Where Have All the Angels Gone?

Several years ago, I read Dietrich von Hildebrand’s treatise on purity – Reinheit. What most struck me was not his analysis of the virtue, but his meditation upon the pure man, how we know him when we meet him, what his speech is like, what light shines in his eyes and what bloom glows on his countenance. And I thought, “He is taking for granted that every one of his readers will have met such a man.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins describes such a meeting. He’d been preaching at a military barracks, and one boy approached him and asked to be given his First Communion. So in the quiet of the chapel, Father Hopkins brought out the Lord, “low-latched in leaf-light housel,” to the kneeling bugler in his regimental red. What he sees in the boy is manly purity, even in the midst of the rough life of the soldier: 

There! and your sweetest sendings, ah divine,
By it, heavens, befall him! as a heart Christ’s darling, dauntless;
Tongue true, vaunt- and tauntless;
Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.

He is Christ’s dear-ling, precious to the Lord, because he too is willing to lay down his life, dauntless in his duty. But there’s more than courage here. The boy is pure of heart; he does not lie, he keeps his word, he will not boast, he will not mock others. And all of that is but the breathing bloom, the flower and fragrance, of a chastity in mansex fine.

What does chastity look like, in a young man who must go forth to fight among his fellows, sometimes no better than ruffians in uniform? Perhaps it resembles that of the guardian angel whom Hopkins invokes to protect the boy in the spiritual battle: 

Frowning and forefending angel-warder,
Squander the hell-rook ranks’ sally to molest him;
March, kind comrade, abreast him;
Dress his days to a dexterous and starlight order.

I’m not sure when it was that Christians got the impression that angels are best portrayed as wispy girls with flowing gowns. Scripture calls them “the sons of morning” and “the sons of heaven.” Their names are masculine, and they are the soldiers of the Lord of hosts.

The guardian angel here is a fighter, like Michael. His looks are grave, frowning, as he waves his sword forefending, marching in front of the lad and scattering the raven ranks of hell. He is also the lad’s companion, as Raphael was to the boy Tobias, kindly, and marching beside him. He brings to his charge the right-wielding of weapons and the right-dressing of days, according to an order from beyond the earth.

          Sacred Love Versus Profane Love by Giovanni Baglione (1602)

Hopkins is thinking of the stripling angels in Paradise Lost who catch Satan lurking about Adam and Eve while they sleep. They demand to know of Satan who he is; Satan taunts them for their not recognizing him; then one of them remarks that Satan no longer resembles the angel he was, losing his glory along with his goodness. Milton causes us to see, through Satan’s eyes, the purity of these young soldiers of God:

So spake the cherub, and his grave rebuke,
Severe in youthful beauty, added grace
Invincible; abashed the devil stood
And felt how awful goodness was, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined
His loss.

All of this leads me to a question. Even if we scratch our heads as we read Von Hildebrand’s treatise on purity, wondering what kind of world it has come from, we recognize the portraits of purity that Hopkins and Milton draw for us. They strike us as beautiful and right. They are not like fabulous beasts, a unicorn or a griffin. They combine the innocence and gravity of children with the full stature of manhood. In their presence, unless we are depraved, we feel grateful and perhaps wistful, wishing that we had been better than we were when we too were young.

So then, where have all the angels gone?

I have taught thousands of students over the years, and I can see, in my mind’s eye, the bright faces of young men who in a cleaner world would have been that bugler to whom Hopkins ministered the Blessed Sacrament, or would have been like those youthful angels vigilant in Eden, pure of heart and ready for battle.

I’m not speaking here of the action of sanctifying grace, but of that peculiar natural gift that God has bestowed upon some men, a full-hearted attraction to what is clean and overflowing with light.

I can see it upon their faces when I speak of Dante’s Beatrice, or Shakespeare’s Miranda. It is as if they have an eye for spiritual beauty, an ear for the strains of heaven. They too, in a world less coarse and base, might have looked upon Eve and cried, “Part of my soul I seek thee!” They might have been Orlando after his wrestling match, so stunned by the beauty and girlish benevolence of Rosalind that he cannot speak – and then, in the forest of Arden, he covers the trees with poetry.

