Last in a Series on the Life of Grace
Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
Gratia Dei vita aeterna! In the last of our Conferences on Grace, we pointed out that the works of God, in the lives and souls of His creatures, may be looked at in two ways. We may consider them according to their pre-existence in the eternal all-seeing mind of God, as determined by His will, or we may study them as they are in themselves, in their varied order and succession, the many changes they undergo, their actions and sufferings, as they gradually develop and finally attain the purpose of their being, or fail in its accomplishment. We were then considering man's supernatural life from the former point of view, whereas, in these conferences, we have confined ourselves to the latter, since our purpose was, as we stated, to contemplate the workings of this supernatural life, to understand the sources of its power and energy, the means to which it has recourse in times of weakness and failure, and the consequences of final triumph or defeat. By this route we have once more arrived at the term; we are once more face to face with that most glorious supernatural end for which God made us, the perfect knowledge, love, and possession of Himself! Gratia Dei vita aeterna. The grace of God is everlasting life!
Man has an instinctive hope of a higher and nobler life than this world can give, and the groundwork of this hope is his faith in a future state. We appealed to this universal belief when we were speaking of eternal punishment, for, as we then pointed out, it is not merely the idea of a future state which reason puts before us, but a future state of happiness or misery, reward or punishment, according to the life we live here below. For man, as a reasonable being and gifted, therefore, with understanding and free-will, is the master of his own acts, and deliberately chooses for himself the paths he intends to pursue. In other words, there is and must be some clear and definite end before his mind, moving him to this or that particular course of action; and it is the moral goodness or badness of the purpose he has in view which specifies his action, and stamps it as good or bad in the moral order.
But common sense forbids us to suppose an indefinite series of such incentives to action. There must be what we call a last end, an end in which the will of man finds all that it can desire, and to which in reality all other ends are but as means. And what is this last end? According to St. Thomas, it is nothing less than perfect happiness, for nothing less than that can satisfy the heart of man; and hence it is that all men are of one accord in seeking happiness, though, as we must confess, all are not agreed as to how and where this happiness may be found. Some would have us seek it in the paths of honor and glory, or in the possession of abundant riches, and the enjoyment of the many pleasures of mind and body that are their fruits; but the voice of nature is not easily silenced, and it tells us very clearly that it was not for such things as these that we came forth from nothingness, crowned with such manifold gifts. No created good can give us perfect happiness. The good we seek is limitless and boundless - nothing less, therefore, than the source of all good, God Himself, who alone can satisfy our desire with good things.
It surely cannot be denied that life would be a dismal failure if this world were the end of all. Quite apart from what we learn by faith, a daily experience burns in upon the soul the knowledge of that conflict between the opposing powers of good and evil, ever waging in us and around us, and so frequently resulting in the triumph of the latter. The many so-called "social problems" are evidence of this. Something has gone wrong somewhere, causing suffering and sorrow as a necessary consequence, and against this all our natural instincts rise in obstinate revolt, urging us to do our best to set things right, even though we feel we know not how or where to begin. For we are convinced that suffering and injustice cannot be the normal condition of things. Bishop Hedley notes:
It is one of the strong proofs of God's existence, and man's immortality, that there lies in the heart of every human being the inextinguishable conviction or inspiration that evil can not finally triumph.
We cannot believe that so many millions of our race have lived and suffered and died in vain. We cannot persuade ourselves, no matter how we try, that so many brave, enduring men and loving women have borne the burden of the day and the heats, only to rest for ever in the grave! The very thought of it makes our hearts ache, and it would be but a poor and empty consolation to say to ourselves: "All this is fate, all this is the result of hopeless necessity and must go on for ever, and the only prospect before us is the nothingness of death." It cannot be! It is against the instincts of our reason, and the dictates of our common sense, ever loudly protesting that there must come a time when virtue is rewarded and vice punished, and when justice reigns supreme. We talk about "success" and "failure" in this life, but no matter how sincerely we may wish to talk, there is deep in our hearts a strange uneasy consciousness that the words are but conventional. They might possibly change places, we cannot help thinking, if right were might, and we feel that a day will come when they may be transposed for good and all. It is this hope of better things which makes our lives worth living, and enables us to solve its puzzling riddles and endure its heavy burdens. Look at that wonderful story put before us by Holy Scripture, which by its very pathos, no less than by its moral grandeur, has become so familiar to all of us as well nigh to have grown into a proverb, the story of Job and his sufferings. We should utterly miss its real lesson were we to imagine that it had been handed down through the long ages merely to teach us patience under trial. The heart of its teaching is disclosed to us in the magnificent profession of faith and hope uttered by an innocent man in the hour of his abasement, when sorrow and misunderstanding had crushed him to the very earth:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that at the last day I shall rise out of the earth and be clothed again with my body, and in my flesh I shall see my God, whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom.
