It is an article of faith that every one in heaven, except baptized infants, is rewarded according to his own personal merits, acquired in this life by the assistance of God's grace. Baptized children, who die before they reach the age of discretion, are admitted into heaven, in virtue of their adoption as children of God on the day of their baptism. But all others who have lived long enough to be responsible or their deeds, besides being admitted there in virtue of their adoption as children of God, are, moreover, rewarded according to their own personal merits.
But, it seems to me, I hear you ask, Does not the happiness of heaven consist in the Beatific Vision? Undoubtedly it does. And is the little boy, who dies before he can make an act of faith, or of charity, admitted to that glorious vision as well as the Apostle and the martyr? Certainly he is. And the little girl, who dies before reaching the age of discretion, is she too admitted to the vision of God, as well as the Sister of Charity, the nun, and others who spend their lives in teaching the ignorant and ministering to the poor? Undoubtedly she is. And the murderer, who dies on the scaffold, after making an act of perfect contrition, is he, too, eventually admitted to the vision and possession of God? Yes, he, too, will see God face to face, and be made happy by that glorious vision. Well, then, if all see and possess God, how can there be a difference in the happiness of the saints? Are they not all equally happy? This is the question we are now to answer, by examining the meaning and the nature of the Light of glory. This examination will make it evident, that, though all see God, yet no two of the blessed enjoy precisely the same degree or amount of happiness.
Theologians define the Light of glory to be, "A supernatural intellectual power infused into the soul, by which she is enabled to see God, which she never could do by her own unassisted natural powers."* It is called supernatural, because it is not a natural talent or power of our nature, as the talent for poetry, music, painting, and others, all of which may be developed and highly improved by study. But the Light of glory is an elevation, expansion, or development of the mind, which comes directly from God, and is, in no sense, the result of human endeavors, except in so far as it has been deserved by a holy life. We shall understand better the meaning of the Light of glory by an illustration.
* Per lumen gloriae intelligitur qualitas creata, et habitus virtusque intellectualis supernaturalis, ac per se infusa intellectui, qua redditur proxime potens et habilis ad videndum Deum.... Ita D. Thomas, sicque ratione probatur: Ut virtutes infusae requiruntur, ut eorum actus fiant connaturali modo, nempe a principio intrinseco et proportionato, ita etiam lumen ut fiat visio. Cum enim activitas ex parte intellectus sit in suo ordine deficiens et imperfecta, ideo oportet ut lumen illi virtutem conferat altioris ordinis, supernaturalem et actui proportionatam per quam elevatur ad efficiendam visionem cum illo. Suarez, de Deo, cap. xiv.
Let us suppose that you never could learn mathematics or astronomy. In spite of the most intense application, you never could master even the multiplication table; and when you gazed upon the heavens, you could never see there any more beauty and magnificence than does the untutored savage. But, on a sudden, there is a flash of light from above, and your mind is enlightened far beyond its natural capacity, and you can see all the heavenly bodies as they are. You now know their names, motions, distances, laws, and relations to each other, and to the whole universe. Formerly, they appeared all alike, except the sun and the moon; but now, you see that no two of them are alike. Each one has its own size, velocity, beauty, and glory. You even soar far beyond the discoveries of science, and you gaze with delight upon millions of shining worlds, which the most powerful telescope never did, and never can, reach. You can, moreover, in the twinkling of an eye, calculate with astonishing precision the day, the hour, the minute, yea, the very second, at which an eclipse will occur. Gazing upon the heavens, which hitherto had given you so little satisfaction, now becomes the source of the most exquisite and rational pleasure. For you now see in these countless worlds so much beauty and magnificence, so delightful a harmony, that you can spend whole nights in the contemplation of the heavens.
This sudden elevation and expansion of your mind to see such wonders in the natural order, illustrates what takes place in heaven the moment a pure soul enters there. In the supposition just made, you receive an accession or addition of intellectual power, which enables you to see clearly and to understand what was invisible and unintelligible to you before the flash enlightened you. The Light of glory produces a similar effect upon the soul at her entrance into heaven. Our mind, which is now unable to see God except "as through a glass, in a dark manner," is suddenly elevated in power, and enabled to see God as he is, face to face, and to contemplate his divine beauty and his other perfections. Our individual mind is neither destroyed nor changed into another: it is only strengthened and elevated in power and capacity far beyond anything we could ever have reached by our own unassisted endeavors.
