Nine ranks of angels, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy
How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
This question is often attributed to those idle scholastics of yesteryear, who supposedly should have been more concerned with more practical, everyday matters. We forget that the medievals who pondered such questions about angels were the same ones who laid the foundations for classical music, who built and sponsored the most gorgeous architecture in history, were baptized under its signature domes, and went on to write the most world-renowned poetry (I am thinking of Dante Alighieri, who was baptized under the vault of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, depicted above), and who proposed ideas regarding the intersection of the finite with the infinite that still continue to riddle modern mathematicians.
This question, moreover, is actually well worth investigating as Orthodox Christians. It is at least an intriguing way to introduce our Church’s mesmerizing angelology. In any case, the Church’s teaching on the angels – and even how they are numbered – is far from being some idle abstraction. In fact, it informs our everyday worship and even every single action and decision we make.
Numbering the Ranks of Angels
First, the question about angels fitting somewhere, begs the more basic question: are angels material or immaterial? The consensus of the Fathers is that the angels are created, noetic, spiritual, free beings. They can only be characterized as having matter or bodies in the sense that they are finite and limited. But relative to us, they are invisible and bodiless. They are not biological beings, they do not reproduce. Neither do they look like us. They are not limited in time like we are. They are vast and immense “intellects” or noes (the plural of nous). In short, they are ‘good nouses’ that move with an unceasing eros toward God, the source of all goodness.
Since they are made of a noetic essence and are not confined to space, the question about how many of them can dance on a pin is not really a physical question that could ever be mathematically pinpointed (pardon the pun), but a question regarding what kind of head of a pin we’re talking about, the will of God to put them there, their own desire to go there, and our own willingness to let them.
Is not the Earth just a microscopic pinhead in the universe? Even so, how many myriads of angels are there that attend to us? The Church, in her wisdom, does not reveal the exact number; but it does give us a number of celestial orders: nine, 3x3, 3 squared. Three ranks, with three orders each, perhaps to recall our mind to the exponentially expansive benevolence of the Holy Trinity. The following is a summary of St Dionysius’ ranking and description of the angelic orders, from Celestial Hierarchy 7-9.
This ordering, though strictly derived from Scripture, is not presented to us with mathematical proofs or speculation; it is presented in a spirit of celebration so that we can ultimately join in the angels’ worship of the Trinity: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:3). The threefold choirs remind us of the festal orations of Gregory the Theologian, who is not content to say Pascha just once, but has to say “the Lord’s Pascha! Pascha! again I say Pascha! in honor of the Trinity.” Moreover, the three ranks correspond to the three heavens implied by St Paul when he describes how he was caught up into the“third heaven,” where he heard “ineffable words which it is not lawful for man to utter (2 Cor. 12:4).” Seeing as these things are ineffable, we only know as much as is revealed by Scripture.
Now, there are many today who would prefer to ignore this ranking of angels. But it is indisputably accepted by such luminaries as St Dionysius, St Maximos the Confessor and the Neptic Fathers of the Philokalia. It is almost inevitable that people will come across this scheme (often misleadingly represented on the internet), so if we are going to speak of angels, it is better to present it with a brief explanation than to try glossing over it.
Firstly, it should be noticed how the angelic hierarchy and the Church hierarchy are related to each other. The Church is a reflection of the ranks of heavenly hosts. We constantly refer to them, whether in the icons that surround our domes or in our choral imitation of them in the Divine Liturgy, from the Cherubim Hymn, “we who represent the Cherubim” to the declaration that the Theotokos, the Throne of God, is become more honorable than the Seraphim and incomparably more glorious than the Cherubim.
The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy exist because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). Indeed, how chaotic would the world be if everybody just willy-nilly received revelations out of nowhere? Who could you trust? What would you believe? Something of this sort took place in the Second Great Awakening in the United States, which gave rise to the Mormons, the Shakers, countless cults and confusion. Likewise, in the 1st century AD after St Paul’s death and in the 6th century in Syria, there was a proliferation of heresy and spiritual anarchy, in defiance of the harmonious sacramental order of the Church as faithfully maintained by bishops, priests, and deacons. In his own time, St Dionysius tactfully revealed the true meaning of hierarchy (in fact, he invented the word “hierarchia”) to a church in need of peace. He showed how, whether in heaven or on earth, the higher orders are supposed to lovingly attend to the lower orders and the lesser ranks are to humbly heed their superiors. Indeed, that is the angelic life to which the whole Church is called.
Since Dionysius often speaks of hierarchy in terms of the transmission of knowledge, perhaps a better way to present this hierarchy is not with the analogy of a military or a government, but with the threefold structure of the school curriculum. Preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten; grade school, middle school, and high school; Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees. The Truth is one, but it is taught at various levels in different ways, according to the capacity of each.
