THE BEATIFIC VISION: BORING, CONFUSING, OR WHAT?
Basil Cole, O.P.
<Hell is not the only reality to have receded from human consciousness. Increasingly, we find Heaven also has become a casualty to a virulent anti-supernaturalist philosophy which has its effect even among Christians. In our emphasis upon this world, many contemporary theologians have ignored the Church's teaching as well as the teaching of some of her finest theologians concerning the reality of Heaven. In this, his first article for Faith & Reason, Fr. Cole examines the teaching of the Angelic Doctor and brings to light a number of timely truths concerning heavenly beatitude. In these truths the Christian finds the greatest motivation for his labor of love in this life as a pilgrim who knows who he is and where he is going.>
God reveals truth about Himself and ourselves that transcends human experience and human reason's ability to demonstrate the existence of the truth. God also reveals truth that human reason can discover by reflection upon human experience. Hence theologians call the first-mentioned truth mysteries of faith, strictly speaking because we must surrender first hand evidence and believe God who through the instrumentality of His Church proposes His teaching, i.e., the Trinity, Eucharist, etc. One of these mysteries which Aquinas says borders on the Infinite (S.T. I, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3) is the beatific vision and its psychology. As Germain Grisez puts it from a different context:
The beatific vision which scripture promises and the Church teaches about is a mysterious and indescribable blessing which transcends merely human fulfillment. The beatific vision ought to remain mysterious to us, because it is utterly beyond our human capacity. Moreover the mysteriousness of what is essentially supernatural is important even humanly speaking, because it makes heaven intriguing to people of every taste and temperament, and prevents it from becoming an alternative to the love of human good.1
While I substantially agree with Grisez, still we can know a tiny something, based upon analogy, about this mystery which can both inspire our prayer life and lead us to a virtuous love of basic human goods. I will try to show how, with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas, we can have small glimpses of what is in store for those who live and die in the Lord Jesus. If we preachers and teachers of the faith completely ignore heaven in our expositions, we implicitly detract in some way from God's love for His human creatures. If we do not try to make His greatest gift of Himself appealing to the Christian faithful, then their desire to return His love will be lessened. In this life, the more we are truly loved and appreciate this, the more we want to make a return of that love to the full extent of our ability unless we are cruel, ungrateful, or insensitive. Indeed all of the dogmas of the Church become atrophied if we do not try to clarify the deepest of God's love for usnamely, giving Himself to us forever in total bliss.
If someone were to throw a going away party for my departure to Rome and no one knew where I was going, someone would naturally ask the question. If I were to answer that I am not going to that terribly cold city of Olavsvik, Iceland and ranted on about its chilly weather, my friends would become a bit concerned about my sanity and might even suggest that I go to a mental health center! If I am normal I would explain to everyone present that I am going to Rome and if pressed further, I might explain my itinerary with pictures of the eternal city.
This example might seem a trifling odd but it best describes in a metaphorical way the thinking a good number of Catholic and Protestants Christians. Many live their moral life to stay out of Hell, which they believe in a fairly vivid way to be fire, torture by evil angels, anguish, deep rooted sense of total failure without end and so forth. When it comes to actually getting them positively motivated about exactly where they are headed for, they find it almost impossible to describe Heaven save in very vague terms like total happiness or eternal bliss with God. In other words many know what they are avoiding but few seem to realize or care much less about what they ultimately are going to receive for their life long relationship with the Lord Jesus. Few still seem to appreciate that ultimate happiness consists in a vision of God because it seems boring. Again as Grisez notes:
Sometimes this doctrine of the beatific vision is understood in a way which would make our sharing in the divine life a limited sort of activity, appealing perhaps to intellectuals but not to many others. Heaven is thought of as consisting in an endless gazing upon the divine essence, an individual and ecstatic act of contemplating a magnificent object.2
But on the other hand due to the lack of speculation on the part of today's theologians, many Christians seem to think of it as a far away place where one can live in a dream-like state of peace away from the pain and heartaches of this life. So then life is simply one giant testing ground, a valley of tears, to see if we are worthy of such a wonderful play-land of sweetness and peace. Hence the reason why much of moral teaching in the past was legalistic, that is, a "what you can get away with" morality before committing a mortal sin which will potentially send one to hell.
