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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The subtle bodies of angels


- the Archangel Gabriel, mosaic from Hagia Sophia

I came across an interesting book today online, Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium (also at Google books), and took a look. Here's just a bit of the introduction (sans footnotes) .....

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Angel, literally "messenger," can designate all manner of negotiation between heaven and earth and refer to any member of God's spiritual host. Scripture is unequivocal in stating the existence of an angelic host and is full of diverse examples of the appearance of these transcendental creatures. But the difficulties of perceiving and identifying angels are signaled in scripture simply by the number of guises they assume and impressions they make. Angels appear in scriptural accounts as multiform, awful beings before whom such witnesses as Zacharias are overwhelmed and left speechless (Luke 1:20–22). They appear as clouds and fire (Ex. 13:21–22, 23:20–23), formless voices (Gen. 21:17) and, in the visions of Ezekiel (Ez. 10) and Isaiah (Is. 6), as complex and ultimately unfathomable creatures. The identity of these manifestations in scripture is often obscure; and Christian exegesis with its typological interpretation only compounded the difficulty when it discerned identities not overt in Hebrew scripture.

The scriptural definition of angelic nature as fire and wind (Ps. 104.4) established the belief in the immaterial and enigmatic qualities of angelic beings. Incorporated into the Epistle to Hebrews -- "And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire" (1:7) -- this definition became the exegetical cornerstone of Christian angelology. But although the general definition was settled by scripture, the precise nature of the proportion and blend of elemental forces was never fully explained; angelic nature was held to be beyond humanity's ken.

Angelology — as historians have named patristic scrutiny of angels — is replete with uncertainties, and these uncertainties were the source of the special problems of access and familiarity in devotion. For Christians, many questions persisted about angels' nature, organization, duties and comprehension. Agreement among theologians about the specifics of angelic nature was not possible given the transcendence of the objects of speculation, but angels figure so large in scripture and devotion that the subject could not be avoided.

The fire and spirit composition posited a relative value for angelic nature that placed the angels somewhere between the radically different natures of humanity and God. Such theologians as Theodotus in the second century called the angels "intellectual fire, intellectual spirit," distinct in property from material fire and light. Theodotus thought that angels did have bodies -- at least they were seen as such -- although these bodies, compared to ours, were without form and without corporeality. Methodius (d. ca. 311) said that the angelic nature is equally composed of air and fire, like souls. A writer later identified as Macarius the Great (ca. 300 - ca. 390) said that the angels have subtle (λεπτός) bodies. Others stated that the angels are beings without body and without matter, but not completely so. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 33– ca. 394) appears to put the angels out of all contact with matter. And Gregory of Nazianzus (329/30–ca. 390) said that the angels can only be perceived by reason because they are composed of pure spirituality or something approaching it — he could not say for certain. Complete agreement concerning the degree of participation of the angels in matter was never possible. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 750) came down on the side of the essential spirituality of the angels .......

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- The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae, fresco from Decani Monastery


8 Comments:

Blogger Hayden said...

fascinating and much appreciated. Here at Vincent's recommendation.

8:20 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Hayden,

Thanks. I've seen you at Paul's blog :)

12:51 PM  
Blogger ashok said...

Crystal, the impresion I have developed about Angels is that they can can take varied forms - spiritual, as energy (fire and wind) or matter , human like as well as other forms(with wings for instance). The Bibilical story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Spelling?) describes two angels in human form for example.

8:28 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

ashok,

I don't really know much about angels aside from the role they play in Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius of Loyola took for granted that good and bad spirits (angels) could influence peopl'e decisions and he developed a way to "discern" when that was happening. I think most Jesuits today though think the angels are just metaphors for psychological states. I'm really sure what I believe about them myself but I think they're interesting :)

9:43 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

What fascinates me about this is that angels as reported so long ago are no different from angels as I experience them today, except in interpretation.

I agree with the modern Jesuits in calling them psychological states. Yet the imaginative personification seems to me more useful and potent.

I prefer the concept of an angel to the concept of God, in that I have more personal contact with the messenger and a sense that the message comes via a messenger; but am much vaguer about the original source of the message.

It's true as you say Crystal that many today, whether Jesuits or not, think of any kind of mythology as "just" metaphors for something recognised by modern science. But modern science has to employ metaphors too so that scientists can have ideas which link their data, and can communicate those ideas to laymen.

So in that sense, nothing has changed.

12:16 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Vincent,

My spiritual director, a Jesuit, thinks of angels not as metaphores but more as Ignatius did - kind of like you wrote, as messengers interacting with us, a sort of interface between us and God.

I like better the idea that there's no need for mediation, even by angels, between us and God, but who knows?

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Molly said...

Very interesting. You might want to check out the book The Testings of Devotion by Cheryl Dellasega. It is a work of fiction, but it's based on information the author has read from various spiritual sources; Everything from Dante’s Inferno to Billy Graham’s "The Truth About Angels". It provides a challenging look at angels amidst the backdrop of the good vs. evil theme, but I've found it to be an interesting read.

9:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks, Molly. I'll look it up :)

11:30 AM  

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