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The beatific vision (continued)

In the Beatific Vision, “we shall be like Him; because we shall see him as he is."

1 John iii 2.

In the preceding chapter, we have endeavored to understand the meaning of the Beatific Vision. We have seen that it is not a mere gazing upon God, but a true possession and enjoyment of Him. We have seen, moreover, that the Beatific Vision implies a most intimate union with God, in which the soul is made a partaker of the “Divine Nature,” in a far higher degree than is attainable in this world.

But we must be careful not to confound this union of the soul with God, which is a moral union, with a personal union, such as exists between the humanity and the divinity in Jesus Christ. For, in Him, though these two natures are distinct, they are not separable. The human nature is so intimately united to the divine, that it receives its personality from the eternal Son of God. Hence, we cannot say that Jesus Christ is one Person as man, and another Person as God, thus asserting two distinct Persons in Christ. This would be a heresy, long since condemned by the church. In Him, therefore, there is but one Person, and that Person is the eternal Son of God, in whom the human nature has not a distinct personality of its own. This is called a personal or hypostatic union, which belongs to Jesus Christ alone, and constitutes Him the Lord of lords, the King of kings, and the Judge of the living and the dead. No other creature, not even the Blessed Virgin, can ever aspire to such a union with God. When, therefore, we speak of our intimate union with God in the Beatific Vision, we understand a moral union, and not a physical or a personal one. Hence, however intimate our union with God may be, we shall always retain our personality, and never be merged into God.

In this world, how intimate soever may be the union which exists between friend and friend, parent and child, husband and wife, these persons all retain their respective personalities. So shall it be in heaven. We shall see and possess God; we shall be united to Him in an intimate manner, but we shall ever retain our distinct personality and individuality. When a drop of water falls into the ocean, it is absorbed and completely lost in that immense volume of water. This is no type of our union with God. But the drop of oil is such a type; for while it floats on the bosom of the deep, it does not mingle with the water, nor lose its individuality. It remains a drop of oil.

Not only shall we thus retain our personality, when united to God in the Beatific Vision, but we shall, moreover, retain all that belongs to the reality of human nature. For, as St. Thomas teaches, “the glory of heaven does not destroy nature; but perfects it." Therefore, when Scripture tells us that “we shall be changed,” we must not imagine that we shall be changed into angels, or into some other nature different from the human. The change means a supernatural elevation and perfection of our whole nature, and not its destruction. The transition or change of the child into the man neither changes nor destroys the faculties of his mind nor the senses of his body; neither does it create new powers or faculties which he had not before. His gradual growth into manhood only develops and perfects what the hand of God had placed in his nature on the day of his creation.

Quamdiu manet natura aliqua, manet operatio eius. Sed beatitudo non tollit naturam, cum sit perfectio eius. Ergo non tollet naturalem cognitionem et dilectionem.... Semper autem oportet salvari primus in secunda. Unde oportet quod natura salvetur in beatitudine. Et similiter quod in actu beatitudinis salvetur actus naturae. S. Thomas, , , ar.

This gradual development of our nature to its perfection, in the natural order, illustrates the wonderful supernatural perfection which the power of God will work in us both in the Beatific Vision and in the glorious resurrection of the body. For, however great and elevated we may then be, our now existing natural powers will neither be changed nor destroyed.

I have been thus careful in explaining these things, because we are now to study the transforming power of the Beatific Vision upon the soul, as well as the glory of the spiritualized body in which we shall again be clothed on the resurrection day.

According to the angelic doctor, the human soul bears a threefold resemblance to God. She is like God by nature, by grace, and by glory. The likeness to God by nature is found in all men, but is imperfect. The likeness by grace is far more perfect, and is found in the just only; while it is seen in its full perfection in the blessed. We shall, therefore, endeavor to fathom the meaning of St. John, when he says, “We shall be like Him: because we shall see him as He is;” as well as the saying of St. Peter, who asserts that we shall be “made partakers of the divine nature.” Let us begin by a little illustration.