<Heaven in Sacred Scripture>
The word heaven came from the Hebrew word <shmayim> and was translated into a Greek word <ouranous.> It basically meant some inaccessible region above this earth inhabited by God and His sovereignty ruling the earth together with His angels.3 In fact, heaven became one of His names. Our Lord uses another word from the Old Testament to describe heaven called paradise, a garden where someone would live with God forever. The two major texts that specify what specifically is Heaven can be found in 1 John 3:2: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is;" and in St. Paul, 1 Cor. 13:12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; them I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." It seems peculiar that the Old Testament and Jesus give us a very graphic picture of Hell (darkness, fiery pool, blazing furnace, fire that never goes out, everlasting torment, the worm, corruption, ruin, weeping and gnashing of teeth). Heaven on the other hand is only briefly alluded to as an image of joyful celebration or a banquet at a wedding (Math. 2:1-4, 25:1-13). Apparently Jesus wanted His Church to ponder and think out the significance of Heaven which is precisely what sacred and living tradition has done through the ages, except our own.
<The Problem of Happiness>
It is important in understanding the theology of Heaven that we see it rooted in the whole question of happiness as the quest <par excellence> of mankind. St. Thomas will say:
The general notion of happiness, of goodness perfect and sufficient implies that every ill is banished and every desire is fulfilled. Neither is possible in this life. We are subject to many unavoidable ills. Augustine carefully sets them out: ignorance in our mind, inordinate loves in our affections, and pains exacted of our body. Nor can our desire for good be satisfied. By nature, we crave for security, yet how transitory are our blessings, life itself fades away, although our nature is always to hold onto it and shrink from death. Hence the possession of true happiness is not possible in this life.4
Thus mankind is specified by an unquenchable thirst that is unable to be satisfied in this life. Jesus reveals that this thirst can be satisfied beyond what is reasonable, namely seeing the Triune God Himself in all His splendor.
<The Problem of Understanding God in this Life>
The reason why the beatific vision of God does not conceptually satisfy us as the answer to our heart's yearning is that we do not have a direct knowledge of God's being. As Aquinas puts it:
Once the existence of a thing has been ascertained, there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now because we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather what he is not.5
Why do we not know what God is in Himself? God, pure existence, is supremely intelligible but His mind and will are identical with His very being. Humans know through their senses and by abstracting knowledge from experienced reality around them. By deduction and other reasoning processes we can understand realities both below and above them (albeit imperfectly).6 God then who is infinitely above all that He has created cannot be grasped by the simple light of created reason. Or in other words, to know God directly requires that we in some way become knowers as He knows Himself (S.T. I, q. 3, a. 1-5). Hence the reason why it is also difficult for the human mind to know completely why certain acts are sins. Perfect knowledge of sin would require that we see a sin and God at the same time thereby knowing the infinite chasm between the two.
Hence it was necessary for St. Thomas and others to develop a very deep negative knowledge of God:
That the mind is found to be most perfectly in possessing knowledge of God when it is recognized that His essence is above everything that the mind is capable of apprehending in this life. . . .7
To join the above ideas together, that is, of the human mind's feebleness and God's infinitude, Aquinas says:
It is because human intelligence is not equal to the divine essence that his same divine essence surpasses our intelligence and is unknown to us; wherefore man reaches the highest point of his knowledge about God when he knows that he knows him not, inasmuch as he knows that that which is God transcends whatsoever he conceives of him.8
Coming from a different direction Grisez is quite correct to emphasize:
Beatific knowledge of God cannot be restricted by our experience of the limits of our human capacities. The beatific vision is a sharing in the intimacy of the Trinity (see Mt 11:25-27; Lk 10:22; Jn 10:14-15). To enjoy this intimate, active communing with God, one must share in his own nature. How then, can we be on the right track if we think of the beatific vision as the exercise of capacities which belong to human nature? To the extent that the measure of this beatific knowing is God's knowing, we do not know what it is in itself, since concepts drawn from anything else do not yield understanding of God in himself.9
However, I think one should not so exaggerate the transcendence of Heaven or God as if all knowledge of its joys and Himself were totally unintelligible simply because it is feeble and incomplete. Mankind is created in the image and likeness of God; the rest of creation we see around us is created with affinities of God. Even though God is not like us10, there can be some minute and positive knowledge about God, provided we understand the limitations of our language. Otherwise we will make the mistake of a saying attributed to Meister Eckhart and condemned by the Church as heretical:
That God is not good nor better nor best; so I speak badly whenever I call God good, as if I should call white black.11
While it is true that sometimes the preachers of the Thomistic school may have appealed more to the intellectual side of heaven, it is clear that for St. Thomas the beatific vision does not mean that one single good, the human intellect is fulfilled. Rather, since the human will is blind of itself (there being no other faculties of the soul but the intellect and will), it needs the intellect to feed it, as it were, with a gaze on supreme goodness. So for Aquinas heaven does the following for the separated souls and eventually for the whole human person of body and soul:
But the blessed have this triple gift in God. They see him, and seeing him they possess him, holding him forever in their sight and holding him, they enjoy him as their ultimate goal fulfilling all their desires.12
It is also something social as well:
The perfection of charity is essential to happiness, as to the love of God but not as to the love of neighbor. Wherefore, if there were but one soul enjoying God, it would be happy, though having no neighbor to love. But supposing one neighbor to be there, love of him results from perfect love of God. Consequently, friendship is, as it were, concomitant with perfect happiness.13
From these and other texts to be cited toward the end, Heaven is something very personal, individualistic but also a profound communion with others. Likewise in a hidden way, we find here the basis for making a distinction between essential happiness and accidental (but real) happiness that we will see.
