The Excellence of the Angels, by Father Richard O'Kennedy

Can the angels converse with one another, and how?

The angels speak one to another. The Scripture uses the same word of their conversation that it does to designate human speech: "The Seraphim cried out one to another and said, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth" (Isaiah 6:3); "If I should speak with the tongues of men and of angels" (I Corinthians 13:1); "When Michael, the archangel, was disputing with the devil, he said, The Lord command thee" (Jude 1:9); and so all the Fathers.

The angels, therefore, can speak to God. They praise His power, they extol His majesty, they beseech His clemency, they consult His wisdom. Thus, it is related in Zachary, the angel replied to God, and said: "Lord of Armies, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Juda?" (1:12) In the book of Job, Satan is introduced many times as speaking to God.

In like manner, the angels can speak to men, as the archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin. Saint Thomas, and with him the generality of theologians, are of opinion that though angels can speak of their own natural powers, yet, in communication with themselves there is no need to make use of words, but that God has so made them that mind speaks to mind. This, too, seems more noble, and more in accordance with our notions of the angels.

"Cast your eye over that outspread ocean, whose shores lie so faintly and far off in the almost infinite distance. It gleams like restless silver, quivering with one life, and yet such multitudinous life. It flashes in the light with intolerable magnificence. Its unity is numberless. Its life is purest light. Into the bosom of its vastness the glory of God shines down, and the universe is illuminated with its refulgence. It is an ocean of life. Who can count the sum of being that is there? Who but God can fathom its unsearchable caverns? What created eye but is dazzled with the blazing splendour of its capacious surface? It breaks upon its shores in mighty waves; and yet there is no sound. Grand storms of voiceless praise hang over it for ever, storms of ecstatic lightning without any roll of thunder, whose very silence thrills the souls of the human saints, and is one of their celestial joys - that deep stillness of unsounding worship. This is the world of angels." - Father Faber, Precious Blood

What is the power of the angels with regard to this visible creation?

The power of the angels is immense. The Scriptures ascribe to them the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Sennacherib's army, and of the firstborn of the Egyptians; and to the bad angels, Job's afflictions, the destruction of his goods, and the death of his children; the possession of men (as in the New Testament); the rushing of the herd of swine into the sea, etc. Thus also of Antichrist, the principal minister of Satan, miraculous things are foretold in the Apocalypse.

We cannot exactly define how great is their power. This, however, we know, that they cannot contravene any of the divine or natural laws, or even the physical laws of the globe, that their power is entirely subject to the wish and per mission of Almighty God, "otherwise the evil spirits could any day overturn the entire world." (Bonal, De Angelis) Later on this matter will be treated more fully; here it is sufficient to say that they can produce most wonderful effects, as exciting storms and tempests, striking the earth with interior motions, causing foul dreams and diseases, or sometimes curing sickness and wounds, and bringing about health in man or beast, when it pleases God to allow them to do so. In that enchanting little gem, the Dream of Gerontius, when the departed soul is approaching the judgment-seat, it thus converses with its guardian angel:


But hark! upon my sense
Comes a fierce hubbub, which would make me fear,
Could I be frighted?


We are now arrived
Close on the judgment court; that sullen howl
Is from the demons who assemble there.
It is the middle region, where of old
Satan appeared among the sons of God,
To cast his gibes and scoffs at holy Job.
So now his legions throng the vestibule,
Hungry and wild to claim their property,
And gather souls for hell. Hist to their cry!


How sour and how uncouth a dissonance!


It is the restless panting of their being;
Like beasts of prey, who, caged within their bars,
In a deep hideous purring have their life,
And an incessant pacing to and fro.


How impotent they are! and yet on earth
They have repute for wondrous power and skill;
And books describe, how that the very face
Of the Evil One, if seen, would have a force
Even to freeze the blood, and choke the life
Of him who saw it.


In thy trial-state
Thou hadst a traitor nestling close at home,
Connatural, who with the powers of hell
Was leagued, and of thy senses kept the keys,
And to that deadliest foe unlocked thy heart.
And therefore is it, in respect of man,
Those fallen ones show so majestical.

