Not Ladies in Nightgowns

Yesterday was the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels.  I’ve alluded to this already in the post for St. Michael’s Day and how in the popular imagination angels look something like this.

Apart from anything else, I think this arises as a degradation of the artistic tradition depicting angels carrying souls to Heaven, where the soul is represented as a small, swaddled infant or as childlike in comparison.

Over the centuries, the representation of angels has dwindled down to the sugary imagery we are all too familiar with today.  Then there’s the popular misconceptions, such as that in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where we get an “apprentice” angel who has to “earn his wings” or the notion that after death, humans acquire wings, harps and halos and spend eternity floating around on clouds.  Even more recently, as in the film “Wings of Desire,” is the idea that angels can ‘fall’ and become human.  Humans do not become angels and angels never were nor never will be human, though they can indeed fall.

Much of this, of course, is a misunderstanding of Scripture: the ever-popular bit from Genesis about the sons of God and the daughters of Men, and all the associated legends about the Grigori and the Nephilim and their offspring, the giants and mighty men of old.  Add to that the Gospel passage where Jesus instructs his disciples about “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” by taking a child and telling them “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.  For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven,” then it was all too easy to associate angels and children and let sentiment have free rein.

But don’t listen to me moaning about bad popular art; here, courtesy of Julie over at “Happy Catholic,” is an excerpt from Peter Kreeft’s 1995 book, “Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them?”

O.K., so I’m browsing through this book and wondering: why should I buy it? What can you tell me about angels in one page?

  1. They really exist. Not just in our minds, or our myths, or our symbols, or our culture. They are as real as your dog, or your sister, or electricity.
  2. They’re present, right here, right now, right next to you, reading these words with you.
  3. They’re not cute, cuddly, comfortable, chummy, or “cool.” They are fearsome and formidable. They are huge. They are warriors.
  4. They are the real “extra-terrestrials,” the real “Supermen,” the ultimate aliens. Their powers are far beyond those of all fictional creatures.
  5. They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.
  6. They can literally move the heavens and the earth if God permits them.
  7. There are also evil angels, fallen angels, demons, or devils. These too are not myths. Demon possessions, and exorcisms, are real.
  8. Angels are aware of you, even though your can’t usually see or hear them. But you can communicate with them. You can talk to them without even speaking.
  9. You really do have your very own “guardian angel.” Everybody does.
  10. Angels often come disguised. “Do not neglect hospitality, for some have entertained angels unawares” — that’s a warning from life’s oldest and best instruction manual.
  11. We are on a protected part of a great battlefield between angels and devils, extending to eternity.
  12. Angels are sentinels standing at the crossroads where life meets death. They work especially at moments of crisis, at the brink of disaster — for bodies, for souls, and for nations.

That’s as good a run-down of the basics as you could want.  I’m not so sold on the emphasis on spiritual warfare (excuse me, good people of America, but this whole “angels and demons locked in warfare! going on right now! all around us! with our lives as the battleground!”angle does seem to me more of an American obsession, perhaps to do with Rapture theology or the idealization of the military as an expression of the best of American values of selfless service and love of nation?  I don’t know, so ignore my vacuous ramblings).

Anyway, those points above are the general ones to consider in the context of the feast of the Holy Angels.  Guardian angels are not just associated with children, they are with us all our lives and up to our deaths (and even after, if Blessed John Henry Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius” is to be believed):


It is a member of that family

Of wondrous beings, who, ere the worlds were made,

Millions of ages back, have stood around

The throne of God: — he never has known sin;

But through those cycles all but infinite,

Has had a strong and pure celestial life,

And bore to gaze on th’ unveiled face of God

And drank from the eternal Fount of truth,

And served Him with a keen ecstatic love,

Hark! he begins again.




O LORD, how wonderful in depth and height,

But most in man, how wonderful Thou art!

With what a love, what soft persuasive might

Victorious o’er the stubborn fleshly heart,

Thy tale complete of saints Thou dost provide,

To fill the thrones which angels lost through pride!


