saint peter, fisherman, st peter, peter

Contemplating Heaven – Our Ultimate Goal

saint peter, fisherman, st peter, peterA life without goals risks losing its meaning and purpose. If we do not have something we are aiming for, then life can easily become like a broken compass that just spins without direction. We may find our self in stagnation, boredom or complacency. Lacking goals, we can be tempted to make decisions based merely on whims or desires rather than on considering what is best to achieve our highest potential. But if we set goals, especially ones that excite us, not only are we more determined and happier, we are even willing to make great sacrifices to achieve them.

This also applies to our spiritual life where our ultimate aim is heaven and perfect union with God. Heaven should always be our true north and we should keep this goal as the central focus of our lives. And, while it is beneficial to reflect on the reality of hell as the end we want to avoid, it is even more essential that we contemplate heaven, so our hearts will yearn for God and be constantly moved to make the sacrifices God asks of those who love him.

Visions of Heaven

But in contemplating heaven, too often I have heard people describe a vision of heaven that is frankly uninspiring. When I have asked people what they think life in heaven will be like, the extent of the descriptions I am often given is that we will be in the clouds with the angels and Saints, meditating on God continuously while joyfully singing chants such as “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” or “Alleluia” endlessly. For me, if this is as far as the imagination can go, as excited as I am to be with the blessed in the presence of God, this image is dull, boring and unstimulating. But fortunately, from what has been revealed to us and what the Church has handed down, there is so much more awaiting us in heaven than simply this! Heaven is a far more awe-inspiring and inconceivable place than we may realize, and reflecting on this incredible gift God offers us all may help as we strive to run the race set before us and persevere in grace (Philippians 3:14; 1 Corinthians 9:24).

Heaven – not merely a spiritual realm

In his book The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, Father Martin von Cochem explains that heaven is not purely a spiritual realm. Evidence for this is that Jesus Christ is present there in his glorified humanity and is with his mother Mary, assumed body and soul. Additionally, all humanity – both the good and the wicked – will experience the resurrection of the bodies (reuniting them with our souls) on the Last Day. Those who will be given the gift of heaven will be with God for all eternity, with the glorified body united to the soul.

Heaven and our glorified bodies

As we ponder about heaven, it can be helpful to consider what the glorified bodies of the blessed in heaven will be like after the resurrection. We cannot fathom how magnificent the transformation of the bodies will be, but tradition tells us these glorified bodies will have four qualities that will be unique from our earthly experiences: clarity (or beauty), impassibility, agility, and subtlety.

We will not lose our identity yet we will be remarkably changed in our appearance. These bodies will possess a beauty that we cannot imagine. All will have a dazzling refulgence. They will receive the gift of impassibility which means they will not be capable of suffering, pain, sickness, aging or other forms of misery. As Father Cochem describes it, the body “will never again be inconvenienced by hunger or thirst, by heat or cold, by draught or dampness…it will be immortal…with perfect health and with unfailing strength.” The body will also have agility, which is the ability to move anywhere at the speed of thought without difficulty. Lastly, the glorified bodies will have the gift of subtlety. As Father Cochem says, the body will be able to penetrate all matter at will: “No wall is so thick, no iron gate so massive, no mountain so great as to form an obstacle.” These gifts given to the bodies will bring great consolation to the blessed in heaven and will be a source of rejoicing.

Heaven and the infinite pleasures of our five senses

In heaven, our entire being will be filled with supreme joy and happiness. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae [Supplement, Q.82, article 4], discusses how even our senses will be rewarded. We can meditate more on heaven by considering what this could mean.

Our sense of sight will be without deficits. We will see Jesus in his magnificence and Mary in her resplendent beauty. We will gaze upon the splendor of the other Saints in heaven with their captivating, glorified bodies. To begin to even fathom what our visions will be like in heaven, consider the breathtaking things seen on earth, such as spectacular waterfalls, radiant sunsets and stunning gardens, which merely give us a tiny glimpse of heaven.

Our sense of hearing will enjoy the phenomenal celestial hymns of the angels with the other Saints praising God unceasingly. The sounds will provide us with wellsprings of great elation. Our sense of smell will be welcomed with aromas that eclipse any of our experiences on earth. If we had even one momentarily scent from heaven, we would experience unimaginable bliss. And Father Cochem expounds, “For if sweet odors refresh and revive us here below, the odors of paradise will surely give strength and refreshment to the blessed.”

Even though we will have no need to eat or drink in heaven, our sense of taste will be fully satisfied. Though we can only speculate, I envision that letting a drop of honey rest on my tongue does not even begin to rival the sweet joys we will savor in heaven. As to our sense of touch, Father Cochem, quoting St. Anselm, writes, “In the future life the saints will experience a feeling of untold comfort and ease. This pleasurable sensation will pervade every member, producing a wondrous sense of peace and contentment.” In heaven, there will be no pain, no wounds and no afflictions, so the sense of touch will convey pure tranquility and euphoria.

