The Heavenly Choirs, by Father Richard O'Kennedy

It is with joy that a person turns from questions of such intense pain as those regarding hell, to speak about a subject of such beauty and attraction as the nine choirs of angels in heaven. Yet in the former subject Scripture was more explicit and more plain than in the latter. The reader must, moreover, be prepared to enter into deep and mystical discussions, yet ones which are extremely lovely in their suggestiveness, when we come to analyze the first and most sublime handiwork of the Omnipotent Creator. Father Faber says: "It would be long to recount all the marvels which theology teaches of the holy angels, of the might of their power, the breadth of their intelligence, and the fervour of their love. They are our elder brothers, the earlier family of God. The various kingdoms of their hierarchies lie before us, in species inconceivably diversified. Their graces, their powers, their gifts, their operations, their work - all are different, the one class from the other. By them they are distinguished into hierarchies and those again into choirs, and the choirs into species; and by them also they are grouped into congenial multitudes of similar beauty, power, and office." - Blessed Sacrament

How many choirs of angels are there?

There are nine choirs of angels, distributed into three hierarchies. They are the Seraphim (Isaias 6:2), the Cherubim (Genesis 3:24), the Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers (Colossians 1:6), the Virtues, Archangels, and Angels (Ephesians 1:2).

Saint Denis, the Areopagite, the Athenian disciple of Saint Paul, was the first to reckon them up; and the Fathers of the Church have unanimously followed him. These choirs, he states, differ in dignity and power. Now in every well-ordered community there must be the highest grade, the middle, and the lowest; and since these differ in dignity or grades, they are divided by theologians into three orders or hierarchies.

Tradition teaches the same. Saint Augustine says: "That there are Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, I firmly believe; and that they differ one from another I hold as indubitably true; but what these differences are, and how great, I know not."

Saint Bonaventure says: "After what has been said, it still remains to be seen what does Scripture teach concerning the orders of angels. In several places it lays down that there are nine orders of angels - namely, Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim; and in these orders are three triples, and in each triple three choirs, that a similitude of the Sacred Trinity would be found impressed upon them. Hence Dionysius teaches there are three orders of angels, and he places them in triples: 'Three superior', he says, 'three inferior, and three middle: the superior, Cherubim, Seraphim, and Thrones; the middle, Dominations, Principalities, Powers; the inferior, Virtues, Archangels, Angels'."

In the Ecumenical Council of Lateran held under Leo X, it is laid down: "For when in the commencement God created heaven and earth - the heavens itself He established in three Principalities, which are called hierarchies, and each of these Principalities He divided into as many choirs of angels."

Each hierarchy is ordained that it might lead the less dignified, which is next in order to it, towards God. "This," says Saint Denis, "is the firmly established law of God, that the least dignified would be brought to God by means of those more highly endowed." It may come as a question to the mind of the reader, if the first in dignity lead those of the second rank or grade, and those of the middle grade the lowest, whom do the lowest lead? The answer is, as we shall see further on - they lead man. "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels." Thus in all its beauty is exemplified the truth of the saying - "Order is heaven s first law."

State the division of the nine choirs into the three hierarchies or orders?

Saint Denis thus divides them: In the highest rank, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; in the middle, Dominations, Virtues, Powers; in the lowest, Principalities, Archangels, Angels. Some make a change in the last. They put Principalities in the middle grade and Virtues in the last. There seems, however, no reason, except that it is the more common tradition of the Church. The angels country is an unknown land. "Man's eye hath not seen; nor man's ear heard." And he that was rapt to the third heavens only tells us that he saw and heard things unlawful to recount. Yet man will question and surmise, and these curious searchings and pious surmises are not without their use.

