Many years ago I was taught that the essence of heaven is the Beatific Vision. That is, one will look upon the glorious and radiant face of God, and find in that look the fulfillment of all desires, and a joy (beatus) beyond all telling.

And surely this description remains both true and worth repeating. However, I have noticed that some get stuck on the the word “vision” and to some extent on the word “face,” and tend to reduce the experience to a kind of “static” (unchanging) vision.

For our experience of the “face” of another is that it does not change. And we are further taught that God does not change.

And thus, in being asked to consider heaven as a beatific vision (or beholding) of God’s face, some struggle to imagine what one might do after about twenty minutes, let alone for all eternity. Therefore, people often shift their thinking about heaven to playing golf, being reunited with loved ones, walking streets of gold, and having mansions.

I have quoted Pope Benedict regarding this problem before, but his statement of the problem is worth repeating:

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive….To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift….to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable…. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know…[which] very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).

So, a lot of our terminology, though biblical and correct, is lost to modern ears and the modern imagination. It needs greater explanation, even among believers who are often very vague about the contours and promises of heaven.

I have articulated before that somehow we must communicate that the “eternal” in “eternal life” is not a reference only to the length of life, but to the fulness of life. To be in heaven is not merely to live forever, but to be fully and gloriously alive in a manner which we can barely even imagine now. It is to have all our gifts, and every aspect of who we are, gloriously perfected, with a God-like glory.

St. Ireneus says that the Glory of God is man fully alive. The Lord told St. Catherine of Siena that if she were ever to see a soul glorified in heaven, “You would fall down and worship because you would think you were looking at me.”

This is our glory and this is our dignity, to one day have a God like perfection and glory, and to become fully alive in an unimaginable and powerful way.

And as for our “vision” of God. We ought not think of it as some sort of static vision, as if we were looking at a picture or face that never changes.

Rather, because God is infinite our grasp of his glory with be inexhaustible. Thus, all eternity will never be enough for us to comprehend him. From moment to moment, one new and greater glory after another will be reveled. He will be our one desire, and our hearts will never tire of God and God alone.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks to this in one of his sermons. He meditates on what will happen to us when we finally see Him whom our soul has longed for:

Nor, I think, will a soul cease to seek him even when it has found him. … when the soul happily finds Him, its desire is not quenched but kindled…Rather it is oil poured upon the flames….Joy will be fulfilled, but there will be no end to desire, and therefore no end to the search. (Sermon 84.1 on the Song of Songs)

Yes! Heaven will not be a static vision at all. It will be truly a beatific (happy) vision, but it will be anything but “static.” There will be Joy, after joy, glory upon glory, for all eternity. And each fulfilled desire will kindle a deeper desire as our hearts grow deeper and wider with love.

Do most Christians know of this understanding? Probably not. Frankly most of us are too vague about heaven and seldom meditate upon it.

Sadly, to be vague about the reward, tends to kill any effort to strive for it. And thus we face today, not only a lack of reverential fear of Hell (which we have well discussed here), but also a lack of zeal to seek God and Heaven.

It is a “perfect storm” which which explains a lot of spiritual tepidity today and the lack of evangelical zeal that has plagued the Church for at least the last 100 years.

We need to be a lot clearer about death, judgment, Heaven and Hell and also realize that our descriptions especially about heaven, often fail to communicate its vision let alone inspire others to seek it, whatever the cost.

To that end, I offer this little reflection and invite your own comments and reflections.

31 Responses

  1. Donna says:

    You are awesome, Monsignor Pope! I love your articles! Reading this article, my heart stirred in that familiar way again, and I thought of how we are made to know and love God. I purposely leave off the “and serve” part because that takes away from it at the moment.

    Yes, talking with my kids about heaven and how great it will be can be tricky. I focus on the fact that it is all such a mystery to us here in the church militant. Being reminded of the mystery of it all can help keep the longing in our hearts.

