Chapter 12 – Angels, Matter, Men

As we have seen, all things are God's workmanship and bear His imprint, but some things He made in His likeness, too. These are spirit; those that bear His imprint only are matter.


Highest in the created order come the angels, spirits with no material element in them. We know of their existence only by revelation, taught us by God through His Scriptures and through His Church. Not much is actually defined by the Church, but the writings of the fathers, doctors, and theologians are rich in development of what Scripture has to tell us of them. Both Old Testament and the New, is so filled with their activities that it is difficult to see why in the religious awareness of so many Christian bodies they occupy so small a part.

Philosophy can discuss the possibility of pure spirits; theology can discuss whether the fact of their existence has been revealed to us.  What can science say? That it has never seen one. They are immaterial and so beyond the reach of sight as of all other senses. Science is not equipped to answer the question. The answer is not less certain because God has provided it. God has told us that angels exist.

The word angel itself is from a Greek word meaning messenger: that we should make this the name by which we habitually know them is perhaps evidence of man's tendency to think of himself as central: there are countless instances in which God has used these pure spirits as messengers to men, and theologians teach that God uses them to convey illumination from Him to one another, yet that is not the reason for their existence or their chief function. Their chief function, their proper life work is to glorify God: Adore Him, all you His angels (Psalm 94:7)

Beside the adoration and service of God, they have certain other functions, which can be understood only in the light of a certain vital truth about God's dealings with His creatures. All that any creature is, all that any creature has, is from God. God has shown us with overwhelming evidence that He wills to give His gifts to creatures through other creatures, that we may learn, by the receiving of God's gifts from one another and the transmission of God's gifts to one another, our family relationship within the great household of God.  Our human life comes from God, yet God chooses to give it to us through a father and mother; the bread that sustains our bodily life comes from God, but by way of the farmer and the miller and the baker; the truth that nourishes the soul comes to us from God, but through men - the men who wrote the Bible and the Bishops of His Church.

The second great function of angels: God uses them to implement His will, in relation to one another, in relation to the physical universe: in relation to the whole functioning of the laws of nature and of grace. This is magnificently put by the Psalmist:

Bless the Lord, all ye His angels:
You that are mighty in strength and execute His word,
hearkening to the voice of His orders.
(Ps. 102:20)

Angels are in charge under God of the universe as a whole, and of the various parts of it. They are responsible for the operation of the general laws by which God rules the universe, and for such special interventions as God chooses to make in the affairs of men: as when He sends an angel before the camp of Israel during the flight out of Egypt (Exod. 14:9), or when He sends an angel to strike Jerusalem with a pestilence as a punishment for the disobedience of David, the king (1 Chron. 21). At the Last Judgment: the angels shall go out, and shall separate the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire (Mt. 1:4). They are responsible for individual countries: Daniel tells us of the angel of Persia, and the angel of Greece. They have a mission of guardianship to individual men (Tob. 12:12).

It is not absolutely of faith that each one of us has a guardian angel, but it would be rash to deny it in face of the unanimous teaching of theologians and the obvious suggestion of Our Lord:

See to it that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt;
I tell you they have angels of their own in Heaven,
that behold the face of My Heavenly Father continually
. (Mt.18:10)

We further learn from Scripture that angels are of different levels of excellence, according to the degree of His power that God has willed to make manifest in them.  Scripture gives us nine names, and it is the general view of Catholic writers that these are the names of which all the countless myriads of angels come.

Five of these names we owe to St. Paul. Writing to the Colossians with the purpose of correcting certain faulty and exaggerated notions about angels which had taken hold of them, he writes in the first chapter:

In Him [the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity] were all things created in Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether Thrones or Dominations
Principalities or Powers.

Three of these four recur together with a fifth in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where he tells us that Christ is raised above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Dominion,
and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come (Eph.1:21).

To these five names we may add the word angel which occurs throughout the Scriptures, "archangel" which occurs twice in the New Testament, together with the Cherubim with flaming sword who guarded Paradise against fallen Adam, and were in Ezechiel's vision (1:14) like flashes of lightning; and the Seraphim (the name is from a Hebrew word meaning to burn or flame) who touched the mouth of Isaiah with a live coal (Is. 6:6).

St. Thomas adopts a division of the nine choirs into three groups, according to their intellectual perfection and consequent nearness in being to God -
Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones;
Dominations, Virtues, Powers;
Principalities, Archangels, Angels.

Other writers suggest different arrangements; and there is a mass of magnificent theological speculation as to the difference of function between one choir and another. But the Church has defined nothing upon this matter.