"An order of angels is," according to Saint Bonaventura, "a multitude of heavenly spirits, who, on account of certain gifts of grace, have a likeness among themselves; as, for instance, the Seraphim, who, according to the blessed Gregory, are alike in their ardent charity; the Cherubim in their wisdom, and so on. These names are given to them not for their sake, but for ours; and the individual orders are called from the gifts of grace which they possess, not exclusively but in an excellent manner; just as men, though they possess several gifts, yet have some in a very excellent manner [and by these especially are known to the generality of their fellows], so the angels, some have some in a greater, some in a lesser degree; but in that heavenly land, where there is the plenitude of all good, all must have all the excellences in some degree. It appears on the testimony of authority that this distinction had place from the beginning, for it lays down that angels fell from every order or rank; and from the very highest fell Lucifer, than whom none was more dignified. It must not be concluded, however, that all angels of the one rank or order are equal. Lucifer, for instance, who was in the college of the highest, was more excellent than all his own comrades; and had he remained firm, no doubt he would have been more excellent in glory than they. It is just the same with the Saints: There is the order of the Apostles, the Martyrs, etc.; and yet among the Apostles there is an inequality - one being chief and supreme over all. So also the Martyrs, etc."

What do the three hierarchies, with their separate orders, represent?

The three hierarchies represent the three grand acts of the Divinity, and each subordinate triple order represents the threefold manner of putting these acts into operation. Now the three acts typified are, according to Saint Thomas: 1st, His own essential acts theologically called actus ad intra - i.e., acts respecting Himself, by which, for instance, He knows and loves Himself; 2nd, acts relating to the whole universal creation - i.e., His relations to it as Creator, Preserver, Ruler, etc.; 3rd, acts relating to individual things or beings in that universal creation. In the first order of acts we have: Paternity, Filiation, Procession - the Father, the Only-begotten Son, and the Holy Ghost. In the second we have the creation of the world, its preservation, and its ordering; creation, conservation, gubernation. In the third we have, speaking of man, the creation, the redeeming, the glorifying; creation, regeneration, beatification. Or, again, taking the outside world, we have the animal, vegetable, and mineral world.

Father Faber says: "But the Holy Trinity is not only the most ancient, it is also the queen of mysteries. It is enthroned over all. It embraces all within itself. It lends to all their beauty, their force, their fitness, and their divinity. It is full of depths, of mysteries that we know, and mysteries that to us are unknown. Especially does it contain twice three abysses of external operations, into which angels and men desire to look, and yet turn giddy as they gaze; as much because they are sweetly inebriated with the excesses of divine goodness, as because their understanding swims and at last gives way to ecstasy in the glories of the divine power. These six abysses are: Predestination, Creation, Incarnation, Justification, Transubstantiation, and Glorification. These, with the mother mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, form the various sciences which comprise that prime glory of the human mind, the marvelous edifice of Catholic theology." - Blessed Sacrament

How do the different orders represent these acts?

Theologians say thus: God in His relations to Himself is represented by the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones. We come to the meaning of those words. Seraphim (from the Hebrew) means burning or flaming, because of their excess of the love of God, and hence are called the flaming Seraphim. These represent the love of God; that infinite, unconquerable, undying love. And these are put in the highest place, as created representations of that wonderful attribute, the charity of God towards Himself. In their relation to the subordinate orders also, the fiery zealots are fitly placed first, for nothing so represents the power of attracting others towards God as the being on fire oneself with love of God. "I come to cast fire on the earth."

The Cherubim are placed second in that hierarchy; and the word Cherubim means, according to Saint Denis, a profusion of wisdom or knowledge; according to Saint Augustine, the fulness of wisdom; according to Saint Chrysostom, wisdom and purity. Now wisdom and purity, both being like light, are peculiarly typical of the Son of God. "He was the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world; and we saw His glory, the glory, as it were, of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

In this first hierarchy the Thrones hold third place. The word Throne is taken from our own use of the expression. We understand what a throne means. It is the receptacle of royalty, and is even taken for royalty itself. Thus the love of Father and Son, the royal love of both, has found a common resting-place in the Holy Spirit; and the resting-place is equal to the occupier - the Holy Spirit is equal to the Father or to the Son.