Another reason why I think it is worth learning these ranks of angels is because St Dionysius connects each one with a particular name and virtue that is meant to lift up our hearts. To know that bravery and Sunday school teaching are angelic activities should be encouraging for us. Again, whenever from St Paul we hear of “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col 1:16, cf. Eph. 1:21), rather than just getting confused about it, we can gain insight into the inner workings of God’s love: while He infinitely transcends all his angels, He raises them up to share in His rule, not because He needs them, but out of generosity. It shows us that the seemingly mundane life of worship and virtue is in fact an imitation of celestial angels. At the same time, even while God chooses to show humans His unstinting love through all the levels of creation, His love is also directly revealed to us, since “neither angels nor principalities [...] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
For St Gregory the Theologian, a cursory contemplation of the angels is a good primer for theology. For if we are incapable of grasping the natures of angels, how much more incapable are we of grasping the knowledge of God?
Do you see how we get dizzy over this subject, and cannot advance to any point, unless it be as far as this, that we know there are Angels and Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Splendors, Ascents, Noetic Powers or Intellects, pure natures and unalloyed, immovable to evil, or scarcely movable; ever circling in chorus round the First Cause (or how should we sing their praises?) illuminated thence with the purest illumination, or one in one degree and one in another, proportionally to their nature and rank; so conformed and shaped by Beauty that they become secondary lights, and become capable of illuminating others by the overflowings and largesses of the First Light? (Second Theological Or. 29.31)
Despite the minuscule size of this pinhead we call Earth, it belongs to a pin that pierces into deep heaven. However many holy angels cross over to us from there, one thing is clear: it is our task to make as much space for them as possible. Scripture that God sends us angels to be received with hospitality: “for some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). The stories of Abraham and Isaiah and Tobit give us vivid examples of how near the angels draw to us. While the natures of angels are inconceivable to us in their multitude and magnitude, they are still akin to us in many regards. We ourselves were created to be part-angel, as it were. St Gregory the Theologian calls man a “second angel, a mixed worshiper” on the earth (Or. 45.7).
The Church’s lofty angelology is brought down to earth through a simple truth handed down to us by Tradition: God assigns a guardian angel to each Christian. We are all familiar with the term “guardian angel,” but St Gregory of Nyssa goes so far as to call our guardian angel a brother! We have a fraternal relationship with the angels, he says, because of the noetic nature we share in common:
Since angels are intellects, it is no surprise that our guardian angels help us by means of rational demonstration, or in other words, by good thoughts, by good logismoi. Then, it is left up to us whether we will choose them or not. This is one reason why our conscience seems to be a part of us and above us at the same time. Many secularists are willing to use the phrase, “the better angels of our nature”; for us, this is not just a metaphor, but a fact of everyday life. Every thought we have, every decision we make, is influenced by angels. They are not just a projection of our conscience, of our good self as opposed to our bad self. At the same time, angels can only influence us through our own nature; likewise it is said that demons can only tempt us through our natural senses and the power of illusion. We are free to align ourselves with whomever we choose.
It is no wonder, then, that it feels so weird to be human. In addition to the dizziness of our freedom, we are constantly surrounded by invisible beings that are beyond human. The good ones strengthen and inspire us, the evil ones pester and conspire against us. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), against tyrannies like Pharaoh’s, who enslaved the Israelites. But so long as you choose wisely, the guardian angel is like a good elder brother to you, like Aaron to Moses.
If, then, one should withdraw from those who seduce him to evil and by the use of his reason turn to the better, putting evil behind him, it is as if he places his own soul, like a mirror, face to face with the hope of good things, with the result that the images and impressions of virtue, as it is shown to him by God, are imprinted on the purity of his soul. Then his brother brings him assistance and joins him, for the angel, who in a way is a brother to the rational and intellectual part of man's soul, appears, as I have said, and stands by us whenever we approach the Pharaoh. (Life of Moses, 2.47, p. 64).
Apart from our conscience being strengthened by the angels, Christ further commands us to respect our fellow human beings by calling our attention to their angels: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). If you take angels more seriously, realizing how they are constantly tugging at our neighbors’ “pitiful and feeble hands”* to bring them to the joy of the heavenly Father, you will take more pity on others. It is just like how as a first grader you would stop bullying your classmate as soon as you learned that he has a tough brother in 5th grade. We’d all be better off knowing we have big brother angels there to help us.
*From the Prayer to the Guardian Angel in the Small Compline.
In our next article, we will discuss how the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ further deepens and transforms our relationship with the angels and gives us a special capacity to imitate them – or perhaps even to surpass them in a certain manner. This opens the door to the angelic vocation of monasticism and how God uses the Church to reveal a mystery to the angels that not even they knew.