But we shall still better understand the meaning of the Light of glory by contrasting it with the light of faith. What is faith? Faith is also a supernatural elevation of the mind, by which we are enabled to believe, as firmly as if we saw them, mysteries which are far above our comprehension. It is called supernatural, because it comes from God alone; for no man ever can bestow faith upon himself. Here, then, the light of faith and the Light of glory resemble each other, inasmuch as they both come immediately from God, and elevate man above himself. But they vastly differ in intensity; for by faith we see God imperfectly and unsatisfactorily, whereas by the Light of glory we see God as he is in himself. Faith, therefore, is as the first faint blush of the morning, while the Light of glory is as the sun shining in his meridian splendor.
So, then, the Light of glory is a supernatural addition to our mind, which enables it to cross the gulf between the Creator and the creature. I say gulf, because no created intelligence can see God as he is, by its own natural power. Hence, neither St. Augustine, nor St. Thomas, nor any other giant intellect could see God as He is in himself, any better than the man who never could learn his letters. It is in this sense that we must understand St. Paul when, speaking of God, he says: "Who alone hath immortality, and inhabiteth light inaccessible; whom no man hath seen, nor can see."* Evidently he means that no one can see God by the light of nature; for in another place he tells us that when that which is perfect is come, we shall see Him face to face.
1 Tim. vi.16.
From all this it follows that all men are on a footing of perfect equality, so far as the power of seeing God is concerned. No one has that power in himself by nature, and no one can give it to himself or develop it by study, as we can other powers we have received in the natural order. It is as if we said that no man possesses the natural power to see thorough a stone wall, or thorough the earth. Certainly all men are equal here; for the man whose eagle eye can recognize a friend at the distance of ten miles, is no nearer seeing thorough the earth than another, whose sight is so bad that he can scarcely recognize his own father at a distance of a few steps. So it is with seeing God. No man has the power in himself by nature, and, therefore, no one can develop it by study. Even the angels, who are so vastly superior to us in intelligence, could not see God as he is until they were elevated by the light of glory; and those among them who became reprobates by their sin, never did and never shall see God, although they still retain, even in their fallen state, more intelligence than man.
I have been particular in explaining and insisting upon these things, lest it might be imagined that men of highly cultivated minds, such as philosophers, theologians, poets, and the like, shall see God better, and enjoy more of heaven's happiness than the ignorant, in virtue of their superior natural gifts. They certainly shall not. God does not bestow a supernatural reward upon the natural gifts, or even upon the natural virtues, which are to be found among pagans as well as among Christians. But He does reward the faith, hope, charity, and other supernatural virtues, which his children have practised in this world. Hence, theology teaches that not even the angels, who are so superior to us, see God any better in virtue of their nobler and more perfect intellect. Thus, supposing an angel and a man to be equal in merit, they both receive the same amount of the Light of glory; they both see God in the same degree of perfection; and both, therefore, enjoy the same degree of happiness. If we admit that the angel has a more perfect vision of God, on account of his more perfect natural intellect, then we must also admit that he enjoys a portion of supernatural beatitude, exclusively, in virtue of his natural powers, and not on account of his merits acquired by correspondence to divine grace.* Evidently no such admission can be made; for heaven is a supernatural reward of supernatural virtues, which have been practised, in this world, under the influence of divine grace, and not a reward of natural endowments. If, then, no such doctrine can be admitted when the question is between angels and men, much less can it be admitted when there is question of superior natural intellect among men. Hence, the man who never learned his letters, either for want of natural talent or opportunity, shall undoubtedly see God, as well as the philosopher, if he has led as good a life; and he shall see Him better, and enjoy more of heaven's happiness, if he has lived a holier life.
* . . . Ipsa enim visio est praemium nostrum: ergo ubi paria sunt merita, debet esse par visio: sed in homino et angelo possunt esse paria merita: ergo debet esse par visio. Ergo quantitas visionis debet sumi a lumine gloriae quod datur secundum mensuram meritorum, non autem a perfectione intellectus, quae non datur ex meritis. Et confirmatur, quia ponamus angelum et hominem habere aequalia merita. Vel ergo accipient aequale lumen gloriae vel inaequale. Si inaequale, non respondebit meritis. Si aequale, ergo cum aequali lumine aequaliter Deum videbunt: alioqui si angelus perfectius videret, tunc aliquam partem beatitudinis haberet sine meritis, ex solis naturae viribus. Becan. de Attrib. Divin., quaest. x.
Once more: The light of glory is a supernatural elevation of the mind, which enables man to see God as He is in himself. It is given by God himself to those who have lived a supernatural life of faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, it is given to each in proportion to his personal merits. It therefore becomes the measure of the degree of happiness which each one of the blessed enjoys in the vision of God.