The Beatific Vision

© Rev. Prof. Michael Lapierre, S.J., Regis College/ December 14, 1998


The theme of this presentation is the final end of human creatures. God created each one of us and placed us in this world that through our praise, reverence and service of Him on this earth we may finally reach, possess and rest in that supreme good which will set our minds and hearts at peace for all eternity, namely that blessed vision of God Himself in His own proper essence.

We may say, then, that in our end is our beginning. For the labor, toil and trouble of this present state are but the prelude, the preparation for that final state in which we shall see God as He is, in whom all our desires will be fulfilled, and wherein, as the ritual of burial says, "all our tears will be wiped away, the obscurity of faith will give place to the light of vision, our joy will be complete, a joy no one can take from us." Herein lies our full and final blessedness, the beatitude for which God has destined us at the close of our journey through this world.

So our theme is the beatific vision, the vision of God in the fullness of His transcendent, awe-inspiring, captivating and mysterious being. We shall undertake to consider this Beatific Vision in its existence, in its nature and in its characteristics.

I begin, then, with a citation from the New Catholic Encyclopedia in its entry on the Beatific Vision by John Redle.

[The beatific vision is] the supernatural act of the created intellect by which the beatified angels and (human) souls are united to God in a direct, intuitive and clear knowledge of the Triune God as He is in Himself. This direct, intuitive intellective vision of God with the perfection of charity necessarily accompanying it, is the consummation of the divine indwelling in the sanctified spirit or soul, for by this vision the blessed are brought to fruition in such a union with God in knowledge and love that they share forever in God's own happiness.

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The passage just quoted contains a number of phrases which we hope to analyze and clarify, in so far as we can, in the development of this presentation. These phrases are:

a) [The B.V.] is the supernatural act of the created intellect.

b) By this act we are united in a direct, intuitive and clear knowledge of the Triune God as He is in Himself.

c) This direct, intuitive, clear knowledge of God is accompanied by the perfection of charity.

d) This vision is the consummation of the divine indwelling in the sanctified soul or spirit.

e) This union with God in knowledge and love is an eternal sharing in God's own happiness.

1. The Existence of the Beatific Vision

Of the existence of this sublime and hope-creating truth we would have no knowledge at all were it not for its revelation to us by our magnanimous and all loving God. Sacred Scripture clearly indicates to us that human beings are destined at the close of this earthly pilgrimage to see God as He is in Himself. At present then we believe through the gift of faith that the proper conditions being fulfilled we shall finally enjoy the vision of God. A reference or two to Sacred Scripture affirms this to us. One with which you are all familiar from Mt. 11: 27, "All things are delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." In this text Christ is attributing to the Father and to Himself a knowledge that is exclusively proper to them. If others have this knowledge it is a gift from them, not a natural acquisition or endowment and so it is supernatural, above and beyond our natural capacity to attain or to acquire. And we read in the 1st Letter of John (3:2), "We are God' s children now; it does not yet appear what we will be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

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We are oriented to know God on three levels. Firstly there is our natural knowledge of God reached through the light of reason. Of this knowledge St. Paul writes, "ever since the foundation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind's understanding of created things. Secondly, there is that deeper knowledge of God given us through the light of faith wherein we come to know of the Blessed Trinity, of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of the divine work of Redemption, of the gift of divine grace and of our final destiny to the blessed vision of knowing God in His own proper being. Of this Paul had written, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love him." Our Lord Himself had proclaimed, "I am come that you may have life and have it to the full." And the apostle John writes in his preface to his gospel, "No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father he has made him known,"[1: 18], and in his discourse on the Bread of Life, "Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God he has seen the Father." [6:42] Finally there is our intuitive knowledge of God given us in the beatific vision.

