Man was created with a thirst for knowledge which can never be satiated in this world. Sin, which greatly weakened and darkened his mental faculties, has not taken away his desire and love for knowledge. And the knowledge which he acquired by eating the forbidden fruit, rather increased than satisfied his thirst.
But all his efforts to reach the perfection of knowledge, even in the natural order, have been fruitless. With all his boasted discoveries in astronomy, chemistry, geology, mechanics, and other kindred sciences, his knowledge of nature's secrets is still very limited. But could he even master every natural science, and compel nature to reveal her most hidden secrets, his thirst for knowledge would still remain unsatisfied.
Let us, for the sake of illustration, suppose a man so gifted that he not only knows all that can be known about this world, but soars beyond it, and learns the exact size, distances, laws, and relations to each other of the countless worlds that shine in the blue sky. Supposing these distant orbs to be peopled like ours, he knows the character, manners, laws, and languages of their respective inhabitants. He knows, moreover, all their sciences, the characters of their plants, animals, and minerals. In a word, he sees and knows every star as perfectly as he knows his own house and its inmates. What vast knowledge would not that man possess! He would certainly be far more learned than all the philosophers that ever lived, taken together. But would his thirst for knowledge be completely quenched? Would he say that his mind is so completely full that he can long for no more, or that it can contain no more? No, he could never say that; for the knowledge of the creature alone can never completely fill or satisfy the mind.
We are little, and very limited, it is true, and if we are aiming at Christian perfection, we are accustomed to look upon ourselves as such. And the oftener we compare our borrowed perfections with those of God, the more deeply convinced of our littleness shall we become. But yet, how little soever we may be, we have, in a certain sense, capacity for the infinite; and for it, only the infinite is sufficient. Hence, as all the wealth of this world could never make any man perfectly happy, so neither could the perfect knowledge of every creature perfectly satisfy his cravings after knowledge. The one is as finite as the other, and consequently neither could do that for which the infinite alone is sufficient.
Yet this is not all. Not only is the full knowledge of the whole natural order incapable of satisfying man's desire for knowledge; but not even all the knowledge of God, and of the supernatural order, so far as they can be known in this world by faith and theology, ever did or ever could make a man say, It is enough; I ask for no more. Indeed, the very reverse takes place. For if there be any knowledge that intensifies thirst for more, it is precisely the imperfect knowledge of God we have by faith and the contemplation of Him in his creatures.
Theologians have studied and learned much; they have thrown much light on the dark mysteries of revelation; yet what they know is only as a drop in the boundless ocean of God's unfathomable being. With all the vast knowledge of God which they have acquired, they are still constrained to cry out with St. Paul: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways!"* Do what we may, read the Holy Scriptures, study, pray, meditate; we never can see and know God as He is, so long as we remain pilgrims in this world. The saying of St. Paul will ever remain true: "We now see thorough a glass in a dark manner;"+ that is, imperfectly and unsatisfactorily.
* Rom. xi.13. + 1 Cor. xiii.12,
In the original Greek, St. Paul uses the word mirror, which is also the word used in the Latin Vulgate, "per speculum;" that is, by means of a mirror. The meaning, therefore, of St. Paul is not that we see through a glass by transmitted light, as when we look through a telescope, but as when we see an image reflected in a mirror. Let us suppose a man so circumstanced in this world that he has never seen the sun, nor his light, except as reflected in the moon. He has heard of his immense size, and his bewildering distance from us; of his dazzling splendor, and keen, life-imparting power, whereby he gives life, growth, and beauty to every living thing. To this man, the moon is a mirror wherein the sun is imperfectly reflected; and, through he is unable to see the sun himself, he judges from the splendor and beauty of the moon that he must be grand, glorious, and magnificent beyond the power of words to express.
This illustrates the meaning of St. Paul when he says that we now see God by means of a mirror. All creatures, the sun, the moon, and the stars, the vast expanse of the ocean, the earth, trees, flowers, animals, and man especially, are a grand mirror in which the perfections of God are reflected in a dark and imperfect manner. We see, in them all, faint reflections of His divine beauty, wisdom, goodness, power, and of His other perfections; but himself as He is, we cannot see. Therefore, all the knowledge of God which we can derive from the contemplation of creatures, adding even all that he has been phased to reveal of himself, far from satisfying, rather increases the thirst of the soul for more. They who know most of God are the saints, and they are the very ones who can say, with the royal prophet: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God. My soul hath thirsted after the strong, living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?"* This is the continual sigh and cry of the saints, because the knowledge which they have of God in creatures, and even in their visions, does not satisfy their longings. But listen to St. Paul: "We now see through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known."+
* Ps. xli.2. + 1 Cor. xiii.12.
