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.