For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Ninefold Quire (Part 3)

(Warning: a long post written to amuse myself. Please, before boring yourself to tears, read Chesterton's gloss on Byron as a form of preemptive strike in my defence, from Heretics. "There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.")


Following on from Quaeritur: When Were the Angels Created (Part 1) and Denys, Thomas Gallus and Angels (Part 2), the task I set myself has proved rather difficult. The challenge was to create a visible and symbolic representation of the ninefold quire of angels. The idea was not to present the hierarchical order as tutelary deities of classes and groups of visible creatures, but rather to find a visible order that would give expression to their spiritual and celestial activity. The symbols need to follow the function of each hierarchy as set out in Part 2, but also to be in keeping with the canonical and inspired symbolism of the angelic orders, and the traditional imagery associated with them, as given in this table below.

      (1)    Seraphim 
Is. 6: have six wings (two covering face & feet and with two they fly)
Proclaim Tersanctus and “the whole earth is full of His glory”
Unknown number

      (2)    Cherubim
Guardians of tree of life (Gen. 3)
Hover over the Ark of the Covenant (the mercy-seat or throne)
Four in number; have six wings
Face of lion, ox, eagle and man – four faces each in Ezek. 28, four beasts with different faces Rev. 4)
Proclaim Tersanctus and God as Lord of time (Rev. 4: 6-8)

      (3)    Thrones
ophanim or wheels (Dan. 7), a beryl wheel within a wheel, rims covered in hundreds of eyes; follow the Cherubim, whose spirit is in the ophanim
St. Paul (Col. 1:16)
      (4)    Dominions (Lordships)   
St. Paul (Eph. 1:21, Col. 1:16)
Rulers of nations
Imagery: sceptred, orbs of light in their sceptre or sword pommels

      (5)    Virtues (Strongholds)
The δυνάμεις (dunameis) of Eph. 1:21
      (6)    Powers (Authorities)
The ἐξουσίαι (exousiai) of Eph. 3:10, closely associated with the Principalities (see below)

      (7)    Principalities (Rulers)
Associated with powers in Eph. 3:10, ἀρχαὶ (archai) or originators
Crowned and sceptred

      (8)    Archangels
There are said to be seven in rabbinic tradition and the Book of Enoch referenced in Jude (four are mentioned in works claimed as canonical – (1) Michael, (2) Gabriel, (3) Raphael in Tobit and (4) Uriel in 2 Esdras and the Book of Enoch), with the first three forming an upper rank, and Uriel and the others in a second rank
The names of the others are in the Kabbalah where they are associated with days of the week and are guardians of peoples and events surrounding them
Michael is said to be guardian of Israel and casts Satan from heaven; Gabriel brings the Annunciation

      (9)    Angels
Myriad kinds with myriad functions (in fact each one is a species all by itself), but one of these functions is as guardians of souls and children (Matt. 18:10)


When I first thought of matching up this hierarchy to the visible creation, the obvious place to turn to is Genesis 1. It is a commonplace that the first three days of creation correspond with days four to six: oh, I thought, then let's subdivide days four to six into two to make a three by three table for the three angelic triads above, and see how the two tables overlay each other. Here is the resulting ninefold creation table.

      (1)    Light

Division: light from darkness, day from night
      (2)    Firmament

Division: waters above from waters below
      (3)   Dry Land and Seed-Bearing Plants
Division: between land and sea

      (4)    Sun, Moon and Stars

      (5)    Fowls of the Air
      (6)    Beasts and Creeping Things

      (7)    Times, Seasons, Days, Months and Years

      (8)    Sea Creatures

      (9)    Man – Male and Female


For reasons that I will come to, some seemed to fit reasonably well (e.g. (1) Seraphim = Light) but others not so well (e.g. (8) Archangels = Sea Creatures).

So I had to think again about my sub-divisions, and then I finally realised that good old Charles Williams of Inklings fame had the key. For Charles Williams in that wonderful supernatural thriller The Place of the Lion, the animals are the visible form of the Virtues. And this makes perfect sense as the Virtues are the middlemost of the nine orders of angels, for the virile and courageous virtues or contrariwise his vices are associated with the middle part of man, with the chest; but the virtues (and vices) are also associated with certain animals. Courage is associated with the lion, for example; and one may be greedy as a pig. Look up the Vespers Hymn of the Breviary for Friday, Feria Sexta, and you will find that the wild animals of the Sixth Day of creation are associated with the passions of man, and he is commanded to subdue them under his kingly rule. And what is a passion ordered and trained but a manly virtue? (For a depiction of the feral vices cf. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene Book 1, Canto IV in which the Redcross Knight visits the House of Pride. A priceless poem: one shouldn't be put off by the length, it is more worth it than War and Peace, and C.S. Lewis was very right when he said that to read it was to grow in psychological health.) The Virtues should therefore be symbolised by the animal kingdom, but also - as briefly noted above - for the further reason that in being housed in the middle part of man, his chest, they are midway between the contemplative head and the active loins and limbs - and we can see that in our angelic hierarchy the Virtues form the middle order of the middle triad, and mediate courage and purposeful will between the upper contemplative half and the lower active half of the celestial orders. So I simply had to move (6) into the same box as (5), so that the Virtues are now symbolised by the Beasts. This left a vacancy in (6), but that was no big difficulty as (3), representing the Third Day of creation, was overloaded anyway. I simply moved the Seed-Bearing Plants into the vacant box (6). The birds were moved into box (8) along with the fish, to represent the Archangels (my rationale for this is given a bit further on, below). After a further minor adjustment (splitting the heavenly bodies into two classes to make up the symbols for (4) Dominions and (7) Principalities, what we get from this rearrangement is the following table.

      (1)   Division: light from darkness, day from night
Light - Seraphim

      (2)   Division: waters above from waters below
Firmament - Cherubim

      (3)   Division: between land and sea

Dry Land - Thrones

      (4)   Stars - Dominions

      (5)   Beasts - Virtues
      (6)   Seed-Bearing Plants - Powers

      (7)   Sun, Moon and other luminaries - Principalities

      (8)   Fowls of the Air and Sea Creatures - Archangels

      (9)   Man - Angels


Now for the explanatory detail:

(1) Seraphim are best symbolised by light, (or perhaps even the darkness before the light was made - as in Henry Vaughan's "there is in God a deep but dazzling darkness"), as they are in closest to God and are fired immediately by Him into life. They are unable to look upon God for awe and cannot themselves gaze upon Him (with two wings they cover their faces), but by the fiery light of glory that God kindles in them the next order, the Cherubim, see. They do not rest from praise (with two wings they cover their feet), like light which is forever emanating from its source. But they are swift (with two wings they fly) and eloquent in proclaiming the Tersanctus, the devastating purity of their Origin. They are not numbered, for they are so much at one with God that their number seems irrelevant: and Light seems an apposite symbol for the unnumbered Seraphim, for its beams are Many, yet it remains at unity with its source.

(2) The firmament is filled with light: likewise the Cherubim are enlightened by the divine Light poured through the seraphim, and the Cherubim are therefre best symbolised by the firmament. There is a biblical justification for this identification - the Cherubim, in the Temple, were embroidered upon the Veil which represented the Firmament. With the creation of the firmament, the primal liquid chaos is separated and a place prepared for the world. Thus it is fitting that the number of the Cherubim is four, the number of Creation and the four corners of the earth, and fitting that the faces of the Cherubim are the great Archetypes - Man, Ox, Eagle and Lion - that will enclose all other lesser types. (Note that the cherubim's faces are represented by these Archetypal forms, but they themselves are winged as befitting their symbol, air. What then do these faces mean? If the cherubim are the supra-rational "unknowing" knowledge of love, perhaps they are faces of the love that "moves the sun and the other stars", in its transcendent (aquiline), sacrificial (taurine), powerful (leonine) and upright and kingly (human) qualities.) With the creation of the firmament one does not yet have the creation of distinct visible things - and the firmament is therefore a fitting type of the Cherubim who are the unknowing of love. The firmament represents the medium (Cherubim) that is filled with the light of God (Seraphim) before any discrete knowledge of the divine in created things. The light and heat of the fiery seraphim - which would not otherwise be transmitted to us - is received by the airy cherubim and becomes available to all the rest of creation.

(3) The Thrones are symbolised by the utter receptivity of the mineral world, with its complete passivity to the divine Law: the dry land, emerging from the primeval disorder of the waters beneath the Firmament, is the mineral and inorganic creation that remains forever charged with intense and incredible energy. The billions of atoms are the multitudinous eyes of the Thrones, that look back toward their Maker from every infinitesimal point of his creation; the wheels within wheels are their unwearied and inexhaustible power (Ezekiel seems to describe the ophanim quite literally as a dynamo); and they are filled with the spirit of the Cherubim which is love for their Creator, and they follow that love whithersoever it leads in an inviolable obedience to His command. The inorganic creation sets the law for all the rest: and so is a fitting symbol for the Thrones whose obedience to God's rule sets the frame and constraint within which all the lower orders of creation must necessarily act. According to Gallus the Thrones are the ecstasy of the mind filled with God; which fits quite well, I think, with the notion of the dry land rising out of the chaos of the waters below into the firmament and into the light of day. There is a correlation between the ecstasy of the mind (Thrones) tutored in meaning by the fire of grace (Seraphim) and the experience of love (Cherubim), and the mineral creation brought into being out of disordered motion by the reception of the inner radiancy of light (symbolising the Serpahim) in the field of energy (symbolised by the Cherubim).

