The Nine Choirs of Angels
By Genevieve Cunningham
Today we are going to focus on what has been taught or revealed concerning the number, hierarchy, and activity of the holy angels.
The Church has a rich history of mystics who encountered angels, such as Saint Angela of Foligno (1248–1309). Angela once had a vision of the angels, in which she wrote:
I experienced a clear perception of how Christ comes in the [Holy Eucharist]... It was shown to me how Christ comes accompanied by a mighty throng, or host...This host formed an array so imposing, a militia of such great number, that if I did not know that God does all things according to measure, I would believe that the number of this host was without measure, indeed countless…
This vast host, as it turned out, was only one of the nine choirs of angels. That gives us an idea of the sheer number of angelic beings: just one choir is beyond human counting. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the angels greatly outnumber the total number of human beings who have ever lived, are living, and ever will live. Their ranks even surpass the number of created material things.
We do not know how many angels there are, exactly; what we do know is that the number of angels now is the same as it was when they were created. Angels don’t come into existence one at a time, as human beings do. Rather, they were all created by God at one point in time.
It is hard for us to wrap our minds around such calculations. And the vast number of angels begs the question: what is the difference between them? Do some of these angels have more power than the others?
The Nine Choirs of Angels
There is a spectacular variety among the creatures of the earth, yet none of them are random or disconnected—there is a clear order and structure in the natural world. We see this reflected throughout creation in the various life forms which complement and are subservient to higher life forms. For example, the grass is subservient to the sheep, which is subservient to man. The same is true for the invisible world. Man is subservient to angelic beings, who are subservient to God.
God created all the spirits in a heavenly hierarchy, with some spirits having greater power and authority than those of lower orders.
The word “hierarchy” might sound rigid or even oppressive to some modern ears, but in the world of the angels the concept of hierarchy is a sacred ordering that makes knowledge and activity possible...Each angel has a direct and immediate relationship with God, but they benefit from the understanding and love that higher angels are able to experience and communicate to the lower angels.
—Fr. John Horgan
The structure of this particular hierarchy was recognized as early as 100 A.D., and later affirmed in the 13th century by St.
Thomas Aquinas. “[A]ll the names of the Angelic Orders, or Choirs, are found in Sacred Scripture,” says Fr. Pascal Parente, a respected authority on ascetical and mystical theology. He writes:
These nine orders of Angels are commonly called Choirs. Because the word choir means a band of singers, it is liable to create a wrong notion about the number and duties of the Angels. Singing the praises of the Most High is indeed one of the most pleasant and desired occupation of all celestial spirits but certainly not the only duty and occupation. Their vast number of countless millions and myriads in each Choir would be better expressed by other terms, like Order, Rank, Hosts, etc. Yet, the accepted name should be retained because of its antiquity.
The order of the choirs—and the roles particular to each—are a mystery to us, as far as details go. But they have a traditional order and descriptions that have been recognized by various saints and Doctors of the Church for centuries.
Let’s look at the structure that has been most commonly accepted.
The Supreme Hierarchy
The First Set of Choirs:
The first three choirs are the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones. They are “the most fully Godlike,” as Fr. Parente wrote.
They are consumed by, and focused on, the adoration of God and the singing of His praises.
The word seraphim means “incandescent ones” or “burning ones.” They are traditionally depicted with six wings, as described in Isaiah 6:2. These angels are the ones closest to God. St. Bernard of Clairvaux says that “God, who is Love, has so drawn and assimilated them to Himself, so filled them with the ardor of affection that burns in Himself” that they seem to be one with Him.
According to St. Jerome, they inflame others with that same love for God.
Cherub means “all-knowing one” or “to contemplate the divine splendor.” They are not chubby children, as often depicted—the prophet Ezekiel describes them as having four wings and four faces (Ezekiel 1:5-11). Their four-faced representation signifies God’s omniscience. They have profound knowledge of divine secrets. Theirs were the only images permitted in the Temple of Jerusalem. In similar fashion, cherubim are often portrayed near tabernacles and on Eucharistic vessels.