Grace perfects nature, says Saint Thomas. One can write three dissertations upon that dictum, just by emphasizing one of the three words. For my purposes here, grace perfects nature: here,the natural inclination that some young men will have, or should have had, towards purity. Where are these young men? What has happened to them?

Are those who should-have-been even discernible outside of a place such as the Catholic college where I teach? I don’t know. The cultivation of what is coarse, slovenly, sniggering, flippant, smutty, and effeminate makes me wonder whether that natural inclination has been utterly defaced.

Yet perhaps not. In any case, if we want to strike the world dumb with wonder, here is one thing to do. Raise up a Michael and a Raphael. Bring back the angels – the chastity in mansex fine.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • ron a.

    My opinion: change how woman sees herself and you change how man sees himself. Might I say there has been a significant shift in equilibrium?

  • Howard Kainz

    I worte my Master’s thesis on Thomistic angelology (later published), and happened to get my first job teaching the Philosophy of God at a local women’s college. I spent the first half of the course on angelology, and remember it as one of my most delightful teaching experiences. Unfortunately, after I later began university teaching, my suggestions for teaching angelology were not accepted, because of the restrictions of the standard curriculum agenda. I was able to work it into other courses, however, such as metaphysics. It’s a fascinating subject, and offers a good path from pure finite spirits to the study of the divine nature and operations.

  • Randall

    First, a needed reminder of the true ‘masculine’ nature of the angels.

    Second, in grade school I was one of those boys who looked a girls with a pure & poetic awe. I later played in our culture’s cesspool and lost that awe. By the grace of God I was able to leave the cesspool, but I haven’t yet been able to recapture that earlier purity.

    Third, men’s natural inclination toward purity has not been utterly defaced. When faced with purity and true beauty, our instinct is still to bend our knees.

  • Margaret

    Your point about angels being wrongly depicted as wispy girls in flowing robes is a good one. In many (most?) cases in Scripture, their appearance is such that their first words to humans is “do not be afraid”—think of those shepherds at the Nativity. The description of seraphim is very strange indeed. Early artistic depictions of angels showed them to be powerful and awesome. Icons still show them that way. I suspect that pre-Raphaelite artists with their preference for pretty people have much to atone for! Renaissance putti didn’t help either…

    I agree with your wonder at the disappearance of pure men (and women). I had never thought of angels as role-models since they are different beings, but your essay gives me food for thought.

  • Chris in Maryland


  • Rich in MN

    Dr. Esolen, I must confess despondency reading your questions, “Where are these young men? What has happened to them?” The propaganda juggernaut in our country and throughout our world promotes poison as medicine — and the ad campaign is relentless, on all fronts, as early as Kindergarten. How is a society not to confuse medicine with poison? How is a society not to become sick in the pursuit of health and happiness?
    The MLB all-star game was in my neck of the woods yesterday. When I think of major league baseball’s new “director of inclusion” that has been touted on the news websites recently, I somehow associate this picture from the 1965 movie, “The Sound of Music,” in which Max Detweiler is thanking Herr Zeller for allowing the Salzburg Music Festival to continue as planned after the German anschluss of Austria. Zeller’s reply is, “Nothing in Austria has changed.” Yep, nothing except everything.
    How does one point in one direction when the entire world, with coercive force, is pointing in the very opposite direction?

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    “Raise up a Michael and a Raphael. Bring back the angels – the chastity in mansex fine.”

    Manly natural virtue can be found in depictions of a father cradling his newborn child in his arms or in active play with his children. What comes across is “father as protector” – an image not too dissimilar from that of Michael and Raphael.

    In our parish, one of four major niches for statues of saints has been delegated to a very imposing (perhaps 10′ high) statue of St Michael the Archangel. There is a re-awakening, I sense, of the need to inculcate more manly virtues into Church life.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I don’t know if it is “theologically sound,” but lately I have been praying that the guardian angels for each member of our family act not only in protection for us individually, but in co-ordination as an “angelic family,” as it were, to protect us as a family too.