<The Beatific Vision Itself>
Some of the Greek philosophers were convinced that if one saw God, he would have to become God and so lose his personhood. It was this philosophical tradition that Aquinas and others tried to grapple with so as to maintain complete happiness in the beatific vision without merging into the godhead. It took many centuries before and after the medieval theologians for the Church to define her teaching on these mysteries of faith. The Church began in a negative way by condemning the errors of the Beguines and Beghards at the Council of Vienne (1311-12). In a more positive way Pope Benedict XII defined and clarified the teaching in response to the controversy between the Dominicans and Pope John XXII, who had maintained as a private theologian that after death, Heaven consisted of seeing Christ's humanity only; but, at the end of time the just would see the Blessed Trinity. Naturally this dispute with the Pope brought with it a battle with some Franciscans who were closely allied with the papacy in an internal dispute over the interpretation of the vow of poverty. And so the next pontiff, Benedict XIII, settled the controversy regarding the reward of Heaven when he defined exactly the nature of Heaven in the following manner:
Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest. . . .14
Because this knowledge and fulfillment are beyond the grasp of any human's powers, the Church likewise taught that the intellects of the blessed need a special illumination which enables a person to see God without comprehending Him (Denz. 475). This is called the light of glory, the consummation of the light of faith and is in no way a created likeness through which someone sees God. It is a strengthening of the intellect by the omnipotence of God to give His friends that quenching of their thirst for integral human fulfillment or happiness. Since humans do not comprehend God in Heaven, to that extent their happiness is limited by their nature. But to think that this act is something purely passive seems to deny the very nature of the mind and will. As Bartholome de Medina, O.P. once said commenting on St. Thomas (S.T. I-II, q. 3, a. 2), "If sight were given to a blind man, he would nevertheless see with his own sense of sight."15 And if St. Thomas is right in saying, "Even God himself would not be happy if he did
not know and love" (<On Truth>, q. 29, a. 1), then human beings must receive God actively and exercise something proper to themselves that gives essential fulfillment, enjoyment and peace. This, then, is mysterious but it is radically different from saying that it is totally unintelligible.
<Implications of this Life>
If contemplating God face to face will essentially fulfill our capacities for happiness with unimaginable joys, then contemplating God in this life can imperfectly be part of our own limited happiness. Paraphrasing Aristotle, Aquinas says, ". . . the slenderest acquaintance we can form with heavenly things is more desirable than a thorough grasp of mundane things."16 Therefore the best decision for anyone in this life is to attempt to contemplate the mystery of God and the things of God from time to time (<S.C.G.> III, c. 130, 1). But in no way does this activity exclude other virtues and the happiness that flows from these virtues.17 Charity, the greatest of the supernatural virtues, is meant to order, mold and form the moral virtues, so that our neighbors are loved in God (<de Car.>, 2) and one of its major properties is joy (<S.T.> II-II, q. 28, a. 1-4). That is also why theologians from the medieval period and after have always made the important distinction between essential or primary beatitude (the vision of God) and secondary or accidental beatitude. These virtues of charity, justice, prudence and the gifts of the Holy Spirit will remain in Heaven and the new earth. And since we still have friends with us in heaven, there will be joys associated with their companionship, as pointed out earlier and will be mentioned later.