He lay a grovelling babe upon the ground,

Polluted in the blood of his first sire,

With his whole essence shattered and unsound,

And, coiled around his heart, a demon dire,

Which was not of his nature, but had skill

To bind and form his opening mind to ill.


Then was I sent from heaven to set right

The balance in his soul of truth and sin,

And I have waged a long relentless fight,

Resolved that death-environed spirit to win,

Which from its fallen state, when all was lost,

Had been repurchased at so dread a cost.


O what a shifting parti-coloured scene

Of hope and fear, of triumph and dismay,

Of recklessness and penitence, has been

The history of that dreary, lifelong fray!

And O the grace to nerve him and to lead,

How patient, prompt, and lavish at his need!


O man, strange composite of heaven and earth!

Majesty dwarfed to baseness! Fragrant flower

Running to poisonous seed! and seeming worth

Cloaking corruption! weakness mastering power!

Who never art so near to crime and shame,

As when thou hast achieved some deed of name.


How should ethereal natures comprehend

A thing made up of spirit and of clay,

Were we not tasked to nurse it and to tend,

Linked one to one throughout its mortal day?

More than the Seraph in his height of place,

The Angel-guardian knows and loves the ransomed race.


The Catechism tells us:

“The angels in the life of the Church

334 In the meantime, the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels.

335 In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God. She invokes their assistance (in the funeral liturgy’s In Paradisum deducant te angeli “May the angels lead you into Paradise”).  Moreover, in the “Cherubic Hymn” of the Byzantine Liturgy, she celebrates the memory of certain angels more particularly (St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, and the guardian angels).

336 From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.  “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”  Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.”


So think less of “Touched By An Angel”, “Highway to Heaven” or films such as “Michael” or “The Prophecy” or “Wings of Desire” when thinking of angels, and more – well, more like this – Fauré’s “In Paradisum”, as mentioned above.

Or even better, creatures who would sing in the manner of the song “The Host of Seraphim” by the group Dead Can Dance, possibly based on the ancient prayer the“Triasgion”, which is based on Isaiah 6: 2-3: “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings:  With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.  3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

To quote Wikipedia, “In the Latin Church, the main regular use of the Trisagion is on Good Friday, when it is sung throughout the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross.  In the Sistine Chapel, the traditional setting was the polyphonic musical setting of Palestrina. During this service, the hymn is sung by two choirs, alternately in Greek and Latin, originally two antiphonal Greek and Latin choirs, as follows:

Greek (First) Choir: Ágios o Theos. (Holy God)

Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus Deus.

Greek (First) Choir: Ágios íschyros. (Holy Strong One)

Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus fortis.

Greek (First) Choir: Ágios athánatos, eléison imas. (Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us) Latin (Second) Choir: Sanctus immortális, miserére nobis.

Definitely not ladies in nightgowns or fat babies with fluffy wings or bumbling apprentices who are on probation, or even impersonal anthropomorphic forces representing light or self-actualization or our inner fabulousness where we can participate in workshops with angel therapy practitioners to learn how to read angel cards and work towards angel lightworker certification (personally, I think such well-intentioned hoo-haa is equivalent to saying “We’ll teach you to go out on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing steel-toed boots and brandishing a golf club, so you can call down the very lightning into your hands to use as fairy lights on your Christmas tree!”)  Not a good idea, in other words, to mess around with Vast Cosmic Powers.



40 thoughts on “Not Ladies in Nightgowns

  1. But then–assuming every angel was created with a job and a purpose–the number of surviving angels would be insufficient to run the universe, dance on pinheads, appear to crazy people, whatever it is that angels do. They might work overtime, of course, but this assumes that they have been cross-trained, and can effectively take over the fallen angels’ jobs.


  2. Joanie, that was a later incident than the one I’ve heard about since I was a kid (and I remember it being as big a deal as John Lennon saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus). The incident I’m thinking of, the Soviet cosmonaut reporting no God and no angels, seems to have been about Yuri Gagarin, first person in space, 1961.

    My search only turned up a few anecdotal items, but these might be interesting:


  3. He wrote in his letters to an American lady that the pictures of cherubs as those infantile nudes we see are simply ludicrous, as the Hebrew word kherub (krb) has the same root as gryphon (grp). Definetly not cute and cuddly.

