"God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able."

St Augustine

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"Obedience is the true holocaust which we sacrifice to God on the altar of our hearts."

St Philip Neri

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"A person who rails at God in adversity, suffers without merit; moreover by his lack of resignation he adds to his punishment in the next life and experiences greater disquietude of mind in this life."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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PART 5 - The Unitive Way of the Perfect

EPILOGUE (cont)
 

II

THE BEATIFIC VISION AND ITS NORMAL PRELUDE

At the beginning of this work, (1) we stated that the life of grace is the beginning of eternal life, according to the traditional formula: "Grace is the seed of glory." It is essentially the same life in its basis, in spite of two differences: here on earth we know God only in the obscurity of faith, not in the evidence of vision, and although we hope to possess Him inamissibly some day, we can while on earth lose Him by mortal sin. In spite of these two differences relating to faith and hope, it is the same essentially supernatural life: sanctifying grace, received in the very essence of the soul, and infused charity, received in the will, should last forever, and with them the infused moral virtues and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. The summit of the normal development of the life of grace is, therefore, the beatific vision received after death. By way of conclusion, we shall briefly discuss this vision of heaven and its normal prelude on earth in the truly purified soul.

THE ABSOLUTELY IMMEDIATE VISION OF THE DIVINE ESSENCE

We shall sum up here what St. Thomas teaches on this point in the Summa. (2)

If God had created us in a purely natural state with a mortal body and an immortal soul, but without the supernatural life of grace, even then our last end, our beatitude, would have consisted in knowing God and loving Him above all else, for our intellect is made to know the truth, and especially the supreme Truth, and our will is made to love and will good, and especially the sovereign Good.

If we had been created without the supernatural life of grace, the final reward of the just would have been to know God and to love Him, but they would have known Him only from without, so to speak, by the reflection of His perfections in creatures, as the greatest philosophers of antiquity knew Him. Without a doubt, we would have known Him in a more certain manner without admixture of errors, but by abstract knowledge, through the intermediary of things and of limited concepts in the mirror of creatures. We would have known God as the first cause of spirits and bodies, and we would have enumerated His infinite perfections known analogically by their reflection in the created order. Our ideas of the divine attributes would have remained, we have said, like squares of mosaic incapable of reproducing perfectly the spiritual physiognomy of God without hardening it. This abstract and mediate knowledge would have let many obscurities subsist, in particular in regard to the intimate harmonizing of the divine perfections. We would always have asked ourselves how infinite goodness and the divine permission of evil are able to harmonize, how infinite justice and infinite mercy can accord intimately. The human intellect would not have been able to forbear saying: If I could only see this God, who is the source of all truth and goodness, of the life of creatures, and of intellects and wills! This desire would have remained conditional and inefficacious if we had been created in a purely natural state.

But, in reality, the infinite mercy of God has raised us to supernatural life, whose full flowering is called not only the future life, but eternal life, because it is measured by the single instant of immobile eternity. Preaching the beatitudes at the very beginning of His ministry, our Lord tells us: "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven." (3) To the Samaritan woman He says: "He that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst forever; but the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting." (4) In His sacerdotal prayer, Christ says: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (5) St. Paul explains this statement to us by saying: "We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known." (6)And St. John adds: "We shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is." (7)

The Church has defined that this revealed doctrine means an immediate vision of the divine essence without the intermediary of any creature previously known.(8) In other words, by the gaze of our intellect supernaturally strengthened by the light of glory, we shall see God better than we see with our eyes of flesh the persons with whom we speak, for we shall see Him clearly as an object closer to us than we are to ourselves. Here on earth we know especially what God is not: we know that He is not material, changing, limited; we shall then see Him as He is in His Deity, in His infinite essence, in His intimate life common to the three Persons. Grace is a participation of this essence and life since it will give us to see Him thus immediately as He sees Himself, to love Him as He loves Himself, to live eternally by Him.

St. Thomas explains this revealed doctrine by stating (9) that between God and us there will not be even the intermediary of an idea, for no created idea can represent such as it is in itself, the pure, intellectual, eternally subsistent being that is God and His infinite truth, or His limitless love. We shall not be able to express our contemplation by any word, even by any interior word, just as a man is rendered incapable of speech when absorbed by the sight of a sublime and indescribable spectacle.

This immediate vision of the divine essence immensely surpasses all the created concepts of the divine perfections that we can have here on earth. We are called to see all the divine perfections intimately harmonized, identified in the eminence of the Deity, or the inner life of God; to see how the tenderest mercy and the most inflexible justice proceed from one and the same infinitely generous and infinitely holy love, from an eternal love of the supreme Good, which is, to be sure, intimately diffusive of self (the principle of mercy), but which also has a right to be loved above all (the principle of justice). We shall see how mercy and justice are united in all the works of God, how eternal love is identical with the sovereign good always loved, how divine wisdom is identical with the first truth always known, and how all these perfections harmonize and are but one in the very essence of Him who is.