We know from the Church's teaching of the Council of Trent that everyone's share in the vision of God will be in proportion to his or her charity and merits at death:
If anyone says that the good works of the justified are the gifts of God in such a way that they are not also the good merits of the justified man himself; or that the good works he performs through the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ (of who he is a living member), the justified man does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, as well as an increase of glory, let him be condemned.18
In this life everyone has a thirst to know reality, either in a theoretical line or in a practical way. Some enjoy learning philosophy, physics or mathematics. Others find languages, fixing cars or buildings their great delight. The love of knowledge attuned to reality is relatively limitless. But because not all can study enough or remember everything learned, all are somewhat unfulfilled on the level of truth. In addition, there are certain puzzlements or baffling questions that plague believers and even skeptics that need to be answered: why we have had to suffer, why we met certain people, why certain favors were never granted to us that need to be answered. For believers as such it may mean a thirst to know how God can be three persons, why He became man, why He did not choose women to be priests, etc. Once someone sees God, all answers become abundantly clear since He is seen as the origin of all truth and its possibilities, together with His all loving providence. All created things will be understood in Him as well. Secondarily, one can see other things about self, the world and God Himself from new angles, with new appreciation forever, since one can choose to contemplate anything and any known truth in God's infinite depths.
Likewise in this life we have a legitimate need for the beautiful. Hence we enjoy the sight of sunsets, cloud formations, flowers and other beauties of nature. Then there's the giant realm of art and poetrythe beauty created by mankind. Whether it be Beethoven's music, jazz or flamenco dancing, the statues of a Bernini or a Michelangelo, the paintings of a Blessed Angelico, or the writings of a Shakespeare, a Chaucer to the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Cathedral of Chartresall inundate our hearts with the beautiful. The trouble is that we easily get bored with it after some hours or other more physical needs may impinge upon us like fatigue or hunger. But when we see God who is infinite integrity, proportion and brightness, all the beauties of this life will seem meager drops of water in contrast to the infinite ocean of beauty. As an adjunct to our happiness, we will be able to make beautiful objects after the glorious resurrection, and even prior to that event, our minds will be able to make poetry.
Turning to another profound need, we have a tremendous desire to love and to be loved. Hence the natural desire for friendship, marriage and family life where we seek to affirm and cause others to grow in goodness and holiness as well as to be understood, honored, known and made holy. But as it is known from experience, friends might try, misunderstand and even betray us. As we examine our conscience, we fail to love our loved ones with the best kind of love and sometimes even violate their rights with the seemingly best of intentions. So in the presence of infinite love, affirming us with an endless sea of affection, we will be totally enveloped by love showering us with gift upon gift flowing from the total gift of Himself to us. We will know we are perfectly understood, honored and esteemed. And we will give ourselves perfectly back to God fully harmonizing ourselves with the give and take that goes on among the three persons of the Blessed Trinity. As brought out earlier we will love all present with this same love. This is why so many virtues will remain with us for our relationships with others in Heaven.19
If the previous section sounds very individualistic, it is because we have been created individually and must face the judgment of God individually. However since we are a communion (the best word to describe the Church according to the Roman Synod of 1985)20, we must also say that part of Heaven's experience will be social, insofar as we can help the pilgrim Church by our prayers and perhaps directly when God's will may wish it. In addition, while we are in heaven we will be able to communicate with one another without distracting each other from his or her essential happiness since like the community of angels and Christ on earth, we will have many levels of consciousness, being able to seek out old friends, relatives and historical personages who will be there with us.
<The Final Resurrection of the Body>
From Old Testament times (2Mc 7:14; Dn 12:1-3) to the New Testament itself (Jn 6:3ff; Col 3:1-3; 1Jn 3:14; 1Cor 15:35-53) to the various general councils of the Church, it has been her constant teaching that our very bodies will become reanimated at the end of time when the final triumph of Christ's death and resurrection becomes perfectly manifest. The body will be saved from death (imperfectly anticipated by the developments of modern medicine). Thus the whole human person will enjoy ultimate happiness, not simply the joy of a disembodied soul. While the Church has never defined the exact characteristics of this body, theologians and St. Thomas in particular have brought their insights to bear on some of it. This was done by elucidating the consequences of Christ's own personal resurrection for anyone possessing a risen body. Using the hints that Jesus gives us regarding the nature of a risen body (Lk 20:35-37) and St. Paul's phrase about the "spiritual body" (1Cor 15:44), many have been able to give some fairly substantial conclusions about what is to come.
If God can create us out of nothing, He can certainly put us back together again. But as indicated by Sacred Tradition, we do not receive worn-out bodies but perfect ones. St. Thomas witnesses to this explanation:
Further if anything belonging to the truth of human nature in a man be taken from his body, this will not be the perfect body of a man. Now all imperfection of a man will be removed at the resurrection especially in the elect, to whom it was promised (Lk 21:18) that not a hair of their head would perish. Therefore whatever belonged to the truth of human nature in a man will rise again.21
Man will rise again without any defect of human nature because as God founded human nature without a defect, even so he will restore it without defect.22
Since we are to come back perfect, Aquinas and others concluded that we will be young and beautiful again. This would explain why Jesus was not always recognized after his resurrection: he simply looked younger. The ancient churches in Ravenna witness to this for the mosaics portray the risen Lord youthful and without His beard. Likewise in the private apparitions of Mary approved by the Church, she comes looking like a young woman.
