12. Presence in Space – Activity
It is sometimes said familiarly that a thousand angels might dance on the point of a needle. That they would assemble there would seem to be a corollary from the simplicity of their nature which excludes extension. That they could dance there is another matter, and may be passed over as a bit of pleasantry.
But angels do not fill space as bodies do. A body cannot naturally exist without occupying space, and is commensurate to the space thus occupied, equal parts of the body filling equal parts of space, and each part of the space corresponding to a definite part of the body.
But angels have no parts. Hence if they occupy a given portion of space, they must be whole and entire throughout its extent, and in every assignable part of it, even as the human soul, which is also simple, is whole and entire in the whole body, and in every portion of it.
We can hardly conceive of a thing existing and yet not being anywhere. Nevertheless, there have been philosophers and divines – among them the prince of theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas – who have held that, under certain conditions, there is no impropriety in saying that an angel would be nowhere, that is, not in any place. This is in keeping with their contention that it is the activity of an angel within a given place which alone warrants us in saying that he is in that place, althought he may be present there in his substance independently of such action.
It is not to be supposed that an angel’s sphere of activity is of indefinite extent. The angels are creatures, and as such are limited in their being and operation. Their range of action as well as the energy with which they are capable of acting will vary with the perfection of their nature. The higher angels enjoy a broader, the lower a more restricted sphere of operation, which even the least among them are endowed with a force and energy far beyond anything of which the material world offers us an example.
Whether the faculty whereby angels act in the outer world is distinct from their will is disputed by theologians, but it may be assumed that it is not, there being nothing to gain from asserting the contrary. How angels act on foreign substances, whether spiritual or material, is decidedly not clear. That they do act, however, we know from the various ministries in which they have been employed according to the testimony of Holy Writ, as when the angel stirred the water in the pool at Bethsaida, or smote the chains of Peter as he lay asleep in prison, and caused them to fall from his limbs. We know it also from analogy with the human soul, which moves the body to which it is united, and through it, acts upon others exterior to it. To be sure, the analogy is not perfect, but on the other hand, the angels, as a part of the universe, must exert an influence upon the world at large and as its noblest portion, cannot lack a power which belongs to inferior beings.
Yet all that the angels can effect in the material world is reducible to motion. They can transfer this or that physical agent, with incredible celerity, from place to place, and knowing thoroughly the varied forced of nature, and their mutual action and reaction upon one another, they are able to apply them with consummate skill for the bringing about of marvellous results.
Thus, if it fell within the order of divine Providence to permit it, they might promptly cure the most obstinate diseases by the application of the proper specifics, which, if necessary, they might bring in a moment from the ends of the earth. But for whatever effects they produce in the physical order they are entirely dependent of physical forces. They cannot dispense with them, and so neither can they accomplish any result instantaneously. The forces of nature act only in time, and their action is measured by time. Angels cannot of themselves work miracles, whatever they do as instruments of the Divine Omnipotence.
Nor can they act directly upon the human soul, but only through the body. They cannot, as it would seem, suggest this or that thought to the mind, impart this or that impulse to the will, except by acting upon the imagination, and even this they can odo only thorugh the body or the outer senses.