Interlude: We now have the four elements of the world, which further special creation will elaborate: the primal matter of heaven and earth (Water) over which the Spirit hovered in the beginning, Fire (Seraphim), Air (Cherubim) and Earth (Thrones).

(4) The stars I have taken as symbols of the Dominions, who rule the nations and all the lower orders of angels with benevolence and without coercion. What better symbol than the Twelve Signs, and all the lesser signs seen in the night heavens, to represent such a rule? The stars (Dominions) do not determine our fate or destiny, but benevolently give to us and to our homeland that character that may be moulded by the will. The Dominions receive the inexorable rule of the Thrones, but transform it into something less terrible and more malleable: just as the benign influence of the Zodiacal signs translate the "army of unalterable law" into a blessed heritage of the heavens within our soul. Note also that some alternatives to Dionysius' hierarchical order places the Aeons, the Lords of Time, in place of the Dominions: but the Signs of Heaven have this aspect too, for they rule over the disposition of the Ages of the World also.

(5) The central order of the nine, the Virtues, I have already discussed above the preceding table. Suffice to say that they allow the benevolent and unforced rule of the Dominions to be converted into good and firm purpose. Charles Williams identifies about six or seven of his Nine Virtues in The Place of the Lion but leaves one to guess the rest. There was an article on the Internet called "Balancing the Angelicals", that I printed off once but which has since disappeared from the web, and which filled in Williams' blanks convincingly. I now seem to have lost my paper copy also. But from memory, Williams holds that the central Virtue of his nine imagined Virtues is the Eagle, which keeps the others in their proper place, and represents dispassionate appraisal or philosophy; the other eight Virtues come in pairs and balance each other. For example the Lion of Courage is balanced by the Lamb of Innocence, the Unicorn of Swiftness by the Horse of Steadiness, the Ox of Strength by the Butterfly of Beauty, and Serpent of Wisdom by the... but here I can't remember... was it the Lamb that balanced the Serpent and then there was something else to balance the Lion? I need to read the book again and find the misplaced article which is buried somewhere in my mess. Ultimately the role of the Virtues (or the soul schooled and trained by them) is to direct the will upwards, to the free and willing giving of oneself to God - to bring us back to Gallus again. And this is symbolised nicely by the animals, which symbolise the moral schooling of the dispositions given the stars (or Dominions) so that we can enter into the freedom of the nature given to us by God.

(6) The harmonious rule of the Powers is represented by organic life, the Seed-Bearing Plants and all things that grow. The principle of organic life orders the inorganic life of the cosmos in a harmony, so that it flourishes, lives, gives fruit and sustains: and in like manner the Powers order all the functions of the cosmos - including the virile purpose of the Virtues - so that they work together for good. And just as what is needed from a rule that is ordered towards harmony is that it remains almost invisible and does not arrogate power to itself, so also the Powers seem to function almost in silence (just like the slow growth of swelling fruit) between the louder and more resplendent Virtues and Principalities. But their nourishing and sustaining role is indispensable, nonetheless. Plants spring up in all kinds of strange places; they are eaten and then grow again from the seed that falls into the ground and dies: an apt image indeed of the work of the Powers, in their gentle rule, for unity and growth comes almost unseen, and springs up again and again despite being ever consumed in destruction and disharmony. Like some other orders of angels, however, some of these are fallen (cf. St. Paul), and use their gift of bringing a false harmony to give an unhealthy and unholy complacency to peoples and orders who lack a balance of the Virtues. As a result of true harmony wrought by the unfallen Powers, however, the desire is turned toward God, strengthened by the manly Virtues.