And again, reversing the order of the Divine Persons (since the three Divine Persons are equal), the Seraphim may be taken as representative of the burning love of the Holy Ghost, that on the Day of Pentecost came down in form of tongues of fire. The Cherubim, in this arrangement, would still be typical of the Son, in whom was the plenitude of wisdom and holiness; and the Thrones would represent the everlasting stronghold, the eternal unchangingness, the primal cause, and mighty power and sceptre of the Father. "Salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne." In this way the Seraphim would represent the Holy Ghost, the Cherubim the Word, and the Thrones the Father. They are in the immediate presence of God - are placed, as Saint Denis puts it, "in the vestibule of the Divinity". Their one sole business is to assist before God. "They are before the throne of God, and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He, that sitteth on the throne, shall dwell over them." By reason of their office they are never sent as messengers to men. To them God first imparts the knowledge of things that He wishes to make known; and through them it becomes known to the inferior ranks of angels.

Olier says: "The Seraphim proceed from God, as flames proceed from a furnace; and their circles surround Him as with a fiery blaze. The Cherubim are the rays of the divine wisdom, and are, so to say, the eyes of God, under which He seems to regard Himself and all the external world. The Thrones are the image of His sanctity. This hierarchy expresses the three great perfections we adore in God namely, His love, His knowledge, and His holiness. These typify also these beautiful operations of grace, whereby God draws to Himself intelligent beings: (1) Detaching them from creatures by His love; (2) enlightening them interiorly by His heavenly wisdom; and (3) making His throne in their hearts and abiding there for ever."

The Second Hierarchy

Which are the choirs of the second hierarchy?

Following Saint Gregory, Saint Anselm, Saint Bernard, we count in the second hierarchy Dominations, Principalities, Powers. It is to be remarked that the third choir of each hierarchy has a certain relationship with the first of the subsequent one. The three of the first hierarchy were typical of the essential acts of God. The three choirs of the second hierarchy represent the external acts of God, and are typical of those in their highest order, as being nearest to His essential acts.

What is the meaning of "Dominations"?

The title "Domination" means the fact of being in possession of all authority. Now, in the external world, the first idea pertaining to God is that He is absolute Lord of the universe. He was its creator, and therefore by incontestable right its sole Lord and Master. In this way the first of the second hierarchy is typical of that first great external act of the eternal God His attribute of sovereign dominion.

What is meant by the term "Principalities"?

The term comes from the word "principari," to make a beginning, to be the first to lead on, to point out the way, to direct, to legislate. Now, of all things, that which comes next in God to His attribute of universal dominion, is His setting down laws to bring all things orderly and with decorum to their destined end. This is a necessary sequence of His absolute sway, and follows hot-foot upon it. He were not God if He wanted this, at least in our present idea of God. "Through Me kings reign, and the builders of the laws decree what is just." This noble attribute of the bountiful God is thus sweetly typified by the choir of angels that we call "Principalities," and set down accordingly in its regular order. Hence the duty of this choir of angels is to praise God evermore for the wisdom displayed in His ruling and legislating for the external creation.

What is meant by the term "Powers"?

By the term "Power" is meant the attribute both of putting laws into execution as well as of rewarding or punishing. In the state or commonwealth we recognize the ruler, the legislature, and the executive Power. Now, one of God's attributes, and that most immediately connected with His attribute of legislating, is the power by which He puts these laws of His into execution, and rewards obedience to them or punishes their infringement. And this is one of His universal external acts, and the latest and most final; for He shall judge not alone rational creatures, but, in a certain sense, even irrational ones also. This is, moreover, His last external work. Now, most fitly in this second hierarchy, which represents His universal external acts, is this, the last of them, typified by the last choir in that hierarchy. The duty, then, of this choir is to sing God's power as manifested daily in the carrying out of His universal laws, and in the judgment He judges on His creatures. Their duty also is to shadow forth this to the inferior ranks of angels, those of the next hierarchy. Thus these three choirs, forming one hierarchy, shadow forth the three-fold action of the Creator, as absolute Lord - that is, possessing domination, as ruler (Latin princeps) whence Principalities, and as executive and judge having all power, whence potestates or powers. The first of these Dominations, is immediately connected with the last of the preceding - i.e., the Thrones. Now, the last of these Powers usually has a connection in like manner with the first of the following hierarchy.

Which are the choirs of the third hierarchy?

The remaining ones namely, Virtues, Archangels, Angels.

What is meant by the term "Virtues," or why are those angels so called?