We shall also see the infinite fecundity of the divine nature in the three divine Persons; the eternal generation of the Word, "splendor of the Father and figure of His substance." We shall gaze upon the ineffable procession of the Holy Ghost, term of the common love of the Father and of the Son, the bond uniting Them eternally in the most absolute diffusion of Themselves. The supreme Being is essentially diffusive of Itself in the intimate life of God, and freely bestows Its riches by means of creation and by our gratuitous elevation to the life of grace. Thus will be verified St. Paul's words: "Whom He foreknew, He also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of His Son; that He might be the first-born amongst many brothers." (10) From all eternity God has an only Son to whom He communicates all His divine nature; He gives Him to be "God of God, light of light." He has willed to have other sons, adopted sons, to whom He communicates a participation in His nature, sanctifying grace in the essence of their souls, and from this grace proceed in their higher faculties the light of glory and inamissible charity. Thus, St. Thomas says, "by the incarnation of the Son we receive adoptive sonship in the likeness of His natural sonship." (11)

We shall also contemplate immediately the intimate and indissoluble union of the person of the Word and of the humanity of the Savior. We shall see thereby all the splendor of the divine maternity of Mary, of her mediation, the price of the salvation of souls, and the unlimited riches of these words so quickly uttered: "The eternal life of the elect."

No one can tell the joy that will be born in us of this absolutely immediate vision, which will be like a spiritual fusion of our soul, of our intellect, and of the divine essence, an uninterrupted transforming union, an intimate and perfect communion that nothing will ever be able to lessen. The love which will result from this vision will be so pure and strong a love of God that nothing will ever be able to diminish it. This love will be sovereignly spontaneous, but no longer free; it will be superior to liberty, ravished by the sovereign Good. By this love we shall rejoice especially that God is God, infinitely holy, just, and merciful; we shall adore all the decrees of His providence in view of the manifestation of His goodness, and we shall subordinate ourselves completely to Him. We shall enter into His beatitude, according to the words of our Savior in the parable of the talents: "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." (12)

We can form some idea of the activity of the saints in heaven by the radiation of their lives on earth, such as it appears, for example, in our day in the numerous graces obtained through the intercession of Mary in the sanctuary at Lourdes, or through the prayer of a St. Teresa of Lisieux.

THE NORMAL AND IMMEDIATE PRELUDE OF THE BEATIFIC VISION

If sanctifying grace is the seed of eternal life in us, what follows as a result? First of all, that sanctifying grace, called "the grace of the virtues and the gifts," is "much more excellent," as St. Thomas says,(13) than the graces gratis datae, like the gift of miracles, that of tongues, or prophecy which announces a contingent event. These graces are, so to speak, exterior; they give us signs of the divine life, but they are not themselves the divine life shared in us.

Now, it is from the grace of the virtues and the gifts received by all at baptism, and not from graces gratis datae and extraordinary graces that, as we have seen, the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith proceeds. This contemplation is an act of living faith, illumined by the gifts of understanding and wisdom. It is not, therefore, an essentially extraordinary favor like prophecy or the gift of tongues, but is found in the normal way of sanctity.

The truth of this conclusion becomes even more apparent if we observe that sanctifying grace, being essentially ordained to eternal life, is likewise ordained to the normal and immediate prelude of the beatific vision. Is not this prelude precisely the eminent exercise of infused faith illumined by the gifts of wisdom and understanding, that is, the infused contemplation of the divine goodness and its radiation, together with perfect charity and the ardent desire for the beatific vision? On earth this ardent desire is found in its full perfection only in the transforming union. Therefore this union does not appear to be outside the normal way of sanctity, especially if one considers, not so much a given individual soul, but the human soul and, in it, sanctifying grace considered in itself, as the seed of glory.

The ardent desire for God is only too rare on earth, even in consecrated souls; and yet if there is a good to which the Christian should ardently aspire, evidently it is the eternal possession of God. To attain it, he should desire an ever deeper faith, a firmer confidence, a purer and stronger love of God, virtues which are found precisely in the transforming union. Thus this union appears, in profoundly humble and fully purified souls, as the immediate prelude of the beatific vision. There must, in fact, be some proportion between the intensity of the desire and the value of the good desired; in this case the value of the good being infinite, it could not be too greatly desired. Consequently it is not fitting that this infinite good should be granted to a soul that does not yet desire it ardently. The more purified the soul is, the more it aspires to the possession of God, and if at death the soul's desire is not as ardent as it should be, this is a sign that it needs additional purification, that of purgatory.