But when some child of grace, angel or saint,
Pure and upright in his integrity
Of nature, meets the demons on their raid,
They scud away as cowards from the fight.
Nay, oft hath holy hermit in his cell,
Not yet disburdened of mortality,
Mocked at their threats and warlike overtures;
Or dying, when they swarmed, like flies around,
Defied them, and departed to his Judge.

Are angels superior to man?

The natural excellence of the angels far surpasses that of man.

The Scriptures say: "Thou hast found him a little less than the angels." (Psalm 8:6) This text in its mystical sense is used of Christ, but in its literal historic sense is made use of with regard to man. Of the demon it is said: "There is not a power on earth could compare with him." (Job 41:24) Saint Augustine, in his City of God, says: "The angelic world in its natural dignity surpasses all other things that the Lord has made"; and from its very excellence, he argues: "By so much was their transgression the more culpable, by as much as their dignity was the more sublime." Even the very gentile races believed in their superiority, and also in their power to injure or serve, and hence they paid to them an inferior worship, as beings to be propitiated.

Whether, during their time of trial, did the angels receive supernatural grace?

Yes; all the angels received grace from God during their time of trial.

(1) The good angels received it. They were created for eternal blessedness just as man, and grace is as necessary for them in order to obtain supernatural merit as for man; therefore they received supernatural grace.

Saint Basil says: "There is no sanctification without the Spirit; for not even the Virtues of heaven were of their own nature sanctified: if that were the case, there would then, indeed, be no difference between them and the Holy Ghost." Didymus, in his first book on the Holy Spirit, says: "The Holy Ghost not alone accompanies (as Indweller) men who are far away from heaven, but even does so with each and every one of the angels." Saint Damascene: "By a word the angels were created, and by the sanctification of the Holy Ghost they have received all manner of perfection."

(2) The bad angels received grace; for the same is asserted of them as of the good angels, and the Scriptures and the Fathers strongly emphasise the fact.

Isaias: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst arise as the morning?" These words mean a fall from a place of eminent dignity and excellence, such as the wonderful brightness and splendour of the grace of God. No natural brightness of the angels, great though it be, is like to it.

Ezechiel 28:12): "Thou wast the seal of remembrance, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. Thou wast in the pleasures of the paradise of God - every precious stone thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite, and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire, and the carbuncle, and the emerald - gold the work of thy beauty; and thy pipes were prepared in the day thou wast created. Thou a cherubim, stretched out and protecting, and I set thee in the holy mountain of God, thou hast walked in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day of thy creation until iniquity was found in thee." The Holy Fathers, in commenting on these words of Ezechiel, apply them to Lucifer, although, in the sacred text, the words are historically addressed to the King of Tyre. Writing on "thou wast the seal of remembrance," they understand the phrase to signify that Lucifer was created with very great excellence to an exceeding close image of God; and the other words, "full of wisdom, perfect in beauty," are always used in Scripture as the perfection of supernatural grace. Our Blessed Lord Himself says of the demon: "He was a murderer, and stood not in the truth." (John 8:44) Now, by the word "truth" in this text, Saint Thomas and the Fathers, especially the Greek Fathers, understand "grace". The same is said in other words in the epistle of Saint Jude (in the 6th verse): "And the angels who kept not their principality, but forsook their own habitation, He hath reserved under darkness in everlasting chains."

Man, as is commonly held, was created in the state of grace; now, it was fitting that angels, too, should be created in a state of grace, since the end for which man and angels were created was the same; since, moreover, the angels nature was more perfect, and, therefore, ought not to be longer deprived of the grace of sanctification; and since, especially, all of God's works are perfect, and ought not, therefore, to be less so in the case of angels than of men.

But did they receive sanctifying grace at the instant of their creation?

Most probably, and all but certainly, yes.

Saint Augustine says: "God created the angels, building up in them their nature, and at the same time bestowing on them His grace."

Saint Basil: "The angels were not created in a weakling state, by degrees increasing and growing perfect, and thus become worthy of the reception of the Spirit; but in their very formation, and as if mixed with their substance, they received at the instant of creation the infusion of grace."

