The context for this post is linked here - Quaeritur: When Were the Angels Created? (Part 1)
Most angelology in the Church has drawn heavily on the writings of the anonymous sixth century (Syrian?) author of the Celestial Hierarchies, known as Dionysius the Areopagite (the Athenian convert of St. Paul), a pen-name giving almost Pauline and Apostolic authority to his work in the early Middle Ages. His three triads of the angelic hierarchy - comprising nine orders altogether - each order passing on transformative knowledge of the divine to the order beneath, are listed below.
The First Triad
The Second Triad
The Third Triad
These orders are derived from the piecing together of various bits of prophetic Scripture and St. Paul: the hermeneutic is of course disputed, but his immense influence on the late Fathers, the Victorines, and the Dominican and Franciscan giants meant that his schema was generally accepted. A few observations: we tend to think of angels (generically) as humanoid in appearance, but in Dionysius' conception of the angelic orders only the lowest two orders appear to us in human form. By the time the Archangel Gabriel reaches the Blessed Virgin at her weaving, the knowledge, love and power that was pronounced in the "Ave" has been translated and transmitted successively through eight orders of angels*. One might note that the orders become (like divine revelation) progressively accommodated to us or "humanised", so that the lowest order of angels present themselves at times in a form that may be mistaken completely by us for regular human contact. There is no such danger of mistaken identity with the seraphim, visions of whom are accompanied by awe and terror (cf. the opening vision of the Prophecy of Isaiah).
On top of this bare list of the hierarchical order, Dionysius presents an economy of activity, a mutually interdependent function for each of the nine orders respectively, but also a uniting function for the three orders in each of the three triads. Thus the table can be altered to take account of this: and roughly speaking, the first triad is concerned only with the direct worship of God, and pass on knowledge to the lower orders (one might say incidentally, and as a by-product) because they are kindled with divine fire and wisdom from the light of His face, while the second triad transform this knowledge into ordering, ruling and supervision of the lower orders. The final triad are then sent (they are the order most properly called by the name angel, ἄγγελος or messenger) to communicate the divine word of command - remembering always that telling God's message is the same thing as heralding its enactment, as there is no distinction between the Word and the Act of God in the divine fiat. So with these preliminaries out of the way we can start to fill in some of the Dionysian detail. I have given the names of the hierarchies, "meanings" in inverted commas, and then the conceived functions of each order in the schema below.
The First Triad "directly grounded in God and receiving primal theophanies" - Contemplation, Union
(1) Seraphim "fire-makers" - Love
(2) Cherubim "fullness of knowledge" - Vision of God
(3) Thrones "bearers of God" - Transcendence of Imitation
The Second Triad "harmonious orders of authoritative power" - Rule, Order
(4) Dominions "free rule without tyranny" - Benevolent Dominion
(5) Virtues "courage and energy" - Virile Purpose
(6) Powers "authoritative order" - Rule of Harmony
The Third Triad "concerned with revelation" - Revealing, Guidance
(7) Principalities "guidance towards order" - Divine Leading
(8) Archangels "interpreters of divine enlightenments" - Discernment of Truth
(9) Angels "messengers" - Communication of God's Word
If one notes carefully, each of the middle orders in the three triads have a mediating function within the triad itself. The knowledge (Cherubim) that is gained through love (Seraphim) is then productive of emulation (Thrones). Courage of purpose (Virtues) translates generous lordship (Dominions) into harmonious rule (Powers). And discernment (Archangels) of the meaning of the divine guidance (Principalities) is necessary for the communication of God's command (Angels). Likewise, there is a mediating role for the lowest member of the First Triad with respect to the highest member of the Second (for the Thrones who bear the image of God's likeness transmit that likeness to the Dominions who then exercise that image in their rule), as also for the lowest member of the Second Triad with respect to the highest member of the Third (the harmony engendered by the Powers allows the Principalities to give rightly ordered guidance to all created things).