How consoling are these words of inspiration! Yes, in heaven, we shall see God as He is, face to face. We shall see Him in all his adorable perfections by a clear and unclouded perception of his divine essence. We shall gaze with unspeakable delight and rapture upon that beauty, ever ancient and ever new. We shall drink in all knowledge at its living source -- unmingled with error or doubt. All the darkness and ignorance caused by sin will forever vanish in the light of God's countenance, as the darkness of night disappears before the rising sun.
We shall then see, as it is, the august and awful mystery of the most Holy Trinity -- the deepest, the sublimest, and the most incomprehensible of all those that God ever revealed to man. We shall then see the eternal Father, ever begetting His only Son, and the Holy Ghost ever proceeding from both Father and Son. We shall then see how they are really three distinct Persons, and yet one undivided Essence. We shall see, face to face, and as he is, this great, eternal God, in the eternity of His duration, in the abysses of his unsearchable judgments, in the sweetness of his goodness, in the tenderness of his mercies, in the spotlessness of his sanctity, in the severity of his justice, in the might of his irresistible power, in the charms of his captivating beauty, and in the splendor of his majesty and glory. In a word, we shall no longer see God as He is rejected in the mirror of creation, but as he is in himself.
This is the vision which no mortal has seen, or can see in this world. This is the vision which pours torrents of knowledge into our souls, and fills them to overflowing. No more searching of books; no more wasting away of health and strength in the pursuit of knowledge; no more going to learned men, as the beggar goes to the rich for bread. No more perplexing and torturing doubts that perhaps we have not the truth. The light of glory has opened our eyes, and we see all truth as it is, and become like God in knowledge, because we see him as He is.
But this is not yet all. The glorification of our intellect will not only enable us to see God as He is: it will also unveil us to ourselves, and make us see ourselves as we are.
In our present state of existence, we are a mystery to ourselves. In spite of the numberless learned works written on the mind, and the laws by which it operates, our knowledge of it is still very limited. We see the human soul only as reflected in a mirror, that is, in her outward manifestations. Thus, when we read a magnificent poem, or when we gaze upon a noble ship ploughing the waters of the deep, or riding safely through a fearful storm; or when we look upon grand churches, palaces, and works of art -- all these are as mirrors, which reflect the greatness, wisdom, power, and ingenuity of the human soul. Again, when we enter orphan asylums, or other institutions for the unfortunate and destitute of every description, we may view them as mirrors which reflect the moral goodness of the soul; but the soul herself as she is, we cannot see. She is as invisible to us as God himself.
In heaven, we shall know and see ourselves as we are. For, as St. Paul tells us: "Then I shall know even as I am known." We shall then see and know that beautiful, living image of the Eternal in her very essence. We shall see her clothed with a surpassing beauty, adorned with the gems of grace and good works, and shining in the presence of God like a very star. This sight of ourselves and of our exceeding beauty will kindle in us none other than sentiments of unbounded gratitude to God, who is the giver of our existence and of all that we possess. Here again, as well as in the knowledge of God, the human intellect will rest satisfied; because its thirst for the complete knowledge of self will be quenched in the Beatific Vision.
Besides seeing ourselves as we are, we shall also see the beautiful angels, our elder brothers in creation. We shall also see, as they are, our fellow-men, who are now as much a mystery to us as we are to ourselves. We shall likewise see all other creatures as they are in their very essence, and not as they now appear to us. We shall see all things in the "one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all."* Thus shall our souls be filled to overflowing with all knowledge from its living source, which is God himself, the eternal Truth.
* Eph. iv.6.
Before closing this chapter, I must remark, for fear of being misunderstood, that when we say the blessed will see all things in God, we do not mean that they will really possess all knowledge. We are finite beings, and, consequently, essentially unable to possess any attribute or perfection in an infinite degree. We can no more possess all knowledge than we can be clothed with all power, all holiness, all beauty, or any other perfection in an infinite degree. All these attributes belong to God alone. Even the angels, who are so superior to us, do not know everything.* When we say, therefore, that we shall see all things in God, we simply mean that each one's capacity, great or small, shall be completely filled, and that he shall desire nothing more. When we fill many vessels with water, the smallest is as full as the largest. So in heaven. Each one shall know according to his individual capacity, which the Light of glory will give him. Each one shall be filled to overflowing, and desire no more. But more of this when we come to speak of the degrees of glory.
* .... Angeli superiores, inferiores a nescientia purgant. Angeli autem inferiores vident essentiam divinam: ergo angelus videns essentiam divinam, potest aliqua nescire. Sed anima non perfectius videbit Deum quam angelus: ergo animae videntes Deum non oportet quod omnia videant.... Sic autem ignorantia non est poenalitas, sed defectus quidam: nec necesse est quod omnis talis defectus per gloriam auferatur. Sic enim etiam posset dici quod defectus esset in Papa Lino quod non pervenerit ad gloriam Petri. -- S. Thom., Suppl. q.92, art.3.