Have you heard the angels sing?
The Angels’ Song was written by Walter Hilton in the fourteenth century for a brother in Christ who asked his guidance. `What is the angels’ song?’ the brother asked. Walter Hilton replied,
I can only show you what it seems to me. Our Lord comforts a soul with the angels’ song; what that song is may not be described through any physical comparison. For it is spiritual, and above any kind of imagination or reason. This song is not the supreme joy of the soul for that is God himself, communication with angels is secondary.
`In what way can the song of the angels be perceived?’ asked the brother.
It can be perceived in a soul, but it cannot be demonstrated. For when a soul is made steadfast by God’s power, its eyes are opened on the spiritual things of heaven. This is the freedom, and Lordship, nobility and honour he can recover by grace.
`How can you be sure it is genuine?’
You cannot sense this song unless in perfect charity; nevertheless, not everyone in perfect charity hears it. It must not be confused with the song of the soul, which comes from constantly setting the heart on the name of Jesus.
Walter Hilton was a Canon Regular of the Augustinian Order at the Priory of St Peter, Thurgarton in Nottingham. He is certainly one of the leading mystics, probably connected with Cambridge. The Angels’ Song is a prose treatise and shows how the action of grace can be distinguished from illusion in the spiritual life. The varying ways in which people experience the mysteries of God is fundamental to the understanding of this treatise.
Richard Rolle (1295-1349)
Richard Rolle hears the jubilant Song of the Angels. `While I was sitting in chapel repeating the Night Office before going to supper, I heard above my head the joyous ring of psalmody. I became aware, in a way I cannot explain, a symphony of song, and in myself a corresponding harmony but it was not suspected by those who saw me, if they had they would have honoured me.’
In Scripture, shepherds (Luke 2.13) in the fields of Bethlehem, hear the Angels’ Song. `Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.’ St John the Divine also hears the Angels’ Song in his vision of God (Revelation 5.9), though they sang a new song. `Great and marvellous are your works Lord God Almighty. Glorious your name for you alone are holy.’ (Revelation 15.3)
His poem, In No Strange Land, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” finds its inspiration in the Angels’ Song:
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars
The drift of pinions, would we hearken
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places,
Turn but a stone and start a wing
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
We find this same music of devotion in Roche’s Prayer and Thanksgiving:
To that radiant sanctuary I lift my heart
To listen to the minstrelsy of angels
Answering as re-echoing one to the other.
Across celestial places crying
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.
The Song of the Heart
This comes from setting the heart on the Name of Jesus, using the heart beats to produce a rhytlun, one beat to a word, `Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me.’ The tenor of this prayer binds into one the forces of a man, spiritual, mental and corporal, into an act of perfect devotion. It fills the heart with a warmth that no tongue can tell of, nor can it be taken for anything material.
Isaiah recommends it, `Behold my servant shall sing for joy of heart’ (Isaiah 12.2). St Paul encourages this to the Christians in Ephesus and Colossae, `Make melody in your heart with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5.19; Colossians 3.16).
Jesu! The very thought is sweet
In that dear name all heartjoys meet;
But Oh! Than honey sweeter far
The glimpses of His presence are.
To return to the angels there is that familiar hymn of St Joseph of the Studium, dating from the ninth century, Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright. It speaks of the angels filled with `celestial resplendence and light’ who live in that realm `where night never followeth day’ and prayer without ceasing is the climate of living, as they `raise the Trishagion ever and aye’. It goes on to point out that these are the counsellors nearest the throne of the God of Sabaoth, these are his ministers, `these dost thou send, Help of the helpless ones Man to defend’.
Sister Katherine Maryel of the Sisters of Bethany