Michaelmas 2016: Angels, Angles, Universities, Monks

A blessed Michaelmas to you all, and especially to Bishop Michael Smith, Fr. Michael Peterson, and Michael Carter (a trinity of Michaels).

One of the great and early lights of English spirituality is Pope St. Gregory the Great, whom I mention on this feastday for three reasons.

The first is the angels/angles pun that, pious legend tells us, expressed St. Gregory’s interest in evangelizing the people of England. (Not ignoring the fact that Christianity had already been present in Britain from the time of the Romans.  But the Anglo-Saxons needed a helping hand.)  From St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II, chapter I: “It is said that one day, when some merchants had lately arrived at Rome, many things were exposed for sale in the market place, and much people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and saw among other wares some boys put up for sale, of fair complexion, with pleasing countenances, and very beautiful hair. When he beheld them, he asked, it is said, from what region or country they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, and that the inhabitants were like that in appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, ‘Alas! what pity,’ said he, ‘that the author of darkness should own men of such fair countenances; and that with such grace of outward form, their minds should be void of inward grace.’ He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. ‘Right,’ said he, ‘for they have an angelic face, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven.’”

The second reason St. Gregory merits mention on this day is that the template, so to speak, by which St. Gregory sought to invite the English people to become co-heirs with the angels was monasticism. Thus began the laying of an ecclesial foundation that was monastic, which was perhaps unique in the evangelization of Europe.  (St. Boniface and the Germans might be another example.  But exploring the distinction would be a digression–in an already-rambling jumble of thoughts.)

The third reason St. Gregory merits mention is the fine passage, attached below, on angels. I find it reassuring to think of angels as powerful, strong, effective, and rather frightening, instead of as the treacly fainéants of greeting cards.

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels also sparks reflections on higher learning since this is the feast on which the academic year has traditionally begun at English universities: Oxford, Cambridge, and—my alma mater—Durham. My un-informed guess is that the academic year began around this feast day for mostly agrarian reasons. (Wasn’t much of the harvesting done in September?)  But beginning the academic year—concerned as it is with the life of the intellect—on the feast of the angels, who are without bodies and are thus pure intellects, strikes me as fitting.

Cardinal Manning was dismissive of Cardinal Newman’s “old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone.” I suspect Manning’s reference to Oxford was meant to refer to university education in general.  And given what I know about university politics, I’m tempted to agree with him.  But it is worth remembering that universities began as a marvelously Catholic invention.  (See Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness, chapter seven, “Scientific Heresies.”)  Oxford was the third university to be created in 1167 (following Bologna in 1088 and Paris in 1150).  This was the age of Scholasticism, when, thanks to such brilliant minds as St. Thomas Aquinas, the appreciation of reason’s role in living the Christian life continued to make great strides.  (I’ve been told, by the way, that the first religious to establish a house of studies at a university were monks: Cistercians at the University of Paris.)

What’s more, this original ideal of the university was part and parcel of what gave rise to the Oxford Movement. But for the twelfth-century establishment of the intellectual autonomy of universities, there wouldn’t have been a long tradition of supporting academic honesty, which made the Oxford Movement possible.  And we know where the Oxford Movement led!  So, pace Manning, the “Oxford tone” has been wonderfully translated into the liturgical/spiritual treasury of the Catholic Church.  And Bd. John Henry (Patrimony) Newman’s essay on the Idea of a University sought to develop this university ideal for the modern era.  Might there one day be an Ordinariate university?

Though there are few finer intellects than Newman’s, he splendidly brings angels down to earth and earth “up” to the angelic. From his Apologia pro vita sua: “I say of the Angels, ‘Every breath of air and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect, is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God.’”

So it is that the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels is part of a symbiotic whole that involves, to paraphrase Newman, rays of autumnal light and fall crispness, the love of learning, and the desire for God.


From a Homily of Pope St. Gregory the Great

“You should be aware that the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.  Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels, and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.

“And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.

“Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known.  But personal names are assigned to some, not because they would not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us.  Thus, Michael means, ‘Who is like God?’;  Gabriel is ‘The Strength of God’;  and Raphael is ‘God’s Remedy.’

Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that both the action and the name of the angel called ‘Who is like God’ may make it clear that no one can do what God alone does by superior power. So also our ancient foe desired pridefully to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High.  The Evil One will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when that woeful spirit will be destroyed in the final punishment.  Then, there will be battle with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel. So too Gabriel, who is called God’s Strength, was sent to Mary, coming to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers.  Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.

“Raphael means, as I have said, God’s Remedy, for when the angel touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, the darkness of his blindness was banished. Thus, the angel who is to heal is rightly called God’s Remedy.”

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