by Anthony Esolen
Several years ago, I read Dietrich von Hildebrand’s treatise on purity – Reinheit. What most struck me was not his analysis of the virtue, but his meditation upon the pure man, how we know him when we meet him, what his speech is like, what light shines in his eyes and what bloom glows on his countenance. And I thought, “He is taking for granted that every one of his readers will have met such a man.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins describes such a meeting. He’d been preaching at a military barracks, and one boy approached him and asked to be given his First Communion. So in the quiet of the chapel, Father Hopkins brought out the Lord, “low-latched in leaf-light housel,” to the kneeling bugler in his regimental red. What he sees in the boy is manly purity, even in the midst of the rough life of the soldier:
There! and your sweetest sendings, ah divine,By it, heavens, befall him! as a heart Christ’s darling, dauntless;Tongue true, vaunt- and tauntless;Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.
He is Christ’s dear-ling, precious to the Lord, because he too is willing to lay down his life, dauntless in his duty. But there’s more than courage here. The boy is pure of heart; he does not lie, he keeps his word, he will not boast, he will not mock others. And all of that is but the breathing bloom, the flower and fragrance, of a chastity in mansex fine.
What does chastity look like, in a young man who must go forth to fight among his fellows, sometimes no better than ruffians in uniform? Perhaps it resembles that of the guardian angel whom Hopkins invokes to protect the boy in the spiritual battle:
Frowning and forefending angel-warder,Squander the hell-rook ranks’ sally to molest him;March, kind comrade, abreast him;Dress his days to a dexterous and starlight order.
I’m not sure when it was that Christians got the impression that angels are best portrayed as wispy girls with flowing gowns. Scripture calls them “the sons of morning” and “the sons of heaven.” Their names are masculine, and they are the soldiers of the Lord of hosts.
The guardian angel here is a fighter, like Michael. His looks are grave, frowning, as he waves his sword forefending, marching in front of the lad and scattering the raven ranks of hell. He is also the lad’s companion, as Raphael was to the boy Tobias, kindly, and marching beside him. He brings to his charge the right-wielding of weapons and the right-dressing of days, according to an order from beyond the earth.
Hopkins is thinking of the stripling angels in Paradise Lost who catch Satan lurking about Adam and Eve while they sleep. They demand to know of Satan who he is; Satan taunts them for their not recognizing him; then one of them remarks that Satan no longer resembles the angel he was, losing his glory along with his goodness. Milton causes us to see, through Satan’s eyes, the purity of these young soldiers of God:
So spake the cherub, and his grave rebuke,Severe in youthful beauty, added graceInvincible; abashed the devil stoodAnd felt how awful goodness was, and sawVirtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pinedHis loss.
All of this leads me to a question. Even if we scratch our heads as we read Von Hildebrand’s treatise on purity, wondering what kind of world it has come from, we recognize the portraits of purity that Hopkins and Milton draw for us. They strike us as beautiful and right. They are not like fabulous beasts, a unicorn or a griffin. They combine the innocence and gravity of children with the full stature of manhood. In their presence, unless we are depraved, we feel grateful and perhaps wistful, wishing that we had been better than we were when we too were young.
So then, where have all the angels gone?