Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Book Review: The Holy Angels

 

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.

Available on Ancient Faith as both a paperback and e-book.

The Holy Angels, by Mother Alexandra, Ancient Faith Publishing, Chesterton, Indiana, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-944967-77-2

There are 13 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Some additional notes that didn’t fit in.

    1.  There was a prof at my college who also said he had seen angels. He described them as looking like, and yet unlike, very tall and bright human figures, stern and terrifying, and not paying him any mind at all. He also had performed exorcisms, including of a haunting, and did not like to discuss these. Very devout fellow.
    2. I have been to Transfiguration Monastery. It is a very hospitable and beautiful place in the Pennsylvania countryside. I had the great honor of spending Pentecost there this year.
      Mother Alexandra’s staff, which she carved herself.
    • #1
    • December 23, 2019, at 9:29 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. Judge Mental Member

    I’ve come to see them as soldiers. The language used to describe them is often that which is used to describe armies, such ‘host’ or ‘legions’.

    • #2
    • December 23, 2019, at 9:37 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I’ve come to see them as soldiers. The language used to describe them is often that which is used to describe armies, such ‘host’ or ‘legions’.

    Have you ever read Tobit? (sometimes called “Tobias”). Soldier seems perfect.

    • #3
    • December 23, 2019, at 9:47 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    • #4
    • December 24, 2019, at 5:41 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    That video need a laugh button instead of like.

    • #5
    • December 24, 2019, at 6:53 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Because angels have no physical aspect like humans, they don’t naturally look like anything. Their appearances are possibly willful projections of some sort. St Thomas Aquinas compared their physical presence to light coming through a window. If you close the window, you don’t trap the light. Their presence occupies a space without being contained by it.

    The usual reaction to angels in Biblical accounts is fear. But it is perhaps fear like if one saw the ghost of a child; a fear of the unknown more than of an apparent threat. The first angel described in the Bible, though, does wield a flaming sword, when Adam and Eve are banished from Eden. Or perhaps it is a holy fear, like the way God’s presence exposes one’s sins and one’s smallness by comparison.

    Catholic tradition recognizes 9 choirs of angels of which “angels” are the lowest. The highest 3 choirs are devoted to constant contemplation and celebration of God. The middle choirs are dedicated to ordering Creation. The lowest choirs are devoted more directly to service of humanity. Michael is leader of the heavely hosts by appointment but by nature is of the lower choirs. Thus begins the Lord’s way of making leaders of the weak, who become strong by His graces.

    All angels are superior to humans in natural power. That the greater was called to serve the lesser is what Lucifer’s pride would not bear, and made him Satan (the former name no longer applies, if I understand correctly). It is a great honor to be served by greater beings. So it is fitting that we acknowledge them in prayers and celebrations.

    Because angels are not physical, the most important aspect of iconography is what the visuals suggest about the spiritual. Some images show them as fearful protectors. Some show them in childlike adoration of Christ. They needn’t look like humans with wings.

    • #6
    • December 24, 2019, at 7:17 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Because angels have no physical aspect like humans, they don’t naturally look like anything. Their appearances are possibly willful projections of some sort. St Thomas Aquinas compared their physical presence to light coming through a window. If you close the window, you don’t trap the light.

    The usual reaction to angels in Biblical accounts is fear. But it is perhaps fear like if one saw the ghost of a child; a fear of the unknown more than of an apparent threat. The first angel described in the Bible, though, does wield a flaming sword, when Adam and Eve are banished from Eden. Or perhaps it is a holy fear, like the way God’s presence exposes one’s sins and one’s smallness by comparison.

    Catholic tradition recognizes 9 choirs of angels of which “angels” are the lowest. The highest 3 choirs are devoted to constant contemplation and celebration of God. The middle choirs are dedicated to ordering Creation. The lowest choirs are devoted more directly to service of humanity. Michael is leader of the heavely hosts by appointment but by nature is of the lower choirs. Thus begins the Lord’s way of making leaders of the weak, who become strong by His graces.