Saint Bonaventure, discussing the matter, thus writes: "It is to be answered that this is a question of fact; and since there is nothing else to guide us than the congruity of God's doing so, we may regard both opinions as probable, like others before us. Some say that the angels were created in grace, and they argue from God's liberality and the angels fitness that it must be so: God being willing to give where no obstacle is placed, and the angels being pure and clear vessels offering no obstacle to the infusion of His grace; so that God did not leave them empty (as it were) even for a moment, but the instant He created them that instant He enriched them. They find an analogy in His creation of the inanimate world: the trees He brought forth clothed with verdure and laden with fruit; equally so all other things in their highest and noblest state, and hence they infer the angels in the enjoyment of grace.

"Others, however, there are who hold that the angels did not receive grace at the first instant, but afterwards. They argue that though God could do as the supporters of the other opinion say, yet His liberality is regulated according to wisdom and justice. For instance, God could have redeemed man immediately after his fall; it would appear to have been more liberal than what He did, yet He did not. Then it were more fitting (they say) that the angels, seeing how good the grace of God was, should covet it and thus receive it. According to this view Lucifer never had grace; and if he, who was the highest amongst them, had it not, a fortiori the others had it not. This opinion the Master of the Sentences [Scotus] seems to accept, and indeed it may be looked upon as the more generally accepted of the two. It is further argued by them that the angels conversion must take place from some indifferent standpoint; from this the good angels were converted to good and therefore deserved merit, the wicked to evil and were therefore condemned."

This is no longer the common opinion. Modern theologians find it under every sense more convenient to hold that God created the angels from the very first in a state of grace, that He then placed a labour or trial before them - what that trial was will be discussed later on - that the wicked angels failed in the endurance of that trial, and their sin was therefore doubly malicious; that the good angels were faithful, and stepped from grace to greater grace, and to the enjoyment of the Beatific Vision.

"Each angel, perhaps, had thousands of beautiful graces. To many of these we on earth could give no name, if we beheld them. But they were all wonderful, all instinct with supernatural holiness and spiritual magnificence." - Father Faber, Precious Blood

And again: "God became a King by becoming a Creator. It was thus He gained an empire over which His insatiable love might rule. . . . Nature is very beautiful, whether we think of angelic or human nature. Created Nature is a shadow of the Uncreated Nature, so real and so bright that we cannot think of it without exceeding reverence. Yet God created neither angels nor man in a state of nature. This is, to my mind, the most wonderful and the most suggestive thing which we know about God. He would have no reasonable nature, even from the very first, which should not be partaker of His Divine Nature. This is the very meaning of a state of grace. He, as it were, clung to His creation while He let it go. He would not leave it to breathe for one instant in a merely natural state. The very act of creation was full of the fondness of maternal jealousy. It was, to speak in a human way, as if He feared that it would wander from Him, and that His attractions would be too mighty for the littleness of finite beings. . . . Oh, that majesty of God, which seems clothed with such worshipful tranquility in the eternity before creation, how passionate, how yearning, how mother-like, how full of inventions and excesses it appears in the act of creation." - Idem. p. 85

What mysteries of faith did the angels know explicitly during their probation?

(1) The unity of God, and all those attributes which belong to the unity of God, as, for instance, that He is the Sanctifier, and that He is the great Rewarder; according to Saint Paul: "For he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and is a Rewarder to those that seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6) In order to love God above all things it is necessary that we must have supernatural faith, for how else could we have hope in Him, or how else could we look to Him as the object of eternal blessedness; therefore the angels had such supernatural faith. Also, during their time of trial, the angels understood all those truths which natural reason teaches regarding God, as the Creator, the Supreme Lord, the First Truth, etc.

(2) The angels knew by divine revelation the mystery of the Sacred Trinity, and believed in it - such is the common opinion held by theologians - and that the angels understood it much more distinctly than we do. Even the Prophets of the Old Law, it is believed, knew of the Trinity.

"In the Old Testament there is not, indeed, that express mention of the Holy Trinity which is to be found in the New; either because there was danger of the Jews being led to believe there were more Gods than one, or because God wished by little and little to lead the weakness of man's intellect to the knowledge of the highest and most inconceivable mysteries; yet are there many passages where vestiges of the Sacred Trinity are to be found, nor are there wanting testimonies from which it may be gathered there are several Persons in God." (Delahogue) He quotes in proof the following:

"Let us make man to our own image." (Genesis 1)

"Behold Adam is become as one of ourselves." (Genesis 3)

At the Tower of Babel: "Come, let us descend, and confound their tongues"; on which Saint Chrysostom says: "Behold, I beseech you, how the voice of the Father calls on the Son and the Holy Spirit; it is the voice of one addressing two equals."