    On a different tack, it seems serendipitous that just yesterday, I did up an image in Photoshop that fits fairly wonderfully with the theme of purity in your column today. I had run across a famous Norman Rockwell painting of a girl looking into a mirror with a magazine in her lap showing a movie star-like face on the page. Off to the side of the mirror is a cast-off doll, and at her feet are a comb and make-up. Her hands are cupped under her chin and the masterfully done expression on her face shows that she is longing to be grown-up and beautiful like the movie star in the magazine. It is a heart-rending painting and I love it.

    But it was sad to me that she was longing so much to be what the world wants her to be and I couldn’t help imagining what it might look like with a few changes. So I pulled out my Photoshop playground and changed the movie star image in the magazine to a picture of the face of a shawled Virgin Mary, added a veil and shawl around the girl’s face in imitation of the picture of Mary, along with a string of Rosary beads in her hands, and changed the comb and makeup at her feet to a breviary and prayer card. I then put the two images side-by-side and captioned the left, “Original Norman Rockwell version,” and the right, “Discerning Vocation version.”

    I hope I’m not being too prideful in saying that I think it turned out rather nicely. But when I read your column for today, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps my guardian angel put the idea into my head yesterday as a kind of reflection of what you wrote even before I read it today (and I just now noticed the unintended connection of the word “reflection” with the Rockwell painting.)

    Anyway, I think there is a policy of no links in replies here, and if so feel free to delete this paragraph, but you can see the image on my Facebook photo album here:


  • debby

    thank you, prof. this has always been a big bug-a-boo for my husband and myself.
    is it possible that the wimpy-male, feminized depiction of angels could be a portrait of our difficulty of “seeing” true purity in a masculine light? powerful and fierce, beautiful in justice and the right, without a love of war ugliness? just wondering. maybe that’s way the faces of so many strong angels are still quite youthful men.
    in my imagination my Guardian Angel is a being more beautiful in form than (so sorry for this next statement – it’s all i can describe) a Mel Gibson-Cary Grant mix, whose “face” is a fire of devotion to God and concern for me…..one day, that image too will be corrected!

  • Seanachie

    “Where are these young men? What has happened to them?” Perhaps you will find them in the faces of many U.S. soldiers, especially combat infantrymen, who willingly and unselfishly risk (and have risked)life and limb in service to others.

  • Howard Kainz

    A nineteenth century German mystic, Magdalen of the Cross, might offer a supplement to the efforts of artists. Her constant accompaniment by angels was described in considerable detail in a book translated into English, The Angels, Our God-Given Companions and Servants. For those wondering what angels really look like, the following excerpt may help: “Guardian angels differ from one another. Some appear more active and energetic than others. Some are more reserved, I might almost say, more timid, and these are assigned to persons who are called to suffer much. They appear dressed in red and wear a small crown. Other guardian angels are dressed in white, their expression is always joyful, a beautiful crown adorns the head, they are the angels assigned to innocent souls, and they are servants of such souls rather than companions…. The angels of sinners have a beautiful majestic bearing. Their garments are of a deep red color, a crown adorns the head, their arms folded across the breast, and the faces turned upwards to heaven with an imploring and painful expression.”

  • James Swetnam, S.J.

    Great article, Dr. Esolen. To extrapolate. The sooner the U.S. can get chaste women as chaste women (married or unmarried) on a pedestal the sooner the U.S. can get chaste men as chaste men (married or unmarried) on a pedestal, and the sooner the U.S. can get chaste men and chaste women as chaste on a pedestal the sooner the U.S. can get back to the real dignity of the human person, and the sooner the U.S. can get back to the real dignity of the human person the sooner the U.S. can get back to the purpose of human existence which is the pursuit of love, not sex. And the happier we will be as a country. James Swetnam, S.J.

