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Angels and Their Hierarchies

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The Bible frequently mentions Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, and as we recall at Christmas even names some of the most important angels such as Gabriel, who carried God’s message to a virgin named Mary in a little town in Galilee called Nazareth. An angel counseled Joseph in a dream to flee with the Holy Family into Egypt, and in another dream when to come back again.

Paul’s Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians mention five other “choirs” – Thrones, Dominions (or Dominations), Powers, Virtues, and Principalities. In order to understand these entities, Aquinas consulted “Dionysius the Areopagite,” who throughout the middle ages was thought to be St. Paul’s convert, mentioned in Acts 17:34 – but during the Renaissance was proven to be a neo-Platonist philosopher/theologian from the 5th century.

In On the Divine Hierarchies, Dionysius arranges the choirs in great detail. The highest are the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, associated with the specific functions of love, knowledge, and power. In the middle are Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, associated with the universal governance of creation. And the lower hierarchy consists of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, concerned with the direct administration of creatures in the world.

Years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis on Aquinas’ analysis of angelic faculties, which eventually morphed into a book. And I’ve published articles and given lectures on angels in academic contexts since then. But besides my academic interests, over the years, I have found that a number of saints, or candidates for sainthood, have reported extraordinary encounters with angels.

Some of them have even experienced frequent or lifelong companionship with angels – including St. Frances of Rome, St. Faustina, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, St. Gemma Galgani, Blessed Dian Belanger, and the Brazilian nun, Ceci Cony. They all received spiritual instruction from their angels (answers about relationships, decisions to be made, etc.) – but in major decisions the angels always referred them to priests who served as their spiritual directors.

The most prolific revelations (very much connected with the traditional angelic hierarchies) are found in the notebooks of the German stigmatist, Mechtilde Thaller-Schönwerth (1868-1919).

Mechtilde was treated harshly by her mother, who almost died giving birth to her. As a child she began to be accompanied visibly by her guardian angel. At five she was gifted, in addition, with the occasional presence of an archangel. As a teenager, she wanted to enter religious life, like her sister, but was told by her spiritual director that her vocation was marriage.

An Adoring Angel by Moretto da Brescia, c. 1540 [National Gallery, London]
An Adoring Angel by Moretto da Brescia, c. 1540 [National Gallery, London]
At sixteen, she was married to a cruel, adulterous, and often tyrannical husband. She received the stigmata, but the wounds were visible only to her director. She became the spiritual mother of many in her community through personal contacts and letters, and was gifted with bi-location, even visiting battlefields in World War I to care for the wounded. After her death, her husband and his mistress converted.

She not only received practical instructions from her angels – but in typical German speculative fashion – entered into periodic discussions with them about their types and duties. This led to her theological instructions concerning the nine choirs of angels. Her notebook and spiritual diary have not been translated, but in 1935 Frederick von Lama made excerpts from them, available in English as The Angels, Our God Given Companions and Servants.

Here are some of her comments, coinciding with Aquinas in major points, but going beyond the tradition in specific details:

Seraphim are the supreme choir, and “were made for one thing alone – to love the God of Love.”

Cherubim are the “swords of God. . . .Four of the Cherubim stand before the throne of the Holy Father. . . .One of these angels is often stationed at very holy sanctuaries.”

“The seventh choir, the Thrones, is the choir of authority. Every diocese, every kingdom, every religious community has its own angel taken from this choir.” They are mentioned in the “Preface” of many Masses, along with Dominations, Powers, and other orders.

In the middle hierarchy, the sixth choir is called the Dominations or “Dominions.” “God assigns angels of this choir to persons who must give spiritual guidance as teachers in higher schools of learning, from the pulpit, or in the confessional.”

“Some great sinners receive Virtues after their conversion. . . .All persons inclined to the contemplative life should call on this choir.”

Powers “are assigned to priests who are confessors of very devout souls. Confessors in monasteries have such a helper, other confessors only when they must guide privileged souls especially beloved by God. . . .If a priest has an angel of this choir, it is almost certain that later he will be given one of the Dominations in place of the Power. It has occurred that at their ordination, certain priests have received in addition to their regular guardian angel an angel from the choir of the Powers, because they were destined to do much extraordinary work in the confessional.”

“Each parish has its own angel, who is taken from the choir of the Principalities.”

“All who belong to the Confraternity of. . .Mary, Queen of Hearts, have two angels, the ordinary angel and an Archangel taken from the company of St. Gabriel.”

Guardian Angels will always “be at our side in heaven.” Characteristics: “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.” If souls are lost, their guardians are reassigned to a “special Guard of the Queen of Angels.”

These are “private revelations,” but come with an Imprimatur and Nihil obstat from episcopal authorities, so contain nothing contrary to the faith. They may help to encourage appreciation of the spirits just above us – not least their role at Christmas time and far beyond.

