* 1 Cor. xi.9.
This happiness -- which is now so incomprehensible to us -- is none other than the possession and enjoyment of God himself in the Beatific Vision, as well as the perfect satisfaction of every rational craving of our nature in the glorious resurrection of the body. It is on this glorious happiness we are going to meditate; and first, we shall endeavor to obtain a definite idea of the Beatific Vision, which is the essential constituent of heavenly bliss.
In meditating upon the happiness in store for the children of God, we are very apt to build up a heaven of our own, which naturally takes the shape and color which our sorrows, needs, and sufferings lend thereto. The poor man, for instance, who has suffered mutely from toil and want, looks upon heaven as a place of rest, abounding with all that can satisfy the cravings of nature. Another, who has often endured the pangs of disease, looks upon it as a place where he shall enjoy perpetual health of body and mind. Another again, who, in the practice of virtue, has had all manner of temptations from the devil, the world, and his own flesh, delights in viewing heaven as a place totally free from temptation, where the danger, or even the possibility of sin, shall be no more.
All these, and other similar views of heaven, are true, inasmuch as they represent it as a place entirely free from evil and suffering, and, at the same time, as an abode of positive happiness. Nevertheless, they are all imperfect views, because not one of them takes in the whole of heavenly bliss, such as God has revealed it to us. They all ignore the Beatific Vision, which is the essential happiness of heaven.
But even among those who look upon heaven as a place where we shall see God, very few indeed understand what is implied in the vision of God. They imagine that we shall simply gaze upon an object whose surpassing perfection will make us happy in a way which they do not understand. These last do not fully comprehend what is meant by the Beatific Vision, though they view heaven as a place where we shall see God. Let us, therefore, endeavor to understand what faith and theology teach us concerning the Beatific Vision. We shall see that it is the essential happiness of the blessed which not only fills them with the purest and completest satisfaction, but that it is, moreover, in virtue of this Beatific Vision that they are enabled to enjoy the additional or secondary pleasures which cluster around the throne of God.
Theologians divide the happiness of heaven into essential and accidental. By essential is meant the happiness which the soul receives immediately from God in the Beatific Vision. By accidental are meant the additional pleasures or joys which come to the blessed from creatures. Thus, when our Blessed Lord says: "There shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner doing penance," He evidently means a new joy, which the blessed did not possess until sorrow for sin entered that sinner's heart. They were already happy in the Beatific Vision, and would not have lost the slightest degree of their blessedness, even if that sinner had never repented of his sins. Still, they experience a new joy in his conversion, because therein they see God glorified; and, moreover, they have reason to look for an additional brother or sister to share their bliss. Yet, although the blessed do rejoice in the conversion of the sinner, they do so in virtue of the Beatific Vision -- without which they could receive no additional pleasure from creatures. Therefore the Beatific Vision is not only the essential happiness of heaven, but it is also that which imparts to the saints the power of appropriating all the other inferior joys wherewith God completes the blessedness of his children. As this is a point of importance, we shall endeavor to understand it more clearly by an illustration.
A man who is gifted with perfect health of body and mind, not only enjoys life itself, but he likewise receives pleasure from the beauties of nature from literature, amusements, and society. Now, suppose he loses his health, and is thrown on a bed of sickness. He is no longer able to enjoy either life itself or its pleasures. What is all the beauty of earthly or heavenly objects to him now? What are amusements, and all the joys of sense, which formerly delighted him so much? All these things are now unable to give him any pleasure; because he has lost his health, which afforded him the power of appropriating the pleasures of life. Therefore, we say that health is essentially necessary, not only to enjoy life itself, but also to relish its pleasures. So too in heaven. The Beatific Vision is necessary not only to enjoy the very life of heaven, but likewise to enjoy the accidental glory wherewith God perfects the happiness of his elect. What, then, is this Beatific Vision? Is it an eternal gazing upon God? Is it an uninterrupted "Ah!" of admiration? Or is it a sight of such overpowering grandeur as to deprive us of consciousness, and throw us into a state of dreamy inactivity? We shall see.