For our experience of life, at all events, but rarely brings us face to face with sufferings so mani fold, and, of their very nature, so ennobling as those which were laid upon him. What we see is in every way more vulgar and more commonplace, of the sort imagined so vividly and expressed so powerfully by a well-known modern writer in words which we may be allowed to quote in full:
Thou knowest my life, God, that I was poor, so poor, and unlovely and alone! And each day I awoke so weary that I had scarce the strength to struggle up that I might go forth to work for the day's bread. And night after night I laid me down so tired, too tired to sleep. And, as I lay, the unendurable thought of the burden which I must take up on the morrow, and every morrow, and the still more unendurable thought of dying, and being thrust down among foul and rolling things into black nothingness and decay, set my heart leaping like the heart of the hunted and desperate creature which hears the hounds behind it, but sees no nook or cranny into which to creep that it may escape their cruel fangs.
But if this be a true picture of countless lives, and it most surely is, who could look upon it and realize its utter misery, and then profess his faith in the existence of Almighty God, unless that same firm faith in God assured him that the sufferings of this life were not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed? For faith in God implies belief in a God of infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite love. It was this faith which nerved the heart of Job and upheld him in his hour of tribulation; and it was this faith which enabled him to pass through the furnace of trial, seven times heated though it was; a faith, a belief, within the reach of our poor ordinary efforts also, a knowledge we possess in common with him by virtue of our common humanity. Once again then, as ever, we see our faith and reason walking hand in hand, showing us the same truth, enforcing the same lesson, for whilst reason so unfalteringly asserts the existence of another life beyond the grave, in which its natural instincts place all that is good and beautiful and true, faith stands by its side to help it and confirm it, by declaring that the good and true and beautiful for which we long is in reality infinite in perfection, being none other than the Goodness, Truth and Beauty of the infinite God Himself. This is the great truth we have now to examine, the nature of that Heaven, placed before us by divine revelation, when it bids us ever to incline our hearts to keep God s justifications, because of the reward. What, then, do we mean by Heaven, and what does our faith teach us about it?
Heaven is the beautiful dwelling place of the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, the everlasting home prepared from before the foundation of the world for those of God's creatures who should be found worthy of a share in its blessedness. Its gates were first thrown open when the trial of the angels was accomplished and the light of the vision of God burst upon the intelligences of those who had persevered. But they, like God Himself, were purely spiritual, and therefore we may say that it was not until our Blessed Lord ascended from the Mount of Olives and enthroned His human nature at the right hand of the Father, that Heaven became, as He Himself described it, and as we now love to think of it, the many mansions of our Father's house. Where in the mighty universe this land of happiness may lie we do not know, for God has not revealed it to us; but it would be a great mistake to hastily conclude that therefore we know nothing, and that all that we can say is purely fanciful. Though, for His own good reasons, God has left us ignorant as to where it is, He tells us clearly what it is, and from the high mountain of revealed truth, as from another Nebo, we can see the promised land; and no matter how many years of wandering in the desert lie before us, we can, whenever we wish, refresh our wearied hearts and spur on our lagging footsteps, by turning our eyes towards that world of happiness where God will be all in all.
The very first truth impressed upon the minds of her children by the Catholic Church is that God has created us to His own likeness, marking our souls with the seal of His own adorable image that we might know and understand the purpose of our creation, that we might realize our own great task of living for Him and for His glory, and so give back to God the things that are God's. It is in this likeness or resemblance to its Creator that the perfection of the rational creature consists, being gradually worked out and developed in this life and only finished and completed when the veil is drawn aside and the soul sees its Maker face to face. "When He shall appear," says the apostle, "we shall be like unto Him, because we shall see Him as He is." For this resemblance to God consists in knowing Him and loving Him, according to our limited capabilities, as He knows and loves Himself; and hence we see at once that it can only be found in the intellectual part of our nature, since it is only by means of our intellectual powers that we are capable of knowledge and love. But for the sake of clearness, we may distinguish in it three grades of intensity.