    All angels are superior to humans in natural power. That the greater was called to serve the lesser is what Lucifer’s pride would not bear, and made him Satan (the former name no longer applies, if I understand correctly). It is a great honor to be served by greater beings. So it is fitting that we acknowledge them in prayers and celebrations.

    Because angels are not physical, the most important aspect of iconography is what the visuals suggest about the spiritual. Some images show them as fearful protectors. Some show them in childlike adoration of Christ. They needn’t look like humans with wings.

     

     

    The Orthodox share this tradition, of course. Mother Alexandra details where the 9 choirs come from, and who first wrote about them. Several of the church Fathers had different counts, or rather different perceptions about the ranking and their roles. The account you cite here of Lucifer, for instance, is widely discussed, but not considered dogma (“tradition” with a little ‘t’).

    The depictions of childlike adoration, distilled into the “cherubs”, are actually a rather recent development (if you want to call late Renaissance and early Baroque “recent”). Orthodox depictions avoid these. Although I must say that the 6-winged seraphim in the iconography do, in dim light and at a distance, sometimes look a bit like trussed chickens.

    • #7
    • December 24, 2019, at 7:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    The depictions of childlike adoration, distilled into the “cherubs”, are actually a rather recent development (if you want to call late Renaissance and early Baroque “recent”).

    This is probably in the book somewhere, but the images of cherubs were introduced during the Renaissance as a melding of angels and Roman “putti” — images of children playing put on the sarcophagi of children. 

    • #8
    • December 24, 2019, at 11:05 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  9. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The earliest known Judeo-Christian icons of angels were on the Ark of the Covenant. God tells the Jews generally how it should look

    You shall then make a cover* of pure gold, two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide. Make two cherubim* of beaten gold for the two ends of the cover; make one cherub at one end, and the other at the other end, of one piece with the cover, at each end. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, sheltering the cover with them; they shall face each other, with their faces looking toward the cover.

    So perhaps the Lord Himself established to idea of wings for angels, probably to symbolize that they are boundless. 

    I’m happy to learn Catholics and Orthodox share this tradition. As I recall, Thomas Aquinas was the most influential on Christian perception of angels. The lecture I heard did not explain how he surmised so much, but I suspect it is mostly just logical supposition. Aquinas did receive the beatific vision (witness of Heaven), but only just before he died. St Bonaventure was also a major influence. 

    The most interesting tidbit is that angels, as non-physical beings, were supposedly created individually and not as derivative beings (genetic inheritance). Thus, every angel is more unique. 

    It is also claimed that every human being in Earth’s history was given his or her own guardian angel. Furthermore, most guardian angels are of the lower orders. Thus, there are many more angels than humans. 

    That’s a lot of variety! We can paint new angels until the cows come home.

    • #9
    • December 24, 2019, at 1:28 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  10. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aquinas drew heavily on St Dionysius the pseudo Areopagatite (pen name of an anonymous 4th century theologian).

    • #10
    • December 24, 2019, at 5:52 PM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    On the subject of angels, this is a panel from my old church in Kansas, depicting Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6.

    • #11
    • December 25, 2019, at 7:57 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Peter Robinson Founder

    I’m coming to this late, but what a fascinating and informative discussion. Thanks, Skipsul, for the original post, and everyone else for the comments. “The existence of angels is presumed, not asserted.” That line alone casts a wonderful light across the scriptures.

    • #12
    • December 30, 2019, at 7:32 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Peter Robinson (View Comment):

    I’m coming to this late, but what a fascinating and informative discussion. Thanks, Skipsul, for the original post, and everyone else for the comments. “The existence of angels is presumed, not asserted.” That line alone casts a wonderful light across the scriptures.

    The book is well worth the read. The author draws on a variety of sources in the church fathers.

    • #13
    • December 30, 2019, at 7:38 PM PST
    • 1 like

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.