15 July 2013

Venturing ‘where angels fear to
tread’ on Saint Swithun’s Day

An angel carved in wood on the chaplain’s prayer desk in the choir stalls in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

We were invited this morning to venture “Where Angels Fear to Tread”. The well-known English phrase comes from the title of the 1905 novel by EM Forster (1879-1970), and in turn comes from a line in Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Forster was born into an Anglo-Irish family in London NW1, and as studied at King’s College, Cambridge, where he later spent many years as a fellow, and was part of the literary set around Rupert Brooke that spent time in Grantchester.

Dionysius the Areopagite says angels live “a life of total intelligence” – an appropriate concept to wrestle with in Cambridge – and we are discussing “Angels, Heavenly and Fallen,” at this year’s IOCS Summer in Sidney Sussex College.

We were welcomed to summer school began this morning by Professor David Frost, Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, who spoke later this morning on Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Our first speaker was Dr Marcus Plested, the Vice-Principal of the institute, who addressed us on ‘Angels and Demons: Introducing the Theme.’

But this was both a “first-and-last” for Marcus who leaves Cambridge this summer to take up a professorship in Marquette University in Milwaukee.

This morning, he introduced to the thinking about Angels and Demons in the writings of some of the early figures in the Church, particularly Macarius, Evagrius Ponticus and Dionysius the Areopagite. It was a discussion about Creation, fall, temptation, struggle, restoration.

Macarius says each of us has two angels accompanying us, one good and one bad, and speaks of whole armies of angels fighting each other. There is always a struggle, and we remain susceptible to evil thoughts. But it’s what we do about those thoughts that truly matters.

During the Liturgy, we are accompanied by thousands of archangels and tens of thousands of angels, but angels are also often to be seen on the side doors of the gates of the iconostasis or icon screens in Orthodox churches.

We know the names of some of the archangels, including Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. Saint Matthew’s Gospel speaks of guardian angels (Matthew 18), and in the Book of Daniel, angels are ascribed to nations, with each nation having its own angel.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council makes specific reference to icons of angels. Angels also feature in Judaism and Islam and in ancient Greek thought, especially Plato.

But he asked us why we needed to talk about angels at all. He admitted a difficulty in talking about angels in today’s culture, in which any talk of angels ranks with “being away with the fairies.” In addition, in the Bible, the accounts of angels are found in martial, hierarchical and monarchical contexts, which add to that cultural difficulty today.

Yet, he suggested, a discussion of angels tells us about what it is to be human, and tells us about God too. We talk about living the angelic life as Christians, but we cannot live as the angels do.

Evagrius vividly describes of particular demons, and Dionysius the Areopagite produced the definitive book on angels, setting out the definitive explanation of heavenly hierarchy in his Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας).

Dionysius asks: “What is the form of the lion, the ox, the eagle? What are the horses, and their various colours? What are the rivers, the chariots, the wheels? What is the so-called joy of the Angels?” We should be more interested in what they do than what they look like, and more interested in how they lead us to God, for angel is a title that indicates a messenger, who announces God’s message and good news and who points to God.

Dionysius orders the ranks of the angels into three groups of three, with nine titles, all of which are scriptural:

1, Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones – the angels closest to God;

2, Dominions, Powers and Authority;

3, Principalities, Archangels and Angels – the angels closest to us.

An angel in a carving on the facade of the newly-refurbished Divinity School in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

David Frost then invited us to venture “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and to put our questions to Marcus.

The discussion that followed included the Apostle Paul’s references to women covering their heads because of angels: “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (I Corinthians 11: 10).

We also discussed the relationship between the hierarchy of angels and hierarchy in Church, including the bishops or angels in the churches in the Book of Revelation who are also messengers.

Later in the morning, Professor David Frost introduced us to John Milton’s thinking about Angels, Heavenly and Fallen, on his paper: “‘by merit rais’d/ To that bad eminence’: Milton’s Satan.”

He pointed out that belief in angels and demons is not an article of the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople, but is founded in Christian tradition. Traditionally, the questions in the preparation for Baptism involve rejecting Satan and all his works and pomp and deceit.

As he brought us through Dante and his Divine Comedy, and John Milton, Paradise Lost, he told us: “Hell is in essence solitary” and “self-exclusion.” It involves turning one’s back on beauty, light and truth, and the false allure and false beauty.

On the discussion afterwards, The Revd David Cassidy suggested angels are referred to in the clause in the Creed that says God made created “all things visible and invisible.”

During this morning’s coffee break, we sat on the small grassy space between the Mong Hall and South Court, basking in the warm summer sunshine.

Today [15 July] is Saint Swithun’s Day. Saint Swithun was a ninth century Bishop of Winchester, but his historical importance as a bishop is overshadowed by the English tradition that the weather on this day is to continue uninterrupted for 40 days. An English weather lore proverb says that it rains (or shines) on Saint Swithun’s day, it will rain (or shine) for 40 days:

Saint Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
Saint Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare.

Forty days of uninterrupted sunshine? Well, there’s an angelic promise.

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