All men are capable of knowing and loving their Creator, because all possess the same human nature, made up of a body and a reasonable soul, and this aptitude or capability constitutes the first grade, which St. Thomas justly calls the likeness of nature. But many souls have more. In them, the divine resemblance deepens into what the Angelic Doctor calls the likeness of grace, and this consists, as we have seen in our former conferences, in that habitual union with God which supposes and is based upon the more or less intimate knowledge and love existing in souls made beautiful by faith, hope and charity. In this world, however, for many obvious reasons, it cannot attain its full perfection, and hence there remains the likeness of glory, which is to be the reward of God's servants in the life to come. We want to see the full significance of this and the manner of its accomplishment.
We said that this likeness of the soul to God was the groundwork of its perfection, and that it was to be found in the intellectual powers of the soul. This is equally the case whether we are speaking of the likeness of nature or the likeness of grace; and it is a truth which we learnt in the pages of our Catechism, when we were taught to recognize the divine likeness in our soul in its triple power of understanding, memory and will. But because glory, like grace, far from destroying nature, really and truly perfects it, we must apply the same teaching to the life of the soul in the world to come, and we shall find that the ultimate perfection which it there attains consists in the perfection of these same intellectual powers, for there God Himself gives to the understanding the fullness of light, the fullness of peace to the will and to the memory the fullness of eternity.
In Heaven, God will be to the mind the fullness of light. What do we mean by this? "While we are in the body," says St. Paul, "we are pilgrims from the Lord." We are separated from Him who is our last end, exiles from our Father's house, wanderers in a foreign land. This is a truth borne in upon us by the beautiful things of this world which surround us on every side, no less than by the many sorrows and miseries of which we were just now speaking. For when God made the world, He blessed it, because He saw that it was good; and though man's sin provoked His curse and covered the earth with the thorns and briars of suffering, yet it was not wholly spoiled. It is not all sorrow and misery. To quote once more the eloquent writer already referred to:
Who of us can truly say of our lives that the evil was greater than the good? That the gladness was less than the grief? For every tear that starts to the eye, our lips have worn a thousand smiles. Love and friendship, and little children, fields and flowers, sea and sky, sunshine and starlight, have made life glad and beautiful.
But all these things are meant to lead us on to God. By their very beauty, their varied perfections, their attractiveness, they speak to us of Him who formed and fashioned them, and gave them to us, the divine, almighty Artist, the tender Father, whose goodness and beauty they so faintly shadow forth. Sadness and sorrow and the many wearinesses of life drive us to God; the joys and pleasures of earth are meant to draw us to Him. We cannot rest in them, even if we try, for we were not made for them, beautiful as they may be, but for Him who is reflected in them. Hence St. Paul says so justly that we see God now as in a looking-glass, and that cannot satisfy us, nor shall we ever be satisfied until His glory shall appear and we stand face to face with the Creator of all, for in that clear vision of Him, and in that alone, can we find perfect happiness.
To prove this same great truth, St. Thomas lays down two most certain principles:
Man is never perfectly happy as long as one unsatisfied desire remains within his soul, and then, in the next place, the perfection of every faculty is always in proportion to its attainment of its object.
From these two principles, the Angelic Doctor concludes that man's ultimate and perfect happiness can be nothing less than the unclouded vision of God, for, he argues, if our intellect be cognizant of some effect, without knowing anything of its cause beyond its mere existence, it must necessarily desire a fuller knowledge and endeavor to obtain it, since its perfection depends upon the completeness with which it apprehends its object. Hence, to know the created things around us, and yet to know nothing of their Creator save the bare fact of His existence, would make real happiness impossible. The mind demands and necessarily requires a full and perfect knowledge of the first great cause, and in this knowledge of its Maker and the union with Him which it implies, finds perfect happiness. This, and nothing less than this, is the attainment of its last end, the satisfaction of all its desires, and therefore theologians call it the "Beatific Vision," or the sight that makes us happy.
The "Beatific Vision," then, which makes heaven what it is, is nothing less than the sight of God face to face; that is to say, it is an intellectual act by which the soul attains its last end, and, having attained it, is filled with the joy of possessing it; and our Blessed Lord Himself would seem to impress this wonderful truth upon us when He asserts so solemnly:
This is eternal life, to know Thee, the true God.
In this life we know God by faith; but in eternity, when "that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away," and "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." When we were speaking of faith, we showed that, since all supernatural truth is of its very nature far beyond the reach of a created mind unless its natural powers be supplemented by divine assistance, it was necessary that God should give to the mind that supernatural help we call the "light of faith" - a "light" because it manifests; a "light of faith" because the truths so manifested put forward no intrinsic evidence. But in Heaven, all is changed. The veils that tried us so much in this life are drawn aside, the deepest mysteries are made clear, they flood the mind with the brightness of their evidence, and faith is lost in knowledge. Yet human nature is not changed. Its powers are ever finite, and God is infinite, and therefore, in the place of faith, another supernatural help is given which we call the "light of glory." By this most wonderful gift, the mind of man is lifted up and strengthened, and so endowed with power from on high, that the poor trembling soul may gaze upon the unveiled glory of God, the eternal fountain of all life and all knowledge, hitherto hidden in light unapproachable, and man sees God and lives!
