Angels of God: The Bible, the Church and the Heavenly Hosts by Mike Aquilina. Servant Books (Cincinnati, 2009). 123 pp., $12.99.
Angels are everywhere, as Mike Aquilina points out in Angels of God: The Bible, the Church and the Heavenly Hosts. They appear in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, playing “crucial roles in the drama of our creation, fall and salvation.” Angels also figure prominently in our prayer, as in the Mass’ “Gloria” and the “Sanctus,” both taught to humankind by angels.
These heavenly beings transcend the traditional images of roly-poly cherubs reclining on clouds. Aquilina, vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, shows that these pure “spirits who bring messages from heaven to earth” occupy myriad roles. Some, such as cherubim, are protectors of holy places; others serve as guardians of individuals and of institutions (such as nations).
In an engaging, succinct style, Aquilina presents a synthesis of angels’ spiritual ecology, drawing mainly from respected scriptural accounts as well as the church’s teachings and occasionally, individuals’ case histories.
While an earlier writer, Mortimer Adler, once defined angels as “minds without bodies,” Aquilina looks to the Old Testament Book of Daniel for a more sensory description of these beings: “His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sounds of his words like the noise of a multitude.” That’s how Daniel describe his vision of an angel — in Christian tradition, likely Gabriel — who apparently comes in response to his prayers.
Of course, Gabriel also figures in the New Testament, where his main task is to bear glad tidings. Thus he appears in St. Luke’s Gospel to the old priest Zechariah to tell him that, despite his wife’s advanced age, she will bear a son, John the Baptist. Later Gabriel appears before Mary to announce the coming of the Messiah.
Separate chapters also are devoted to Michael the Archangel and Raphael. Perhaps the most intriguing section discusses guardian angels. After all, who doesn’t know the childhood prayer that begins, “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here”? The rest of this beloved text implies that guardian angels are to ease their charges’ earthly path: “Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”
But not necessarily, as Aquilina points out. While guardian angels sometimes make dramatic rescues on the scene of shipwrecks and other calamities, ultimately their focus is to help us reach heaven — “not to keep us or our loved ones from suffering or death.” Aquilina writes, “After all, suffering is perhaps the principal means of our spiritual growth on earth, and death is our final portal to God.”
In practical terms, this may mean that our guardian angels may know better than we do “when an illness or injury will draw us closer to God. They also know when another 24 hours on earth will merely get us another day older and deeper in debt.”
So will a guardian angel deign to help us find a parking space when none seems available? Yes, writes Aquilina, “unless that parking space might detour us on the way to heaven.” In other words, sometimes it may be better to be late for an appointment (though we may not know so until the day of judgment).
While this fact doesn’t necessarily follow from the strictest reading of scriptural accounts of angels, it represents the author’s optimistic attempt to combine the latter with the sum of Christian tradition as well as individual anecdotes. The overall message is simple and upbeat: Angels have a long history, and they’re here to help us and to remind us of God’s love.
A bonus is a short appendix of favorite angel prayers and poems, including the Angelus and James Russell Lowell’s “Saint Michael the Weigher.”
Roberts is a professor of journalism and communication at the University of Albany, State University of New York, and the author of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.