Saint Thomas says that the essential beatitude of the angels [i.e., after their term of probation] consists in the intuitive vision of the Divine Essence. Now, the Divine Essence, as it is in itself, cannot be seen without the Three Divine Persons also; "Therefore," Suarez argues, "an explicit faith in that mystery [during the term of probation] ought to be required as a necessary means to salvation."

Arguing from what is required in man, viz., an explicit faith in the Sacred Trinity, both in man's fallen state and in the Christian Dispensation, we conclude that it was required also in the angels. It was not required under the Old Dispensation, but that was because of the imperfection of the Old Dispensation an imperfection which is not to be attributed to the state of the angels.

(3) It is most probable the angels knew of the mystery of the Incarnation by divine revelation, and believed in it. Saint Thomas among the elder Schoolmen, and the great Suarez among the modern, are the leaders in the opinion which holds that the bad angels fell because of this wonderful act of divine condescension. They desired the hypostatic union for themselves, and envied it to man.

"The mystery of the kingdom of God, which is fulfilled in Christ our Lord, all the angels, indeed, knew of from the beginning in some qualified way; but chiefly those who were made blessed, confirmed by the vision of the Word - a vision which the demons never had." (Saint Thomas) Saint Paul says: "And again, when He bringeth in the First-Begotten into the world, He says, And let all the angels of God adore Him." (Hebrews 1:6) It was therefore fitting for the glory and honour of the Son of God who was to come in human flesh that the angels should know this mystery. Moreover, Christ is the head of the angels, and the angels His ministers, and therefore it was proper that from the commencement they should acknowledge Him as their Lord and Master.

Did the angels know this mystery fully with all its circumstances and details?

It is believed they did not. Most likely the angels during probation knew it only in an obscure way. Just as it was one of the first things told by God to Adam, and he then had an undefined knowledge of it as a future event which God would bring about in His own way. Adam, however, knew that the Redeemer was to be born of woman. So, too, the angels. Saint Thomas says they did not know all the circumstances relating to Redemption. But after probation it is believed the angels knew this sacred mystery; and not to mention their knowledge by reason of the Beatific Vision, they knew it partly before Christ, partly after, either by the will and revelation of God, or by the prophecies, or, finally, by seeing the acts of Christ Himself, and by the teaching of the Apostles, according to the saying of Saint Paul: "To me, the least of all the saints, is given the grace to preach . . . in order that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the Principalities and Powers in the heavenly places, through the Church, according to the eternal purpose, which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Ephesians 3:10)

Father Faber thus speaks of their knowledge of the Precious Blood during their term of probation: "The angels wonder more than men, because they better understand it. Their superior intelligence ministers more abundant matter to their love. From the very first he invited the angels to adore it. He made their adoration a double exercise of humility - of humility towards Himself, and of humility towards us, their fellow creatures. It was the test to which He put their loyalty. He showed them His beloved Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in His Sacred Humanity, united to a lower nature than their own, and in that lower nature crowned their King and Head to be worshipped by them with absolute and unconditional adoration. The Son of a human mother was to be their Head, and that daughter of Eve to be herself their Queen. He showed them in that Blood the source of all their graces. Each angel, perhaps, had thousands of beautiful graces . . . yet there was not a single grace in any angel which was not merited for him by the Blood of Jesus, and which had not also its type and counterpart in that Precious Blood. The Precious Blood, man's Blood, was as the dew of the whole kingdom of the angels. It would have redeemed them, had they needed to be redeemed, or were they allowed to be redeemed. But as it was not so, it merited for them, and was the source of, all their graces. Well, then, may the angels claim to sing the song of the Lamb; to whose out-poured Human Life they also owed so much, though not because it was outpoured." - Precious Blood

It is to be understood that the angels did not clearly know or see God during their time of trial, and the reason is, "because this knowledge is the primum premium, which being attained, the soul rests blessed and happy." (Bonaventure)

Not even in heaven will the angels know God as He really is. The most blessed Soul of our Lord Jesus Christ, great and wonderful as it is, will not know the Divine Essence fully and entirely. To do so, an intelligence should be as infinite as God Himself. No created intelligence is infinite, and, therefore, the human Soul of our Blessed Lord, insomuch as it is a created thing, cannot know God fully and entirely as He is.

