So says Rainer Maria Rilke, in either the first or the second of the Duino Elegies — off the top of my head I can’t remember which.
Meanwhile, over at Touchstone’s Mere Comments blog, they’ve been talking about angels. Though the conversation begins with the question of angels’ existence, which of course can’t be confirmed by any empirical process, what people seem really interested in discussing is whether or not angels have bodies.
The children and I were just talking this matter over the other day. Our catechism lays it out pretty plainly: an angel is a created spirit without a body. There’s no confusing him with man, who is a creature with both body and soul, and this seems important. While we may become as angels in heaven, we won’t actually be angels. And while at times they may resemble us — like Raphael on the road with Tobias, or the bewildering young man in white at the empty tomb — they aren’t the same order of being at all.
Still, we picture them as human, and that’s not entirely inappropriate. Not only do the stories say that they look like us at times, but they’re still closer to us, probably, than to anything else in the created order, and we to them. As far as we know, dolphins, though undeniably sentient, won’t ever become as angels.
So they’re represented thus:
But also thus:
If the first icon represents a window into heaven, I sort of hate to think what this one represents a window into.
Still, I guess that once you’ve started rendering angels into human form at all, you’ve started down the slippery slope that leads, among other things, to questions of . . .
. . . angel diversity.
Now, there’s no reason in the world for supposing that Saint Michael the Archangel comes of any particular ethnic stock. I mean, he’s an angel. He comes of the stock of pure intelligence. See “incorporeal,” above. Or, well, I didn’t actually use the word “incorporeal,” but that’s what I meant.
But at any rate, given that we use ourselves as a template for the visual representation of angels, there’s no reason why people of African descent couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, visualize Saint Michael, or any other angel, as resembling them.
Ditto people of Irish descent:
This begs a number of questions, though. For instance: When did “looking like us” begin to mean “looking like me?”
Actually, I’ve never seen any representations of angels that looked like me. I’ve never seen a single angel wearing bifocals. Do I feel disenfranchised? You bet I do. Why am I subscribing to this myopiophobic religion, anyway?
No, I really think the Eastern Christians get this one right, or as right as it’s possible to get it in this age of universal marginalization and grievance. If you’ve got to make angels look human, make them look like nobody in particular. Then they look like everybody. They look, in fact, like faces in the crowd: you look at them, but past them, because you want to see where you’re going.
Multicultural Angels from All About Angels
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?