But we cannot know God and see His infinite perfections without instantly cleaving to Him, and preferring Him above all things, and hence the immediate consequence of the vision of God is an unending act of love. To see God face to face and not love Him would be as impossible as to pass in to a glowing furnace and not feel the heat. In this life, it is very different. By the fall of our first parents, not to speak of our own repeated falls, our wills have become weakened, and a sad experience teaches us that, though our conscience may tell us what is right, our poor weak wills may turn to what is wrong, and as long as life lasts, so long will this struggle continue, and always shall we lean to sin and evil, and always shall we shrink from duty and from good. But the vision of God will change all this, and God will be to the will the fullness of peace. The instant that the light of God's countenance is signed upon us, our wills are made perfect, and forsaking for ever all that is unworthy of them, they cleave at once and for ever to the good that is eternal. Our freedom is not destroyed, but rather made complete and perfect, and what God wills, as He wills it, and because He wills it, becomes the delight of the soul. Moreover, in the light of the Beatific Vision the soul sees the love of God for His creatures, and the sight and perfect knowledge of that love, unutterable and eternal, at once wins back such a return of love, that her strong immortal life would break with its intensity, were such a thing possible, when the vision is even then confirming her in her immortality. To know God, to love God, to possess God, her gratitude is summed up and expressed in that inspired cry of the Psalmist:
Thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever.
For ever! God will be to the memory the fullness of eternity! The soul sees that God's love will never change, that it cannot change. It cannot change, because such a privation would be a punishment which an all-just God could never inflict except because of sin, and sin is impossible to the soul that has once gazed on the beauty of the all-beautiful God. Its happiness is, therefore, eternal. The soul sees that she can never fall away from God; she sees that God can never abandon her, and so her joy is made full and will endure for ever. Millions and millions of ages will pass in that beautiful kingdom of light, but they can bring no cloud to the bright sunshine of that joy. And it is a joy which never palls, a happiness which never wearies. The soul is never used to it, never tired of it, never loses anything of its first unspeakable delight. The rapture of the first moment endures for all eternity, as long as God shall be God.
But this is not all! A day must come when the body and soul are once more united, and we profess our firm faith in this truth and our longing hope for it in the closing words of the Creed: "I believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting." It was this same faith and hope which supported Job, as we have already pointed out:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that at the last day I shall rise out of the earth and be clothed again with my body, and in my flesh I shall see my God, this my hope is laid up in my bosom.
The effects of the vision of God on the soul overflow on the body, and confer upon it also the most wonderful gifts, so wonderful as to appear almost a new nature. St. Paul describes them to us:
It is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory; it is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power; it is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body.
Let us see what these gifts imply. Whilst we live in this world we are under the law of suffering, for our bodies are corruptible of their very nature, and a day must come when the health and strength of which we are sometimes so proud must forsake us utterly, and we shall die.
The dust returns to the earth from whence it came, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
But when the time of reunion comes, when the trumpet sounds and the dead rise again:
We shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality; and when this mortal hath put on immortality then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory! Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?
The second gift of which St. Paul speaks is that of brightness or "glory." When our Savior on the mountain top allowed the glory which was in His soul to transfigure His mortal body, we are told that His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as snow, and He Himself has assured us that, in like manner, the bodies of the just shall "shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father." But brightness and beauty imply a further gift.
There may be some few people in this world whose lines of life have fallen in pleasant places, and who hardly know the meaning of incessant hard work and its consequent weariness; but for the great majority of our race, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, whose life from morning till night is one long round of toil, what comfort and consolation in this thought! "It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power." To go where we will, to do what we like, as though we shared in some mysterious way in God's omnipotence and immensity, and yet never to feel the burden of fatigue or the lassitude that spoils the most enthralling pleasure.
And then, lastly, "it is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body." When our Lord rose from the dead, there was no need to roll away the stone that covered the mouth of the tomb. His glorified body passed through it as the rays of the sun pass through the clear crystal. So also when the disciples had closed and barred the doors of the upper room, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and it was His own real Self and not a mere phantom.
