Marcus Berquist has devoted his life to the study of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He received his bachelor's degree from the then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and his licentiate degree in philosophy from Laval University in Quebec. He is one of the founders of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., where he has taught since 1971. He recently discussed St. Thomas Aquinas' writings on angels with Our Sunday Visitor.
Our Sunday Visitor: Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church have much to say about angels. Where ought one begin in reflecting upon the nature of angels?
Marcus Berquist: Perhaps the best place to start is with the Nicene Creed: "God the Father, maker of all things, seen and unseen." Our natural knowledge is from sense experience, which is only of bodies and their attributes. It is only with difficulty and many mistakes that we can come to knowledge of invisible beings, beings that are more real and more alive than bodies.
OSV: What does divine revelation teach us about angels?
Berquist: Divine revelation teaches us that God is not a body, and that God the Son took on human nature and thus a human body. But it also teaches that there is an immense multitude of other spiritual beings, like us in having understanding and will but unlike us in not having bodies and not having the sort of life that requires body -- the life of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation and emotion. These creatures are named "angels," from the Greek angelos, which means "messenger," for they are (among other things) messengers from God to man.
OSV: How many angels are there?
Berquist:There are as many guardian angels as there are, have been or ever will be of men (each guardian angel being assigned to only one man), and these angels are all drawn from just one of the nine choirs of angels.
OSV: How, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, do angels differ from other creatures?
Berquist: Angels do not grow up, as we do. Thus, they have no need of the powers and organs belonging to such creatures as we are. Rather, their knowledge and power are complete from the beginning of their existence; as soon as they are, they are complete and perfect according to their natures. Neither are there many of a kind, for only with matter or body can there be many of a kind. Thus, the angels differ among themselves more than animals of different species do.
OSV: How was the fall of angels different from the fall of Adam and Eve?
Berquist: Because angels are created perfect according to their natures, they naturally make at once the most significant of their choices. At the beginning, each angel makes a permanent decision: whether to order himself to God as to his supreme end and good or to order all things to himself. This decision is final and unchangeable.
OSV: What is the most underappreciated aspect of St. Thomas Aquinas' teaching on angels?
Berquist: It's hard to say what is underappreciated when the entire teaching about the angels is so widely ignored. But to single out something particular, one might say that not enough attention is paid the bearing the angels have on our lives. This is most evident in the case of the guardian angels. One should always be aware of his guardian angel, pray to him and thank him for his help and protection.
These angels are a wonderful example of God's benignity: As St. Thomas puts it, God wishes to give to his creatures a share in "the dignity of causality." Thus, although these angels are blessed forever in the vision of God, and in praising and worshipping him, God has given them another dignity: They are cooperating causes in our salvation. It is surely strange to ignore these beings, who have the greatest good will toward us.
One should also be aware of the presence and activity of demons (fallen angels) in the world, and realize that Satan ("Adversary") is in fact (not by right) the "prince of this world." The traditional prayer to St. Michael, composed by Pope Leo XIII, recognizes the efficacy of the good angels in opposing the devil's projects. Pope John Paul II asked "everyone to remember it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world."
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.