    Though Gryphons are awesomely beautiful. I wouldn’t mind seeing something in the form of a magnificent gryphon, with the charm of speech and reason.


  4. Only two of that series that are decent are the original “Joshua” and “Joshua in the Holy Land.” The first is an attempt to retell the Gospel narrative in modern dress (with very mixed results, but still better than, say, Jerry “Buck” Jenkins), the second is just an oversimplified but good read.


  5. Wouldn’t be the first time someone mistook a tabloid article for fact — especially after being filtered through four or five intermediate retellings. That’s how the demon-possessed Cabbage Patch dolls & demon-possessed D&D miniatures screaming as Christians melted them down both got on 700 Club.

    Evangelicals are VERY gullible when you punch the right buttons.


  6. It was definitely a Weekly World News article. I remember seeing it & then a few months later *BIG SIGH* hearing my Pastor reference it. I never did ask if he read it directly from WWN or if he picked it up from Van Impe or some source. I didn’t want to know the answer.


  7. To my knowledge after the casting out of Lucifer and the other angels, God made it so the others could not fall. Or at least the rest saw what happened, and did not follow Satan.

    At least, this is what Tradition relates to us. *Shrug*

    I don’t think on it too much, really. God has promised an angel for me- “a guide and guardian of my body and soul”. I don’t think about the mechanisms of it.


  8. When you consider the the majesty of angels, the power of demons, and the frightful glory of God you have to ask, ‘Who have we fallen in with here?’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It’s just big stuff – real big stuff.


  9. Marc, you’re probably thinking about this part of Perelandra that Martha quoted in her previous post about Michaelmas (I happened to be reading it in the book shortly before I saw it here. I think an angel led me to it.).

    C.S. Lewis has the eldila (angels) appearing to Ransom in various forms until he can relate to them:

    A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom. Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void.

    “Stop it . . . stop it,” he yelled, and the scene cleared. He gazed round blinking on the fields of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that this kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations. “Look then on this,” said the voices again. And he looked with some reluctance, and far off between the peaks on the other side of the little valley there came rolling wheels. There was nothing but that-concentric wheels moving with a rather sickening slowness one inside the other. There was nothing terrible about them if you could get used to their appalling size, but there was also nothing significant. He bade them to try yet a third time. And suddenly two human figures stood before him on the opposite side of the lake.

    They were taller than the Sorns, the giants whom he had met in Mars. They were perhaps thirty feet high. They were burning white like white-hot iron. The outline of their bodies when he looked at it steadily against the red landscape seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames, co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained. For a fraction of an inch inward from this outline the landscape was just visible through them: beyond that they were opaque.


  10. Thanks for that insightful article, Martha. Indeed, C.S. Lewis awakened me to what the angels are really like, both in his space trilogy and elsewhere. He wrote in his letters to an American lady that the pictures of cherubs as those infantile nudes we see are simply ludicrous, as the Hebrew word kherub (krb) has the same root as gryphon (grp). Definetly not cute and cuddly.

    In the Bible, the appearance of an angel is always alarming, their remarks are usually prefaced by ‘fear not.’ When the apostle John saw one, he was tempted to worship him until the angel said “See thou do it not!” And yet, their glory is but a reflection of God’s glory.

    In one animal story I have written (unfortunately it never got published) it has an angel portrayed as a porcupine, the spiny and soft nature of it reflecting God’s holiness and love, and yet it is not his true appearance, which is briefly glimpsed, when he is revealed as a creature of light, which would be unbearable to see, not because he is ugly but he is intensely beautiful. His presence is dangerous by his very vitality. And yet, his light is but a reflection of the glory of the Logos he serves.


  11. But what if your guardian angel falls? Then do you have a guardian devil instead, or would he get fired (so to speak). In which case God would either have to promote / transfer another angel away from its duties, or recruit Gary Coleman.


  12. A friend of mine was speaking about the angel chorus announcing the Great Miracle of the incarnation to the shepherds in the field. Making the point that angels are not cute and cuddly he described them as “lightning with a voice.”