The dogma of purgatory, then, throws a new light on the present question. Purgatory is a punishment which supposes a sin that could have been avoided and an insufficient satisfaction that could have been complete if we had better accepted the trials of the present life. It is certain that no one will be detained in purgatory except for sins he could have avoided or for negligence in making reparation for them. Therefore normally we should, like the saints, undergo our purgatory in this life while meriting, while growing in love, instead of after death without meriting.

Therefore sanctifying grace, which is of itself ordained to eternal life, is also ordained to such perfection that the soul may receive the light of glory immediately after death without passing through purgatory. This disposition to enter heaven immediately after death supposes a complete purification, analogous at least to that of souls that are about to leave purgatory and have a very ardent desire for God. According to St. John of the Cross, this complete purification is normally found on earth only in those who have courageously endured the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit, which prepare the soul for intimate union with God.(14) This reason confirms all that we have said and shows that the passive purifications are indeed in the normal way of sanctity, like the close union with God for which they prepare. Evident also is the degree of sanctity in question in the expression "the normal way of sanctity"; that sanctity is meant which permits the soul to enter heaven immediately after death.

Such is, we believe, the teaching of St. John of the Cross, which admirably preserves and explains the traditional doctrine on this point, in particular that of the great spiritual writers who preceded him. To grasp the meaning and import of this teaching, souls must doubtless be considered not only as they are, but as they should be. Now, it is the work proper to spirituality to remind souls incessantly of what they should be that they may go beyond what they are.

This lofty doctrine also conforms perfectly to what St. Thomas tells us not only about the nature of grace, the seed of glory, but also about the beatitudes and the imitation of Jesus Christ,(15) the virtues of the purified soul,(16) the higher degree of humility,(17) patience,(18) the spirit of faith,(19) confidence in God, and charity.(20)

St. Thomas, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and after them St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales (21) found this teaching in the fathers who spoke of the relations of contemplation and perfect love, in St. Paul himself, and in the Gospel. St. Paul delights in saying: "That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation [if it is well borne], worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory." (22) He gives us the ardent desire for it by reminding us that we have received the "pledge of the Spirit," (23) or the pledge and foretaste of eternal life. And our Lord Himself says to us: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. . . . Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (24) "He that hath My commandments and keepeth them; he it is that loveth Me. And he that loveth Me, shall be loved of My Father; and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him." (25) This secret manifestation of Christ to the faithful soul is truly the prelude of eternal life; it is found especially in the highest of the eight beatitudes: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers. . . . Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake." (26) These beatitudes are, says St. Thomas, the highest acts of the virtues and the gifts; there is in them "a kind of imperfect inchoation of future happiness." (27) Even here on earth, the fruits of these merits begin to appear, and they contain a savor of eternal life, or a foretaste of the joy of the elect.

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Footnotes
 
 
1. Vol. I, chap. I, pp. 29 f.

2. Cf. Ia, q. 12, a.1-13.

3. Matt. 5: 12.

4.  John 4: 13 f.

5. John 17: 3.

6. Cf. I Cor. 13: 12.

7. Cf. I John 3:2.

8. Denzinger, nos. 530, 693.

9. Cf. Ila, q. 12, a.2.

10. Rom. 8:29.

11. St. Thomas, IIIa, q. 3, a.5 ad 2um.

12. Matt. 25:23.

13. Ia IIae, q. III, a.5.

14. In The Dark Night of the Soul (Bk. II, chap. 20), St. John of the Cross says: "'Love works in such souls - they are few, and perfectly purified in this life - that which purgatory works in others in the next."

15. Cf. Ia IIae, q.69; In Matt. 5:3-13.

16. Cf. Ia IIae, q.61, a.5.

17. Cf. IIa IIae, q.161, a.6 ad 3um: "The appetite may even go as far as lovingly to embrace external abasement."

18. Cf. IIIa, q.46, a.4: "It was most fitting that Christ should suffer the death of the cross, first of all, as an example of virtue. For Augustine thus writes: . . . In order, then, that no kind of death should trouble an upright man."

19. Comm. in Ep. ad Hebraeos, 10: 1-40, "per totum."

20. Ibid.; also IIa IIae, q. 27; q.184, a. 3; Commn. in lib. Job, chaps. 1,7,21: "On the patience of the just in great tribulations."

21. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VI, chaps. 3-15; Bk. IX, chaps. 12-15.

22. See II Cor. 4: 17.

23. Ibid., 5:5.

24. John 7:37f.

25. John 14:21.

26. Matt. 5:8-10.

27. Summa, Ia IIae, q.69, a.2: "The hope of future happiness may be in us for two reasons: first, by reason of our having a preparation for, or a disposition to, future happiness; and this is by way of merit; secondly, by a kind of imperfect inchoation of future happiness in holy men, even in this life. For it is one thing to hope that the tree will bear fruit, when the leaves begin to appear, and another, when we see the first signs of the fruit."