I recall a story I once heard that expresses an important idea in the topic we will be discussing. It went something like this. There was once a very rich man who lived in a sumptuous dwelling with all the conveniences and comforts of life. He was mainly concerned about his own well-being with little thought of the needs of others. Yet, apparently he did practice a minimum of charity that enabled him to remain in the state of grace.
After some time the rich man died, passed through the purification of purgatory, and came to the gate of heaven. St. Peter met him, and turned him over to his guardian angel to show him his place in heaven. His angel took him into a section of heaven where the mansions were beautiful and magnificent beyond anything he had ever seen. He began wondering which of these would be his.
But the angel passed them by and came to another immense section of heaven where the mansions were beautiful and spacious, but less magnificent than those of the first section. The rich man thought to himself - “Well, even these are better than what I had on earth.” But the angel passed through this section to another where the houses were rather plain, much inferior, he thought, to what he had provided for himself on earth. He was beginning to worry about where the angel was leading him.
Finally, the angel passed through that section to another where the houses were clean, but very small and plain. Pointing to one of them, the angel said, “there is your dwelling.” “You mean,” the rich man said, “this is to be my dwelling for all eternity?” The angel responded: “The angels of heaven are excellent craftsmen. They have built all the beautiful mansions you have seen. But this small one-room house is the best they could do with the few materials you sent up to us.”
While this little story illustrates a point, it has several major flaws. First of all, every soul in heaven is perfectly happy, each according to his own capacity. Too, since in heaven all have perfect charity, no one will be envious of another who enjoys a greater degree of glory. On the contrary, one with less glory than another will rejoice as much in the blessedness of the other as in his own, for each one will love his neighbor as himself. But the point of the above story is well expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “They shall live in the houses they have built” (65:21).
In His farewell address to the apostles the night before He died, our Blessed Lord assured them: “Let not your heart be troubled . . . . in My Father’s house there are many mansions” (Jn. 14:1,2). St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine tell us that these words of Our Savior refer to the different degrees of glory of the Blessed in heaven (Suppl.93,3).
Every soul in heaven beholds and experiences the same beatific vision, the same face to face vision of God; and the happiness of the lowest saint will exceed anything we can know or imagine. “Eye has not seen or ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Yet, the degree of glory and happiness of each soul will differ. Why is this?
DIFFERENT DEGREES OF GLORY
Everyone who dies in the state of grace will eventually attain the reward of eternal beatitude in heaven. But since that beatitude consists essentially in the face to face vision of God, how do we reconcile that with the clear warning of God in the book of Exodus: “My face you cannot see, for no man can see Me and live” (33:20). Those words refer to life in this world where we know God only by the obscure light of faith. The human intellect, even elevated and perfected by sanctifying grace and the infused virtues that come with it, is utterly incapable of knowing God as He is in Himself. The beatific vision so transcends the natural intellectual powers of any created intellect, even enlightened by faith, that it would be blinding to the unaided intellectual faculty of angels or men.
Another gift of God must be added after death when the purification of the soul is complete. The created intellect must be further elevated and strengthened by a special supernatural intellectual power called the light of glory, which gives the soul the ability to see God face to face, as He is in Himself. It is a new perfection of the intellect which replaces the light of faith, giving the intellect a higher supernatural participation in the Divine Light that is God. And that gift is given to each soul in different degrees, according to the measure that the divine life of grace has grown in the soul at the moment of death. So, while each soul in heaven is perfectly happy according to its own capacity, that capacity differs with each soul. That is to say, the depth of the soul’s comprehension of God’s inner life and perfections, and the capacity for union with Him, will depend on the measure that God grants to the soul that special gift, the light of glory, without which the soul cannot see God as He is in Himself. (St. Thos. I, 12,6).
OUR I.Q. - HERE AND HEREAFTER
One might be inclined to wonder if, over and above the supernatural gift of the “light of glory,” our capacity to see and experience the face to face vision of God in heaven will depend in some measure on our natural intellectual capacity, or on our store of acquired knowledge. For example, in this life some are highly intelligent, other are less so, and others are definitely retarded. Will this natural capacity, or the lack of it, have a bearing on our capacity in heaven to behold and experience the face to face vision of God?
That is to say, will those retarded in this life be able to see God and be united with Him as perfectly as the brilliant philosopher, or theologian, or scientist, or poet, etc.? Before answering that question, we must point out that at the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, the bodies of all will come back without any of their bodily defects. And being mentally retarded springs from a defect of the body not of the soul.
And since, as we have said, the capacity to see God and to be united with Him depends not on our natural capacity or acquired knowledge, but solely on the capacity given us by the “light of glory” (St. Thos. I, 12, 5). The mentally retarded and uneducated in this life could have in the life to come a more perfect union with God, a more perfect comprehension of Him and His perfections, and therefore a more perfect beatitude than the brilliant philosopher or theologian, etc., if at the moment of death he or she had progressed more in the love of God and neighbor. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this as follows:
“The faculty of seeing God does not belong to the created intellect naturally, but is given to it by the light of glory. . . . Hence the intellect which has more of the light of glory will see God the more perfectly; and he will have a fuller participation of the light of glory who has the more charity. . . . He who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly, and will be the more beatified” (I,12,6).
One may live a very unspectacular life, a life filled with many trials and setbacks; but if his crosses were borne patiently and in resignation to God’s will, such a one could have a greater capacity for the face to face vision of God in the next life, than another whose life was very spectacular in achievement and learning, but with little recognition of his dependence on God.
This inequality of glory has been defined by the Council of Trent against the Protestant Reformers, who claimed that the root of justification was in the imputed merits of Christ. Holding to this, they could not admit varying degrees of reward in heaven.