Saint Bonaventure says: "The good angels had no fore knowledge during their time of trial that they would remain faithful, nor had the wicked any of their fall; if such were not the case a twofold inconvenience would arise. First, if God gave to the good angels a foreknowledge of their remaining faithful, then the devil might excuse himself that he did not get a knowledge that was vouchsafed to others; and secondly, if a foreknowledge of their fall was disclosed to the wicked, then they were left without hope and tempted to their ruin; and, furthermore, the pain begotten of such knowledge would be unjustly inflicted by God, inasmuch as it was inflicted before they had committed any evil. To none, therefore, of the angels (he concludes) was their future lot revealed."

Did the angels, while in a state of probation, elicit acts meriting future glory?

Yes; just as men on earth elicit meritorious acts, so did they.

The Scripture says: "No one is crowned except he who has legitimately striven" (2 Timothy 2:5); and in Proverbs 12:14: "To each one there shall be given according to the work of his hands." This is the law of God, not alone for men, but for angels also.

The Holy Fathers - Pope Gelasius says: "That the angels were so constituted as to merit an increase of eternal glory is sufficiently indicated by the fact that, had they stood in need of nothing more, then none of them could have committed evil."

Saint Prosper, writing on the contemplative life, says: "It was the action of the will of the holy angels, that while their companions with their own free-will fell, they themselves remained in the dignity wherein God had placed them; and hence it came to pass, by a divine and a most just judgment, that what was only up to that a holy desire of remaining with their God, became thereafter a voluntary and most blessed necessity of remaining with Him for ever more."

Argument from Reason - The angels, good and bad, were placed in an equal condition with regard to merit and demerit. Now, the wicked angels had the power of demeriting, and did demerit; therefore the good angels had the power of meriting, and did merit. Again, it is more perfect to have a thing from one's own act than to owe it absolutely to another; therefore, since all God's works are perfect - namely, of meriting by their own acts - the angels had that perfection. How long the state of probation lasted we do not know; but this seems to be the order of the angels acts: first, by a free act (as in the case, for instance, of adults being baptised) they received with all their reason and will sanctifying grace; secondly (placed in that state of sanctifying grace), they were then in a position to earn supernatural merit, and while in that position, as all the Holy Fathers and the Theologians teach, they were still viatores (travellers, i.e., not as yet confirmed), and as such that they elicited acts deserving of supernatural reward. "Consequently, according to almost all, that subsequent act, by which an increase of grace and glory was merited, was, in a way, a distinct act from the first act, and corresponding to several instants of our time, and coexisting with several acts which had been ordered [them by God], and which were successive in the angels themselves." (Bonal)

Did the angels, who were more excellent by nature, receive more grace, merit, and glory than the others who were not so excellent?

Yes; that is the common opinion of the Fathers and the Theologians.

Saint Basil says: "The angels received their measure of sanctification according to the proportion by which they exceeded one another."

Saint Damascene: "The angels, each according to his dignity and class, were made sharers of light and glory"; and the Fathers take this doctrine from Saint Dionysius, who says he learned it from Saint Paul: "De Coelo Hier."

Argument from Reason. The angelic nature had been created by God for the purpose of receiving grace and enjoying blessedness; and as there were different choirs and different orders of spirits, and as variety adds to the beauty of a work, so was it fitting that there should be among the angels different degrees of grace and merit and glory, just as there is amongst men, or just as a builder in raising a house will dress some portions of it more elaborately than others.

Care must be taken however not to confound efficacious grace with the graces of which we have been speaking. God made no position or class of angels which should necessarily demand from His bounteous hand efficacious grace, or be necessarily denied it, because of its individual position or class.

What was the degree of grace and merit, and therefore of glory in the angels?