By the word "Virtue" is meant innate power or efficacy. It is thus that this third hierarchy of angels represents the acts of God towards individuals. Those works of God which surpass the power of man, as miracles or inward movements of grace, we say are done by Virtue of the Most High. With a certain appropriateness, then, comes up the statement of Saint Thomas, who attributes to the Virtues the motion of the heavenly bodies and their order; these being so indefinitely beyond man's power, and thus forming, moreover, a connecting link between the duties of the other heavenly choirs which have preceded, and those two that are to follow - namely, Archangels and Angels, whose special mission lies with man on earth. The Virtues then hold an intermediate station between heaven and earth. They immediately succeed the Powers who typify the majestic judicial power of God taken universally. This third hierarchy represents that power as embodied in individual acts, and to the first choir in the hierarchy is assigned the heavenly bodies of the visible creation. "Sun, stand thou still on Gideon, and thou, moon, in the valley of Azalon." The duty of the Virtues, then, is to praise God because of His ineffable condescension in regard of each heavenly body, and to reveal that condescension to the inferior ranks of angels.

What is meant by the term "Archangel," and what by "Angel"?

The word "Archangel" means "great" or "high angel," and the word "Angel," the generic name for those glorious inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem, means a "messenger". This name is given them because of their being employed by their Most High Lord and ours to bring messages from heaven to earth, and to carry the prayers of the faithful on earth and lay them before God's throne in heaven; and because also they are "sent" (this is a theological word) to conduct human souls to the portals of heaven. "The title Angel, inasmuch as it is the name of an office, is common to all, but is appropriated to the lower order, because it is these that are generally sent." (Bonaventure) To archangels is assigned the special protection of the Church and its several subdivisions into national churches, countries, and communities. Thus again and again in the old Bible we read about the angel of the Jewish nation - "I will send my angel before thee, and he will precede thee, and prepare thy way." And hence popes and prelates and those in authority are said to be under the guidance of archangels. In this manner the higher grade of archangels represents the higher degrees of providence shown by God towards individuals, whether these individuals be men (as a bishop, cardinal, pope), or countries, or churches. And thus also, as men in authority on the earth come next to the celestial bodies, so the order of archangels, coming next to the virtues of heaven, follow immediately and are in due order subordinate to them. Their office is to praise Almighty God for the vouchsafing of special providences, and to reveal these to the other angels. With the angels, as being (if so it might be said) the lowest grade in heaven, lies the intercourse with human souls, and (some have thought) with the animal and material world; and their office is to praise God for His watchfulness over even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and to whisper thoughts of such watchfulness into the minds of reasonable creatures, and thereby lead them to praise God.

Thus all the heavenly bodies are images of the divine attributes; more closely resembling and more especially representing some, but yet beautifully shadowing forth, as far as creatures can, all the limitless perfections and the unspeakable excellencies of the inconceivably One God. How appropriately after this we read in Genesis (1:26), "Let us make man to our own image and likeness." As the triple hierarchies of angels were like to Him, to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so should man be like to the Triune God. "And God created man to His own image," and "dominion," and "ruling," and "power" He gave him; "increase and multiply and fill the earth, and subdue it, and be master over bird and beast."

"It was one of the points of ancient belief that God governed the world, even the material world, through the agency of spirits, to each of whom He was pleased to depute certain offices. He made use of the good angels to maintain order in general, to watch over empires, to protect men, and bear down to them His blessings. He permitted the evil to prove men, as appears in the history of Job, and to be the executors of His justice. Everywhere Scripture recalls this wonderful ministry of the angels, and there is not an epoch of time at which such a tradition did not exist. The Gospel shows us the Saviour Himself tempted by Satan, and narrates many of the wonderful cures of possessed persons. Our Blessed Lord teaches us that little children, dearer to him than even to their own mother's bosom, have angels appointed them as their guardians. (Matthew 28:10) Such and so great is a human soul in the eyes of God! All the heavenly spirits are ministers, according to Saint Paul, and God sends them to aid us in securing our salvation (Hebrews 1:14); to defend us against him who has been a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), and who wanders about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. (1 Peter 5:8) We have to struggle not alone against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against those who have dominion in this world of darkness, against evil spirits scattered in the air. (Ephesians 6:12)