... Imago Dei tripliciter potest considerari in homine. Uno quidem modo secundum quod homo habet aptitudinem naturalem ad intelligendum et amandum Deum. Et haec aptitudo consistet, in ipsa natura mentis, quae est communis omnibus hominibus. Alio modo secundum quod actu vel habitu Deum cognoscit et amat, sed tamen imperfecte. Et haec est imago per conformitatem gratiae. Tertio modo secundum quod homo Deum actu cognoscit et amat perfecte. Et attenditur imago secundum similitudinem gloriae. Prima ergo invenitur in omnibus hominibus. Secunda vero in justis tantum. Tertia vero solum in beatis. S. Thomas, , , ar.

Suppose you enter an artist’s studio, just as he has drawn the outlines of a portrait. All the essential features are there the shape of the head, the eyes, ears, mouth, and whatever else is necessary to constitute the human face; and it already bears a striking resemblance to the man who is sitting for his portrait. You return in a few days, and, though it is yet far from being finished, the coloring has added so much that it is far more beautiful and perfect than when you first saw it. Again, you see it when it is completely finished, framed, and exposed to public view. How perfect! how life-like it is! It actually seems to live and breathe. How vast a deference between this exquisitely finished painting and the mere outlines you first saw! This illustration teaches us, better than abstract words could do, how the human soul is like God from the very first, and how that likeness gradually increases by grace and the practice of virtue, until it receives the last touch and finish in the Beatific Vision.

From the very first moment of her existence, the soul is like to God, because she is a spirit, and therefore immortal. She is endowed with intelligence, free-will, memory, and whatever else belongs to a spiritual substance. Evidently, this is already the image of God, though, compared with what it will be by grace and the Beatific Vision, it is as yet nothing more than the mere outlines.

Next comes baptism, by which the soul is raised to the supernatural state. She is washed with the blood of Jesus, and clothed with the robe of innocence, which, if we may use the expression, begins the coloring or beautifying process. Faith, hope, and charity are infused into her, by which she is enabled to lead a supernatural life. Then come other sacraments, which have for their object to wash away stains, remove imperfections, and to nourish, strengthen, beautify, and gradually develop a greater resemblance to God.

But there is an immense difference between the senseless image we saw on the canvas and the soul. The portrait is a lifeless image, which is totally passive, and has, therefore, nothing whatever to do with its gradual growth and its resemblance to the original. Not so with the soul. She is a living and rational image of the eternal God, and has the power to aid very materially in her gradual development, and in her greater resemblance to the original which is God. Not only has she the power, but also the strict obligation of co-operating with God, in perfecting what He began without her co-operation Hence, while of herself she is incapable of having even a good thought, aided by the grace of God she not only has good thoughts and desires, but also the strength to carry them into effect. With God’s assistance, she can and does reproduce in herself the virtues which Jesus taught and practised His humility, purity, meekness, obedience, patience, and resignation to God’s will. Especially does she reproduce His life of love love or God and love for man.

As soon as this divine charity becomes the mainspring of her actions, everything she does develops in her a greater resemblance to God. Then, not only prayer, the sacraments, pious reading, and other spiritual exercises, but voluntary mortifications, temptations from the devil, the world, and the flesh even eating, drinking, and innocent recreations all help powerfully to develop and perfect in her the image of God. For, as St. Paul tells us, “To them that love God, all things work together unto good."

Rom. viii 28.

Could you now see a soul at the first moment of her existence, you would see the image of God begun. Could you see her again immediately after baptism, she would appear far more beautiful; because she is then clothed with the robe of innocence and beautified by the grace of God. But could you see that same soul after ten, twenty, or more years of a holy life, you could scarcely believe that it is the same soul so much more God-like and beautiful has she become. But again, could you see her united to God in the Beatific Vision, you would be so overpowered with her dazzling splendor and unearthly beauty, that you would be ready to fall down and adore her thinking that it is God himself you see, and not his image. She would have to prevent this adoration, by assuring you that whatever excellence you behold in her is, after all, that of a mere creature. This is what happened even to St. John, who had already seen so many and such wonderful visions. When the bright angel stood before him, to reveal the secrets of God, he says: “And I fell down before his feet to adore him. But he saith to me: See thou do it not: I am thy fellow-servant, and of thy brethren, who have the testimony of Jesus. Adore God." St. Augustine says that “the angel was so beautiful and glorious that St. John actually mistook him for God, and would really have given him divine worship, had not the angel prevented it by declaring who he was.”