"Beatific Vision" is composed of three Latin words, beatus, happy; facio, I make; and visio, a sight; all of which taken together make up and mean a happy-making sight. Therefore, in its very etymology, Beatific Vision means a sight which contains in itself the power of banishing all pain, all sorrow from the beholder, and of infusing, in their stead, joy and happiness. We shall now analyze it, and see wherein it consists; for it is only by doing so that we can arrive at the clear idea of it, which we are seeking.
Theologians tell us that the Beatific Vision, considered as a perfect and permanent state, consists of three acts which are so many elements essential to its integrity and perfection. These are, first, the sight or vision of God; secondly, the love of God; and thirdly, the enjoyment of God. These three acts, though really distinct from each other, are not separable; for, if even one of them be excluded, the Beatific Vision no longer exists in its integrity. We shall now say a few words on each of these constituents of heavenly bliss.
1. First, the sight or vision of God means that the intellect which is the noblest faculty of the soul is suddenly elevated by the light of glory, and enabled to see God as He is, by a clear and unclouded perception of his Divine Essence. It is, therefore, a vision in which the soul sees God, face to face; not indeed with the eyes of the body, but with the intellect. For God is a Spirit, and cannot be seen with material eyes. And if our bodily eyes were necessary for that vision, we could not see God until the day of judgment; for it is only then that our eyes will be restored to us. Hence, it is the soul that sees God; but then, she sees Him more clearly and perfectly than she can now see anything with her material eyes.
This vision of God is an intellectual act by which the soul is filled to overflowing with an intuitive knowledge of God; a knowledge so perfect and complete that all the knowledge of Him attainable, in this world, by prayer and study, is like the feeble glimmer of the lamp compared to the dazzling splendor of the noonday sun.
This perfect vision, or knowledge of God, is not only the first essential element of the Beatific Vision, but it is, moreover, the very root or fountainhead of the other acts which are necessary for its completeness. Thus we say of the sun that he is the source of the light, heat, life, and beauty of this material world; for, if he were blotted out from the heavens, this now beautiful world would, in one instant, be left the dark and silent grave of every living creature. This is only a faint image of the darkness and sadness which would seize upon the blessed, could we suppose that God would at any time withdraw from them the clear and unclouded vision of Himself. Therefore, we say, that the vision of the Divine Essence is the root or source of the Beatific Vision.
Yet, although this is true, it does not follow that the vision of the Divine Essence constitutes the whole Beatific Vision; for the human mind cannot rest satisfied with knowledge alone, how perfect soever it may be. It must also love and enjoy the object of its knowledge. Therefore, the vision of God produces the two other acts which we shall now briefly consider.*
* Dico 1. Essentiam beatitudinis formalis primo ac principaliter consistere in clara Dei visione, in qua, quasi in fonte ac radice tota beatitudinis perfectio continetur. Est enim praecipua ac perfectissima animae operatio in ratione consecutionis finis ultima, et immediate cum ipsius conjunctione, ac forma essentialiter distinguens statum beatum a non beato.... Tamen, dico 2: Amor charitatis et amicitiae divinae est simpliciter necessarius, ut homo sit supernaturaliter perfecte beatus: atque ita absolute est de ipsius beatitudinis essentia. -- Suarez de Beat. Disput.7.
2. The second element of the Beatific Vision is an act of perfect and inexpressible love. It is the sight or knowledge of God as He is, that produces this love; because it is impossible for the soul to see God in his divine beauty, goodness, and unspeakable love for her, without loving Him with all the power of her being. It were easier to go near an immense fire and not feel the heat, than to see God in His very essence, and yet not be set on fire with divine love. It is, therefore, a necessary act; that is, one which the blessed could not possibly withhold, as we now can do in this world. For, with our imperfect vision of God, as He is reflected from the mirror of creation, we can, and unfortunately do withhold our love from him even when the light of faith is superadded to the knowledge we may have of him from the teachings of nature. Not so in heaven. There, the blessed see God as He is; and therefore, they love Him spontaneously, intensely, and supremely.
