“beatific” etymology: Latin beatificus, beatific, blissful, imparting great happiness or blessedness; from beatus, happy.
In my own experience, both past and present, I love history, but it comes “alive” for me when I have the privilege to visit the physical place where it happened, makes it more undeniable, leaps off the page. I am meeting a lot of people “virtually” now, even before the pandemic. I am saying “nice to meet you, virtually” a lot more these days than actual greetings. Exchanges are reduced to quick, focused, on topic, email to the point. I look forward, however it might happen, to saying hello in person, someday. Some people I am grateful to never have had the displeasure to meet in person. Mea culpa. 🙁
The Beatific Vision
“The beatific vision is when God, though transcendent, opens Himself up to man and gives man the capacity to contemplate God in His heavenly glory (CCC 1028). Contemplation is the prayer of silently focusing on God and heeding His Word; in other words, contemplation is the prayer of uniting with God (CCC 2715). The beatific vision, then, is ultimate union with God; indeed, it comes from sharing in God’s holy nature via sanctifying grace (CCC 163). Because God is beatitude and holiness itself, the beatific vision entails ultimate beatitude and holiness (CCC 1405). The beatific vision is a grace and a privilege intended for every man and angel, since God created men and angels to enjoy the beatific vision; the beatific vision is the ultimate purpose of each person’s and angel’s life (CCC 1722).
Thomas Aquinas defined the beatific vision as the human being’s “final end” in which one attains to a perfect happiness. Thomas reasons that one is perfectly happy only when all one’s desires are perfectly satisfied, to the degree that happiness could not increase and could not be lost. “Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.”STh I–II, q., 3, a. 8. But this kind of perfect happiness cannot be found in any physical pleasure, any amount of worldly power, any degree of temporal fame or honor, or indeed in any finite reality. It can only be found in something that is infinite and perfect – and this is God. STh I–II, q. 2, a. 8. And since God is not a material thing but is pure spirit, we are united to God by knowing and loving Him. Consequently, the most perfect union with God is the most perfect human happiness and the goal of the whole of the human life. But we cannot attain to this happiness by our own natural powers; it is a gift that must be given us by God, Who strengthens us by the “light of glory” so that we can see Him as He is, without any intermediary. (Thomas quotes Psalm 36:9 on this point: “In your light we shall see light.”)STh I, q. 12, a. 4. Further, since every created image or likeness of God (including even the most perfect “ideas” or “images” of God we might generate in our minds) is necessarily finite, it would thus be infinitely less than God Himself.STh I, q. 12, a. 2. The only perfect and infinite good, therefore, is God Himself, which is why Aquinas argues that our perfect happiness and final end can only be the direct union with God Himself and not with any created image of Him. This union comes about by a kind of “seeing” perfectly the divine essence Itself, a gift given to our intellects when God joins them directly to Himself without any intermediary. And since in seeing this perfect vision of What (and Who) God is, we grasp also His perfect goodness, this act of “seeing” is at the same time a perfect act of loving God as the highest and infinite goodness. (Summa Theologiae, I–II, qq. 2–5)
According to Aquinas, the Beatific Vision surpasses both faith and reason. Rational knowledge does not fully satisfy humankind’s innate desire to know God, since reason is primarily concerned with sensible objects and thus can only infer its conclusions about God indirectly. -Summa Theologiae
The Theological virtue of faith, too, is incomplete, since Aquinas thinks that it always implies some imperfection in the understanding. The believer does not wish to remain merely on the level of faith but to grasp directly the object of faith, who is God himself. -Summa Contra Gentiles
Thus only the fullness of the Beatific Vision satisfies this fundamental desire of the human soul to know God. Quoting St Paul, Aquinas notes “We see now in a glass darkly, but then face to face” (i Cor. 13:12). The Beatific Vision is the final reward for those saints elect by God to partake in and “enjoy the same happiness wherewith God is happy, seeing Him in the way which He sees Himself” in the next life. -Summa Contra Gentiles”
-by Fr. Kenneth Doyle, CNS – Catholic News Service. Fr. Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. He is the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The “beatific vision” means the eternal and direct visual perception of God. It means seeing God face to face.
We have some sense, even in the natural order, of the importance of direct perception: Those who endured years of meetings by telephone conference call can appreciate what an advance “videoconferencing” has been, allowing people to see one another, and thereby making their presence much more real.
In the divine scheme of things, Christians have always believed that this direct vision of God is the goal that awaits us all. St. Paul said: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).
St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned that one is perfectly happy only when all of one’s desires are perfectly satisfied, and this cannot occur until we are fully united with God.
