THE OTHER WORLD WE LIVE IN
A CATHOLIC VISION OF ANGELIC REALITY
Excerpts from my forthcoming book (Angelico Press, 2021), printed with permission.
“Separate Substances” Today
A few years ago, the British comedian Stephen Fry spoke on television about a recently completed tour through the United States. He had many good things to say about the yankees, and although a convinced atheist, still showed respect for the robust Christianity of so many Americans. Nonetheless, he could not help remarking with alarm on one item of faith that he found particularly bizarre: many of them still believe in angels!
Since wide-spread misunderstanding prevails in any use of the word “angel,” I choose to introduce my reflections by using the medieval, metaphysical term for the pure spirits. We might pre-empt Mr. Fry’s outrage by reminding him that what we are really talking about are beings with intellectual and volitional endowments, and that exist separately from matter: in philosophical jargon, “separate substances.” This will hardly convert him, but it may convince him that what he does not know about angels could – just possibly – be far greater than what is conveyed by the frivolous caricatures he, and the rest of us, are familiar with.
Indeed, today we are in a bad way when we try to think intelligently about angels. Even those who still believe in them are not much better off. More often than not they will think of spirits as wispy and rarefied, passing through our world like a morning fog. Here they come, smiling and fluttering, like ethereal butterflies, casting pixie-dust over our benighted world. We might expect help from sacred art, but here too we are frequently misled. How often do we see Renaissance and Baroque depictions of cute, bare-bottomed “cherubim” (embarrassingly called putti in artistic lingo)? Even worse, we might also see God’s spirits presented as wan, effeminate figures resembling kindly, Caucasian ladies in flowing bathrobes.
Sometimes the only antidote to these silly fantasies is to encounter one of our world’s pre-literate tribal cultures; they still know that spirits are not to be messed with. Or perhaps we could listen to an interview with a good, experienced exorcist. These gentlemen know only too well that we are speaking of powerful realities, albeit, in this case, from the darker side.
My intention here is to convey the reality of a world we also live in, but one that our senses rarely perceive, and that our celebrated scientific outlook can often not even imagine. But it is a world that is real like mountains and stars are real. In fact, it is even more solid than the proud stone of the Rocky Mountains, or the shining stars in the firmament. Spiritual reality is as real as it gets.
This does not mean, of course, that the material cosmos is unreal – far from it. Nonetheless, the gnostic temptation of demoting material reality always lies in wait when we emphasize spiritual matters. But God positively willed the creation of matter; he destined all its mass and energy, along with the angels and our troubled human race, to a shared future of glory. Our problem is trying to keep all three components of creation in mind. We tend to waver between two false absolutes: a purely spiritual world or a purely material one. In earlier times, when people opened their eyes upon the world of nature and the stars above us, their gaze reached further than ours. They saw how the spiritual and material worlds interpenetrate, cooperating in a revelation in which our own composite human nature becomes, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the mirabilis connexio (the amazing link), connecting matter and spirit into a perfected mirror of the Triune God.
That is to say, they not only detected the hand of a Creator God who made all these material wonders and sent them into being, but also the unmistakable signs of a world of pure created spirits, powerfully present within the concrete mysteries of nature. The angels almost seemed to wink at them as they mediated between the Almighty and those of us in the corporeal world. Our fellow humans of yesteryear would have regarded the arrogant eyes of the secular know-it-alls of today as blind, seeing only two dimensions when there are three (or even more). They would have held our quantified scientific interpretation of nature to be not only partial, but even partisan. The scientists poring over these measurements would have seemed to them like someone staring at a musical score, and not only unable to hear the music, but declaring it to be a medieval superstition.
Most of our languages, modern and classic, refer to spirits using the metaphor of air, wind or breath. Air is invisible, and yet it gives life; air is seemingly weak, and yet hurricanes and tornados are among the most violent of nature’s outbursts. The fact is that spirits are not just ideas or values floating in some imagined stratosphere. Spirit is simply the most ontologically dense and operationally intense of all the varieties of being.
Moreover, spirits are not, strictly speaking, things at all, but rather “someones.” In a word, they are persons. And persons are what the “spiritual” is all about. To put a fine point on it, a spirit is simply an immaterial being endowed with the two interior faculties of self-transcendence: intelligence and volition. Since we also possess these faculties, we too are spiritual, although incarnate in matter.
In the abrahamic traditions, personhood exists in three irreducible forms: divine, angelic and human. Furthermore, personal reality is, again according to Thomas Aquinas, “the most perfect of all that exists in nature” (perfectissimum in tota natura). When we insist today on the “dignity of the human person,” we are simply acknowledging this perfection in the only persons we have direct, palpable contact with: ourselves. But it applies at least equally to the angels, and of course immeasurably more to God.
In saner times the existence of personal, spiritual beings would have been among the common-sense coordinates of all intelligent earthlings. The doubters would have been the oddballs. In fact, in those days, after a long conversation with Mr. Fry, someone may well have walked away and commented on how polite and witty the comedian was, but then lowered their voice and whispered, as if revealing a dark secret: “…but the poor man does not even believe in angels!”