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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.