(7) The Principalities, who translate the Powers' harmony into the social order, are typified by the lower heavenly luminaries, the seven lowest spheres in the Ptolemaic astronomical system: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Some of the Principalities at least have fallen (cf. Daniel 10:13 and how the fallen Principality, the Prince of the Kingdom of Persia, withstood Michael the Archangel). Their role is to order the exercise of power: they are the ἀρχαὶ, the archai, the originators of authority among nations, but do not exercise it themselves directly - and the planets seem like a good fit because they are so international and ubiquitous in their influence (think of the names of the days of the week in either the Latin or the Norse versions, and I believe the Sanskrit). They - together, regulated into harmonious working by the harmonious Powers - order the cities of men so that their polity is just and leads their citizen to the polity of the heavenly City. And the planets are a good image of this because their combined working upon the earth produces all the metals for manufacture (silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead), psychological dispositions and artistic skill (the mercantile, the amorous, the jovial, the poetic and medicinal art of Apollo), for the proper execution, building and rule of a Commonwealth. Oh, I know that someone is going say that the planetary deities are bad because they have been worshipped as gods e.g Zeus in Athens etc., but this idolatry could have occurred for two reasons. (a) Because some at least of the Principalities are fallen, and have fallen down to the Archangelic function (the governance of specific peoples rather than ordering rule as such) from their proper function. Being too eager to exercise their power in their pride, they have seized the rule over peoples and nations (the function of the Archangels: hence the strife between a Prince and the Archangel Michael, who overcomes a natural superior because he is in grace): the fallen Principalities destroy the harmony of the Powers by offering their individual Princely gifts of rule to a people in return for idolatry, who then bring a host of woes upon themselves and their overweening empires. The idea, here, is that some peoples with the aid of Principalities become mighty because of the patronage of a higher spiritual power than their neighbours, but that this is ultimately destructive of their own internal order because it becomes unbalanced. (b) The Principalities themselves are not all fallen, but their image and function is corrupted by fallen angels who seduce peoples to worship them under the guise of heavenly Princes, and who then usurp the spiritual direction of these peoples. In other words the fallen angels win an unholy cultus by imitating the Principalities. The propensity of the Principalities to seduce is due to their association with the faculty of imagination, which properly and harmoniously ordered leads up to God and gives discernment of good and evil (see Dionysius and Gallus on the Principalities again), but it is also the faculty most easily led astray.

C.S. Lewis's planetary intelligences in That Hideous Strength have obviously been a source for my ideas for the Principalities, and Lewis is also to blame for the idea that some spiritual forces may be benign - not necessarily fallen - but the knowledge of them is dangerous for us because we may be seduced by their glory.

(8) There is quite a lot of information about the Archangels in the table above: they exercise rule over peoples and their affairs - trade and so on - and Michael was supposed to be the special guardian of the people of Israel. They are supposedly seven, and there is quite a bit about them in the Book of Enoch which has canonical status among the rather interesting Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is quoted in the Epistle of Jude, so one can hardly blame them for that tradition. For our purposes, they crystallise the more general rule of the Principalities to particular peoples - they seem to be associated with particular Principalities directly, as for example Michael who is martial, and Uriel ("light of God") who is said to be associated with the Sun. I have taken their symbol to be the Birds (in the book of Revelation the archangels are depicted as flying in mid-heaven), ruling over the Fish who are the nations (remember that symbolised by the sea and its shoals of fish). Fittingly for the Archangels, birds are associated with augury. For as interpreters of the revelation of God Archangels explain and interpret the messages of God's Angels and lead one to the heavenward guidance of the Principalities (who are, for Gallus, sanctified imagination.) Thus the Archangels are the discernment of the signs given by God (by the hand of Angels) by the intellect stepped in faith, ordered by the holy imagination (Principalities) which synthesises all one's emotions and bodily life into the desire for God.

(9) Last of all, the order ruled by the Archangels is the Angels, who bring the messages of God to individuals rather than people. Accordingly, they are myriad, and so are their manifestations. But here they are represented by Man as the form of their most recognisable visitation to us. The Angels bring God's message to us in its most simple, accommodated and human form; the Archangels interpret and point that message upwards to the One from whom it comes, God. Thus the Archangel Gabriel sums up all the Angelic agency and visitation of the Old Testament in the Annunciation, and points the Virgin Mary towards the power of God descending upon her from on High. Man is the next rung on the ladder of creation below the Angels (cf. Psalm 8 "thou madest him a little lower than the angels..."), but also (and mysteriously, due to the Incarnation), Man is also on a rung above the very seraphim ("...to crown him with glory and worship"). Thus, when we reach the bottom of the angelic hierarchy, we find that we are standing at the top: by descending from God to humanity we have also ascended to the heavens, to the very apex of Jacob's Ladder, to the right hand of the Father. "Great is the mystery of godliness", "which things the angels desire to look into..."

I confess to a strong but unconscious shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien's creation myth of the Silmarillion over my whole conception: but then I suspect that Tolkien's myth of the music of Eru Illuvatar drew upon the idea of angels as the Form of creation, created on the First Day before all else was made. This post has become ridiculously long, and I feel a need to write a postscript on fallen angels. There will be a Part Four.

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L'Ascensione (II)