Dante: Divine Comedy, Paradise: Canto 28; The Hierarchy of Life
I have a hard time accepting hierarchies much less defining them.
Dante, however, was pretty eager to engage in this activity.
This is the Canto in which Dante diagrams the hierarchy of the angels.
The study of art history leans heavily on this subject. For me, except in that it is useful to decode old works of art — I find it completely uninteresting.
Reading it redefines boring for me. This Canto is all filigreed praise and ranks.
However, if you want to play fantasy angel football — this is what you need to know:
Angel means messenger. The lowest and most involved angels as far as humans are concerned are these, they’re just called angels and they serve as messengers.
You know that part in the Christmas story where the angel appears unto the shepherds and says, “fear not”? That was a messenger angel.
However, these are also the angels who intervene when you step off the curb in front of a bus. They’re the grade six teacher who keeps you from falling off the monkey bars or notices the bruises on your face where your Dad hit you.
They’re the people who remind you about what’s good in life. Sometimes they’re you.
Next comes Archangels; for the most part, these guys are too busy for the likes of you and me. They have areas of life that they preside over — they’re into music or they serve some church or other or they spend their time talking to God. Archangels are the ones you hear about who come down to cause a great trial (Daniel and the Angel) or preside over some major, major event — like more earth shattering than the birth of a prophet.
They protect nations, govern politics, the weather — all the big stuff.
Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, these are all archangels. Notice anything? Yes. They all end in “iel.” which is sometimes spelled “ial” Makes one think, doesn’t it?
They govern the affairs of the earth. Protect the earth and inspire people to great scientific or artistic discoveries. They are usually depicted wearing modest crowns or carrying some other jeweled accessory to show they’re not just any archangel.
That’s the first sphere — Angel, the boots on the ground variety.
Dominions: Once again, these guys are involved with earth — but from a distance. They identify closely with the countries they’re supposed to watch.
Powers: Angel generals. Dispensers of earthly authority, they give the Archangels their marching orders.
Virtues: These angels are the embodiment of the strength of various virtues like mercy, justice, righteousness, piety, etc. They are supposed to well up in the earth, like freshwater springs and infuse believers with the strength of the virtue they embody.
Final Sphere: The major Angels:
Thones: the pivot point between the celestial and the earthly. We’re pretty grubby so there has to be a buffer between God and us. The thrones are that buffer. They are living symbols of God’s mercy, his justice and his love. They are revered by humanity and often called upon but they never appear in physical form to human beings.
Cherubim: You might think these are those cute little chubby baby angels seen on greeting cards and household decorations but they’re really singers. They each have four faces, a human an ox an eagle and a lion, which, not by coincidence, are each the symbolic insignia of the four evangelists. Mark is the lion, John is the Eagle, Luke is the Ox and Matthew is the man. You’ll see these animals depicted all over most traditional churches, they are always in evidence carved into the stone of any of the great European Cathedrals.
They have meanings. They are the Gospel delivered through the virtues of humanity (Matthew — feeling and flawed. John — keen, perceptive and into the letter of the law. Mark — effusive and majestic, courageous, willing to sacrifice and Luke, compassionate, slow, quiet, strong deliberate.) They also have big wings covered in eyes. Kind of like celestial peacocks except that their wing-eyes work.
The little chubby angel babies you see called “cherubim?” those are putti, they’re Italian.
Seraphim: More singers.
One of the jobs that always seems to need doing in heaven is praise-singing. Go to heaven as a chorister and you will always be employed. These guys have six wings, no discernible bodies and they are always within reaching distance, and earshot of God himself.
They don’t care about us.
Okay, there’s your hierarchy. Now here’s my take on the idea of hierarchy where it intercepts love.
It became my habit, after a while, to return to bed just before he had to get up. We would talk about life wrapped half-embracing and nearly always slip into making love.
Outside was the sound of rushing water, wind in the trees, birds singing. I don’t know how anyone can talk about paradise without mentioning these moments.
They are common, happening millions of times simultaneously, overlapping each other, in every time zone between every possible combination of people all over the world.
Like petals falling from a limitless supply of lotuses into a flowing stream all over the world, a million times every day. Each one is the same, each one is unique and uniquely precious.
They are the common denominator, they are the most important part of the day.
This time we talked about love. Of course I cried and he was stoic. It always seems to be that way for me.
Men in love need to remember their mothers, either as memorial or as a template for where to cling and where to let go. Sometimes they puff up their chests and prove what big boys they are for our benefit and others they come to us wounded and quiet, needing a place to curl up and be loved.
How their mothers responded to these very natural states will determine how they are with each of us.
There have been plenty of times, I’ve made very bad choices and seen down through to the little boy who lights the dollhouse on fire or teases the dog. The boy who expects to fight or be ignored.
But once, maybe, I saw a man who grew from a boy and lived to tell about it.
Of course, it was too painful to tell in words. So he governed his actions to say who he was and where he was and how he was going to be.
He showed love firmly, consistently and quietly. No more can be said than that.