We know from Christian tradition and from the Holy Scriptures that there are different names given to groups of angels — nine “choirs” of angels in all. Over the centuries, many theologians and spiritual writers have considered the choirs from various perspectives.
A helpful spiritual truth to internalize as we grow in our love for God and progress along our spiritual journey: Whatever other purposes they may have, the hierarchy of angels is meant to help us to understand the qualities of God and how we might grow in the ways of holiness. It provides us with a sense of order, progress, and ascent in our understanding of how God’s infinite knowledge establishes and maintains the order and beauty of creation through principles that we can grasp and through the ministry and oversight of His faithful servants, the angels.
These designations are not matters of dogma but rather spiritual tools to help us to appreciate the ways of holiness — the means by which God assists us through the mediation of the angels. The names themselves describe either a characteristics of these mighty spirits or an aspect of their mission in God’s plan.
The Angelic Hierarchy
In the fourth and fifth centuries, we begin to see an increasing interest in the role of the angels among the Fathers of the Church and other Christian writers. One of these was an anonymous fifth-century monk who wrote under the name of St. Paul’s famous convert, Dionysius the Areopagite. He is commonly known as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is the person to whom we owe our common Christian understanding of the relationship between the ranks and choirs of the angels.
St. Thomas made intelligence the basis of the classification of the angels, who are themselves purely intellectual beings. The angels do not all have the same degree of likeness to the Lord, however; some participate in or reflect the divine perfections more than others. Therefore, according to the Angelic Doctor, angels belong to different choirs according to their intelligence and their place in God’s plan.
Outline of the Order of Angels
The highest group of angels — the seraphim, the cherubim, and the thrones — not only contemplate God directly but are totally concerned with Him. In Him, they contemplate the source of all creation, the ultimate ideas and causes from which all creation flows. In other words, they contemplate God in His highest perfections.
The second level, or sphere, of the angels — the dominations, the virtues, and the powers — do not possess the same kind of unified vision as the higher choirs. They see reality divided into the fundamental causes from which all things stem. And then the third group — the principalities, the archangels, and the angels — have a further devolved understanding of the truth of the universe, from the large and basic causes of all things into a multiplicity of particular causes.
But Pseudo-Dionysius also believed, as did St. Thomas, that the angels of the higher choirs enlighten those of the lower choirs, sharing their intelligence and understanding with them so that there is, in fact, true communication among the angels. And the angels in this way can cooperate with one another to fulfill the mission that God gives them.
The Arrangement of the Angels of the Lord (according to Pseudo-Dionysius)
Let’s turn to the individual choirs so that we can examine the powers each have, and how they relate with one another.
The seraphim are the angels closest to God. As such, they reflect most immediately the highest attribute of God manifest in creation: His love. They are on fire with the love of God; the very name means “incandescent ones” or “burning ones.” Classical sacred art portrays them as entirely red and ablaze. They are usually depicted as having six wings but no faces — simply a sea or ring of flame around the Holy Trinity. Because of this burning love, more than any other angel they have the most perfect knowledge of God, which makes them the most perfect adorers. St. Jerome notes that they not only burn by themselves, but they also inflame others with the love of God.
According to the prophet Isaiah, the seraphim are the angels whom he hears crying out “Holy, holy, holy,” as one of them purifies Isaiah’s mouth with a coal from the altar so that he might serve as the Lord’s messenger (Isa. 6:3–8). In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Mass, the priest evokes this moment as he prays for worthiness in proclaiming the Gospel. We too should pray to the seraphim that we might be purified in our responsibilities as teachers and bearers of the Word to our families, our friends, and all those over whom we have responsibility. It was a seraph who appeared to St. Francis of Assisi when he received the stigmata. Later mystics, too, will speak of the seraphim as the Lord’s messengers and intermediaries when they had extraordinary experiences of loving and transforming divine union.
The cherubim have a deep intellectual knowledge of divine secrets and of the ultimate causes of things; their name means “all-knowing one.” As such, they constantly contemplate the wisdom and the love of God in His relationship with mankind. They reflect His omniscience. The cherubim were the mighty adorers of the first covenant in its wisdom; images of the cherubim were the only images of beings that were permitted in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Their carved figures adorned the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which prefigured both the Virgin Mary “tabernacling” the unborn Christ and the Eucharistic tabernacles of our churches, containing the new manna of Christ’s sacramental Body and Blood. Embroideries of the cherubim also covered the beautiful drapery that separated the Holy of Holies from the outer court of the Temple. It was that veil that was ripped from top to bottom when Our Lord died on the Cross as the sign that He had passed into the Eternal Sanctuary and that the Temple of Jerusalem had fulfilled its purpose (Matt. 27:51). The cherubim are still considered protectors of the New Covenant and so are often depicted on tabernacles and Eucharistic vessels.
The thrones, as their name suggests, can be thought of as beings raised up to form the seat of God’s authority and mercy. A throne manifests the glory and authority of a king; it expresses stability and power. And since a throne is also a judgment seat, these angels are especially concerned with divine judgments and ordinances.
In the early Church, a common representation of God’s glory in Heaven was a mosaic behind the altar and above the seat of the bishop that represented an empty throne with a radiant cross mounted above it. This image represented Christ the King, Lord of all and Judge of the living and the dead. But His judgment seat was also a throne of mercy, for Christ has redeemed the world by His Cross. His love has brought us to salvation. The thrones are never seen or experienced as “flying” but as “rolling” across the heavens, in keeping with their manifesting the Lord’s stability.
The second hierarchy receives knowledge of divine secrets through the first three choirs; knowledge that they could not perceive by themselves. The ardor of the seraphim inflames their love; the wisdom of the cherubim reveals the depth of the mysteries; and the stability of the thrones draws them into constant adoration of God’s majesty. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas teaches that the names “domination,” “power,” and “principality” belong to government in different ways. The place of a lord is to prescribe what is to be done. And so Gregory says that; “some companies of the angels, because others are subject to obedience to them, are called dominations.”
The dominations are concerned with the government of the universe. They are the first of the three choirs in the second ring, which is the ring of the cosmos — the angels who are charged with great and universal stewardships. The dominations in particular are involved in the workings of divine power. They coordinate the ministries of all the angels who deal with creation. We see in the angelic world that the Church’s teaching that God works through secondary causes is beautifully demonstrated. The angels mediate God’s power just as the saints intercede for us with Him.
St. Peter mentions the virtues in his first epistle (3:22), as does St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians (1:16). The name is in some way a mistranslation or at least a “false cognate,” since this choir of angels does not deal with acquired habits (virtues), but rather exercises innate, raw power over the physical universe. According to Pseudo-Dionysius, their name refers to “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies, . . . mounting upwards in fullness of power to an assimilation with God; never falling away from the divine life through its own weakness, but ascending unwaveringly to the super-essential Virtue which is the Source of virtue.”1 They are the lords of causality and the principles of cosmic order in the material realm. They ensure the well-being of the world.
The powers (dunameis) form the third and last choir of the second angelic hierarchy, according to Pseudo-Dionysius, while other scholars and spiritual writers consider them to be the fifth choir. This choir is mentioned occasionally in the Old Testament, such as in the book of Daniel where we read, “Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever” (Dan. 3:39). Some scholars maintain that the name “powers” is also used to indicate angels in general, since it is the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew sabaoth.
In the New Testament St. Paul writes that there are powers who have remained faithful to God and powers who have fallen away and become part of the empire of Satan (Eph. 6:12). The choir of powers is thought to introduce man to the higher mysteries while repressing the attacks of the “hostile powers” of Hell against the deepest laws of physical creation.
The third sphere of angels is concerned with Almighty God’s plan of salvation for mankind. It receives from the highest sphere its focus on the immutability of God, which is manifested in creation by the harmonious principles and intelligent organization of the laws of nature, which are upheld by the angels of the second sphere. In turn, the angels of this third sphere pour out their influence on those who have the greatest interaction with us in the ordinary course of things established by God.
Princes or Principalities
The princes are also described as having members who have fallen away and others who have remained faithful. Principalities are the leading choir of the last hierarchy of angels. Their activities are described by Pseudo-Dionysius in this way, “The name of the Celestial Principalities signifies their Godlike princeliness and authoritativeness in an Order which is holy and most fitting to the princely Powers.” They are often seen as being the guardians of nations or peoples; this is why St. Michael is described in the book of Daniel as “the prince of Israel,” who comes to the aid of Gabriel against the demonic prince of Persia. It seems fitting that this first choir in the “ring of salvation” should also look after the spiritual structure of the supernatural life of the Church.
This choir is the most known and loved in popular devotion. Among the archangels we find St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael. It is traditionally believed, due to the statements of Raphael in the book of Tobit, that there are only seven archangels.
Three of their names occur in Scripture, and so the Church uses these names in our worship — St. Michael, the prince of the heavenly host and the only one called “archangel” in the Scriptures; St. Gabriel, the messenger of the Incarnation; and St. Raphael, the angel of healing and of medicine.
The names of the other four are not used in our Liturgy, though there are certain churches that preserve these names and make use of them in private devotion, including some Eastern Catholic Churches. Roman Catholics often refer to them as the seven archangels or the seven assisting spirits around the throne of God.
The seven archangels have been regarded from the very beginning as having a special place in God’s plan; their number is often associated with the seven days of the week and the seven sacraments. It is thought that the archangels were outstanding in their fidelity to God. In the writings of the saints they are often called archangel princes. An appellation that connotes leadership and authority in the heavenly realm. Many spiritual authors and mystics speak of their special assistance. They often attribute other “groups of seven” to their protection or patronage — virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and so on. The archangels are also associated with the protection of nations, dioceses, religious communities, and the mission of the Church.
The ninth and final choir of angels is composed of those who are most involved with the doings of mankind. These angels are those who are sent out on missions from God and from whom the guardian angels are chosen. The angels who fill up this choir may be the lowest, but they are beloved because the Lord places them at our sides to watch over us and to care for us. They are the ministers of Christ’s love and our protectors. [T]hey defend us against harm and temptation. They warn us of impending evil and inspire us to remain faithful to God in prayer.