Vol. X, March 2004


“The Lord Sits Enthroned Upon the Cherubim” (Ps 99:1)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The last meditation led us to the heights of adoration, up to the first hierarchy of the holy angels, where they are exclusively turned to the Lord, their God and sole happiness (cf. Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, ch. 7). The present Psalm shows us the Cherubim, who form the second choir of the first hierarchy: “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the Cherubim; let the earth quake!” (Ps 99:1). Much of what we reflected on with respect to surrender in adoration comes back to mind when we ponder these choirs in view of our consecration to the holy angels, by which we are committed to live and work in “union with” them.

1. Who are the Cherubim?

Sacred Scripture frequently speaks of “the Lord who sits enthroned upon the Cherubim” (Ps 99:1; cf. 2 Sam 22:11, Circ. IV,12; Ps 17:10, Circ. VIII,11; 2 Kings 19:15; Is 37:16; Dan 3:55). It is an illustrative image of these spirits who are “full of knowledge” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., I,108,5 ad 5).

a) The Cherubim are angels of the first hierarchy.

The image itself of the Cherubim as bearer of the Lord occasions the question: Are they not the same as the “Thrones” whom St. Paul refers to in his epistles (cf. Col 1:16; Eph 1:21; Ps 46:8; Circ IX,6)? Or again, how do they differ from the Seraphim? The Lord, who sits enthroned upon the Cherubim, is the “Mighty King, lover of justice” (v.4), just as He is the “Lord of all the earth”, before Whom “all angels bow down” in adoration (Ps 97:5-7; Circ. X,2).

Following tradition, John Paul II teaches in his catechesis on the angels, “that these beings and persons, as it were grouped together in society, are divided into orders and grades, corresponding to the measure of their perfection and to the tasks entrusted to them” (Gen. Audience, Aug. 6, 1986). Accordingly, the Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim form the orders of the first hierarchy. They “receive God as one close to them…[which] is the common, proper characteristic of the entire first hierarchy” (ibid.). However, what is common to all three choirs, is a specific trait for the lowest of the three, the Thrones (Summa Theol., I,108,6c). These three choirs form a certain unity around the throne of God. Furthermore, what is commonly true of each choir in this highest hierarchy needs to be true of each individual angel in these choirs.

b) The specific characteristic of the Cherubim is their contemplation of God.

The Cherubim are open towards their Lord and await the infusion of His light with an ardent love similar to the adoring Seraphim (cf. Is 6:1-3; Ex 25:18ff.). They humbly and unconditionally accept their King in silence like the Thrones. The special characteristic which marks their intimate union with God is light and is best expressed in terms of “spirit” or “knowledge”: “The name ‘Cherubim’ comes from a certain excess of knowledge…[Dionysius explains this] in regards to four things: the perfect vision of God; the full reception of the divine Light; their contemplation in God of the beauty of the divine order; and in regard to the fact that possessing this knowledge fully, they pour it forth copiously upon others” (Summa Theol., I,108,5m). Therefore, from both sides, the Seraphim and Thrones, we have to borrow something in order to understand the Cherubim better and to more easily establish the desired “union with them”.

2. Adoration helps us to receive the Word.

In the last meditation we reflected on the changes in man during adoration, when he follows the example of his heavenly brothers. a) Adoration draws man nearer towards his original state in paradise.

We saw that in order to adore God ever more sincerely “in spirit and in truth”, submitting oneself entirely to Him, one must free oneself more and more from every disordered link to creatures. This purification will bring about a harmonious order among all the faculties. This state of virtue, whereby one is more perfectly ordered towards God, approaches in a certain way the original state of integrity in paradise. That integrity is certainly one meaning of our Psalm: “Mighty King, lover of justice, Thou hast established equity; Thou hast executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v.4). This interior order in the soul, which grows apace with the spirit of adoration, is the best disposition for the contemplation and reception of God’s wisdom and union with His Word.

b) How do we dispose ourselves to receive the Divine Word?

