theology to some very good philosophy as well.

Remember, the angels are far above us, we need humility when we think about them ... we need to look to the tradition and to those whom the Church especially recommends as great writers about the angels (like St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You ask a good question.

First, I would say that it is clear that Raphael's words "I am one of the 7 angels who stand before the Lord" clearly cannot be understood to mean that he has no ministry among men or is a member of the seraphim who are dedicated solely to the praise of God (as is clear from Ezekiel's vision) ... this is clear because, while Raphael says that he "stands before the Lord", he is in fact standing before Tobias (Tobit) -- it is clear that Raphael is among the angels who are sent into the world to do the Lord's will.

Thus, "standing before the Lord" must surely be interpreted to mean that he experiences the beatific vision ... and that all his service among men is directed to the greater glory of God.

Regarding the idea of the "7 angels" ... it comes up several times in both the Old and New Testaments (see, for example Revelation 8).
Traditionally, these 7 are recognized as the seven archangels ... of course, there are more than 7 of them; but 7 have been revealed to us in a particular way (though we only know 3 names by public revelation).

And, yes, I think you are right that the number 7 is a sign of fullness ... these 7 archangels represent the fullness of the choir of archangels ... which is another reason why we should hold that Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are indeed members of the choir of archangels (rather than of the seraphim).

For more on whether and which angels are sent, see ST I, q.112 -

Peace and blessings to you! +

Hidden One said...

Father, by St. Denys, are you referring to the neo-Platonist Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Hidden One,
Yes, I (following St. Thomas) refer to St. Dionysius the Areopagite who was converted by St. Paul -- he is often called either Denys or Denis (this is the Latinization of his Greek name).

Peace. +

Camael said...

Are there other existing Archangels?
then what are there names?

Anonymous said...

I think there is a distinction between the "choir" and the "office". St. Gregory the Great said that "It must be realized that "Angel" is the name of their office, not of their nature... Those who announce less important things are called Angels, and those who announce the highest things are called Archangels." All the blessed bodiless spirits are called "angels" and each belong to the nine choirs of angels.

Therefore, St. Michael's choir may be "seraphim" and his office "Archangel" in the 7 Archangels who stand in the presence of God. I think it's more proper to use smallcase and uppercase letters: "angels" and "archangels" for the choirs (i.e. choirs of angels and choirs of archangels), while capitalize the offices "Angels" and "Archangels" (Archangel Michael, Archangel Gabriel, Archangel Raphael).

St. Gregory the Great's Sermon:

Evangelion said...

Father, I found this ancient prayer to St. Michael (with a promise) which states that he is a seraph but I don't know its origin. I thought you may have resources to trace it from, I just found it in the web:

An Ancient Prayer to Archangel Michael the Mighty Warrior

Whosoever reads this ancient prayer – on that day will he be touched neither by the devil, nor by any evil man, nor will any temptation seduce his heart. If he should pass from this life – hell will not take in his soul.

"O Lord God, Great and Eternal King!
Send, O Lord, Thy Archangel Michael to help Thy servant (name), and to deliver me from all my enemies, visible and invisible.

O Holy Archangel Michael, pour the goodness of the world on the servant of God (name).

O Archangel Michael, angel of the Lord and vanquisher of demons! Suppress all my combatants, make them meek as sheep, and disperse them like dust before the wind.

O great Michael, Archangel of the Lord, six-winged high prince, leader of the heavenly host, the Cherubim and the Seraphim! O kind Archangel Michael, be my helper in all offenses, sorrows and woes, in the desert, at the crossroads, be a safe haven on rivers and seas. Deliver me, O great Archangel Michael, from all the temptations of the demons, when they hear me, thy sinful servant (name), praying to thee, and calling upon thee, and entreating thy holy name: hasten to assist me and heed my prayer.

O great Archangel Michael! Vanquish all my opponents by the power of the Holy and Life-giving Heavenly Cross of the Lord, by the prayers of the Most holy Mother of God and the holy Apostles, the holy prophet of God Elias, Saint Nicholas the wonderworker, holy Andrew the fool-for-Christ, the holy great martyrs Nikitas and Eustace, the venerable fathers and holy hierarchs, martyrs, saints and all the heavenly host. Amen."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Evangelion, i'm not sure what I am missing, but I do not see where this prayer says Michael is a saraphim? It says he is the leader of the seraphim and cherubim - but does it say he is anything other than an archagel?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous (use a pseudonym),
The choir is the office. Archangel or seraphim or principality never refer to nature, but only to the office. ... But all are called "angels" genrally.

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