"Faithful depositaries of ancient tradition, confirmed by the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Fathers of the Church, with an unanimous voice, tell us that the providence of the Most High is extended to all things that exist, and that it makes use of the ministry of angels for the carrying out its designs. They govern the universe and preserve it. They preside over all the elements; the stars in the heaven; the productions of the earth fire, winds, seas, rivers, lakes as well as over living beings. They present to God the prayers of men. Associated with the Most High in His vast administration, they contemn not any of the duties He entrusts to their charge, and each one confines himself to his own duty alone. Thus speak Justin, Athenagoras, Theodoret, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzen, Origen, Eusebius of Caeserea, Jerome, Augustin, Hilary, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Cyril, and the angelic Doctor Thomas." - Bergier

Bossuet says: "We see before all things in this divine book (the Apocalypse) the ministry of angels. We see them coming incessantly from heaven to earth and returning again. They bring down, interpret, and execute God's orders - orders for salvation as well as for punishment. That is what is meant by the saying: The angels are ministering spirits sent for the ministry of our salvation. From the very earliest ages, the ancients believed that angels interposed in all the actions of the Church. They recognize an angel who intervened in the oblation and bore it to the sublime altar of Jesus Christ - an angel whom they call the angel of prayer, and who presented before God the petitions of the faithful (Tertulian, de Orat.) The ancients were so touched by the ministry of angels, that Origen, who ranks justly among the sublimest of theologians, publicly and directly invokes the angel of baptism, and recommends to him an old man who was going to become an infant in Jesus Christ. There can be no hesitation in looking on Saint Michael as defender of the Church, as he was formerly of the Jewish people, once we read Saint John (Apocalypse 12), which in this case is conformable to that of Daniel. (chapters 10-13,21,22) Protestants, who, by a false imagination, conceive that whatever is given to the angels or the saints in the accomplishment of God's works is so much taken from God Himself, look upon Saint Michael in the Apocalypse as Jesus Christ, the Prince of Angels, and apparently in Daniel the Word eternally conceived in the bosom of the Father; but have they ever had the right spirit of the Scriptures? Do they not see that Daniel speaks of the Prince of the Greeks and of the Prince of the Persians that is to say (without any difficulty), the angels who by God's orders preside over these nations and that Saint Michael is called, in the same sense, the Prince of the Synagogue, or, as the Archangel Gabriel explains it to Daniel, Michael your Prince, and elsewhere more expressly still, Michael a great Prince who is established for the children of your people. When I see in the Prophets and the Apocalypse, and even in the Gospel itself, this angel of the Persians, this angel of the Greeks, this angel of the Jews, the angel of little children who advocates their cause before God against those who scandalize them, the angel of fire, of water, and even of the stars; and when I see among these one who lays on the altar the celestial incense of prayer, I recognize here a species of mediation on the part of the angels, and I see even a foundation for the mythology of the pagans, which peopled the elements with their divinities, and laid kingdoms under their special protection for never was there a religious error that was not founded on some truth."

"The existence of good and evil spirits, who concur in carrying out the designs of God, though in an opposite and contradictory manner, and who are, as it were, the instruments of providence in the government of the universe, even in the material world; the immortality of the soul and the state of happiness hereafter all these beliefs, as ancient as the human race, belong to the universal tradition of man." - Cicero, de Nat. Deor.

A writer of wonderful research (Huet) proves that belief in the existence of angels is found among all peoples and in all lands; that the Greeks received this belief from the Egyptians and Phoenicians; and that all antiquity has recognized the existence of spiritual beings inferior to God, and created to preside over the order of nature - the stars, the elements, the generation of animals. The world, according to Thales and Pythagoras, is full of these spiritual substances. They believed that the angels floated in the sky and in the air. They divided them into two classes, the good and the evil, the latter of which was subject to the former. Plato, according to Plutarch, speaks of a prince of an evil nature, who is over the spirits that were chased by the gods and fell from heaven. The belief in angel-guardians, or good spirits, destined to protect and watch over man from his cradle to his grave, was no less ancient nor widespread.