It is generally considered that this vision of God as He is in Himself is beyond our natural power to possess even when we are enlightened by faith. However, the Béghards and the Béguines of the 14th century appear to have held that this vision of God which constitutes our final beatitude is not absolutely (supernatural) beyond and above our natural capacity to attain, for they maintained that any intellectual nature is naturally blessed in itself and the soul does not need the light of glory elevating it to see God; and to enjoy him blessedly. [Mueller, E, Das Konzil von Vienne 1311-1312. Munster. 1934, pp. 577-587]. So the beatific vision is a natural consequence of such a nature, and not absolutely supernatural. This position was condemned by the Church in the Council of Vienna in 1311.

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An author of the 17th Century, Ripalda by name considered it possible for God to create a supernatural creature capable of possessing the beatific vision. His position did not appeal to other theologians and so has not been accepted.

Finally we should mention an author of the 16th Century Michael du Bay who maintained that the beatific vision is a natural endowment of human beings from the beginning. The Church under Plus V rejected this teaching in the Bull of 1567 entitled, Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus.

A group of the Eastern Church theologians known as the Palamites maintain after the famous theologian Gregory Palamas that we shall behold a divine light. It proceeds from the uncreated God, distinct but not separate from the divine essence, since the divine essence cannot be seen in this life nor in the next.

These Christians are not outrightly denying the existence of the vision of God as the end of human life but their efforts to grasp it and their explanations of it fall short of the full revelation of the mystery. And in our effort to understand, in so far as we may, the supreme mysteries of our faith we must not overlook, deny or obliterate any of their elements.

The Nature of the Beatific Vision

We receive much light in our attempt to grasp the nature of the beatific vision from the Constitution of Benedict XII promulgated on 27 January 1336. He did this at the request of the University of Paris. The occasion of this request was the claim of Pope John XXII in a sermon on All Saints Day entitled, Mementote operum patrum vestrorum, that the souls of the just before the coming of Christ were resting in the bosom of Abraham; after the resurrection and ascension of Christ they enjoy the vision of Christ's glorified humanity and rest until the day of judgment under the altar of which John speaks in the Apocalypse [6:9]. After the day of judgment Jesus Christ will take them to heaven, raising them to the vision of the divinity itself.

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"By under the altar" John XXII meant that until the final judgment they were under the protection and consolation of the humanity of Christ. Benedict XII declared in his Constitution the following:

After the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ [the just] will see, and do see the divine essence in a vision that is intuitive, and also facial, no mediating creature offering itself in the manner of an object seen; but the divine essence showing itself to them immediately, nakedly, clearly and openly, and so seeing they enjoy the divine essence; and also, from such vision and enjoyment, the souls of those who have already passed on are truly blessed and have eternal life and peace and also the souls of those who will afterwards pass on will see the same divine essence and enjoy it before the general judgment.

Let us pick out of this quotation the traits of this blessed vision of God. It is an intuitive vision. So it is distinguished from our normal way of knowing things, as if we were looking into something, gazing at or contemplating an object before us. It is facial, face to face, so to speak. This recalls the expression of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. There he writes, "Now I see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face." (1Cor 13:12) They behold it nakedly, that is as it is in itself not through a screen; not through a medium, not through a veil. They see it clearly not as in a shadow or in a mist or through a cloud. They see it openly so not behind a door, not through a glass cage, not as shut away from them, not as standing apart from them. We may best indicate the meaning of "clearly" by recalling what we mean by a clear day. It is a day of brilliant sunshine, without a cloud in the bright blue sky. All the fields, valleys, hills, lakes, streams and mountains bathed in light. There is nothing to darken, to discolor, to dim this vision of the earth around us. It is a vision that is immediate to us. The qualifiers which we have indicated appear to emphasize this.

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In this vision we have rest; we have reached the fullness of desire; we have received the fullness of life; we have attained the end for which God destined us. The rest is supreme joy and enjoyment. It is, as the Encyclopedia of Catholicism states, a perfect fulfillment of God' s self-communication to those who freely accept it. Of this vision we can truly say, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him."