Touch Me, and see, it is I Myself. A spirit hath not flesh and bones as I have.
And this gift also is bestowed on those who have won for themselves a place in the kingdom of God.
There are many other thoughts over which we might linger, for the subject is and ought to be attractive to those who are looking forward to the coming of this kingdom, even as home-sick exiles love to think about the beauties of their fatherland. The endowment of the glorified bodies of the just with these gifts revealed to us by St. Paul, necessarily implies powers of enjoyment which we can hardly imagine. The pleasures of sense here in this world are innocent in themselves and in no way against God's law. But they sometimes seem to be the means of making us forget God's law, because of their strange power. They intoxicate the mind and heart, and even seem to dominate free-will itself. In Heaven, they will exist in all their intensity, and to surrender ourselves to their uttermost delights will be an act of highest worship and perfection.
Then there is the joy which arises from the company of the blessed. Love is the best, most perfect, most absorbing of all earthly joys and at the same time the most God-like, for "God is love." What must be the bliss of an unending life amongst unnumbered millions of perfect beings, loving each one of them, and being loved in return with a love surpassing all possibilities of earthly love. Yet we do not love, nor are we loved by all alike. The natural affections of earth are not extinguished by the happiness of heaven. On the contrary, they are intensified in every way, and what a joy to be with those we loved so dearly when on earth and to realize that another separation is impossible. The partings of earth are bitter, and sometimes cast a shadow on the soul which never seems to lift, but the deeper the shadow and the more complete our loneliness, the brighter is our gladness and our joy when once again we meet those whom we have lost.
For ever and for ever we shall dwell with them amongst that multitude that no man can number, now rejoicing at the dazzling glory of those chosen souls that follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, now exulting in the magnificence of the martyrs with their crimson robes dyed in their own blood, now wondering at those stars of heaven, the teachers of God's people, of whom Holy Scripture declares that they shall shine with the brightness of the firmament, and as the stars for all eternity, because they have instructed many unto justice.
"Shew us the Father," said the Apostle St. Philip; "Lord, shew us the Father, and it is enough." Shew us the Father! Take away the veil that hides from us the face of God, and then, and not till then, the infinite void in our hearts will be filled! The world goes on its way, and the way of the world is evil. False Christs and false prophets abound everywhere, and they are ever seeking to turn man away from his true end. They would try to persuade him that his happiness is in riches, in pleasures, in an equal distribution of power, in education, in himself, for there is a fashionable religion now-a-days which dethrones the all-perfect and eternal God for a vague and pitiful deity called "humanity"! But it is all in vain; God gave us our nature and our nature cannot change; and those who listen to these false teachers only turn away in disappointment, and wander hither and thither crying out in the bitterness of an unsatisfied heart: Quis ostendit nobis bona! Who will show us any good? Only the Catholic faith can give an answer, and its answer is ever the same: God made man to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him for ever in the next. We see the same great truth solemnly affirmed by the Savior of the world Himself, when He had finished His work on earth, and for the last time gathered around Him His faithful friends and disciples to hear His words of farewell:
As the Father hath loved Me, I also have loved you. Abide in My love. If you keep My commandments you shall abide in My love, as I also have kept My Father's commandments and do abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you and your joy may be filled.
And what was this joy of which He spoke and which He called "His joy," because so utterly beyond all reach of sorrow? It was the joy of His soul in the vision of the Godhead, the joy which He promised them and all His faithful servants when He said:
I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you. [...] Father, I will, that where I am, they also whom Thou hast given Me may be with Me, that they may see My glory which Thou hast given Me, because Thou hast loved Me before the creation of the world.
A few more words, and we have done. The very glory of heaven should fill us with fear and trembling. If the reward were less, it might seem more easy to deserve, more easy to obtain! But it is so infinitely great, and so easy to miss, and if it be missed? But it must not be missed; we must make up our minds to fight on until the end. The harder the struggle, the more chance of success, if only we fight on bravely and perseveringly, for we serve a good Master, in whose eyes effort seems to count for victory. How can this earth have any real hold upon our hearts when heaven is placed before us? How can joys and pleasures, which at the best endure but for a day, make us risk a happiness which is eternal? As Catholics nay, as reasonable beings we should be ready to despise all, to risk all, to sell all in order to buy this pearl of great price, eternal life in the kingdom of God. Once we have made up our minds to this, life must be happy because it is the way to God, and death must be welcome because it comes to us as His messenger, changing into fruition the "hope that is laid up in our bosom," and dispelling for ever the shadows of earth with words that are the revelation of heaven:
The Master is here, and calleth thee.