Heaven – The perfection of our memory, intellect and will

In heaven, Father Cochem illustrates, “All the powers of the mind, the understanding, the memory, the will, the imagination, every thought, every desire, the whole intellectual being, elevated and perfected by God Himself, will be fully satisfied…” Our thoughts will be able to explore the past, see how all things were created, be amazed at God’s providence and deeply penetrate the mysteries of the faith. A rich treasury of knowledge will be opened, and we will grow in our understanding of God and of his creations for all eternity. Regardless of the knowledge, we acquired on earth, we will receive a fount of boundless wisdom. As to our memory, Father Cochem suggests it “will be enlightened by God” and “all the events of their past life will be as fresh and as distinct to their remembrance as if they beheld them inscribed on tablets before their eyes.” We will become aware of the many ways God intervened in our lives through the angels and other people, and we will see the outpouring of graces we were given by our loving Father.

As to the perfection of our will, all that our hearts long for will be fully satisfied. And, united to God’s own will, our desires will be pure reflections of the desires of God. The love we will encounter will be the purest and intense – it will be inconceivably wondrous. Father Cochem writes, “The love of God for them, and their love of Him is so profound, that they are inflamed and consumed with divine charity…” We will love God and all of those in heaven perfectly and, as a result, will experience immeasurable happiness, joy, and peace.

The Social Joys of Heaven

We were made for communion not only with God but also with our fellowmen. As social creatures, we do not welcome loneliness, so we can imagine that in heaven, this desire for relationships will not go unfulfilled. In the book The Happiness of Heaven, Father J. Boudreau writes:

Social intercourse with our fellow beings affords us some of our purest joys in this world; yet they are not, and never can be perfect. They are roses with cruel thorns, that wound and make us bleed, almost as often as they delight us with their delicious perfumes…Because our hearts are wounded, perhaps crushed…Even our holiest actions are criticized…our best friends, may betray us…Let us now raise our eyes to our heavenly home, and there contemplate a life of the purest and most perfect social pleasures. There, neither selfishness, nor uncharitableness, nor any unruly passion can exist, and consequently, our social joys will never be mingled with the gall of bitterness.

In heaven, we will delight in the felicity of our relationships with the Saints and angels, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, the guardian angel who accompanied us on earth and our patron Saints. The citizens of heaven will enjoy each other’s company which will intensify the joys of heaven. We will encounter each other clothed in unique radiance and beauty communicated with God. We will learn from each other and see how God’s graces transformed the lives of others. We will have mutual charity and a love that is sincere, tender, perfect and pure. And, when we encounter all those whom we loved deeply on earth, this will be a source of greater joy. Our love for these family members and friends, as strong as it may have been before death, will be of an indescribable intensity in heaven.

Heaven and the Beatific Vision

As elating as the description of heaven thus far may be, these delights of the senses and social joys are not the source of our chief happiness in heaven. The most inexpressible pleasures, joys, and happiness will be seeing God himself. We will be able to see God ‘face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12) and we will ‘see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2) – which is what we refer to as the Beatific Vision.

The Catholic dictionary defines the Beatific Vision as:

The intuitive knowledge of God which produces heavenly beatitude. As defined by the Church, the souls of the just “see the divine essence by an intuitive vision and face to face, so that the divine essence is known immediately, showing itself plainly, clearly and openly, and not immediately through any creature” (Denzinger 1000-2). Moreover, the souls of the saints “clearly behold God, one and triune, as He is” (Denzinger 1304-6). It is called vision in the mind by analogy with bodily sight, which is the most comprehensive of human sense faculties; it is called beatific because it produces happiness in the will and the whole being. As a result of this immediate vision of God, the blessed share in the divine happiness, where the beatitude of the Trinity is (humanly speaking) the consequence of God’s perfect knowledge of his infinite goodness. The beatific vision is also enjoyed by the angels, and was possessed by Christ in his human nature even while he was in his mortal life on earth. (Etym. Latin beatificus, beatific, blissful, imparting great happiness or blessedness; from beatus, happy.)

In our vision of God, Father Boudreau explains, “…the intellect – which is the noblest faculty of the soul – is suddenly elevated by the light of glory, and enabled to see God as he is, by a clear and unclouded perception of his divine essence.” The Beatific Vision also produces ineffable love, joy, and happiness in the soul. Additionally, we understand this to encompass the reality that God unites our entire being to himself perfectly. As Father Boudreau explains:

…God unites the soul to Himself in so wonderful and intimate a manner, that, without losing her created nature or personal identity, she is transformed into God, according to the forcible expression of St. Peter, when he asserts that we are ‘made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4)…This illustrates what takes place in the Beatific Vision in relation to the soul. She is united to God, and penetrated by Him. She becomes bright with His brightness, beautiful with His beauty, pure with His purity, happy with His unutterable happiness, and perfect with His divine perfections.

Our Heavenly Goal

In heaven, we will be inebriated with unspeakable joy. Sleep will never come as it will not be necessary. Our souls will be stilled in the presence of God, and our restless hearts will finally be at rest. There will be no sorrow, pain or suffering. The greatest desires of our hearts will be satisfied beyond measure. We will rejoice without end with the angels and Saints. We will be able to contemplate the face of God forever.

However, as marvelous as all these images of heaven may be, the fact is that heaven is truly indescribable. St. Paul tells us, “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). So, these meditations of heaven fall short of reality. Despite this, heaven is the ultimate goal of our lives, so my hope is that these inadequate descriptions may be sources of inspiration, motivating us to cooperate more fervently with God’s grace so that we can have a more ardent love, a deeper faith, and a truly humble obedience. And I pray we will all persevere in grace so that we are enabled to receive this wondrous gift.