In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, angels are ominous creatures. They look the way you’d expect them to — strong, big, humanoid beings with powerful wings — but they seem to have their own agenda. They intervene when they shouldn’t and don’t when they should. They pursue their own goals, and they’re not always ends of pure virtue alone.
When a researcher first discovers angels in both an unexpected place and form, she remembers the words of Saint Augustine: “Angels are spirits, but it is not because they are spirits that they are angels. They become angels when they are sent. For the name angel refers to their office, not their nature. You ask the name of this nature, it is spirit; you ask its office, it is that of an Angel, which is a messenger.”
Maybe angels aren’t meant to take sides. Maybe they’re just playing a role, like all of us.
When a young boy helps a grandmother across the street, and she says, “Aren’t you an angel?” she is pointing at the role the boy is performing, not who he is. In fact, calling someone an angel may do more damage than good. What if the pressure to live up to this label ultimately drives that kind boy into madness and despair?
Humans have a vast potential for goodness, but just because we have said potential does not mean all of our actions will turn into said goodness. We become human through our behavior, and that process of actualization happens every day for as long as we live. Some will be good. Some will be bad. On some we’ll be good. On some we’ll be bad. We are both the yin and the yang. Both the light and the dark.
“Angel” is just a job description, and while it’s nice to be reminded that you’re performing your duties well, we mustn’t let the praise go to our head — for Saint Augustine knew one more thing about angels, and that was that pride changed them into devils, whereas only humility could make humans deserving of said label in the first place.