  • debby

    @Howard – awesome post! i knew my angel was majestically beautiful, imploring and painful expression! thank you for the confirmation! (obviously i am in the sinners category) another book to order – this site is killing my budget! i have a stack to read……

  • Dave

    This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful meditations I have read at TCT. I have a hunch as to where the pure of heart can be found: I have seen many of them at single-sex high schools, young men and women responding to the highest ideals of their nature and responding to the promptings of grace. I have seen it in co-ed high schools, too, but I daresay more by chance than by design. One sees it also in the faces of young seminarians and ordinands, and of novice religious of both sexes. One sees it on the face of young married couples and their children when they seek to live the fulness of the faith with regard to married life — and one sees it on the face of middle-aged and older people who have also battled with temptation and overcome. At times it seems that purity is hard to find, because, Prof. Esolen is right, the forces of the commercial world are array to sully it and then profit off the sullying and its sad aftermath. But it’s there. And it can be restored, every time one makes a good, humble, integral confession. Remember how the young rake became the great Doctor of the Church, and remember his mother’s prayers for his conversion.

    Hope does not lie in a return to what once was; what once was, is gone, and a return to it would be but the beginning of a return to the current demise. No, what hope does is point us up and beyond the current demise to the Source of HopeWho has conquered Death and Who gives life to all who seek it. I must confess I feel more like a character in a Graham Greene novel than I do like a young warrior off to do good, but our Faith insists that I insist that by the grace of God we old ones may yet become saints.

  • Ernest

    Stanley Anderson,

    A superb job, technically, theologically, and conceptually. I hope its OK for us to share?

  • Stanley Anderson

    Ernest wrote “I hope its OK for us to share?”

    Certainly. Would be much honored.

  • debby

    Dear Prof – (if you happen to check back and think my question response worthy)
    Since you have tremendous experience with a diverse sampling of young people, I am wondering if you can give me any guidance or suggestions to assist the fostering and maintaining the virtues, especially purity in our children. I know as a parent I have some influence and yet, at the end of the day, it is their individual life to live. But, I long to give all I can, to the best of my ability, to equip, train, guide, educate and above all deeply love each one. I have 1 of 3 left at home: 2 young ladies are emancipated (26 quite devout and pure, the 21 currently away from the fold but wandering back-I think) and a 15 year old home schooled son. He is an almost daily Mass communicant, altar server, Adoration weekly guardian, wears his scapular everywhere, is quiet yet well-liked by others, and so far – very pure in his heart. He voluntarily casts his eyes aside or down at immodesty, has consecrated his heart to our Lady, and chose his upcoming Confirmation patron Saint for this reason: “Mother Mary had Joseph to care for her and then he died. I am already named for him. Then Jesus took care of her, and then he left her to St. John when He died. I have asked St. John because I want him to teach me how to take Mary into my care everyday, to build her a home within….”
    You may think i am crazy to ask, but he is only a kid and temptation can arrest and side-track anyone. Is there anything more we can do to help him in this growing period? (We do not pray the Magnificat every single day, but we do pray it often as a family, and my husband and he have a good, friendly, enjoyable relationship….)
    (all this and my one daughter still fell off a cliff! still hurts to say it; I know the Good Shepherd is on the Way to her…..)

  • Stanley Anderson

    My wife’s heart and my heart ache for debby’s comments above, especially the last parenthetical bit — we have perhaps a somewhat parallel situation and know, to some degree that “hurt”.

    If Prof sees and has time to address your question, I wonder if this following question might slide in to a general answer. In addition to my Facebook photo album I had also shared the image I described and linked to in my post above on another Catholic Facebook page who posted it with a praising comment. I had replied with the following post and it occurred to me that it fits in with debby’s question and, really, the theme of Anthony Esolen’s column in general:

    [My post to the Catholic-themed Facebook page]:
    Thank you for posting it [my “Discerning Vocation” variation on the Norman Rockwell painting], and the kind words.

    I’ve seen a video of a little boy imitating a priest celebrating Mass — a precious thing (is it something that was popular enough for Catholics on Facebook to have been familiar with? Not sure). I would imagine being at Mass regularly and seeing the priest at the altar prompted his desire to imitate.

    It makes me wonder if there is a way to get a similar “familiarity” with Religious for young girls and boys that would induce them to want to do a similar imitation. Almost by definition, and often for good reason, many Religious are typically “out of public view.”

    So examples of the image I created above are probably hard to come by in real life, though of course something like it must happen occasionally — I suspect more often in days past than in our current culture. If it is to happen today at all, I would guess it must be fostered almost entirely within the family since it is very unlikely to find any support “out there” in the world. Another reason for the importance of solid Catholic family structures…

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