Glorious as created spirit is, it has to be brought into being and maintained in being by the absolute power of God. Mighty as are the angel's powers of knowing and loving, they are not infinite. While created spirit lacks perfections of being that God has, matter lacks perfections of being that created spirit has. By comparison with God, we see the angel as diminished; by comparison with the angel, we see matter as diminished.

Whereas spirit has unending permanence in being, matter has not even what we might call temporary permanence: any material object can at any moment be changed into some other. Spirit has all its being at any given moment concentrated in one single simple reality, so that there is no element in a spirit that is not the whole of it. Matter has its being dispersed in parts that occupy space; a material being is limited in its power to individual material things with which it can make contact, whereas spirit can range over the whole universe and beyond by knowledge and love. Yet matter has this resemblance to spirit that it is not one undifferentiated level: it, too, has different levels of excellence, according to the degree of His power that God has willed to make manifest in each.

The dominating division in the material order is between living and nonliving.  Animals are living and vegetables are living: stones are not living.  But as to what life is, most of us feel rather as St. Augustine felt about the meaning of time: That we know what it means provided no one asks us.  We might find it hard to make a list of just what qualities in a thing mark it as living. The distinction strikes us when we see what happens when life goes out of a living body.  It rots; and though we might be hard put to it to analyze the difference between the rotting of what has once been living and the mere breaking up of what never has, this arises from our lack of skill in analyzing a fact, not from any uncertainty about the fact.  A rock may wear away from wind and weather, but we should never confuse this with the decay of vegetation once growing on it, or the decay of the animals that once lived on it.

This is not the place for any very close analysis of the fact called life. Here we may take the simplest and most fruitful definition: living being is one which has within itself some principle by which it operates: and operates not just anyhow but in fulfillment of its nature, in the development of what it is and the achievement of its proper functions.  Living things act from some power or necessity within them, do really (in subordination to God) initiate action; nonliving things are only acted upon (though they are, of course, not purely passive in face of such action upon them: they have their own sort of energy and in consequence their own sort of reaction).

What we have said of living being applies to all living beings, fully and supremely to God, in the created order to angels, human souls and all the material beings that have life. But naturally the operations which thus find their source within the nature of each being differ according to that nature.  Here our concern is with the operations of material living things - powers of movement (anchored to a root in vegetables, unanchored in animals), nutrition and growth (growth which does not simply mean being added to but developing towards a total shape), reproduction of their kind.

The life principle in a material being is called its SOUL.  It is the soul of the vegetable, the soul of the dog, that accounts for the activities of vegetable and dog while they are alive and for the decay of vegetable and dog when they are dead.

There are three divisions of the created universe,

Life reaches down from the beings made in, God's likeness to some of the beings that only bear His imprint.  At any level, life is a great glory: but living matter is still very much matter.  This is obvious if we consider what the proper operations of spirit are - knowing, which means having things present to the mind in their concept or meaning and not simply in their look, or taste, or smell; and loving, which means being attracted to things thus known.  The plant may be said to have some sort of rudimentary knowledge and love: it may seem, for instance, to know where the sun is and to move towards it: but all this is so rudimentary.  When we speak of animals as knowing and loving, even at the highest we see that the knowledge of an animal (and therefore the love of an animal) is only a good imitation: it has not the ranging power of spiritual knowledge. The spirit can know the universal and the abstract: the animal seems to know only the individual and concrete, and can only by courtesy be called knowing at all.

If we examine all that we can of the animal's awareness of things, there is nothing to suggest that it ever goes beyond the sight and the taste and the smell to what the thing profoundly is.  None of the animal activities that we call knowing seem to go beyond the material order, for that is the material order.  Nothing that the animal's psyche does takes us so obviously out of the range of matter that we are forced to postulate a spiritual principle.  The animal's soul does nothing that leads us to feel that some higher than material principle must be in operation.  Therefore, there is no reason to believe that it is not a material soul, "immersed" in the matter of the animal's body, and ending with it. Neither by permanence in being, nor by rational knowledge and love, do even the highest material beings, those that have life, transcend the sphere of matter.  The gulf between matter and spirit remains. But if it is a real gulf, it is a bridged gulf, too, bridged at one point - man.


That man has at once a material and a spiritual element, and therefore belongs to both worlds, we might know merely by looking at him and thinking about what we see. Fortunately: God has told us, through the men whom He inspired to write His Scriptures. The account of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis gives us two principal statements about man:

Let us make man to our image and likeness (Gen. 1:26)
And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life and man became a living soul
(Gen. 2:7).