Purified in and through adoration and love, man stands before God like a clear, deep and silent sea. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” the Lord promises (Mt 5:8). By controlling one’s curiosity, the “concupiscence of the eyes”, and by closing one’s ears to useless conversations, man can direct his attention to God. He can concentrate in meditation, and God can “show and tell” him His Word. Thanks to the sweetness of the divine presence in adoration, man loses interest in the “world”. He thirsts for the time when he can dedicate himself to God and His salvific works, when with all his intellectual and voluntary faculties, his memory and imagination, hope and fear, he can join the angels in heaven in their songs and praise. Consider “the four living creatures—Cherubim according to Ezechiel 10:20—full of eyes in front and behind...all round and within…day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy,” (Rev 4:6,8). Or, in his meditation one might walk up the mountain Moriah with Abraham and the little boy Isaac, participating with anxiety in the tremendous tension of Abraham, the growing darkness in his mind and the barely glimmering light of faith. He will observe the hidden yet, nevertheless, trembling angel following and watching on all sides according to the will of God, who even brings the ram near which will be “caught in a thicket by his horns” (cf. Gen 22).

c) How can we work towards union with the Divine Word?

God can occupy the soul, which by emptying itself of the world, is adorned with the beauty of adoring love. Its “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2; cf. 119:97; Jos 1:8). The Word of God finds the freedom to communicate itself with its proper qualities, being “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Through it, God can inspire man and direct his ways. God will incline man’s emotions and place thoughts in his mind. God will quicken his will for the good and increase his aversion for evil and sin.

3. God sits enthroned upon the soul.

We have seen how the Lord enthrones himself in man, in the human soul. The process takes longer in man due to the substantial union of body and soul and wherein there is a communion of many faculties. Notwithstanding, man is called to become a brother of the heavenly Cherubim, of those whom God took possession of in an instant: “The Lord sits enthroned upon the Cherubim”.

a) The priest is the “servant” of the Word.

To be servants of the Word is precisely what the Church expects of us priests. For, the Holy Father says, “the priest himself ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the Word of God…He needs to approach the Word with a docile and prayerful heart…[and] develop a special sensitivity, love and docility to the living tradition of the Church and to her Magisterium” (John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, 26,2). To this end, seraphic love is especially helpful. But it is realized only under the condition that secondly, the Word “deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him—‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16)—such that his words and his choices and attitudes may become ever more a reflection, a proclamation and a witness to the Gospel” (ibid.). This characteristic we might attribute specifically to the Cherubim as those upon whom the Lord “sits enthroned”. The nearness to the Thrones might be seen in the third characteristic the Holy Father mentions, the static and permanent dimension: “Only if he ‘abides’ in the Word will the priest become a perfect disciple of the Lord...He is not the master of the Word, but its servant...transmitting the Gospel in its fullness” (ibid.).

b) The priest is a man of the Word.

The seed of the Word of God finds its place in the adoring hearts of man. It can extend its roots into the different faculties and so find in the soul a real resting place. Like adoration, meditation also marks a priest:

—His constant heedfulness to the Word of God makes of him a silent person. He ponders the words he says; silence is the mother of his words.
—Through the discipline required by constant heedfulness, the priest becomes a master in renunciation of self, and his words have the mark of authenticity. He is trustworthy in his teaching.
—He becomes more and more an integral person, not exposed to the wind of opinions, but steadfast in the truth before everyone.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

There is no doubt: We priests have to be “Cherubim” among men, bearers of the divine Word in the midst of the forest of words (cf. Congr. for the Clergy, Priest for the Third Mill., ch. II)! How far we may have grown in the imitation and union with the Cherubim can be examined in different ways.

—The more we taste the goodness of the word of God (cf. e.g. Ps 119:103), the more we desire to find the time to ponder it daily in the “womb” of our soul, the more we shall be drawn to remain “always in prayer” (cf. Lk 18:1).
—We perceive the loss of time spent in reading or watching an interesting but unreal romance or adventure, and learn to appreciate the vitality of the Word of God, of the Fathers of the Church, or the words of the Saints, underlined by the testimony of their lives.
—We can recognize our union with the Cherubim in our vocabulary, in the examples we use in our explanations, in what we are thinking and speaking, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks!” (Mt 12:34).
—When in daily life thoughts of vengeance do not come to our mind, when we do not ask to see the fruits of our labors, when we care with compassion for the sick and poor, when we have no difficulty in choosing the last place, then the Word has surely united us with God and we bear Our Lord with us, as do the Cherubim.

May Our Lady, the Spiritual Vessel and Seat of Wisdom, together with all the Cherubim draw us priests nearer to the Divine Word and make us ever worthier servants of the Word.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC