The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 42, No 6, Nov-Dec 1989

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

       With how much diligence, perseverance and sacrifice many will work to attain an earthly goal or prize. It might be an athlete training for a gold medal or trophy . . . dancers or singers training for a career . . . or students studying for graduation, etc. This is because the goal to them is something very desirable, the fruit of which is something they enjoy in this world.

       Yet, how insignificant are these goals and prizes compared with the infinite and eternal prize offered to each human being in the next life; and how few there are who work for it with the same diligence, perseverance and sacrifice as those mentioned above. It is, perhaps, because that goal is known only by the obscure light of faith, and because the mind and heart of so many have become so preoccupied with tangible goals of the present life that the eternal prize is kept in the background.

       And yet, the whole of our life-span on earth is but a time to prepare for that moment of entrance into eternal life. One can squander these precious years, being preoccupied mainly with passing pleasures and purely temporal projects. Or one can use them well, keeping his mind and heart fixed on that eternal goal. When our life on this earth ends, we will no longer be able to add to or subtract from that preparation. The state of our soul will be fixed for all eternity. For those who die in the state of grace, the capacity of the soul to enjoy the beatitude of heaven eternally will be determined by the extent that the grace received at baptism has grown when they leave this world.


       In this life we cannot begin to imagine the fullness of beatitude that every soul in heaven will enjoy, with every desire of their heart fulfilled:

       Every soul in heaven will be perfectly happy, with mind and heart (the will) in direct union with the Divine Persons who are infinite TRUTH and infinite LOVE. While the soul will have every desire and aspiration completely fulfilled, all will not have the same capacity of sharing in Godís life and truth and love, and therefore, in His infinite beatitude. A large cup and a small cup may be equally full of water, not capable of another drop, yet the capacity of each may differ considerably. So too, the cup of happiness of each soul will be full to the brim, but the capacity of each soul will differ according to the growth of grace.

       Our Blessed Lord referred to this when He said "in My Fatherís house there are many mansions" (Jn. 14:2), i.e. many degrees of sharing in the glory that the Father has given to the Son. St. Paul speaks of the same in different language:


1)     On Earth:

       How the finite mind can behold the infinite God is a mystery; yet it is a wonderful reality, for it constitutes the essential beatitude of the Blessed in heaven. To help understand how theologians explain the vision of God in heaven, it will help to review how the mind operates in this life in the process of knowing.

       If, for example, I see before me an orange, I know that it is an orange. But in order to have this knowledge, there must be some kind of a union between that external object and my mind. How can this be, for the orange is a physical object, and my mind is a spiritual faculty.

       First of all, my senses receive sense impressions of the orange: I see it, I smell it, I feel it, I taste it. The product of all these various sense impressions is synthesized into a sense image, from which the intelligence has the power of abstracting from all concrete and individual notes, and of arriving at the concept of an orange, an idea brought forth in the mind. Thus the outside object (the orange) is united with my mind by means of an idea. During our life on earth, while the mind is a purely spiritual faculty, it must depend on the body and the sense images it provides in the process of knowing

2)     In Heaven:

       Our manner of knowing God in heaven, however, will be radically different. There will be no sense image in our vision of God, because God is pure spirit. In addition, there will be no intellectual image of God, for no human concept, no idea formed by the human mind could ever adequately express the infinite essence of God. (We are speaking here of the vision of the Divine Trinity, not of the humanity of Christ.) How then, do the Blessed see God?

       By a special gift of God which theologians call the "light of glory", the Blessed in heaven see God without any intermediary (i.e. without sense image or intellectual concept) between the mind knowing and object known (the Divine Trinity). The beatific vision, the "face to face" vision of God, is brought about by the immediate and direct union between the human intellect and the divine essence. Man cannot fully comprehend all that he sees in God. In that eternal beatitude, therefore, the Blessed behold and know God not as we do now - by means ideas formed by the mind, but "as He is in Himself." (I Jn. 3:2); and loves and experiences Him on the level of this new vision. As Pope Benedict XII declared in his Constitution Benedictus Deus, the Blessed in heaven "see Godís essence directly, and face to face, and thus the souls of the departed enjoy the divine nature, and are thereby rendered truly happy in the possession of eternal life and peace."

       We read in the book of Exodus (33:20) that no man can see God and live. That refers to seeing God in this life "as He is in Himself," i.e. in the divine essence. It does not refer to visions which the saints have received of the sacred humanity of Christ, nor to the intellectual vision the great mystics have experienced in the highest forms of mystical prayer, which "is effected by means of created images" as Fr. Antonio Royo, O.P. points out. (Theology of Christian Perfection, p. 559)

       In heaven, however, the soul of man is perfected and strengthened by the "light of glory", transforming the human powers of knowing and loving, so that they may enter into an intuitive union with the Uncreated Light which is God. "Only when man possesses the light of glory," says theologian Michael Schmaus, "can he be in the divine presence without being destroyed by the intensity of Godís light and love." (Dogma 6, p. 266)


       From what has been said, it should be clear that in the beatific vision we will not see God in the sense of looking at Him as we look at something in this life. That would be looking at something outside of us; and as long as it is outside of us we would know it only by an idea formed by the mind. In heaven the beatitude of the Blessed will not consist in a mental picture of God, but in a most intimate union between the Divine Persons and the faculties of the soul, whereby the Blessed experience and understand and enjoy the love, truth, beauty and goodness of God in a way and measure not dreamed of in the present life. In this union man is not transformed into God, but does share more fully in His life, and is raised to a higher level in his nature as man. All the faculties of the soul will be brought to their ultimate perfection, the mind being enlightened to its ultimate capacity by the union with infinite truth, and the will being so transformed by the union with infinite love and goodness that the Blessed could not possibly choose or wish other than what God wishes.