THE VISION OF GOD
When we speak of the face to face vision of God, we are simply using the expression frequently used in the Scriptures (Gen. 32:31; Ex. 33:11; 1 Cor. 13:12). But it is not as if one were looking at something outside of himself with bodily eyes, for God is a pure spirit not visible to the eyes of the body. Rather it is a most intimate union of the soul with the divine essence; and from that union there flows intense love. That is because both the intellect (which knows) and the will (which loves) are united directly with the divine essence in a way that here and now we cannot begin to comprehend. The intellect is perfected by the LIGHT OF GLORY, and the will is further perfected by the one theological virtue that remains in heaven, INFUSED CHARITY, which abides in an intense unending act of love of God. But the will is a blind faculty, that is, it loves only what the intellect sees and presents as lovable. Hence, the greater the insight of the intellect into the perfections and inner life of God, the greater will be the intensity of the will loving God in return.
THE GLORIFIED BODY
Not only is the mind elevated far beyond its natural capacity by the LIGHT OF GLORY, and our will drawn to love God ceaselessly at the highest level of our capacity; but the body will share in the glory of Christ according to the degree of merit that each one has attained. St. Paul speaks of this to the Corinthians:
“One is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, and another the glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So, also, in the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:41).
Here St. Paul clearly indicates that, as the heavenly bodies differ in brightness, so in the resurrection of the body on the last day there will be great differences in the glory and beauty and splendor of the bodies among those destined for heaven. “Then shall the just shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 13:43).
Although only the soul can take possession of God, since God is a spirit, the beatified soul will be substantially united to the body after the resurrection, and the joy and glory of the soul will overflow into the body (St. Thos. I - II, 4-6). The Angelic Doctor explains that just as a colored object contained in a crystal vessel will show through the pure crystal, so in the glorified body the glory of the soul will shine through the whole body (Suppl. 85,1). Thus the glorified bodies of the Blessed in heaven will differ from each other in glory and beauty and splendor according to the degree of merit at the end of their mortal life, for “the measure you measure with will be measured back to you” (Lk. 6:38).
To sum up: the depth of the soul’s capacity to behold and comprehend God’s inner life and perfections, and the intensity of the soul’s return of God’s love, will depend on the degree of the soul’s participation in the light of glory; and that, in turn, depends on the soul’s love of God and neighbor at the end of his or her earthly existence. St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this as follows:
“The diversity of merit is traceable to the diversity of charity, and thus the charity of the way (i.e. of this life) will distinguish the mansions (the degree of glory) by way of merit” (Suppl.93,3).
SECONDARY OBJECT OF THE BEATIFIC VISION
While the primary object of the beatific vision is the face to face vision of God, its secondary object is everything else other than God that the Blessed would want to know. The mysteries of faith are no longer known through the obscure light of faith but by intuitive vision, immeasurably more clear and never exhaustive of the mystery. For example: The mystery of the Divine Word assuming human nature in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, the enormity of Christ’s suffering on our behalf, the wonderful vitality and unity of His Mystical Body - the Church triumphant, suffering and militant; the infinite value of the Mass, the wisdom and mercy of God’s providence, etc.
In the vision of God the Blessed will see and praise the eminent dignity of the Mother of God, her fullness of grace, her virtues, her universal mediation as co-redemptrix. They will see as never before the sanctity of the great saints and angels. They will know everything they would want to know about their loved ones on earth; and they will know them in God much more perfectly than they ever knew them on earth. They will know everything they desire to know about the wonders of creation, the secrets of nature, the beginnings of the world and of man, etc. Their every yearning for truth and love will be completely satisfied (each according to his own capacity) in the union with Him who is infinite Truth and infinite Love.
OTHER SOURCES OF BEATITUDE
Apart from the beatific vision of the Godhead the Blessed, after the resurrection of the body, will delight in the intimate association with our Divine Savior, His Blessed Mother and the saints and angels of the heavenly kingdom. And the greater their sharing in the light of glory, the greater will be their sharing in the glory of Christ, and the greater their delight in that eternal community life of heaven.
In the light of the few things that theology can tell us about heaven, how important it is not to be content with the mere minimum required to remain in the state of grace, but to use well the means of grace and the opportunities of life for spiritual growth; for so much in eternity depends on how much we have progressed in love of God at the end of life here on earth.
In this life some are born into great wealth, while some attain it by good fortune, and so attain a notable degree of renown and worldly acclaim with little effort on their part. In heaven it is not so. Heaven is won by sacrifice. It was won first of all by the sacrifice of Christ, by His passion and death. It must be won also (for those who have attained the use of reason) by the sacrifices needed to keep God’s commandments, to fulfill the God-given duties of our state in life, and to discipline our unruly appetites and inclinations. It must be won by using well the Sacraments of the Church, and by embracing willingly the crosses of daily life which are indispensable for our purification and spiritual growth.
Great success in this world is usually not attained by the unlettered, the sick, the retarded, or in general by those who have little that draws the acclaim of this world. But that is not true of heaven. No matter how humble or lowly, or how handicapped one may be in this world, he/she can and should aspire to great heights in the next life. We have all been called to sanctity. Someone might say: “I am no saint, and never will be. I just want to get to heaven.” What such a one fails to realize is that no one will enter heaven until he or she is a saint; that is, until having been purified of every inordinate attachment to the world, the flesh and the ego, one loves God above all things with all his heart and mind and strength. The more that purification takes place in this life (where it is meritorious) rather than in purgatory (where it is not meritorious), the greater will be our capacity for beatitude in the life to come.
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