Highest of all the holy angels, on the loftiest pinnacle of heaven, stand the glorious seraphim. Apart from the human nature of the Incarnate Word, and that other masterpiece, God’s Blessed Mother, they are the most perfect creation of Divine Wisdom and Omnipotence. They are bright with a radiance which beyond all else, most powerfully and most wonderfully reflects the splendours of the infinite Godhead.
The name itself, seraphim, is by some interpreted, “the exalted ones,” but the more common explanation connects it with a root which means “to consume with fire.” The flame with which they burn is that of love, and its effects are to enlighten and cleanse.
When Isaias, in his great vision, beheld the Lord on the throne of His Majesty and heard the seraphim as they stood round about crying one to another, “Holy, holy , holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of His glory,” he was seized with fear at the thought of his own unworthiness and exclaimed, “Woe is me,…because I am a man of unclean lips,…and I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of hosts.” Then suddenly one of the seraphim flew towards him with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar of the temple, touched the prophet’s mouth, and said, “Behold, this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquities shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed.” (Isaias 6)
This refining flame of love is enkindled in the breasts of the seraphim by their clear vision of the Creator, whom they behold with a depth and penetration of view far greater than is enjoyed by any other of the sacred choirs; and yet it is love, not knowledge, which gives them their name and serves as their distinctive characteristic. That is because love supposes knowledge. It is knowledge which begets love, and the more ardent and intense is the love, the more profound is the knowledge from which it springs. On the other hand, the notion of knowledge does not of itself imply love, for knowledge may exist without producing love. And hence it is that to designate the most exalted of all the celestial choirs, the more inclusive term, love, is invoked to supply the name seraphim, while that of cherubim is appropriated to the one next in perfection.
So closely associated with the highest order of angels is the idea of love, that we acclaim as a seraph one whose love we would commend as extraordinary in point of intensity and tenderness. Hence the epithet seraphic has become inseparable from the name of the lowly and gentle Saint of Assisi, and we even apply the term to the whole order of which he was the founder. For the same reason, that is, on account of the all-pervading spirit of love which animates his writings, we speak of Saint Bonaventure as the Seraphic Doctor.
But it is not merely in the name that Saint Francis is associated with the seraphim. There is also that wonderful story – so beautifully and touchingly related by Saint Bonaventure – the story of the impression upon his hands and feet and side, of the sacred stigmata of Our Lord. For it was a glorioius seraph with glittering wings all aflame who appeared to Francis, and as he descended to earth with rapid flight, Francis saw that his hands and feet were nailed to a cross. But as the Aint was deeply touched at this, and filled with tender sympathy, the angel explained to him that the representation was only symbolical, and that just as it was impossible for a seraph to experience physical pain, so it was not in the designs of God that Francis should be a martyr in the ordinary sense of the word, but that his likeness to his Crucified Savior was to be accomplished by the flames of love which should consume his soul. And yet as the vision left him, the sacred stigmata remained indelibly impressed upon his innocent flesh.