Through this blessed vision the blessed are united with God in a direct, intuitive and clear knowledge of the Triune God as He is in Himself. As the theologian Heinrich Lennerz has written in his work De Deo Uno: ad Beati totam infinitam perfectionem divinam, de se infinito modo cognosciblem, vident ad modem infiniti, modo finito. This terse compact phrase I attempt to translate thus, "The blessed see the infinite divine perfection, which is of itself knowable in an infinite way, after the manner of the infinite, but in a finite way."

God' s Incomprehensibility

Moreover this quotation indicates to us the limit of the blesseds' knowledge in this gift of the beatific vision. For while they see God as He is in Himself, they do not see Him in the same manner in which He sees Himself. For He knows Himself in an infinite manner while the blessed know Him only in a finite manner. There is an axiom among the Schoolmen which runs, "quidquid recipitur ad modem recipientis recipitur." What ever is received is received in keeping with the mode of the receiver. So while God knows creatures in an infinite manner creatures know God in a manner in keeping with their creaturehood, that is, in a finite way. Even in this state of the beatific vision God remains incomprehensible to creatures. This is a truth of the Catholic faith. For Vatican I has declared, "The holy, catholic church believes and confesses that there is one God… eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in mind and will and all perfection." St.Thomas in his Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars 12.7.c gives a reasonable explanation of this truth of faith, illustrating his argument by an example. If someone knows that the angles of a triangle equal two right angles by demonstrating it, then he comprehends this truth, but if he knows of it from the opinion of others, then he does not comprehend it but only knows it.

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The Conditions for Receiving this Vision

One of the beatitudes reads, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." (Mt. 5:8) Certainly purity of heart is a condition for having this vision. Is it the only condition? If taken in the fullness of its meaning it is the required and necessary condition. For if purity of heart means that we are in the right and proper relationship with ourselves, with our neighbor and with God, then, it means that we are observing the great commandments, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, with all your mind and with all your soul; and your neighbor as yourself."

Our entire Christian living is a process towards this reward which God in His goodness offers us. Our baptism is our initiation into the way that leads to this; for in it we receive the gift of the Spirit and the seed that we are to cultivate, to nourish, and to bring to fruition. These functions we fulfill by our membership in the Church, making use of the means given in it to guide us and to rule us and to preserve us in our growing. "All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity" according to the constitution on the Church of Vatican II [LG 40]. In order that all the faithful reach this [perfection] they must use their strength according as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. In this way they follow in His footsteps and mold themselves in His image, seeking the will of the Father in all things, devoting themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. The expressions "fullness of the Christian life" and "the perfection of the charity" are a hendiadys, that is, they express the same meaning. The fullness of the Christian life is reached in the beatific vision. And I would say, "the perfection of charity" is reached in the same vision. In the meantime all our effort is directed with the help provided by our gracious God towards the attainment of this glorious state.

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In this effort to reach such a high goal the words of Peter in his Second Letter encourage us, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to this own glory and excellence, by which he has granted us his precious and very great promises that through these we may escape corruption... and become partakers of the divine nature." God's own self-communication to us in making us sharers in his divine nature will reach its ultimate fulfillment in the beatific vision. Pope Leo XIII has presented this same truth in an admirable manner in his Encyclical Letter, Divinum Illud [On the Holy spirit,] in 1897. Therein he writes:

... the self-communication of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not such that then for the first time He would have begun to dwell in the saints, but that He was poured out on them more abundantly; crowning, not beginning His gifts; not commencing a new work, but giving more abundantly... The beginning of this regeneration and renovation of man takes place at Baptism. In this sacrament... the Holy Spirit for the first time enters it [the soul] and makes it like to Himself. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (Jn.3:6) The same Spirit gives Himself more abundantly in holy confirmation for the steadfastness and the strength of the Christian life... He not only brings to us divine gifts, but is the author of them and is Himself the supreme gift, who, proceeding from the mutual love of the Father and the Son, is rightly considered and called "the gift of the most high"... Besides, by grace God abides in the just soul as in a temple, in a most intimate and singular manner. From this follows that the bond of charity by which the soul adheres most closely to God, more than it could adhere to the most loving and beloved friend, and enjoys God in all fullness and sweetness. Now this wonderful union, which is properly called the indwelling and differs only by reason of our condition or state from that in which God embraces and beatifies the citizens of heaven, is most certainly produced by the divine presence of the whole Trinity: "We will come to him and make our abode with him. (Jn.14:23)