Using his reason to explain the deposit of faith, St. Thomas (<Suppl.,> q. 82-85) develops the idea that a non-risen body is vulnerable to pain, lumpish, stiff and dull.23 So the overflow of the beatific vision will mean that the new human persons will be impassible (free of suffering), subtile (body as subject to the spiritualized soul), agile (obeys the soul's speed of movement) and clear (free of every blemish and ugliness). Since there will be a new earth, the communion of all the blessed with Jesus will be situated in some kind of bodily fashion. Vatican II in <Gaudium et Spes> gave one of the best descriptions of Heaven that summarizes both aspects of Heaven (individual and collective) into a unity by saying:
We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man nor the way the universe will be transformed. The form of this world distorted by sin, is passing away and we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, where happiness will fill and surpass all the desires of peace arising in the hearts of man. Then with death conquered the sons of God will be raised in Christ and what was sown in weakness and dishonor will put on the imperishable; charity and its works will remain and all of creation, which God made for man, will be set free from its bondage to decay. . . .
When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nation and our enterprise human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedomaccording to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illumined and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom "of justice, love and peace." Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter into its perfection.24
When all is finally thought out about heaven in this life, it is only like straw, or to use another analogy like eating a ten day old cheese sandwich. Nevertheless we are reminded by these dogmas who we really are, where we are going and why. This knowledge should stimulate us to love the Lord Jesus and His brothers and sisters even more. This is ultimately how we will arrive into the arms of God.
1 Germain Grisez, <The Way of The Lord Jesus, Christian Moral Principles> (Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), p. 810.
2 <Ibid.>, p. 464.
3 Xavier Leon-Dufour, <Dictionary of The New Testament> (Harper and Row, 1983), pp. 223-224, 312.
4 Thomas Aquinas, S.T. I-II, q. 1, a. 4, <Purpose And Happiness>, vol. 16, Thomas Gilby, O.P. (McGraw-Hill Co., 1969).
5 <Ibid.>, I, q. 3, prol., <Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas>, trans. by Anton Pegis (Random House, 1945).
6 St. Thomas' commentary <De Anima> I, 1, 15, "The essential principles of things are unknown to us." Also <De Spiritualibus Creaturis,> a. 11, ad. 3.
7 <Commentary on Boethius>, q. 1, a. 2, ad. 3, <The Trinity And The Unicity Of The Intellect,> trans. by Sr. Rose E. Brennan, S.H.N. (B. Herder, 1946).
8 <On The Power Of God,> q. 7, a. 5, ad. 14, trans. by Laurence Shapcote, O.P. (The Newman Press, 1933).
9 Grisez, <op. cit.>, p. 465.
10 <On Truth,> q. 2, a. 11, ad. 1.
11 Denz. 528.
12 I, q. 12, a. 7, ad. 1, <Knowing and Naming God,> Vol. 13, Herbert McCabe, O.P. (McGraw-Hill Co., 1969).
13 I-II, q. 4, a. 8, ad. 13, Gilby, <op. cit.>
14 Denz. 530, cf. J. Neuner, S.J. and J. Dupuis, S.J., <The Christian Faith> (Christian Classics, 1975), p. 624.
15 Cited by Joseph Pieper, <Happiness and Contemplation> (Pantheon, 1958), p. 53.
16 I, q. 1, a. 5, ad. 1, <Christian Theology,> Vol. 1, Thomas Gilby, O.P. (McGraw-Hill Co., 1964).
17 <Virt. comm.>, a. 5, ad. 8; <de Ver.>, q. 14, a. 2.
18 Denz. 824.
19 I-II, q. 67, a. 1.
20 <L'Osservatore Romano,> English ed., Dec. 16, 1985, 6-9.
21 <Suppl.,> q. 80, a. 4, sed contra. Trans. by the Dominican Fathers (Benziger, 1948).
22 <Suppl.,> q. 80, a. 1, <ibid.>
23 St. Thomas Aquinas, S.T., <Knowing And Naming God>, Vol. 3, Introduction by Thomas Gilby, O.P. (McGraw-Hill Co., 1964), XXVIII.
24 <Vatican Council II>, Austin Flannery, O.P. editor (Costello, 1975), 938.
<Rev. Basil Cole> was educated at the University of San Francisco, St. Albert's College in Oakland, and le Saul choir, France.
This article was taken from the Spring 1988 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.