That complete union can happen not through human imagining nor even in the most deeply contemplative prayer, but only by the direct presence of God in heaven.
It is a human instinct, and a good one, to try to imagine what heaven will feel like.
When I was a child, I may have thought that heaven would be like playing baseball all day, with occasional breaks to drink soda and read comic books – but deep down I knew even then that it would be much, much better than that.
We are cautioned that all of our efforts at imagining must fall short. (St. Paul says in I Corinthians 2:9 that “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, (is) what God has prepared for those who love Him.”)
But it doesn’t hurt to dream.
Last year, a young woman, who would die two days later from cancer, told me what she was expecting in heaven.
“I think it will be like the way my mother loves me,” she said, “times a thousand.””
-Father Garrigou-Lagrange, Ch 8: “The True Nature of Christian Perfection,” The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I
“St. Thomas admits also that in heaven our beatitude will consist essentially in the beatific vision, in the intellectual and immediate vision of the divine essence, for it is above all by this immediate vision that we shall take possession of God for eternity. We shall plunge the gaze of our intellect into the depths of His inner life seen directly. God will thus give Himself immediately to us, and we shall give ourselves to Him. We shall possess Him and He will possess us, because we shall know Him as He knows Himself and as He knows us. Beatific love will be in us a consequence of this immediate vision of the divine essence; it will even be a necessary consequence, for the beatific love of God will no longer be free, but superfree, above liberty. Our will will be invincibly ravished by the attraction of God seen face to face. We shall see His infinite goodness and beauty so clearly that we shall be unable not to love Him; we shall even be unable to find any pretext of momentarily interrupting this act of superfree love, which will no longer be measured by time, but by participated eternity, by the single instant of the immobile duration of God, the instant that never passes. In heaven the love of God and the joy of possessing Him will necessarily follow the beatific vision, which will thus be the essence of our beatitude.(31) All this is true. It is difficult to affirm more strongly than St. Thomas does the superiority of the intellect over the will in principle and in the perfect life of heaven.”
-by Karlo Broussard
“The Catechism defines heaven as the “ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).
The textbook answer is the knowledge that we will have of the divine essence, which theologians call the beatific vision. St. John writes about it in 1 John 3:2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
In his 1336 Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus, Pope Benedict XII defined this vision as:
“[Seeing] the divine essence by intuitive vision, and even face to face, with no mediating creature, serving in the capacity of an object seen, but divine essence immediately revealing itself plainly, clearly, and openly, to them.”
By intuitive Benedict XII means this vision is a knowledge that is higher than all abstraction, discursive reasoning, and analogy. By immediate he means that we will know God’s essence without any mental image or created idea that merely represents the divine essence.
Just as the form of a dog is immediately united to my intellect when I know a dog, so too the divine essence will be immediately united to my intellect when I know God’s essence in the beatific vision. Rather than knowing a similitude of the divine essence, I will know the divine essence itself.
This immediate knowledge of God’s essence is what constitutes man’s perfect happiness—hence the name beatific (Latin for happy). The reason is because the intellect attains its complete perfection. And it does so in two ways.
First, it comes to know the essence of its ultimate end, that which it was created to know. Second, it arrives at the terminus of all intellectual inquiry. Because God is that than which nothing greater can be known, knowledge of his essence leaves the intellect with no further desire to acquire knowledge for its perfection.
Consider how when we seek to understand something we either look to the thing itself for answers to our questions or to something outside it. Take a tree, for example. We may ask, “What makes its leaves green?” The answer is chlorophyll. We may then ask, “Why do the leaves have chlorophyll?, and answer because the tree’s genes tell the tree to make chlorophyll. But why do its genes tell it to make chlorophyll? The answer is because the leaves need to make energy for the tree, and they use chlorophyll to do that.
Notice that to answer these questions we didn’t have to appeal to anything outside the tree.
But what if we ask, “How do the leaves make energy?” Unlike the other questions, we must appeal to something outside the tree to answer this one: Leaves make energy using light from the sun. They do this using chlorophyll in the process called photosynthesis.
Even the tree’s very existence must be explained by something outside itself. We know the tree doesn’t exist by nature—if it did, there would never be a time when the tree didn’t exist! So we must appeal to something else.
What all this means is that any reality that depends upon something else for its intelligibility leaves our intellect unsatisfied. The only thing that can fully satisfy its quest for truth is something that doesn’t rely on anything outside itself in order to be known. Knowing the essence of such a reality would leave the intellect desiring nothing else, thus perfecting it and constituting complete human happiness.