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Pius XII in his Encyclical Letter on the Mystical Body of Christ (Mystici Corporis, 1943) refers to this passage from Leo XIII. He writes, "Thus, when our wise predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII was treating of this union of ours with Christ and the indwelling of the divine Paraclete within us, he appropriately turned his gaze to that beatific vision wherein one day in heaven this mystical union will find its perfect consummation. 'This wonderful union,' he wrote, 'which is properly called indwelling, differs only by reason of our condition or state from that in which God embraces and beatifies the citizens of heaven. In that vision it will be granted to the eyes of the mind, its powers augmented by supernatural light, to contemplate the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for all eternity to witness closely the processions of the divine Persons, and to enjoy a beatitude very similar to that with which the most holy and undivided trinity is blessed.'"

So it is that the process of our Christian living consists in our effort aided by God's grace to attain the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity whose goal and whose crown is that sharing in the divine nature which is the beatific vision. Little wonder, then, that the apostle Paul exclaims, "eye has not seen, nor has the ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived what things God has prepared for those who love Him. "

This process, its goal and its attainment is, as I indicated in the beginning of this paper, aptly described by M. J. Redle, the author of the article in the New Catholic Encyclopedia on the Beatific Vision:

The supernatural act of the created intellect by which the beatified angels and souls are united to God in a direct, intuitive and clear knowledge of the Triune God as He is in Himself. This direct, intuitive, intellectual vision of God with the perfection of charity necessarily accompanying it, is the consummation of the divine indwelling in the sanctified spirit or soul, for by this vision the blessed are brought to fruition in such a union with God in knowledge and love that they share forever in God's own happiness. (NCE, V, 186)

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The fruit, then, of our effort to live and work here in this world as Christ Who is the way, the truth and the life has instructed us by word and example, will be our sharing in the next world in the life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in which life we shall know by God's knowing, we shall love by God's loving and we shall find our joy in God's own enjoyment.

St. Augustine considered the vision of God face to face, this final goal of all our efforts as the very reason for the Incarnation of the Son of God. He could stir up the enthusiasm of his congregation till they shouted with joy by pointing to the glorious goal in store for them at the end of their earthly journeying. Here I cite his encouraging words:

Now [therefore] I do not contemplate because I have fallen: then I will stand and will contemplate (because I shall not fall). This is man's voice. For man has fallen, and one would not be sent to raise us up, if we had not fallen. We have fallen, He has descended. He has ascended, we are lifted up; "For no man has ascended, but He who descended." He who has fallen is lifted up; He who descended, has ascended: He who descends, ascends. And let us not therefore despair, that He alone has ascended. For he lifts us up, to whom in our fall He descended; and we shall stand, and shall contemplate, and enjoy great delight. LO! I have said this and yet have cried out for the longing after some vision not seen as yet... Now, brethren, mark: if these goods which are called goods delight us...what will be our contemplation of the Good, Unchangeable, Eternal, abiding even in the same fashion? For these things, which are called good, would by no means delight us, except they were good; nor could they be by any other means good save from Him who is simply good. (Ennarra. In Ps.XXVI, I. 8. Cf. Leahy, D.J. St. Augustme and the Vision of God.)

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I would suggest here that sometime when you have leisure you take up the Catechism of the Catholic Church and check the index under the subject title "Vision" and read though the references given. In this way you will gather into one the present teaching of the Catholic Church on the beatific vision. You will gladly make your own the words of St. Augustine, "There we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach the Kingdom of God which has no end. (De Civ. Dei, 22, 305: CCC, 1720)


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