‘Rule Britannia’, a famous patriotic British hymn, mentions angels, singing the praises of Britain’s imperial rule over land and sea. Not many today would warm to such nationalistic twist to the notion of angels. Although I do recall once, at St Mary Abbots Church, I preached a little bit sarcastically about that hymn’s overt chauvinism and noticed some of the faces of my English parishioners, not looking particularly pleased. Still, angels are important. For many reasons but at least one is religious dialogue. Because belief in them is shared by both Christianity and Islam. Hence discussing these fascinating beings and their spiritual role can contribute to bringing people of our faiths closer together.
In the Bible, angels are messengers of grace, intermediaries between God and men. They are clearly not solitary but social beings. The Prophet Isaiah, for example, describes angels forming a heavenly conclave, a celestial company chanting the glory of God. We even know the names of four of the chief ones, known as archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. A sort of division of labour or functions exists among them. Gabriel brings divine revelations – the most celebrated being, of course, the annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the birth of the Messiah. Michael, as the Book of Revelation relates, is the head of the heavenly armies. Raphael presides over all types of healing and Uriel has to do with repentance and the nether world. However, the Scriptures are obscure as to the exact number of angels. This is sensible because, as philosophers point out, counting spiritual, non-material beings is conceptually a difficult task.
The Qur’an mentions angels in the plural – the Arabic word is Malaika – 75 times. (15 times in the singular – Malak.) They perform many tasks, such as playing a part in the account of Adam’s creation. Angels inhabit the celestial realms but can also appear on earth or even the dimension below. The story of Joseph/Yusuf has women reporting that the angels’ appearance is extraordinarily beautiful. Elsewhere we also learn that they have wings and do not need to eat. Jibril and Mika’il – Gabriel and Michael – especially are mentioned by name. The former of course all-important for bringing the message from on high to the Prophet Muhammad. The Quranic chapter of al-Baqarah declares belief in angels – alongside belief in God, the Last Judgment, the Qur’an and the Messengers – as incumbent on all Muslims. It also states that God is the enemy of those who opposes His angels.
There is an inter-Islamic debate as to the precise nature of angels, in connection with free-will. Sheikh al-Mufid, a high Shi‘a theological authority, taught that angels have free will but no desires, invoking in support Qur’an 21:29. He acknowledged, however, that some Shi‘a thinkers held a different opinion, as indeed did many Sunni writers.
The present writer cannot take sides but he speculates that perhaps it would be possible to conceive of the will of an angel by analogy with that of a perfect saint. The latter’s will is so absolutely and totally aligned to or conformed with, the will of God that it could be said that he has no free will – his will being identical (by which I mean ‘in line with’, not ontologically united, of course) with the Divine Will. It was said St Ignatius of Loyola was such a type of person. So, by analogy, it could be argued that the angels’ will is so closely at one with, or obedient to, the will of the Lord that in a sense they possess no personal free will.
St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, wrote so much about angels that he deserved the sobriquet of ‘Angelic Doctor’. He regarded them as ethereal, pure intelligence, immaterial and incorruptible but having the capacity to interact with physical beings by applying their power to the place they wish to be. Such abstruse speculations later annoyed Protestants, who found them unbiblical. However, the eminent Protestant theologian Karl Barth subscribed to the basic belief in angels simply because: ‘The Bible says so’.
Is experience of angels common for ordinary human beings? In recent decades there has been an increasing largish literature of angelic appearances in people’s daily lives. The Church certainly tends to be very careful in assessing such claims. Quite apart from frauds, people who are mentally fragile or disturbed are sometimes prone to hallucinations. Visiting a discreet clergyman or Imam or perhaps a qualified psychotherapist may be a wise course of action for such persons.
There is the charming idea of angels as guardians of each individual human being. It is a notion probably of Persian origin, as suggested in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, where the hero meets the angel, Raphael. Jesus appears to endorse it in St Matthew’s Gospel. (18: 10). He also affirms that in Heaven the angels behold the face of God. Church authorities have followed the teaching of the Lord on this. St Basil wrote that: ‘Besides each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’.
Lastly, the late Dr Martin Israel, a distinguished Anglican priest, physician and writer whom I knew personally, firmly witnessed to the reality of his guardian angel. It was like a kind of inner counsellor, he confided. Whenever Dr Martin felt angry or even snappy with someone on the phone, his guardian angel would whisper in his ear words of restraint. Certainly, a useful presence to have about.