The Rector writes …
“Is there life on Mars”?” It is a question which has fascinated the generations and as the quest to find out more about our own solar system (and beyond) continues it may well be that there are other forms of existence to be discovered and to which we might relate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Father Faber wrote a hymn with the stanza: “There is room enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this; there is room for fresh creations in that upper home of bliss”. It is important that our cosmology remains open to fresh possibilities as anything that the sciences offer us can only deepen our insight into the imagination of the Creator. “Ultimately, the meaning and truth of the world lies in the Father, Son, and Spirit who originate, undergird, and nurture it by their divine activity” (Aidan Nichols OP).
Although we have – at least for the present – to remain agnostic as to whether there might be other cognitive beings beyond our own universe, we are committed to belief in the existence of an angelic reality. There are 273 Biblical references to the activity of angels and the Church offers us two celebrations in the coming weeks to help us reflect on their significance and function (Saint Michael and the Archangels on 29th September and the Guardian Angels on 2nd October). Part of the value of this reflection is that we are freed from an overly anthropomorphic world-view, and enabled to place ourselves in a fuller, richer and more beautiful context. Again, Father Faber says it as it is: “Hark! Hark, my soul! Angelic songs are swelling o’er earth’s green fields and ocean’s wave-beat shore; how sweet the truth those blessed strains are telling of that new life when sin shall be no more! Angels of Jesus, Angels of light, singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night”.
As with any spiritual insight, the ministry of the angels is open to misunderstanding and exaggeration. Famously in his Letter to the Colossians (2:18) Saint Paul offers a warning; “do not be taken in by people who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them, people like that are always going on about some vision they have had”. The Apostle could well have been describing the kind of New Age angelology which remains popular but is totally foreign to Christian orthodoxy. What is clear within the Biblical tradition is that there exists a created order alongside ourselves which provides a living link between the things of heaven and those of earth – they continue to come and go as naturally as they ascended and descended on the Son of Man (John 1:51). “The shining presences, invisible except to the inner eye of love and self-giving, continue to play the role they had occupied for Jesus himself – for despite his Godhead, it was by an angel that he was helped in the time of his deepest agony” (Aidan Nichols OP).
In Cardinal Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius”, his angel guardian greets Gerontius, “my friend and brother, hail.” Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that the angels are concerned with each individual’s journey to God, and that they do all that they can not only to protect us on the way but to open up for us God’s personal providence. For Aquinas the fundamental vocation of the angels is to keep the idea of God constantly before the human mind while Abbot Vonier, writing in the twentieth century, sees their mission revealed in the worship of God which must naturally result in a deeper human commitment to charity: “to see God face to face produces in the mind of the elect a new capacity to see him in his creatures, and where is he seen to greater advantage than in the world of angels, which mirrors back with an almost infinite power of radiation, the glory of the invisible God?”
In a world which can be so harsh, and in which the suffering of so many is so acute (and in which Christ’s own mystical Body exhibits such deep wounds) it is easy to be overcome by negativity and disillusionment: an understanding of the angelic mission can go some way to provide an antidote. Dante expressed it in his vision of Paradise: “And all around that Centre, wings outstretched, I saw more than a thousand festive angels, each one distinct in brilliance and in art”. May the Guardian Angels keep each of us close to the heart of God.