When I was 16 I went away for a month. It was the longest I had ever been away from home and for my Birthday that year my parents generously gifted me with a very unexpected monetary contribution on top of the vast amount of kit I needed for the trip. But it was the guardian angel figurine that made me cry. And in the years since, more money saved and spent, and kit replaced, it is that same guardian angel that has accompanied on every journey I have made.
When I think of angels I think of heavenly choirs singing ‘Hallelujah!’; I think of the guardian angel that sits in my bag beside me who represents my mum who has always supported me, always been there when I’ve needed her; I think of the little book on angelology I once borrowed from the library but never read. I have always been open-minded. I have always believed in an array of seemingly impossible things. But angels I have often looked upon with skepticism. Why though, when I have believed so strongly in my guardian angel all these years? What are angels anyway?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an angel is:
A spiritual being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings and a long robe.
The word ‘angel’ also derives from the Latin and Ancient Greek for ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’. But surely there is more to it than this for a very similar definition can be applied to the Greek goddess Iris, or the Greek god Hermes (Mercury in Ancient Rome)? Or is it that over the years and throughout the world we have coined different words for the same thing? For even within the Jewish and Christian faiths the understanding of angels changed. A heirachy was formed, different types of angels had different jobs to do, and angels took on names and faces both in scripture and in art.
Not only is the question ‘what are angels?’ but it must also be considered ‘Where do they come from?’ The Bible describes them as spritiual beings that are between God and man (‘You have made him a little less than the angels.’ Psalms 8:4-5) who know more than men but are not omniscient. Neoplatonism suggests that angels are metaphysical beings, the ‘spiritual second movers’ to Aristotle’s ‘First Mover’. However, Islam highlights that as the messengers of God, angels have no freewill and must do as God commands. Simiarly, Angelology suggests that angels have a far lower spiritual level than humans and are, hence, further from God.
Other faiths are more specific. According to the Latter Day Saints, angels are the spirits of humans who have died or who are yet to be born. Therefore, ‘there are no angels who minister to this earth but those that do belong or have belonged to it’ (Joseph Smith). The Baha’i Faith also emphasises the strong connection between mankind and angels, describing angels as people who have consumed with God’s love all human traits and limitations, releasing themselves from the chains of self. Similarly, Brahma Kumaris refer to an angel as the perfect state of human being which is achieved through a complete connection with God. No wonder a person who does good deeds is often described as an angel.
But do angels always do good deeds? They act as messengers, guides, ministers, record keepers. But the term ‘fallen angel’ comes to mind. Zoroastrianism is not the only faith that emphasises the balance of light and dark, angels and demons. Yet popular belief suggests that angels who sin are cast out of heaven. Think of Lucifer/Satan. But this is something I must ponder on another day as I find myself on the edge of heaven, my theme for these blog posts and I must ask now how angels and heaven fit together.
This, of course, depends of your definition of angels, and of Heaven. Christianity forms the backbone of my upbringing, so my initial response is to say ‘angels reside in Heaven, they are the messengers of God’, whether I believe that or not. But as I have discussed, not all faiths regard angels in the same way and the same logic cannot be applied. Think of the angels of Brahma Kumaris, how would you define their Heaven? How do they actually define it? My blog posts over the next month will explore Heaven through studying different religions, cultures and periods of history.