And this reality is God.
It’s important to note that the beatific vision—the intuitive and immediate knowledge of God’s essence—is not comprehensive. Our knowledge can’t exhaust the divine essence. Only God can fully know himself, as he does in the persons of the Trinity. It requires infinite intellective power to know infinite being.
So how do the saints know God perfectly but not fully? Consider how two people may know the same truth, but know it more or less profoundly.
For example, someone may know that God exists based on reasonable belief. He looks out into the world and sees a great complexity and order that extends all the way back to the beginning of the universe. And since complexity and order are ordinarily explained by intelligence, this person concludes that a super intelligence, like God, is responsible for making the universe. This is a reasonable belief.
Another person, however, might know the same truth—that God exists—but know it by way of metaphysical demonstration. He says, “I know God exists because it’s a matter of metaphysical necessity that he exists. For without him, nothing would exist.
In these two examples, we see that the same object can be known in accord with the mode of the knower. Both God and the saints know the divine essence, but in essentially different ways: according to the mode of the knower.
God’s intellective power is infinite, so he knows the divine essence in an infinite way. The blessed, however, know the divine essence in a way that is consistent with a finite intellect: they know it in a limited way. Although they have a real knowledge of God’s essence, their knowledge doesn’t exhaust it.
The knowledge that we can have of God on this side of the veil is real knowledge and can be a source of intellectual delight. But it pales in comparison to the delight that we will have when the intellect finally rests in seeing God face to face in the beatific vision and our rational natures are ultimately fulfilled.”
“Some questions need a second glance. Even when the answer seems obvious.
For instance, Saint Thomas fields this question: “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” (ST I q. 12, a. 3).
If this was ever posed “live” in a thirteenth-century Dominican priory, one can imagine the other brothers’ own bodily eyes blinking in embarrassed frustration. Haven’t we been over this? The master already clarified that God is not a body (q. 3, a.1). We know God to be immaterial, infinite, pure act, pure spirit. “God is spirit,” our Lord says, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Why waste Father’s time like this?
The student scrambles to justify himself, remembering a quote from Saint Augustine. He had written that we will rise again with glorified eyes, which will be able to see “even incorporeal things” (q. 12, a. 3, obj. 2).
The brothers sit quietly, probably hoping for a one-word resolution: “No.”
To be sure, Aquinas gives a straightforward response: “It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense. . . . [E]very such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ. . . . God is incorporeal, as was shown above” (q. 12, a. 3, corp.). Material sense powers have no proportion to immaterial objects. Therefore, even in heaven, God’s essence will not be seen with the corporeal eye.
The brothers know, of course, that we do see God spiritually, now by grace and then by glory, through the perfection of our intellect and will (q. 43 a. 5). This beatifying vision elevates these powers in wisdom and love, conforming us to the Triune God we know and love: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The perfection of this spiritual union, not some biological operation, will be our Heaven.
But St. Thomas is a wise teacher. He takes up his student’s citation and expands it: “It is very credible,” suggested Augustine, “that we shall so see the mundane bodies of the new heaven and the new earth, as to see most clearly God everywhere present, governing all corporeal things . . . as when we see men among whom we live, living and exercising the functions of human life, we do not believe they live, but see it.” After the resurrection, rather than gradually reasoning to the divine from the creature, we will recognize God’s presence as an immediate and indirect object of sight. The eye will still see material realities (“mundane bodies”), but the intellect will instantly perceive the divine presence sustaining all we see (q. 12, a. 3, ad 2).
Even now, our inability to see God with our bodily eyes doesn’t prevent us from seeing His works: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork” (Ps 19:1). We can reason to and about God by recognizing that the universe demands a First Cause: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). After the resurrection, the saints will perceive God in the visible order effortlessly, “from the perspicuity of the intellect, and from the refulgence of the divine glory” (q. 12, a. 3, ad 2). We hope to join them in this, above all since we know that they look upon the Incarnate Lord, risen in his own humanity: the invisible God, yet visible in the flesh.
Some questions deserve a second glance. So does the whole universe, shot through as it is with light from the Creator. As Christians, we hope after death to give it that perfect, definitive, and spiritual “double-take” it deserves—aided by our own corporeal (resurrected) eyes.”
We are not angels, not merely pure spirit. We will not be pure spirit when resurrected. We will be spirit and resurrected, incorruptible, impassible flesh, as was intended from the beginning, but only more infinitely grand now to our elevation towards God Himself by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Love, and the beatific vision,