Man is made for union with God. The fulfillment of this union comes in heaven. Only there will the human creature, into which God has placed a profound desire for Himself, have the satisfaction of all its hopes and desires. All the limited goods of this world cannot touch the desire for God that He has place within us. Nor can we simply turn off this desire. It is fixed within us, an irrevocable part of our nature. Even when God is rejected, the desire for Him remains. As we saw in the last article on hell, a continual source of torment for the condemned is how they will never be able to have union with God, whom they then clearly and horribly realize is the Source of all human happiness.
But that man might not end in such a profound state of deprivation, God has sent His Son into the world, to open for us who accept Him the way to divine union. The vision of God is not beyond our grasp. The great kindness of God has cleared a path that leads man through physical death, and into the very life of God, the heavenly existence that is the topic of this final article on the Four Last Things.
Stepping from death directly into divine union depends on the readiness of the soul at the end of life. Not all those who die in the state of grace, and thereby merit heaven, are ready for the vision of God. There may be venial sins that remain at the moment of death. Though not involving the complete rejection of God, which is the case with mortal sin, such lighter sins still hinder a person from union with God. The divine command to the Hebrews applies not only to our conduct in this life, but also to the condition of any soul who hopes to join God in eternity: You must be holy as I am holy (Lev. 20:26). There will be no entry into the presence of God unless even the slightest traces of sin are purged.
There may also be dispositions in a departed soul that cause it to look back with excessive fondness to the things of earth. Attachments to this world and selfish habits that the soul carries with it into the next life are incompatible with a whole hearted, uncompromising love for God. As the Catechism expresses this teaching:
The sufferings that such souls endure before the vision of God are far more painful than any experienced here in this life. But as this passage from the Catechism points out, there is no need to portray them as hell-like. In fact, this is to do our teaching on Purgatory a great disservice. Fr. Benedict Groeschel humorously quips:
No one who has finished this life and is fully aware that the vision of God awaits them is going to shrink from the opportunity of cleansing their souls of what is holding them back from God. As St. Catherine of Genoa explains in her teaching, they are filled with a yearning for Him that we cannot imagine, a longing that makes the worst afflictions bearable and even desirable. In the midst of their horrible affliction, these holy souls are filled with a willingness to suffer, and, as they progress, great joy (ibid., 114-115).
Those who leave this life purified, or whose purification is completed after death, have been made ready to enter the all-holy presence of God. No longer having any veil between them and the Almighty, they see Him as He is. Their intellect beholds Him without any material image, imaginary image, or even any concept of God produced in the mind. Necessarily any understanding of God produced by the human mind is going to fall infinitely short of the divine majesty. So what the mind beholds is a direct intuition of God without concepts or images of any kind. It is mind meeting the beauty of God in the purest way, with absolutely nothing but the two coming in contact with one another. It is God's total gift of Himself to the soul without restraint.
Nothing about God will be hidden from our eyes. But, at the same time, we will not see all of God. His infinite being will come unreservedly to us for all eternity, but there will be no way that we can grasp the totality of His being. No creature can do this. The only mind that can "wrap around," so to speak, the infinite being of God is His own infinite mind. Thus, our knowledge of God in heaven will be direct, but not comprehensive, not all-embracing.
As generous as this Divine self-giving is, it would be completely overwhelming for the soul if God did not come to its rescue. No man can see God and live (Ex. 33:20) is the scriptural admonition that touches on this inability of the creature in itself to have immediate contact with the divine nature. St. Teresa of Avila describes the mystical experiences the soul has of God in this life as it moves toward intimate union with Him. Even here on earth, where God does not fully disclose Himself to the soul, those far advanced in the spiritual life have experiences she describes as a brief flash of lightning that reduces everything earthly in our nature to powder (Interior Castle, Sixth Mans., XI). That the soul survives such experiences is due to the supernatural strength He imparts to the soul as He, at the same time, so overwhelmingly reveals Himself.
Even more, the full and direct vision of God in eternity would be the destruction of the soul unless God were to endow it with a similar supernatural ability. Theologians call this capacity added to the soul the light of glory. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange relates: This light supernaturalizes the vitality of our intelligence, as the infused virtue of charity supernaturalizes the vitality of our will (Life Everlasting 226). God comes to the aid of our weak human faculties and lifts them up to His level. In themselves they were not designed by Him to function with infinite being. Our minds and wills were made to deal with the created things we find in this world. But once we step into the Divine Presence, God immediately grants us a supernatural strengthening of mind and will to embrace Him without danger to our frail nature (ST, I, 12, 4&5).
The soul that reaches the glorious vision of God comes into the fullness of joy. It arrives at beatitude, the possession of Infinite Goodness. What this vision involves we can only say from what we know of God in this life. His oneness, goodness, truth, and beauty that we only have glimpses of here in this world through creatures, will then be seen in all their infinite greatness. The essence of God, what He is directly in Himself, which is hidden from our eyes in this world, will be seen unhindered by our intellects. We will know first hand the indescribable mystery of the Trinity. We will see the Son in His eternal procession from the Father, and the Holy Spirit breathed forth by both the Father and the Son. Our minds will fully perceive how these three Divine Persons are, in fact, one God.