3. The third element of the Beatific Vision is an act of excessive joy, which proceeds spontaneously from both the vision and the love of God. It is an act by which the soul rejoices in the possession of God, who is the Supreme Good. He is her own God, her own possession, and in the enjoyment of Him her cravings for happiness are completely gratified. Evidently, then, the Beatific Vision necessarily includes the possession of God; for without it, this last act could have no existence, and the happiness of the blessed would not be complete, could we suppose it to have existence at all. A moment's reflection will make this as evident as the light of day.
A beggar, for instance, gazes upon a magnificent palace, filled with untold wealth, and all that can gratify sense. Does the mere sight of it make him happy? It certainly does not, because it is not, and never can be his. He may admire its grand architecture and exquisite workmanship, and thus receive some trifling pleasure; but, as he can never call that palace nor its wealth his own, the mere gazing upon it, and even loving its beauty, can never render him happy. For this, the possession of it is essential.
Again, the starving beggar gazes upon the rich man's table loaded with every imaginable luxury. Does that mere sight relieve the pangs of hunger? It certainly does not. It rather adds to his wretchedness, by intensifying his hunger, without satisfying its cravings. Even so would it be in heaven, could we suppose a soul admitted there, and allowed to gaze upon the beauty of God, while she cannot possess or enjoy Him. Such a sight would be no Beatific Vision for her. The possession of God is, therefore, absolutely necessary in order that the soul may enjoy Him, and rest in him as her last end. Hence, the act of seeing God is also the act by which the blessed possess God, and enter into the joy of their Lord.*
* Si generatim loquamur, verum est quod visio, ut visio, non sit possessio. Nam visio, ut sic, solum dicit claram cognitionem objecti visi. Possessio autem significat habere et tenere objectum, eo modo, quo natum est haberi et genera. Jam vero, quia Deus non aliter potest a nobis haberi et teneri quam per visionem, ideo fit, ut visio sortiatur nomen et officium possessionis respectu Dei. -- Becanus, de Beat. quaest.3.
But this is not yet all. We have been considering the acts by which the soul appropriates God to herself; meanwhile, we must not forget that the active concurrence of God is as essential in the Beatific Vision as the action of the creature. The Beatific Vision means, therefore, that God not only enables the soul to see Him in all his surpassing beauty, but also that he takes her to his bosom as a beloved child, and bestows upon her the happiness which mortal eye cannot see. It means, furthermore, that God unites the soul to Himself in so wonderful and intimate a manner, that, without losing her created nature or personal identity, she is transformed into God, according to the forcible expression of St. Peter, when he asserts that we are "made partakers of the divine nature."* This is the highest glory to which a rational nature can be elevated, if we except the glory of the hypostatic union and the maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
* 2 Pet. i.4.
In explaining this partaking of the divine nature in heaven, theologians make use of a very apt comparison. If, say they, you thrust a piece of iron into the fire, it soon loses its dark color, and becomes red and hot, like the fire. It is thus made a partaker of the nature of fire, without, however, losing its own essential iron-nature. This illustrates what takes place in the Beatific Vision in relation to the soul. She is united to God, and penetrated by Him. She becomes bright with His brightness, beautiful with His beauty, pure with His purity, happy with His unutterable happiness, and perfect with His divine perfections. In a word, she has become a partaker of the "divine nature," while she retains her created nature and personal identity.
Abstract words, however, and reasoning fail to convey a definite idea of this glorious happiness reserved for the children of God. Let us, therefore, have recourse to an illustration in the shape of a little parable. It will be as a mirror, wherein we shall see faint but true reflections of the Beatific Vision.
A kind-hearted king, while hunting in a forest, finds a blind orphan boy, totally destitute of all that can make life comfortable. The king, moved with compassion, takes him to his palace, adopts him as his own, and orders him to be cared for and educated in all that a blind person can learn. It is almost needless to say that the boy is unspeakably grateful, and does all he can to phase the king. When he has reached his twentieth year, a surgeon performs an operation upon his eyes by which his sight is restored. Then the king, surrounded by his nobles and amid all the pomp and magnificence of the court, proclaims him one of his sons, and commands all to honor and love him as such. And thus the once friendless orphan becomes a prince, and, therefore, a partaker of the royal dignity, of the happiness and glory which are to be found in the palaces of kings.