There you have the two-fold element in man, the slime of the earth and the likeness of God.  And both elements belong. Matter is part of the very nature of man, he would not be man without it: and he would not perform his function in the universe without it.  For it is precisely his function to join the two worlds of matter and spirit into one universe, and he does it by belonging essentially to both of them. Man is not the center of the universe in the sense of that upon which all revolves, he is in this other sense at the center of the universe, bestriding the lower world of matter and the upper world of spirit. Unfortunately, he is so much more aware of the lower one, and so sketchily aware of the upper, for both are realities that affect him profoundly. We must recover a total view of our universe if only in order to know where we are, and that in the interest of sanity. Here we are concerned with man as God made him.

Man is a union of spirit and matter. Man has a living body, therefore there is some principle in him which makes his body to be alive; and whether a body be vegetable or lower animal or man, that principle in it which makes it living is that we call its soul.  Man has a soul, so has a dog, so has a cabbage: and his soul does for his body what their souls do for theirs: makes it a living body.  But their souls are material, limited to matter, not producing any operation that goes beyond matter, man's soul is spirit.  It does not only the things that souls do, but the things that spirits do.  By intellect and will, it knows and loves as spirits know and love: in its thinking it handles the abstract and the universal.  Man, having a body and soul is an animal; but he is a rational animal, for alone of the animals he has a soul which is a spirit.

But how are we to conceive a union of two beings, one of them in space, the other not. Not just any kind of union, but a union so close that the two constitute one being.  The soul, which is spirit, is in every part of the body. A moment's reflection will show us why imagination is driven to such odd acrobatics.  It sees it as the problem of how a body that occupies quite space can be totally occupied by a soul that occupies no space.  But the soul is not outside space because it is too small, but because it lacks the limitations which would make space necessary. To think of a difference of largeness between soul and body, the soul has more being in it, has fewer limitations to diminish it, is every way greater in being.  For the intellect the answer is simple - by superiority of being and of energy.  A spirit is not in space, but it can act upon a being that is in space. The soul acts upon every part of the body, and its action is to vivify, to make alive (indeed according to St. Thomas the soul not only makes the body alive, it makes it a body).  In some ways the presence of the soul in every part of the body is comparable to the presence of God in every part of the universe.

A material and superficial comparison which the mind may find helpful, is when a pot of water is boiling over a flame. The flame occupies none of the space that the water occupies. The energies from the flame set every part of the water bubbling and hissing. The movement of the water is due to the superior energy of the flame. The flame has a life of its own and can continue as a flame whether the water is there or not. The body is so very alive and clamorous that the soul can be overlooked altogether.  But all the vitality of the body is due to the energizing of the soul. If a finger gets separated from the body, it is removed from the field of the soul's energies.  Which reminds us that the union of soul and body has this double flower of intimacy, that the soul acts upon every part of the body, but only upon that particular body: with no other material thing can it make direct contact at all.

The illustration of the flame and the water is only valid up to a point.  The flame and the water are two separate realities brought into relation for a specific purpose, with each capable of existing fully apart from the other.  The soul and body are not thus casually brought together; they are united to form one complete individual reality; they would not come into existence without each other; if they are separated, they suffer loss - the body ceases to be a body and the spirit, although it survives, survives with a large part of its powers idle within it for lack of a body to use them on. The soul and body are partners in the business of being you.

Let us return to the account of his creation: the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth,
and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.
 The word "formed" for instance tells us of the fact but not of the process: there was an assembling of elements of the material universe, but was it instantaneous, or spread over a considerable space of time?  Was it complete in one act or by stages?  Were those elements formed into an animal body which gradually evolved - not by the ordinary laws of matter but under the special guidance of God - to where it was capable of union with a spiritual soul, which God then created and infused into it?  The statement in Genesis does not seem actually to exclude this, nor has the Church formally said that it is not so. On the surface, no specifically religious question seems to be involved.  Whether God formed the body of man in one act or by an unfolding process, it was God who formed it.  But man does not come into being until God creates a human soul.

What is of the first importance, Genesis tells us: that man was made of the slime of the earth in the image and likeness of God; and it would take a long time to unwrap all that is contained in the first chapter of Genesis. We see, that the first woman came from the first man. Genesis seems to make it clear, anyhow, that woman was made from some element of the body of man: there is nothing anything improbable about this, considering that every human being is made of elements taken from the body of other human beings.  And there is an enormous importance in it, for it preserves the unity of the race: we are all from one.