    Stopping even for just a brief moment and thinking about how Jesus really is standing next to us, wanting to give us that certain “candy” (as Father Humberto Zanetti called it years ago), or joy, or warmth, or stirring in our soul, which is I think a fore-taste of what heaven will be like. He wants to reveal himself to us, really!

    Maybe that’s the problem, though: we have to actually stop for a brief moment. I know it is a problem for me.

    God bless you, Monsignor!

  2. [...] Harmon, CWR Same-Sex Parenting: Reading Past the Headlines - David Gordon, PDis Ho Hum? Lost a Fear of Hell & Deep Longing for Heaven - Msgr. Pope Explaining Halloween to Catholic Kids - Lacy, Catholic Icing Surviving the Las [...]

  3. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Reminds me of an old gospel hym. ” She’s Not Buying My Stairway To Heaven”.

  4. Anna says:

    Thank you too Msgr .

    and we might find that even every thought in this life counts for the joy / lack there of ..

    May we be blessed to often raise our hearts and minds, in the strenght of The Comforter, to sing
    ‘Hosanna , Hallejuah ‘ with the Halos of heaven , in the ever deeper joy of taking in , the goodness of our Father and what He bestows on each other !

  5. Deacon Bill Olson says:

    Thanks Monsignor. I remember as a boy learning about the social joys of heaven and God’s willingness to share with me the ability to share the majesty of all His creation. The happiness all this stirred in me has remained happily with me to this day. I pray it never leaves me.

  6. I Like The Church Fathers says:

    It seems to me that much of Catholic tradition is centered around taking steps to avoid hell rather than expounding on the nature of heaven.

    This is reflected in art. Artists’ imaginations are more adept at depicting hell than heaven. Some of the most brilliant, vivid and terrifying works of Christian art concern the last judgment. With heaven, artists’ imaginations tend to fail. Usually, they just depict clouds, cherubs and a bright light. This is paralleled in literature too where Dante depicts hell in great detail. His depiction is by turns terrifying and comical. On heaven, however, he is fairly vague and hesitant. This is why his “Inferno” has always been more popular than his “Paradiso”.

    The Catholic preoccupation with avoiding hell and the corollary inability to provide anything more than a vague hint of the nature of heaven is surely a significant barrier to evangelization.

    • preoccupation? What parish have you been attending?

      • I Like The Church Fathers says:

        Sorry, I should have clarified. I’m talking about the Catholic tradition from about 350 to 1900 or so. Nonetheless, even today, there are many priests besides you who emphasize, if not the possibility of hell-fire, at least the necessity of avoiding sin, especially mortal sin. I find that today there are [to generalize brutally] two types of priests. There are those who feel that the Church has become too soft and so they emphasize the importance of avoiding sin. On the other side are those who seem to be concerned about the Catholic tradition being too harsh and they thus emphasize God’s mercy.

        When you think about it, the funny thing is that neither type of priest spends much time expounding on heaven! Again, when heaven is referred to at all, it is usually in vague generalities about a bright light, clouds, etc.

        • Chris says:

          Jesus alludes to hell (Gehenna) 16 times in the gospels. My question to you is, was Jesus “preoccupied” with hell? Most homilies I have heard are all in direct correlation to what the gospel message is for that Sunday, which is usually summed up as am I on the path to holiness.

  7. David Naas says:

    I am grateful you broached this topic, since it is one which bothers me frequently. As I read the Bible, Church teachings, and semi-secular literature (Dante), it seems as if the idea of Heaven is stylized as a big version of an Oriental court (“to behold the face of the King is reward enough”), and ideas of Hell derive from Medieval torture dungeons.
    In this picture of the hereafter (complete with Dante’s seven story mountain in Purgatory, it is difficult for a human being to find themselves. Staring all day at God in an ecstasy of adoration is Heaven? To spend all your time in a church service ? To paraphrase Mark Twain, “if that ain’t hell, I don’t know what is.”
    And, yet, for a few hundred years, perhaps for a few millennia, Church hierarchs have told everybody, “Believe or be tortured with rack and branding irons for eternity.” Those images may have worked on agricultural peasants, but they fail to hit the mark with post-industrial peasants.
    So, my wondering mind wants to know, is there a grown-up understanding of Heaven and Hell that makes a person desire Heaven? Your article is interesting, but still presents Heaven, or Being in the Presence of God, as an enteral whoopee party. There ought to be more.