    It was no wonder the first words of the angels were “don’t be afraid.”


  13. Daniel 10 presents a picture of Gabrial and Michael fighting against “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” and then there is Ephesians 6:12… (however you want to understand the armor business). That said, I also reserve skepticism for the pop books that want to read into these things more then God chose to tell us in His Word…


  14. If so, it would be interesting to trace how the initial (Ted) version literally inverted into the other (Joanie) version.


  15. I think it was the reverse, Joanie, unless that’s a different incident. Story I heard was that the early Soviet cosmonauts reported (dutifully, as one did under that regime) that they saw neither God nor angels while in orbit,


  16. Could be, Headless. It just struck me as taking the “put on your spiritual armour” advice a little too literally (and if I remember the novel, they actually did use the whole passage in painful detail explaining how the helm was this and the sword was that).

    I never did finish the story because I got so annoyed at the guy angels (and there were also a few girl angels – non-fighters, of course! – for contrast who were equally annoying) so that if they had gotten around to introducing the demons by the time I gave up, I would have been cheering them on because I wanted to see these ‘muscular Christians’ getting charbroiled into ashy heaps 🙂

    I’m presuming the Good Guys won in the end, though, seeing as how the world is still here 😉


  17. No, that’s a fine explanation. Martin, your patron could be either St. Martin of Tours or St. Martin de Porres (you get two for the price of one!) depending on which is nearer to your birthday or which you feel closer to. I like both of ’em. But you can certainly pick a patron saint of your own, one you feel a devotion towards or who resonates wtih your life or just clicks with you.

    Martha (as in Mary and Martha and Lazarus fame) is my confirmation patron, whom I took because even at the age of twelve I could tell I needed someone with a dose of practicality and domestic skills on my side 🙂

    As to your guardian angel, several people writing online say they feel their presence or know their names. There’s actually a discussion thread about it here: As ever, where Catholics are involved, it divides up between those who think this is diabolical presumption and those who think it’s cute 🙂

    Me, I have no idea; you could ask to know it, but I don’t see why that matters so much. there is the prayer we all learned as children to our angel guardian:

    “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide, Amen.”

    As the old “Catholic Encyclopedia” puts it:

    ” But in the New Testament the doctrine is stated with greater precision. Angels are everywhere the intermediaries between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: “See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is here put before us: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels lose not the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfil on earth.

    Without dwelling on the various passages in the New Testament where the doctrine of guardian angels is suggested, it may suffice to mention the angel who succoured Christ in the garden, and the angel who delivered St. Peter from prison. Hebrews 1:14 puts the doctrine in its clearest light: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?” This is the function of the guardian angels; they are to lead us, if we wish it, to the Kingdom of Heaven.”


  18. I’m not so sold on the emphasis on spiritual warfare (excuse me, good people of America, but this whole “angels and demons locked in warfare! going on right now! all around us! with our lives as the battleground!”angle does seem to me more of an American obsession, perhaps to do with Rapture theology or the idealization of the military as an expression of the best of American values of selfless service and love of nation? I don’t know, so ignore my vacuous ramblings).

    Actually, Martha, I suspect this is more of a “wanna-be” phenomenon given specific expression by early Frank Peretti fiction. As Rapture-theology Fanboys are LARPing in the prologue to Left Behind (and find it Very Exciting), so Spiritual Warfare Fanboys are LARPing in a Frank Peretti novel (and find it Very Exciting).

    There’s probably a bit of “Ego Porn” in the mix, too. The feeling of I Am The Mighty Wizard/Cleric Smiting Demons by Divine Power. A bit of what Lewis called “The Lure of the Inner Ring”. Maybe even a bit of secret desperation — maybe they’re so shrill because deep inside they think maybe Satan is really so Powerful that God would be defeated except for Mighty Spiritual Warriors and they’re secretly afraid they’re on the losing side. (This from the Spiritual Warfare obsession with Satan being so powerful and Everywhere — you can only hold such a Cosmic-Level Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory (where I Stand Alone Against The Conspiracy) in your head so long before Despair sets in.)