The name of Thrones refers to the throne of God’s mercy and His absolute authority over all things. They are usually depicted as a winged wheel, studded with eyes, inspired by the description in Ezekiel 10:12. They reflect God’s power, stability, and judgment.
Being subservient to their Lord, the Thrones display special characteristics of submission and peace, and are involved with His judgments and decrees.
The Middle Hierarchy
The Second Set of Choirs:
The second set of choirs contains the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers. They are governors of the cosmos, overseeing and
has stewardship over creation.
Their name means “dominion” or “lordship.” They govern the cosmos and oversee the angels who are directly responsible for administering creation. They mediate God’s supreme power over the universe, and appoint the things which are to be done according to His ministrations.
The Latin origins of the word Virtue means “strength” or “power.” It is believed that this choir wields “raw power” over the physical elements of our world, creating what we perceive as miracles. According to Fr. Horgan, they are “lords of causality and the principles of cosmic order.” By carrying out the commands of the Most High God, they work tirelessly for the world’s well- being.
The angels protect God’s creation from hostile forces. The Powers do so in a particular way, and operate on a higher level than our personal guardian angels—they protect the very laws of creation from God’s enemies. They repel hostile powers and constrain evil spirits. They are believed to “introduce man to the higher mysteries,” notes Fr. Horgan.
The Lower Hierarchy
The Third Set of Choirs:
The final set of choirs contains the Principalities, the Archangels, and the choir that is most accurately named “Angels.”
These three choirs, writes abbot and spiritual author Henri Marie Boudon, are “especially engaged in the care of men, of kingdoms, and provinces, and of other things which peculiarly regard the good of men.”
The Principalities have executive responsibility over the world of men. They are understood to guard nations and peoples and are believed to aid the spiritual life and structure of the Church. Some Catholic authorities suggest that we seek their prayerful
intercession for our souls’ transformation, since our nature is so weakened by sin. They are eager to help us.
There is a very strong devotion to the choir of Archangels among the faithful. This is fitting because they are believed to protect countries, dioceses, religious communities, and persons such as the Holy Father, who have monumental responsibilities.
Archangels have a particular role in God’s plan of salvation, as seen in Sacred Scripture. There are seven archangels (Tobit 12:15) but only the names of three have been revealed: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Church has not approved any other suggestions as to the identity of the other four, since the names are not part of divine revelation.
The choir known simply as Angels is the one most immediately engaged with the activities of human beings. As mentioned in a previous article, the name “angel” means “messenger” or “one sent.” Guardian angels come from this choir, though not every spirit in this choir is necessarily a personal guardian. Our personal guardian angels are powerful guides and warriors. They thwart the demons that want to harm us and motivate us to fidelity in all things.
The Glory of Angelic Communion
As members of a fallen race, and residents of an imperfect world, we may feel that the seamless interactions of the angelic hosts are unrelatable or mystifying. We might wonder how there could be perfect satisfaction and peace among hierarchies of unequal power and intelligence.
But in heaven, says Venerable Consolata Betrone, “[E]very choir of angels attends to the fulfillment of its own office, without
The greater glory of an angel from the first hierarchy does not diminish the glory of an angel from a lower hierarchy. In fact, angels from the higher choirs communicate the intelligence and understanding that they receive from God to the lower choirs:
The Angelic Choirs, or Orders, exercise their power by...enriching and perfecting the Angelic or human intelligences that are immediately below themselves…This is indeed a very harmonious and beautiful conception of God’s family in Heaven and on Earth, a family in which all are joined together in charity among themselves and all are united in God with divine love.
—Fr. Pascal Parente
The angels are an example for us. We, too, are called to such holy generosity and perfect unity in our own communities, both here on earth in the Church Militant, and in heaven. We know that even among the saints, some have a higher glory than others;
just as here on earth, some people have vast responsibilities while others have small ones. This is part of the beautiful design of God. The differing glory of each saint does not diminish the perfection of His love for each individual soul.
Now that we’ve learned about the traditional hierarchy of the nine choirs, we are ready to take a closer look at some of their specific duties. If only some of the angels are guardian angels, what are the others doing right now?
Coming in Day 6…
The Five Roles of Angels