       Describing this union of the Blessed in heaven with God, Fr. Francis Cunningham, O.P. comments:


       While the immediate vision of God constitutes the essential and primary beatitude of the Blessed in heaven, there are secondary joys that spring from their communication with our Divine Savior in His sacred humanity, His Blessed mother, the angels and saints etc.

       Since all created reality is mirrored in the mind of God, the Blessed will see in the beatific vision all that in any way concerns them, and whatever they rightfully desire to know. They will see, as never seen in this life, the unfathomable depths of love of the Heart of Jesus for mankind, and the intensity of His suffering of body and soul in redeeming us. They will understand as never before the sword of sorrow that pierced the heart of our Blessed Mother. They will penetrate the mysteries of faith that in this life they knew only obscurely by the light of faith. The three years of companionship of the apostles with Christ will be as nothing compared to the companionship of the Blessed with Christ in heaven. Though Christ is King of kings, and Lord of all, He will also be the intimate personal friend of each of the Blessed. How can this be, one might ask, with the countless multitude of souls in heaven? Theologian J.P. Arendzen answers that question as follows:

       In the beatific vision the Blessed will know whatever they will want to know concerning their family, their friends, the projects they left behind. They will know many of the secrets of the universe about which scientists in this world can only speculate. They will know when prayers are offered on their behalf, or when their help is being sought before the throne of God.

       While the life of the Blessed in heaven is one of eternal thanksgiving and praise and adoration of the Divine Trinity, that must not be imagined as something similar to an eternal church service, or an everlasting participation in a heavenly choir. In this life, due to human weakness, it can be difficult to keep oneís attention focused on God even in Church. In the beatific vision, however, nothing will ever be able to interrupt the awareness of God on the part of the Blessed, nor their praise and thanks and adoration of the Divine Persons. At the same time, they will enjoy interpersonal relationships among themselves, and the ties of blood and friendship begun here on earth will in some way continue in heaven. The natural love we have for parents and friends will not be lost in that overwhelming experience of union with the Divine Persons, but on the contrary will be spiritualized and purified of anything that could mar its blessedness. Remember that Our Blessed Lord enjoyed the beatific vision during the whole of His life on earth, and that in no way interfered with His converse with His friends and His earthly activities. So it is with the Blessed in heaven. They see God in every creature, seeing His love, His beauty, His wisdom, His power reflected in various way in every human soul and angel in that heavenly kingdom.

       Of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity by which we know and love God in this world, and by which, says St. Thomas Aquinas, we have "the beginning of eternal life," only charity will remain in heaven. Faith will cease with oneís entrance into heaven, for the obscure vision of this life gives way to the direct vision of God. Hope too will cease to exist, for that which one hoped for he will then possess. Charity alone remains, for it constitutes our friendship with God. It will also be that common link that makes us friends of every soul in heaven. We will have that common bond with a vast multitude beyond counting in that heavenly paradise; and the greater our charity when we leave this world, the closer will be that friendship.

       Since every soul in heaven will have attained perfect love of God and neighbor, the inequality of glory of individual souls will not give rise to envy, but each will rejoice in the glory of others as much as his own, for all will love others as they love themselves. As St. Anselm commented, referring to the Blessed in heaven, "if anyone else whom you love as much as yourself possessed the same blessedness, your joy would be doubled because you would rejoice as much for him as for yourself."

       Even the knowledge that souls close to them on earth have been condemned to eternal punishment, will not be a source of pain or sorrow. They can only rejoice in the fulfillment of Godís will and justice. Lost souls have deliberately chosen their own lot, having terminated their life on earth rejecting Godís will in favor of their own; and now - like the fallen angels - they are confirmed in hatred of God.

       The Blessed in heaven will be able to communicate with the angels, yet we cannot now know the manner of that communication. Since like us they have spiritual faculties of knowing and loving, in some way there will be a communication of knowledge and a sharing of love. We will have the eternal friendship and companionship of our guardian angel who, more than we realize, helps us in many ways during our life on earth.


       There are few doctrines of our faith that have a more practical impact on our life in the world, than the knowledge and awareness of the beatitude that awaits us in the next life - if we but heed the teaching and example of Christ. Our goal should not be the minimum to attain that eternal prize, but to strive with all our being to foster the growth of the divine life of grace received at baptism. For the greater the progress of love of God in this life, the greater the glory and beatitude eternally in the life to come. "He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." (2 Cor. 9:6)

       While we can describe briefly what little theology can tell us about heaven, there is still so very much we do not know. As St. John says in his first epistle, "We are already children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He really is." (I Jn. 3:2) We recall again the words of St. Paul:

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