  19. I am not Martha, but I’ll give it a go-

    We don’t really know the name of our Guardian Angels. And no need to assume you have one- several times throughout Scripture it is mentioned that a guardian angel is assigned to each person.

    As for your patron saint- that is a bit more tricky. One could technically say that your patron would be St. Martin- however, which one? When it comes to patron saints, I would suppose it is merely whichever one you take as your patron. Assuming you are Catholic and have been Confirmed, I guess that would be the saint who you took as your Confirmation name.

    I bet Martha will explain it better.


  20. Martha, this question may be stupid, but do I know who my guardian angel is? Or do I just assume I have one when I pray the prayer to my guardian angel? And basically the same for my patron saint. Forgive me if the question is stupid.


  21. Martha, it’s October. Time for the War on Halloween (“The Devil’s Holiday”) to erupt all over American Evangelical Christendom. Time for Christian Harvest Festivals (“Just like Halloween, Except Christian(TM)!”), Trunk or Treat (“Just like Trick-or-Treat, Except Christian(TM)!”, Hell Houses & Tribulation Trails, Chick Tracts as Halloween giveaways, and lotsa anathemas flying back-and-forth. Talk-radio host Rich Buhler said in the Eightes that he could tell it was October when all the “Devil’s Holiday” phone-ins began. Every year, October 1-31.

    For me, it’s time to crawl down into the bunker with YouTube feeds of My Little Pony and ride out the American end-of-year holidays. From now to New Years.


  22. We can communicate with angels? Aside from cultural and ecclesiastic tradition where is this ability delineated? Oh yeah, and aside from the few events in the bible where angels actually made appearances to selected individuals.

    I have yet to find any evidence that we can “pray” to them, or “talk” to them. Their appearances and communications with humans have been sign posts for great cosmic events and not the mundane, every day slog of life in general.


  23. I also read that when some of the cosmonauts were in space they all saw what they described as an angel. It was a very large being who looked at them through the windows. I think they said there was a lot of light involved. They felt the being was friendly and would not harm them.

    I think I heard about that one being a Christian Urban Legend. Or a mistaking of a tabloid article for face (it seems to have that Weekly World News vibe). Can anyone do an Urban Legend trace on it?


  24. I read a story in the newspaper a couple years ago about a man who burgarlized a house while the owners were away for a number of days. He stayed in the home after burglarizing it and was found there by the police and the owners. They asked him why he did not leave with the stuff he was stealing. He told them some being was there and was refusing to let him leave. Angel? Guilty conscience? Crazy? Who knows! I think he was not even eating while he was in the house so he was very hungry when finally found.

    I also read that when some of the cosmonauts were in space they all saw what they described as an angel. It was a very large being who looked at them through the windows. I think they said there was a lot of light involved. They felt the being was friendly and would not harm them.

    The thing about angels is sometimes you hear about them helping people and sometimes you wonder “Why didn’t an angel help THIS person?” There is no rhyme nor reason to it, but then, in matters about God and the supernatural, I don’t think we can ever really figure it all out. We have to live with the tension of not knowing.


  25. This is what happens when Chaplain Mike goes on sabbatical 🙂

    It’s the equivalent of the summer break in television, when any old rubbish is thrown up on the screens as filler material (because people will be out enjoying the good weather and socialising, not watching tv) until the dark cold wet days of autumn and winter when the proper schedules resume with the return of the main shows.

    So expect a lot more nonsense in October, if Jeff gets desperate enough to let it slip under the quality control radar! (And, as you can see from that mixed metaphor, it will be nonsensical indeed).


  26. Yep, the putti were a result of the Classical revival, when the Renaissance re-discovered Greek and Roman antiquities, and to show off their (and their patrons) learning, artists used the imagery of the erotes and amorini. It was easy enough to translate a winged baby Cupid into a little angel, and to confuse for centuries thereafter cherubs and the Cherubim 🙂


  27. Incidentally, winged babies in art (called ‘putti’, despite so many people thinking they’re cherubs) weren’t originally meant to be angels, or even literally there at all. They were allegorical figures meant to represent the presence of the spiritual world – ‘Here be Holiness’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: