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Our night nursery was lit by the dawn, and I saw a group of angels standing, as if chatting, around my young brother’s bed. I was aware of this, although I could not hear their voices… I then became aware that at the foot of my own bed stood a similar celestial creature… I was but a child when I saw my guardian angel. As time passed I still sporadically remembered and acknowledged his presence, but mostly, I ignored him. Paradoxically, it was evil and distress that brought me up short and cleared my vision…
One day, in looking through a collection of old icons, I came across one done in three panels representing the guardian angel; in the middle panel, he is defending his sleeping charge from bad dreams. Later, when plagued once more by one of my most fearsome of nightmares, upon waking I suddenly remembered the icon, and with overpowering clarity I recollected that as a child I had seen my guardian angel. (pp. 293-294)
This recollection forms the core of the epilogue of Mother Alexandra’s book The Holy Angels, recently re-released, after nearly 40 years being out of print, by Ancient Faith Publishing. As Mother Alexandra states, this recollection, while at the end of her work, is in its way also the beginning, for it was also her own personal beginning of understanding. The Holy Angels sets forth what our understandings of angelic beings are as revealed through scripture, and through the writings of the early Christians, with a short concluding discussion of how angels have been depicted in art throughout time. Though Mother Alexandra was an Orthodox scholar and nun, her work is aimed at the entirety of Christendom.
In reviewing the work I think it best to begin by working backward, for, thanks to our own cultural and artistic history, there is much that needs stripping away. We can all easily picture, especially at this time of year where depictions of angels adorn many a nativity scene, how angels are often shown today. There is often a vague femininity about them in the Christmas scenes, or in Easter scenes, which comes to us through various routes out of Baroque and Victorian depictions – sometimes instead there is a sentimentalism instead, sometimes both. Moving outside of the Christian understanding, the depictions are more creative, and angels frequently take on a sort of free agency, in effect becoming supernatural humans, often with very human passions. In both regards, Mother Alexandra’s work is a corrective tonic, for in working through scripture she presents them as they were revealed to us.
The Holy Angels begins with a brief discussion entitled “What Are Angels”:
Like the existence of God, the existence of the holy angels is presumed, not asserted. Angels in the Bible are referred to simply as accepted fact. Although they are mentioned over two hundred times, we learn nothing about their creation or when it took place, nor do we find many physical descriptions. (p. 23)
Mother Alexandra then summarizes what we do know, including their names and the significance thereof. In Hebrew, the names are ultimately descriptive — one might fairly say the names are really titles — “Gabriel” meaning “Man of God,” “Michael” meaning “Who is like God?,” and so forth. And because such a work would be incomplete, the author also discusses what we know of the fallen angels.
From this opening summary, Mother Alexandra delves into where and how angelic beings are depicted at every point in the whole of the biblical canon, beginning in Genesis and working through the prophets. She quotes the biblical passages, often at length, and provides context where needed. What emerges is a picture of angels far different from how they are seen today, either secularly, or at times in a Christian milieu. One of the fascinating branches she explores, before moving into the New Testament and beyond, is the realm of the apocryphal works (not just the deuterocanonical works in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles). While these works are not considered authoritative, she does explore how they have been influential on the imagination of believers. From the Old Testament period, Mother Alexandra continues thence through the New Testament, and especially through Revelation and the roles of the angels therein.
And what is it that we can conclude we know of angels? Writers and theologians have pondered this for thousands of years, and ultimately we are reliant on their accumulated testimonies. What emerges, and what Mother Alexandra discusses, is of beings wholly other than ourselves, and certainly more varied than the white-robéd blonde ladies perched atop of nativity sets or covered in glitter on greeting cards. They may look human in some respects (well, some of them anyway), but they are decidedly not. Moreover, some theologians, in studying in detail the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, have surmised a number of different types. We know for certain the references to Cherubim and Seraphim, as well as angels and Archangels, but there may be others besides, which the author details. What we do know for certain is that all are servants of the Most High, and their appearance, when perceived, is wholly other.
In this Christmas season, the re-release of this book is appropriate and well-timed. At times it seems that, even among the faithful, the angels get short shrift, probably because their popular depictions are so muddled and obviously problematic that we are uneasy at the speculation. (This is not to suggest they go unmentioned — many have been the pastors I’ve heard who have been quite pointed on the subject, encouraging or warning congregations to take them seriously and to ignore the glittering fairies.) As Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and perhaps this is so with the angels as well. Setting aside how pure we adults are, we are jaded. Certainly within the Orthodox churches, one hears from time to time of children perceiving them, but rarely adults. And yet, as Mother Alexandra details, their presence is often attested to.
It is difficult to review or summarize a work like this in a short essay. Mother Alexandra is herself careful to, as much as possible, limit herself to a thorough cataloging and discussion of the angels in scripture and patristic writings, without inserting herself. As such, that makes the work quite valuable as a reference. But it is not a reference work alone. The angels serve their Maker, and it is to Him she is also directing our eyes. And as she herself attests, she once perceived them too. When you sing the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” consider for a moment that those singing angels are mighty indeed, and perhaps far different than what you might imagine.
Mother Alexandra was once known as Princess Ileana of Romania. Born just prior to WWI, she grew up amid the dangerous world of the 1920s and ’30s, lived to see her husband’s native Austria annexed by the Nazis, and her own country occupied first by the Nazis, then by the Communists. After WWII, she was eventually thrown out of Romania by the communists and spent several years essentially without any country of her own, until allowed to settle here in America. Never losing her faith, when her children were of age she became a nun, eventually founding Holy Transfiguration Monastery, in Ellwood City, PA (just north of Pittsburgh). She told her early life story in I Live Again, which is worth reading in its own right.
Nota Bene: Ancient Faith Publishing provided me with a review copy of this book.
The Holy Angels, by Mother Alexandra, Ancient Faith Publishing, Chesterton, Indiana, 2019