    • Bender says:

      Anyone who has ever known love – truly known real love, not the fleeting thing that passes for “love” these days – has had a foretaste of heaven. And anyone who has lost love has had a taste of hell.

    • Michael St. Joseph says:

      To gain a deeper, more mature Catholic understanding of Heaven and hell, I recommend Fr. Martin von Cochem’s book, The Last Four Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. His descriptions of hell are quite terrifying and sobering, while his treatment of Heaven and the glorified bodies of the resurrected faithful are incredibly detailed and inspiring.

      http://www.amazon.com/Four-Last-Things-Judgment-Heaven/dp/089555321X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383297408&sr=1-3&keywords=the+last+four+things

    • Stuart Gathman says:

      I too was not enamoured of descriptions of Heaven. In the Protestant world, it is streets of gold, gates of sparkling jewels, 24 elders, seraphim, and an eternal church service – a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I knew I wanted friendship with God, but worried for many years that I would be miserable in “heaven”. There was a partial answer when I realized that we are promised “a new heavens and a new *earth*”. So we will not spend 100% of our time at the eternal church service in heaven. Then I read “The Last Battle” by C. S. Lewis. That vision of a new Heaven and and New Earth (and new Narnia) kindled a fierce longing.

      Perhaps the sterile artificial environment of a city sounded heavenly to a farm worker who saw nothing but dirt most of his life. But by the same token, mountains, trees, and fields with fresh breezes sound heavenly to those of us toiling in cities and suburbs.

  8. RichardGTC says:

    One thing to me that shows how awesome heaven must be is that even the angels cannot see God in His Essence by their own natural power.

    Here are three quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas that back that up:

    “I answer that, It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power.”

    “Above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future, whereby “we shall see God as He is.” This is beyond the nature of every created intellect, as was shown above (Question 12, Article 4).”

    “But the angels did not have from the beginning of their creation that ultimate beatitude which is beyond the power of nature; because such beatitude is no part of their nature, but its end; and consequently they ought not to have it immediately from the beginning.”

    Anyone who wants to read the articles those quotes are from can just put the quotes in the search engine of newadvent.org.

  9. David says:

    Fantastic article. I am reminded of Frank Sheed’s saying that we need to forget our imagination because our imagination is not our friend with regard to the supernatural. We must conceptualize even though our conceptualization is no more than an infintesimal point of light in an infinite see of darkness. As a child I never considered heaven to be that great goal. I did not like the idea of having to play a harp all day long and sing. The nuns always asked me to lip sing the songs at daily Mass instead of belting them out like I wanted to do. After many years of slowly maturing into a more than superficial concept of heaven I find it still too intimidating to dwell on. It is in the reading of articles like this and others that I am filled with overpowering joy and hope at the concept of heaven and an extraordinary fear of hell. I know who I am and what I have done and nothing in my life is deserving of heaven but my faith in God and the evangilization of people like yourselves drives me on. Thank you

  10. Eugenia says:

    1 Cor 2:9 It’s why I hang to this verse with all my life.

  11. Edmund says:

    Thank you Msgr – this article has brought me great solace.

    On the eve of the great solemnity of All Saints – I was dashed pieces when in reply to my messaging about All Saints, All Souls and an invitation to attend Mass (All Saints is a day of obligation over these parts) – my family responded as follows:

    1. Brother: I will offer a kangaroo to appease the gods (he was in the airport enroute to Perth).
    2. Sister: I will ‘try’ to attend the lunch time Mass at the Cathedral.
    3. Mother: Isnt once a week enough already?