The second truth that leaps to the eye is that God, in giving a wife to Adam, revealed His plan for the cooperation of the sexes in the continuance of the race. The moment man and wife exist, Adam sees them as father and mother, and this by the revelation of God. God made the production of all other human beings to depend upon the cooperation of man and woman.  He did not so act with the angels.  Angels have no progeny, they were not told to increase and multiply and fill the heavens.  There is no race of angels.  They are related to one another as children of one God, and so are we; but they are not, as we are, related to one another as children of one father of their own kind. And our part in God's creative act - what we call procreation - is man's greatest glory in the natural order, it is the act in which he comes closest to the creative power of God.  And it is a glory peculiar to man.  For the angels do not procreate at all, and the animals reproduce their kind without rational choice or any awareness of the majesty of that in which they take part.

Man's body comes from his parents, but not his soul.  That is still the direct creation of God.  God still takes slime of the earth and breathes a soul into it, only that now He takes it not from the earth but from the children of Adam.  The reason why we do not generate our children's souls is the reason why angels do not generate at all: namely that the spirit, mightier in being than the body, has no parts, no constituent elements, one of which may be separated from it and set up in being on its own account.  Our power to reproduce is bound up with the lesser perfection of our material bodies, and the angels do not envy us.  It comes from our lowliness, but in our lowly way we can glory in it.

Meanwhile angels remain our superiors and there is profit for us in their contact.  It is a pity that any man should be so very conscious of the material beings below him, yet ignore these spiritual beings above him.  It means that he is spending too much of his life in the company of his inferiors - through mental inertia.  It is not for nothing that the Church lists Sloth among the capital sins.  There may, even among those who accept the existence of angels, be a feeling that there is not much we can do about them - they are above our heads and there they must stay.  

Still we can habituate the mind to the fact of them, exercise the mind in the comprehension of them, and pray to them for aid.  The Church is rich in suggestions for prayer.  We might take this (from the Mass for the Apparition of St. Michael) as a model: we ask God that our life upon earth may be protected by those who are always present with Thee in heaven, ministering to Thee.


Here then is the created universe in its broadest division from nonliving matter through living matter, through man who is a union of matter and spirit, to the angels who are pure spirits. God brings it into being from nothing. His will which is love is the sole reason for its existence. His will of love must be the rule of its operation, its law. The laws which govern this universe and all things in it are the result of God's perfect knowledge of it. A brief consideration shows us two rather different sets of laws, what we may call physical law and moral law.  The practical distinction for us is that physical law is God's ordinance as to how all things must act, moral law is His ordinance as to how spiritual beings ought to act.  There is an element of choice in the operation of the moral law which does not exist in the operation of the physical law. That fire burns is a physical law, at times useful for man, at times catastrophic, but still burning. Moral law tells us that we ought to do this and ought not to do that, and implies that we are free to choose, whereas there is no freedom of choice about being burned if we put our hand in the fire. In actual fact moral law casts into the form of a command something that is already a law, just as, that fire burns. God's command not to bear false witness implies that we are free to bear false witness if we choose; but to bear false witness - even if we do not know of God's command and no question of sin arises - will damage us spiritually, as fire will damage us bodily. In other words, physical laws and moral laws are laws because we are what we are. Physical law or moral law, to know what it is (is) to know the reality of things: to act in accordance with it is to act by the reality of things.  And that is sanity.

God's laws are there to enable the universe and each being in it to achieve what God meant it to achieve.  For the universe as a whole and for each being God has a purpose, and He has made provision that each being should fulfill His purpose. The universe is not crashing towards a chaos but growing towards a harmony.  All that anything is, all that anything does, has its part in the harmony. Into the harmony are woven the actions of beings who have no choice but to act according to the nature God has given them. Into the harmony also, are woven the acts of beings who can choose, and can choose to act inharmoniously.  Our God Who rules all things knows what they will do to wreck the harmony and knows what He will do to turn their discord into concord. God, says the Portuguese proverb, writes straight with crooked lines.

God does not match the successiveness of our acts by a successiveness in His, so that every wrong act of ours is counter acted by a right act of His. Just as the spirit can dominate every part of the body by not being in space, so God can dominate every part of time by being outside of time. God acts where He is: we receive the effects of His acts where we are. He acts in the spacelessness of His immensity and the timelessness of His eternity: we receive the effects of His acts in space and time.  He acts in the singleness of His simplicity, and we receive the effect of His action in the multiplicity of our dispersion.  We find this hard to comprehend, because we have no direct knowledge of eternity. Like our concept of infinity, our concept of eternity is far stronger and clearer on the side of what it is not than of what it is. After all, we should never have guessed that infinity was Triune; there will be similar fruitful surprises about eternity. Meanwhile the truth stands: God knows all things and provides for all things: we choose, and He lets us choose, but He has His own way of acting upon our choice: and all in one single timeless operation of wisdom and love.

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