I will not attempt to describe the joys that overwhelm the soul of this fortunate young man when he first sees that king, of whose manly beauty, goodness, power, and magnificence he had heard so much. Nor will I attempt to describe those other joys which fill his soul when he beholds himself, his own personal beauty, and the magnificence of his princely garments, whereof he had also heard so much heretofore. Much less will I attempt to picture his exquisite unspeakable happiness when he sees himself adopted into the royal family, honored and loved by all, together with all the pleasures of life within his reach. Each one may endeavor to imagine his feelings, joy, and happiness. We can only say that all this taken together is a beatific vision for him -- in the natural order.
Here we find the three acts already explained. The first is the sight of the good king in all his glory and magnificence; the second is the intense love which this sight produces; and the third is the enjoyment of the king's society, and all the happiness wherewith his adoption has surrounded him.
The application of the parable is obvious. God is the great and mighty King who finds your soul in the wilderness of this world. To use the forcible words of Scripture, He found you "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."* Moved with compassion, He brought you into His holy Church. There, He washed you with his own precious blood, clotured you with the spotless robe of innocence, adorned you with the gifts of grace, and adopted you as his own child. Then He commanded his ministers and others to educate you for heaven. By His grace, and your own co-operation, your soul is being gradually developed into a more perfect resemblance to Jesus Christ, who, in His human nature, is the standard of all created perfection. But you are blind yet, and must remain so until your Heavenly Father calls you home. When that happy day dawns, you will leave this world; your eyes will be opened by the light of glory, and you will see God as He is, in all his glory and magnificence. You will also see yourself as you are, adorned with the jewels of the many graces He has bestowed upon you. You will also see the beautiful angels and saints, clothed with the beauty of God himself, standing around his throne to hear the sentence that is to admit you into their society. This sight of the Living God, and of all the magnificence which surrounds Him, will fill your soul with a perfect knowledge of him; and this knowledge will produce a most ardent and perfect love; and when he presses you to his bosom, proclaims you one of his children, and commands all to honor and love you as such, your joy will be full. This will be emphatically a Beatific Vision for you. you will then enter into the possession and enjoyment of God, who alone can fill the soul with pure and permanent happiness.
* Apoc. iii.17.
We shall now close this chapter with a beautiful extract from the great theologian Lessius. Speaking of the three acts which constitute the Beatific Vision, he says: "In these three acts resides God's chiefest glory, which He himself intended in all his works; and so, likewise, in these same acts reside the highest good and formal beatitude of men and angels. By these acts the blessed spirits are vastly elevated above themselves, and, in their union with God, become godlike, by a most lofty and supereminent similitude with God, so that the mind can conceive no greater. Thus, like very gods, they shine to all eternity in the divine brightness. By these same acts they expand themselves into immensity, so as to be co-equal and co-extensive, as far as may be, to so great a good, that they may take it in, and comprehend it all. They linger not outside, as it were upon the surface of it; but they go down into its profound depths, and enter into the joy of their Lord; some more, some less, according to the magnitude of the light of glory imparted to each. Immersed in this abyss, they lose themselves, and all created things; for all other good and joys seem to them as nothing by the side of this ocean of good and joys. In this abyss there is to them no darkness, no obscurity, such as now hangs over us about the Divinity; but all is light and immense serenity. There are their eternal mansions, with a tranquil security that they can never fail. There is the fulfilling of all their desires. There is the possession and enjoyment of all things that are desirable. There nothing will remain to be longed for, or sought for any more; for all will firmly possess and exquisitely enjoy every good thing in God. There the occupation of the saints will be to contemplate the infinite beauty of God, to love His infinite goodness, to enjoy his infinite sweetness, to be filled to overflowing with the torrent of his pleasures, and to exult with an unspeakable delight in his infinite glory, and in all the good things which he and they possess. Hence comes perpetual praise, and benediction, and thanksgiving; and thus the blessed, having reached the consummation of all their desires, and knowing not what more to crave, rest in God as their last end."*
* De Perf. Divin. lib. xiv. c.5.