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Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Jim T

    My wife, one of my sisters, and one of my aunts relate encounters with persons they believe are their guardian angels, in the form of two men and one woman. I’ve never seen a collection of such stories.

    • Cheryl Jefferies

      “Where Angels Walk” by Joan Wester Anderson is a very good collection of stories about angels/people who have been helped by angels. Anderson has several books of collected stories about angelic intervention with individuals here on earth. “In the Arms of Angels) is her latest. I think you would enjoy her books, as would your wife, sister and aunt.

  • PCB

    Great essay – so interesting to contemplate!

    On an related aside, I really don’t understand the depth to which Protestants reject Church hierarchy, or their acceptance of Angelic hierarchy, but, should they accept this Heavenly
    (Angelic) arranged hierarchy, it’s difficult to understand how they might conclude that the earthly (Church) society should be arranged contrarily.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    During a 2011 Sunday Angelus Benedict XVI said “From beginning until death human life is surrounded by their constant protection.” Since then I have paid prayerful attention to my Guardian Angel.

  • Thank you for this piece. I’m so happy to discover Mechtilde Thaller-Schonwerth. Angels have helped me get through some very tough times and I’ve never understood why most Catholics refer to their Guardian Angel, singular. I have four who surround and protect me; sometimes they protect me from myself. Occasionally, I see them or they appear to me in dreams. We are protected and defended.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Well Drusilla I’m usually not into this kind of discussion but I’ll offer this anyway. A very good deacon friend was diagnosed with terminal lung ca and was expected for lung removal surgery in a few days. He told me he wrapped himself in his ‘angel blanket’ [a blanket covered with angel images] went to his couch and rested praying intermittently until the date. When he showed up for surgery the radiologist said there were no signs of lung ca. He always mentions angels during his sermons.

  • Michael DeLorme

    To my shame I pray to my Guardian Angel daily, yet never call him/her to mind, otherwise. My understanding is we’re not supposed to name them, which may contribute to the neglect. It’s harder to address someone simply as: you.

    Also, since I do advert to many of the Saints—Padre Pio, St. John Vianney and St. Therese, in particular—it’s hard to think of “what’s leftover” when one already tends to apportion different needs to the “appropriate expert.”

    • Anthony Zarrella

      My understanding is we’re not supposed to name them, which may contribute to the neglect. It’s harder to address someone simply as: you.

      I think (I could be wrong – double-check with someone better-versed in this issue) that the prohibition on naming of angels beyond those in the Bible was directed at a mystical/superstitious/occult tradition of purporting to have “secret names” of angels which could be invoked ritually, almost like reverse-demonology (numinology).

      I don’t think there would be any problem with you giving your guardian angel a “nickname” or “pet name”, as long as you do not assume that you know his/her/its real name or that the name you use has any intrinsic significance.

  • Disqus_disqus

    Interesting. I am a member of the Confraternity of Mary Queen of All Hearts, having done the de Montfort consecration. Glad to know about an additional archangel.

  • samton909

    Jimi Hendrix even recorded, a few months before he died, a song called “Angel”

    Angel came down from Heaven yesterday
    She stayed with me just long enough to rescue me
    And she told me a story yesterday
    About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea

    And then she spread her wings high over me
    She said she’s gonna come back tomorrow

    And I said, “Fly on my sweet Angel
    Fly on through the sky
    Fly on my sweet Angel
    Tomorrow I will be by your side”

    Sometimes people who seem the furthest away from God get an intimation of things.

  • JaneSeymour

    Why you and some who have commented on this article think or believe that angels are females? I guess now we have entered a Christian feminism era and we may soon hear that God is also a woman.

  • Howard Kainz

    Angels as pure spirits are neither male nor female. But they are often referred to as “he,” to avoid the impersonal “it.” They have personality characteristics that we subjectively may associate with males or females — for example, the warrior traits that we associate with the Archangel Michael. But St. Michael chose Joan of Arc to lead an army.

  • Howard

    I’m not very convinced by the standard greater than / less than ordering of angels. For one thing, the whole issue of “greatness” is not exactly one Christ encouraged, though the Apostles were obsessed by it. More importantly, though, it seems that the different roles of angels might be roughly analogous to the different classes of musical instruments in an orchestra. Under normal conditions, one might be justified in saying that the first violin plays a more important role than the clarinet, and indeed he is traditionally considered to “rank” just below the conductor — but that is NOT true in a clarinet concerto! I strongly suspect that each angel is unequaled at some particular role, even if it is a narrowly defined role.

  • My take in descending order:

    The Heveanly Court (12) = [Missing] + 4 Animals around the throne + 7 Arch-angels [only three are named: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael].

    Arch-angel i.e. in the sense of being above all angels, of any Choir.

    The Choirs:

    1. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;

    2. Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;

    3. Principalities, and Angels.

    Missing is Lucifer now turned Satan or the devil.