If Heaven is where we hope to spend our eternity, it ought to be something that is on our minds here below. “For,” after all, “we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come,” says Saint Paul (Heb. 13:14).
But do we really seek it, or do we rather presume upon it? Again, do we seek it, or do we take it for granted?
If I were a prudent man of the world and it should come to pass that I want to go to a wondrous, far-off, and joy-filled land — say, on vacation — I would calculate the costs, set a budget, make plans regarding my vacation time, mark my calendar, reserve my lodgings, purchase my plane tickets, etc. All of course in the hope that my chosen destination lives up to my high expectations.
But how do I know what to expect? I’ve been told about the place, or I read about it. My attention was drawn to something there that was desirable. If it were not, then I would have no desire for it.
Let us read more, think more, speak more, and pray more, of Heaven! Do we not long to hear those words of Jesus at the hour of death? “Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25: 23).
Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper had a good analogy concerning this “joy.” He compared it to a man dying of thirst and receiving a cup of cold water. The man sees the cup, desires the water, and then he takes the drink, the never-ending satiation of that everlasting gulp. Only in Heaven, the satiation is a supernatural fulfilling of what is highest in man, his rational faculties of intellect and will. This is the final Beatitude for which we were made, a share of God’s own Beatitude. Thinking of such things with her brother Rodrigo when they were children, Saint Teresa of Avila would repeat over and over again “forever, forever, forever.” So, too, did Saint Antonio Maria Claret, when he was only five years old, lay awake at night considering his immortality in Heaven or Hell, repeating to himself, siempre, siempre, siempre.
But when we speak of our coming to into “eternal life,” it can only be the life of Heaven, the life of the creature’s participation, by supernatural grace, in God’s own eternity. The damned have everlasting torment, not the eternal life we speak of in the last article of the Apostle’s Creed: Credo in Vitam Aeternam! I was told that those were the last words of the valiant Brother Hugh MacIsaac, M.I.C.M., may he rest in peace (+July 11, 1979).
Upon reading this, some will think of Saint Paul’s words, referring to Isaias the Prophet: “But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Isaias 64:4). They may then ask, “So how do we know what to think about? It’s ineffable!” But the Apostle did not say, “mind hath not considered, imagination hath not applied itself, heart hath not yearned.” Fully aware of our limitations in this life, we ought not, for that reason, ignore the sublime subject. Rather, the incompleteness and inadequacy of our knowledge here below ought all the more to move us to keep Heaven on our minds, heart, and lips — applying ourself as a little child who strives on his tip toes to see into the candy store window all those delights that are just out of his sight.
There are a multitude of ways that one can approach the subject of Heaven, speculating on what it will be like.
First, let’s look at what Heaven is not. It is not simply a place of happiness where God happens to be also. It is not a carnal palace of delights such as that imagined by the Mormons or Muslims. It is not a nirvana or state of annihilation such as that imagined by the Oriental pantheists.
By contrast, Heaven is primarily a supernatural state, one in which created angelic and human intellects behold the vision of God, being supremely happy in their intellects and experiencing overflowing joy in their wills. This Blessedness is a kind of maximally elevated supernatural happiness.
What more can we say in this brief space about the Beatific Vision? It is a direct intuition of God in His very essence. In other words, we see the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as they are, not with the eyes of our bodies, but with the intuitive power of the intellect.
Everlasting Beatitude is essentially the possession of God. Theologians speak of the five acts of the blessed: these are vision, two kinds of love, and two kinds of joy. The full list is vision, love of God in Himself, love of God as the source of our happiness, joy in God in Himself, and the joy that we experience from God as the source of our happiness. The theologians speak of the possession of God and these five acts as the “physical essence” of heavenly beatitude. But they often push further and ask if any one of these acts forms the essence of beatitude in a stricter sense. The question they ask is: “What is the metaphysical essence of beatitude?” Saint Thomas answers the question by saying that the metaphysical essence of beatitude is the vision of God in our intellect. It is the reward of the purified: “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
God Himself is the primary object of the beatific knowledge of the Saints. But there are secondary objects of this knowledge. Jesus, in His glorified humanity, and His Blessed Mother are secondary objects of beatific knowledge. We will know them, as we will know many created things, in the light that is God. After the resurrection of the body, our eyes will see the bodies of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the other saints, as well as other material substances. But this bodily vision will be secondary to the intuitive vision of the Holy Trinity and of created things in God.
We can also speak of objects of “accidental beatitude” in Heaven, such as the fellowship of the saints and angels, and this communion of love with all of our fellow celestial denizens in Christ.
Concerning this, the dogmatic theologians, Monsignor Joseph Pohle, and Arthur Preuss tell us in their volume on Eschatology:
The beatitude enjoyed by the Blessed in Heaven is (per accidens) increased by their intimate association with the angels and saints.
The inhabitants of Heaven do not lead a solitary life, but are associated together in a mystic body called the Communion of Saints (communio sanctorum). They are members of the triumphant Church and admiringly contemplate the angels in their hierarchical gradations as well as the various degrees of dignity and happiness manifested in their glorified fellowmen. Their knowledge is not, however, limited to heavenly things, but extends to Purgatory and this earth, comprising especially those things which are closely related to the supernatural order in general and the position occupied therein by each heavenly denizen in particular. They devote special attention, of course, to whatever pertains to the worship and the intercession of the Saints. Bellarmine thinks that they derive their knowledge of these things from their official position in the celestial hierarchy rather than from a special revelation.
Various bonds connect the Blessed in Heaven with the scene of their labors, battles, temptations, and victories here below.
It was here they acquired that more or less profound knowledge of science and art which is not lost but clarified, deepened, and ennobled in Heaven. Here they still have relatives, friends, and descendants, in whom their former interest continues unabated, for Death does not destroy our earthly relations, but raises them to a higher sphere, in which the salvation of souls outweighs all other considerations. This knowledge the Elect can not obtain from personal observation, as they lack the organs of sense, but it is communicated to them by the Divine Logos, in whom they behold all things.
The times in which we live are quite evil. Deep corruption in Church and State, the desecration of what is holy, the assailing of the natural family, the denaturing of children. In such times, we ought to take heart as Saint Paul encouraged those early Jewish converts in Jerusalem to do:
Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. For think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. For you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: And you have forgotten the consolation, which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him. —Heb. 12:2-5
And if we do receive that consolation after we persevere — for “he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22) — then we get into that “city… that is to come” that Saint Paul wrote of, and Saint John saw:
And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. —Apoc. 21:2