    Frankly – I have all but given up! haha – but we continue to pray. Please pray for my family Mgsr!

  12. Anne says:

    St. Bernard and Monsignor Pope … what do they have in common? They have both written amazing exhortations about longing for Heaven. Yes, I read ahead in the Liturgy of the Hours for November 1. St. Bernard’s sermon is the Second Reading …

  13. James says:

    In 50 plus years of being a Catholic, I remember only one sermon that dealt with the joy of heaven. My sister could only remember one sermon, that delivered at a Protestant funeral that she attended.

    Your mention of the Beatific Vision was the first time that I had heard that dogma since grade school religion class.

    The sermons in the various parishes in which I have worshiped, have emphasized behavior, the necessity of endless suffering in this life, and a complete lack of joy of being a Catholic.

  14. TeaPot562 says:

    A hymn based on a Pauline epistle is in my mind:
    “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him;
    Spirit of Love, come give us the mind of Jesus; teach us the wisdom of love.”
    TeaPot562

  15. Annette Strachan says:

    Please see video re. love and heaven; Three Kinds of Love – Venerable Fulton Sheen – YouTube.

    Many Thanks.

  16. Kithri says:

    What about the resurrection of the body? And the new heaven and the new earth?

  17. Bill Foley says:

    Saint Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, was once graced with the vision of the glorified hand of Jesus Christ; she was so overcome with joy that she could not even articulate her response. Imagine what it will be like to see the entire glorified Christ!

  18. [...] And surely this description remains both true and worth repeating. However, I have noticed that some get stuck on the the word “vision” and to some extent on the word “face,” and tend to reduce the experience to a kind of “static” (unchanging) vision.…more [...]

  19. Pedro says:

    Quoting from my old Maryknoll Daily Missal Of The Mystical Body, on the feast of All Saints,just before the Apoc.7 readings. It says, “One of the joys of heaven is the community we shall share with our brother. Here on earth we are external to one another, only now and then achieving a union in love. In heaven we shall share one another perfectly and come to know the riches of living together before God”

  20. Jim says:

    I personally know a Christian who doesn’t believe there is a place called Heaven; no Heaven nor Hell for her she says. She doesn’t believe there is an afterlife.

  21. JuliB says:

    I’m sure my thoughts are completely wrong, but they work for me. I believe that so many of our problems in life come from searching for God to fill the God shaped hole in our souls. And how do we do this? Drugs. alcohol, sex, love/infatuation, etc. So I consider that experiencing Heaven will blow past the greatest high, the joys of sexual union, and the bliss of infatuation. In these (possibly) sinful episodes, we taste a little of the joy of the Eternal. So in imagining Heaven, I imagine one of these blissful moments lasting forever.

  22. Erik says:

    Monsignor, thank you for the meaningful article. I share your passion that the Church catch a real vision of “the glories to come,” which of course more than anything will be the ecstasies of being loved by and loving, of being enjoyed by and enjoyIng our God, our Father, our Heavenly Bridegroom and eventually our Heavenly Husband.

    JULIB, I don’t think your thoughts are completely wrong. Paul tells us in Eph. 5 that the mysterious intimate and ecstatic oneness of marital sex is an image of the relationship between Christ and His Bride the Church. God has woven symbols and images of Himself and spiritual glories throughout His Creation. In the animal world, the existence of most creatures revolves ultimately is driven around reproduction, or sex. And we know that when it comes to humans, our sexual longings are some of the strongest and most profound within us. Throughout history, mankind has been pretty consumed with sex. This prominence of sex in creation is surely meant to tell us that this is a very important image, perhaps the most important image.

    This should be no surprise to us, since we were created to be the Wife of Christ, intimately One with Him in a way that sex can only whisper of and hint at. Sexual pleasures are some of the most wonderful and some of the most profound in human experience. Even though I am, by God’s grace, still a virgin, I know enough to be able to agree with you that we taste a little of the joy of the Eternal in the ecstasies of sexual pleasure. And since the climax can be one of the most wonderful moments of this experience, I think it is very helpful, in imagining Heaven, to imagine a climax lasting forever.