Along comes Thomas Gallus in the early thirteenth century, originally a canon of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, to flesh out Denys in his magnum opus commentary, the Explanatio, and in the Glosses on the Angelic Hierarchy. Thomas's interpretation is largely to present the inner or psychological aspect of the angelic hierarchy, its role within an individual's mental, contemplative, and moral life: the angels are conceived as a path to God with the ultimate consummation, the seraphim, as the spark of divine love communicated to the soul. The rational intellect is left behind or subsumed even before we get to the cherubim in Gallus's scheme: the cherubim, traditionally associated with knowledge of God, are taken by him to be the knowledge of union with God that comes through the death of the intellect, and complete receptivity to Him. What is left for the seraphim, one might ask, if the cherubim have such an exalted role? They are the scorching fire, a spark from God Himself set alight in the soul, not only beyond mental knowledge but also beyond experience, if that makes sense: the seraphic aspect of the soul is conceived not so much as a natural power turned towards God as a divine smiting and kindling of the soul above its proper nature.
A caution here: one would make a mistake if one thought that Gallus is taking the angelic orders as "symbols" of a psychological structure. Rather, Gallus conceives of them as living beings who constitute the psychological structure of our soul. An image will help to make this clear, and also to bring in Christology. Jacob's ladder - recall the dream in which Jacob sees angels going up and down a ladder to God the Father - has been understood by tradition to be Christ the Mediator. Upon the ladder of his nature, both God and Man, joining heaven to earth by a stair, the angels go up and down both receiving messages from above and passing them on below. Thus the Incarnate Deity is the home and sphere of action of the angelic hierarchy: and in us who are the co-heirs in Christ is the same celestial dance enacted. Right from the lowest and humblest message from God, given in the simplest way and most accommodated to our senses, right up to the most hidden and searing communication of divine light to the soul at its origin, giving it a divine life beyond its natural power, the messengers of God are playing to and fro in a relay of His loving intent.
Here then is Gallus's filling in of Dionysius:
The First Triad: Immediate Proximity to God
(1) Seraphim - burning and light of love ; fire of love
(2) Cherubim - the death of the intellect ; union through unknowing
(3) Thrones - receptivity to the divine light ; ecstasy of mind open to divine light
The Second Triad: Complete Conformity to God
(4) Dominions - freedom of will ; sober use of the mind extended to rays of divine intellect
(5) Virtues - right action leading to virtue ; resolution to follow virtue
(6) Powers - discernment ; desire for the highest good
The Third Triad: Divine Revelations to the World
(7) Principalities - attention to good and flight from evil ; guide to the divine light
(8) Archangels - right use of knowledge ; discernment of love and judgment
(9) Angels - balance of love and knowledge ; communication of knowledge and love
Thomas Gallus, one can see, follows Dionysius pretty closely, but his angelic functions bring out some latent features in the hierarchy nicely. As one progresses down through the orders there are certain consistent accretions and developments. If one thinks of the angelic hosts as communicators of truth in our soul, for example, the progression in our minds is from the unknowing of love to intellectual and moral truth to the symbols that carry truth - the truth becomes less of an immediate experience in the lower orders, and more of a proposition for mind and will to be conformed to. If one goes back to Dionysius, one can see what Gallus is translating into psychology: the means of communication of truth by each order are progressively more visible and tangible, and by the time one reaches the angels one hears the message in the symbols of human speech from one in human form. This progression of descent through the hierarchical orders - from the unspeakable to the tangible - gives me my approach for the next post on this topic.
My follow-up post on this topic will be a bit less serious. I would like to translate the psychological hierarchy of Gallus into a visible one, i.e. into the symbols of the visible creation. Given that the angels' sphere of activity is Christ, the Word made Flesh, and given that Christ is the fulfillment of all creation including the visible things, I would like to try to place each of the angelic activities in relation to the hierarchy of the visible created order. In order for this not be specious, it must simultaneously be (a) psychologically convincing, (b) follow the lines of the tradition I have laid out above, (c) be consonant with the traditional images of the angelic orders (e.g. the Thrones are said to be "full of eyes", so the visible symbol will need to have a point of contact with this image). So I don't hold out much hope for a complete success. If any reader wishes to post their own ideas to help with this, please do.
Part 3 is now posted here.
* If the divine command is normally transmitted to us through the nine orders, then why wasn't Gabriel's message sent by means of an angel rather than by an archangel? I have thought of an answer to that - I don't know if it is right - which will appear in the next installment...