Thomas Aquinas helps us understand what our finite minds cannot fathom
[Throughout Advent, Fr. Dwight Longenecker will be examining Angels and their role in the stories of our salvation. – Ed]
Medieval theologians were sometimes mocked for debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and Thomas Aquinas was probably one of the theologians who was the target of the ridicule. St.Thomas is called “the Angelic Doctor” not only because of the sublime spirituality of his philosophy, but also because he devoted a good bit of his study to the subject of angels.
St.Thomas clarified certain aspects of our understanding about angels. His teaching helps us to understand the activity of angels, both in the stories of Christ’s birth and in the present day. Too often angels are put into the same category as dryads, unicorns, elves and other mythological beings, inhabiting the Bible the way fairy godmothers appear in children’s fairy tales.
St. Thomas Aquinas, however, took their existence seriously, explaining what sort of beings they are and how they operate in the world. The first truth to remember about angels is that they are completely incorporeal. They do not have physical bodies, nor do they live and move and operate within a physical realm. When we try to imagine a creature that is not physical we usually end up thinking of some sort of ghostly, ephemeral being. The best we can do is to think of a blend of a body and a cloud or puff of smoke. Aquinas avoids those mental images altogether and refers to the angels as pure intellect.
While St. Thomas says the angels can assume a physical body it would be more precise to say they appear to be in physical form. Rather than the angel taking an actual, physical body it is more likely that they manipulate a human’s powers of perception so that the person sees and interacts with the angel, believing he is seeing something physical when, in fact, the visionary’s mind is influenced in such a way that they are only perceiving what appears to be the physical form of an angel.
Does this mean the angel does not really exist? No. The angel exists, but does so out of the range of our physical, material world. This should not surprise us. There are many aspects of reality, like radio waves, that are invisible and yet real. That the angel appears to have a body is one of the ways the angel activates and interacts with our physical realm. To extend the analogy of radio wave, with the proper receiver the radio waves then take the form of real people singing or speaking.
Angels make regular appearances to humans in the stories leading up to Christmas. To understand the meaning of the stories we need first to understand the role of the angels. The word “angel” means “messenger” and the angels serve as intermediaries between God and human beings. To do this they assume a visible appearance. According to those who claim to have seen angels they may appear as a pillar of light, as a tall humanoid creature of light or they might take ordinary human form, usually with some symbol of radiance or light. So, if they appear as a human they might be clothed all in white or be surrounded by an aura of light.
To read St. Thomas Aquinas is to exercise logic and draw philosophical conclusions without interruption of fantasy, imagination, sentimentality and wishful thinking. All our ideas of angels as handsome, effeminate looking young men or chubby cherubs playing lutes must be set aside. Ideas of angels as mighty armor clad warriors or lovely ladies walking beside little children in a dark forest must be put out of our minds. The angels are creatures of light. Pure intellect, their true existence and operation are outside the imagination of our finite minds.
Their interaction with us and our world is part of the mystery of creation, and the reality of their existence is a crucial aspect of our spiritual lives. As C.S.Lewis has pointed out we are “half ape, half angel.” As eternal souls infused into physical bodies, the angels are one of our connectors to “the other side.” As the Old Testament character Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a great stairway to heaven, so the angels act as one of the channels through which God communicates with the human race.