Nothing more definite can be said than, as Saint Thomas puts it, that it was "intensely great, both by reason of the supremely excellent nature of the angels, and because God always increases and multiplies whatever is good."

In comparing their grace with that of man, and excepting our Blessed Lady alone, it may be said that it is immensely greater than among the saints. The Blessed Virgin is placed beyond all; as the Church on the day of her assumption proclaims, "she is exalted above the choirs of angels in the heavenly kingdom"; and hence Suarez is of opinion that perhaps there is no other except the Blessed Virgin, or at least very few among the children of men, that can be compared with (at any rate) the supreme angels in their perfection of grace and glory.

Here we have to adore the liberality of Almighty God and the mysterious and adorable way in which He distributes His gifts. First, He fashions the angels in a natural order, and in that natural order He endows some with greater natural perfection than others according to the ideal in the Divine Mind from eternity. Next, He raises these angels in the first instant of creation to a supernatural order by the gift of sanctifying grace. Then comes the time of probation, and after that term He confirms the good angels for ever in glory, and bestows on them the Beatific Vision and happiness and enlightenment and splendour, according to their own acts truly, but still more in proportion to the natural powers and dignity and excellence His own divine hand had bountifully bestowed on them from the beginning. Here indeed was the potter and the potter's clay spoken of by Saint Paul. To man He acts differently. Not in proportion to His natural excellence, to the powers of His mind, or to the outward gifts of His body does He reward him; but "the foolish things of this earth hath God selected that He might confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the strong, that no flesh may glory to itself in His sight." And yet some of those weak things and those foolish things God has placed in an equality with nay, even beyond the brilliant angels, who never knew the weakness and the foolishness of our earthly nature.

When did the angels come into the possession of the Beatific Vision?

Before the resurrection of our Blessed Lord? Yes; for our Blessed Lord says (Matthew 10:10): "Their angels always see the Father's face." All the Fathers understand this of the Beatific Vision. Now, Christ says this of the angel guardians, "who have but the last place in the heavenly hierarchy" (Bonal); and therefore by much more reason is it to be understood of the higher angels.

Before Christ's coming? Yes; for Daniel says: "Thou sands on thousands ministered to Him and stand before Him"; and in Tobias we read: "I am the Angel Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the throne of God."

Before the fall of man? Yes; for Satan was then a fallen angel, and condemned when he tempted our first parents; and from that we construe that the unfallen angels were then confirmed in glory, for, according to Saint Thomas, "God is quicker to reward than to punish."

All theologians are agreed that "after the shortest delay, taking into account their opportunity for meriting, and God's decrees in their regard, the angels were confirmed in eternal glory."

"The beautiful life of the angels in heaven, God's eldest-born, may also furnish us with ample materials for intercession, and our Lord seems to call our attention to it when He bids us pray that we may do His holy will on earth as the angels in heaven.

"Sister Minima of Gesu Nazareno, a Carmelite nun, who lived at the time of the French invasion of Italy, and spent a life of incessant and wonderful intercession, used continually to offer to the Divine Majesty the love of the first choir of seraphim, in reparation for all the outrages then going on in the world.

"It is remarkable, when we come to think of it, that neither angels nor men were created in a state of nature, but in a state of grace, and were thus able at once to love God and to merit eternal life, which is nothing else than eternal society with Him. Grace was a better position than nature for loving God. By grace He could communicate Himself to us supernaturally. By it He at once got more love from us, and made us more able to love Him. Oh, that we had the hearts to take this in, and all that it involves! If we are come to weights and measures with infinite goodness, surely His love of us should be our measure of love of Him - a measure to which we must never cease to aspire, though we shall never attain it. . . . Well might Saint Francis run about the woods in the valley of Spoleto: Oh! God not known! God not loved! Well might Saint Bruno cause the mountain solitudes to echo with his one life-long cry - Oh! goodness! goodness! goodness! Well might our dearest Lord appear to Saint Gertrude, pale, weary, bleeding, and dust-stained, and say, Open your heart, my daughter, for I want to go in and lie down: I am weary of these days of sin.

"But at last as we grow in the knowledge of God, we grow in His love also." - Father Faber, All for Jesus