Looking back on our lives in this world and the way so many aspects of God and His activity in the world were beyond our understanding, all will become clear. God's infinite goodness permits great evil to exist in the world. In heaven we will see the love and wisdom of God in bringing good out of evil. Each tragic event God permitted, each act of human malice and destruction that He allowed, will be understood in the overall triumph of divine goodness. We will understand why all the trials of our own lives took place and how they resulted in our being safe in the divine embrace.
The mysteries of the Incarnate Word of God will become clear to us. All the prophecies about His coming will be known in the greatest detail. His descent into our human nature and how this was possible we will grasp. The entire course of His life on earth, from His childhood to His ascension into heaven, will no longer be left to the imagination. The graces of redemption that have extended to all time and space, by means of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and its sacramental continuation in the Holy Mass, will be a never ending source of wonder and joy. We will know and have the greatest joy in all that has been accomplished by Our Lord Jesus.
And this will include as well all that has taken place in and through His Mystical Body the Church. The activity of the Holy Spirit within the Church, the great beauty of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and the part played by each of the blessed in forming the Mystical Body, will astound and captivate.
We will behold the eminent greatness of the Mother of God, and the way God endowed her with the fullness of grace. We will be astounded at the strength of her faith and love as we learn the details of her life in this world. We will discover how profoundly she has loved us throughout our lives, her role of dispensing all graces coming from her Son, and the power of her intercession on our behalf.
But will not an eternal existence eventually bring about the decline of all this heavenly wonder? Is it not possible that the contemplation of God and His works will become tiresome as we move through life without end?
The answer to each these questions is, of course, no. Time and eternity are very different states. In fact, we do not even "move through" eternity, because there is no succession of moments as we know it. Eternity is one moment that never ends.
What is more, it is a moment that will never cease to satisfy our every longing. The goodness coming from God will never be exhausted. St. Augustine uses the beautiful image of singing, that overflowing of joy from the heart to the voice:
Thus the two aspects of heaven, its eternity and the limitless beauty of God, make for the impossibility of joy decreasing.
St. Thomas adds another consideration. In heaven we leave behind imperfect material goods. By their nature these will always eventually lead to a state of boredom. In the desire for . . . temporal goods, St. Thomas explains, when we posses them, we despise them, and seek others: which is the sense of Our Lord's words, 'Whosoever drinketh of this water . . . shall thirst again' (I-II, 2, 1, ad 3). But once, God willing, we find ourselves in eternal life, second-rate material goods are gone forever. From then on, spiritual goods will be the source of our happiness. The problem of joy giving way to boredom then is solved, as these spiritual goods give the soul an inexhaustible delight, like a font of refreshing water continually welling up within the soul (Jn. 4:14).
As was pointed out in the previous articles in this series on the Four Last Things, souls that depart from this life are immediately judged by Our Lord and go to the eternal existence they have merited. But their existence as human beings is at this point not complete. Man was not made by God as pure spirit, as were the angels. The human being by nature is a spiritual creature with a physical body, a bodily-spirit. For this reason both the Scriptures and the defined doctrine of the Church speak of the resurrection of the body.
For both the just and the wicked this will take place on the Last Day (See 1 Cor. 15:20-26). Then, the very same bodies they possessed in this life will be restored to them in an immortal form. The Council of Toledo in A.D. 640, proclaiming this ancient belief, states: And we do not believe that we shall rise in an ethereal body or in any other body, as some foolishly imagine, but in this very body in which we live and are and move (Denz. 540).
The great beauty of the glorified body is impossible for us to imagine now. St. Paul speaks of the difference between the earthly body and the glorified body as between a seed and the full grown plant (1 Cor. 15:37). So, as much as we may praise the Creator for the beauty the human form now takes in this world, it will one day be seen as a completely colorless, uninteresting, and lowly beginning (like a seed) to the glorious form it will eventually take in eternity.
St. Thomas, identifies four primary traits of the resurrected body: impassibility, agility, subtlety, and clarity.
The problem of suffering and death will no longer exist after the Day of Christ's coming. Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more (Rev. 21:4). The bodies of the just will be no longer capable of physical pain or corruption of any kind. This is what the term impassibility refers to, from the Latin im-passio, meaning "without-suffering".
Agility is the free and swift movement of the glorified body. The experience we often have now of the body weighing down and hindering the soul will no longer be the case. In the blessed, the soul will be completely in charge. Wherever the soul wishes to go, it will go instantaneously, with the quickness of thought.
Thus, the material make-up of the resurrected body will no longer be the physical flesh and blood we now have. St. Paul calls it a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). As a result, there will be a remarkable ability of the glorified body to pass through other bodies without difficulty. This is called subtlety. As the Gospels described Jesus passing through the walls of the Upper Room after His resurrection, so it will be for the resurrected saints.
Light is one of the special qualities emanating from God. All those who become sharers in divine life emanate this very same light of God. Our Lord speaks of the time when the just will shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Jesus himself, as a preview of the light that he would one day impart to the redeemed made His body shine on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration with a brightness that astounded the apostles. This is the clarity, or brilliance, that will be seen in the glorified body. The soul, filled with the Divine Presence, will overflow with God-like radiance, turning the body into a thing of spectacular beauty and brightness.
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