Apoc. xiv

From all this, we begin to see what St. John means when he tells us that we shall be like God, “because we shall see Him as he is.” Our likeness to God was begun on the very first day of our existence. It was gradually developed by God’s grace and the sacraments; and by our own co-operation with all the helps of God. But during life, the process of development was slow so very slow, that we were at times tempted to think it had ceased altogether. But in the Beatific Vision the process is rapid as a flash. The soul is suddenly transformed into that degree of likeness to God which she has deserved by a holy life. She is made like to God, because she sees Him as he is. It is this glorious vision which contains in itself this transforming power, and which assimilates the soul to God.

In this world a deformed man may gaze upon a beautiful object without becoming beautiful thereby; the poor man gazes upon the rich man, but remains as poor as ever; and the ignorant man gazes upon the philosopher, and nevertheless remains as ignorant as before. Not so in heaven. The vision of God has a transforming power; that is, it has the power of communicating to the beholder attributes which he had not before, or possessed only in the germ. Thus the soul, because she sees God as He is, is filled to overflowing with all knowledge; she becomes beautiful with the beauty of God, rich with his wealth, holy with his holiness, and happy with his own unutterable happiness. In a word, by the vision of God, she is made a partaker of the divine nature, and, like a very god, she shines unto all eternity in the divine brightness.

A diamond, carefully cut and perfectly polished, glitters and shines in the sun with exceeding brilliancy. It not only reflects the light, but also absorbs it into itself, so as to shine even in the dark with the light it has absorbed. It actually becomes, as it were, a little sun, shining with its own light. It is thus become a partaker of the sun’s nature, while it retains its own peculiar diamond nature and individuality. This is an image of what takes place in the Beatific Vision. While she was in this world, God had polished that soul, by the sacraments and by sufferings; and now that she is in His presence, and sees him as he is, she shines and sparkles in his light with unspeakable splendor. She reflects and absorbs the divine light and beauty of God. She is like God, because she sees Him as he is; she is made a partaker of the divine nature, while she retains her own human nature and personal identity.

But, let us again hear Lessius. Speaking of this communication of the divine nature to man, he says “This communication begins in this life, by the gifts of grace, especially faith, hope, and charity. By these virtues we are not only made like to God, but God is also united to us. It is perfected, however, in the next life by the gifts of glory namely, the light of glory, the vision of the Divinity, beatific love, and beatific joy. For, by these, we attain our highest similitude to God, and become perfectly sons of God, shining like the Divinity, and exhibiting in ourselves the most excellent image of the most Holy Trinity. For by the light of glory we are made like the Father; by the vision of the Divine Essence and the Divine Persons, we become like the Son; by beatific love we are made like the Holy Ghost; by joy we become like the Godhead in beatitude, and thus the participation of the divine beatitude is completed in us."

De Perf. Divin., lib. xiv .

Now, Christian soul, meditate well on all this. Endeavor to fathom the bliss of the saints when they see themselves like God in so eminent a degree. Remember that you were created to enjoy the unspeakable happiness of seeing God, and of being made a partaker of the divine nature. But remember, too, that God, who created you without your co-operation, will not save you without it. He never will polish your soul into a jewel fit for heaven, in spite of yourself. You must, therefore, co-operate with Him, and do his holy will in all things. However painful may be the trials He sends you, they are all so many strokes to take away some roughness or deformity which would prevent your soul from being perfectly like Him. Every act you perform, while in the state of grace, adds a new feature of beauty to your soul, and therefore prepares her the better to receive the finishing touch in the Beatific Vision, and to shine with greater splendor as a perfect image of the living God.