    The Life to Come will surely revolve around the experience of being loved and delighted in (enjoyed) by Christ and loving and delighting in (enjoying) Him in an experience of intimate Oneness that earthly marital sex is but a tiny image of. Certainly, thinking of Heaven as a never-ending Honeymoon with lots and lots of “sex” with our Heavenly Husband is a lot more appealing than thinking of it as a never-ending church service. And this is certainly much more accurate too.

    Heaven is beyond comprehension and is beyond the power of human words to describe. That is why we need images and think of our Future Life using images. This image of the love and pleasures and oneness of marital sex is one of the most wonderful and most important. And since the climax of sex is one of the most special moments of the experience, it is surely helpful (and yet still greatly inadequate) to think of Heaven as being a Never-Ending Climax!

    Eternal life, Jesus said, is all about KNOWING God. He used the same word, when He said “knowing,” that Mary used when she told Gabriel that she had never “known” a man. Since marital sex is all about knowing your beloved as intimately as possible, the Hebrew culture spoke of sex as “knowing” one’s lover. So, we see that Jesus told us that eternal life is about knowing God in a way that marital sex, in all its beauty and joy and oneness gives us a tiny glimpse of. Now that is something we can truly get excited about!

    Paul obviously understood all this, and that is why He declared that he considered EVERYTHING to be loss, a bad deal, and garbage, or refuse, compared to experientially KNOWING Christ. One of the greatest joys of this current life is that we can begin to “know” our Christ now. He longs for us to enter into a relationship with Him now that gives both us and Him the privilege of beginning to love and enjoy each other. As the mystics have demonstrated, we can experience tremendous joy in the activity of spending time alone with our Savior, loving and enjoying Him, and also feeling His love for us and His enjoyment of us. We can also experience our Savior in this way during corporate worship as our passion for Him is aroused. Both of these experiences might be thought of as “making out” with our Bridegroom. These experiences can give us joy and pleasure like nothing else in this life, I believe. Now this does not even begin to approach the glories of intimate Oneness with Him that we will know in Heaven, all the more after the Wedding Feast, after we have become His Wife. But it can surely give us a foretaste that makes makes all other pleasures of this life pale in comparison.

    Proverbs says that desire satisfied is a “tree of life.” Since a the Tree of Life was a source of eternal life, I think we can see an association between the Life of Heaven and the satisfaction, or fulfillment, of desire. Heaven will be an continuous Experience of our deepest desires being continuously satisfied! That is a Heaven that sounds wondrous, that is a Heaven we can look forward to!

    Nothing in this life can give us pleasure like the mystical experience of love and delight with our God, because our deepest and most profound desires, “hardwired” into us by Him, can only be fulfilled by Him in this beautiful Oneness that earthly sex, as wonderful as it is, is but a faint image of. While these desires will never be satisfied fully until we are with our Beloved in Heaven, we can get foretastes of this fulfillment, appetizers if you will, in our relationship with Him while still on earth. And as the mystics and any others who have experienced this will tell you, there is no ten course dinner offered by this life that can even begin to compare to these appetizers offered by our God. An experiential relationship of mutual love and delight with our God is the greatest possible source of joy in this life. And tasting of these delights increases our anticipation for Heaven, where we will finally “see His face” and will eventually be “married” to Him and then “consummate” the marriage, again and again, forever and ever! We can feel great anticipation, as well as more naturally heed the exhortation in Colossians to keep our mind on things above, as we realize that the Life of Heaven will be an experience of this kind of absolute pleasure in the most intimate of relationships with our God.

  23. [...] Ho Hum on Heaven? Not only have many lost a proper fear of Hell, but also a deep longing for Heaven. (adw.org) Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… [...]

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