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Growing up as a Catholic, I really believed in angels—until I reached adulthood. Now, though, I find myself believing in angels again.
No, I don’t mean the kind of angels you see in the old paintings, with their halos, gauzy wings, beatific faces and diaphanous gowns. I’ve come to believe that those depictions were just symbols for the human soul and all of its potential goodness and light.
The Baha’i teachings define angels, and the angelic human behavior they represent, in a very different way than the old, traditional understandings would have you believe. People used to understand angels as some kind of disembodied spirits, metaphysical beings who could instantly protect our souls. Instead, the Baha’i writings refer to angels as symbols of the confirmations of God—and as detached, spiritual people who act kindly, peacefully and positively in this world:
The meaning of ‘angels’ is the confirmations of God and His celestial powers. Likewise angels are blessed beings who have severed all ties with this nether world, have been released from the chains of self and the desires of the flesh, and anchored their hearts to the heavenly realms of the Lord. These are of the Kingdom, heavenly; these are of God, spiritual; these are revealers of God’s abounding grace; these are dawning-points of His spiritual bestowals. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 81.
This twofold definition of all things angelic—the confirmations and celestial powers of God; and those blessed souls who have detached themselves from the material things of this world—now informs my concept of angels. Let’s explore both of these definitions.
First, what are the “confirmations of God and His celestial powers?”
We can get a clue from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament; and Abdu’l-Baha’s illuminating explanation of the meaning of one of its most famous passages:
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; and had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. – Revelation 21:10-17.
St. John the Divine wrote the Biblical Book of Revelation, and here Abdu’l-Baha reveals the true meaning of John’s symbolic words:
Accordingly did Saint John the Divine tell of twelve gates in his vision, and twelve foundations. By ‘that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God’ is meant the holy Law of God, and this is set forth in many Tablets and still to be read in the Scriptures of the Prophets of the past ….
The meaning of the passage is that this heavenly Jerusalem hath twelve gates, through which the blessed enter into the City of God. These gates are souls who are as guiding stars, as portals of knowledge and grace; and within these gates there stand twelve angels. By ‘angel’ is meant the power of the confirmations of God—that the candle of God’s confirming power shineth out from the lamp-niche of those souls—meaning that every one of those beings will be granted the most vehement confirming support. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 165-166.
We receive the confirmations of God, those heavenly angels, from the messengers of God, the prophets and founders of the world’s great Faiths. Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and now Baha’u’llah—all have given humanity the laws of God, all have served as “portals of knowledge and grace,” and all have shone as guiding stars to all humanity.