By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante are the most famous among the many theologians who have speculated about the nature of Heaven.
While they certainly could not speak from personal experience while standing on this side of death, they rightly emphasized that our perpetual vision of God must be based on our capacity to receive that infinite reality.
Often described in terms of light, the radiance of God’s essence is so overwhelming to the human mind that we could absorb but a tiny sliver of that blinding light. Yet our eternal souls were made to experience this very vision; we were created, after all, to enjoy the love and knowledge of God, sharing in the eternal relationship of love between the Son and the Father sealed by the Holy Spirit. The holy ones yearn for that direct sight of God while veiled by the life of the flesh.
Hints of that beatific vision are given frequently in the Scriptures. The most popular image of eternal bliss is a wedding banquet, a great feast in which the joy of one person attending multiplies the joys for everyone else. An overlooked testimony about Heaven is the narration of Moses’ encounters with the Lord on Mount Sinai. After receiving the Law on the mountaintop, Moses’ face is so transfigured with the divine luminosity as he descends that he must veil himself in the presence of the Israelites. He had conversed with God “face to face, as one person speaks with another” (Exodus 33:11), and he mediates that unique experience to the people he has led out of Egypt.
Just a few verses later, however, in response to Moses’ request to see the fullness of His glory, the Lord replies, “But my face you cannot see, for no one sees me and still lives” (Exodus 33:20). Moses is thus given privileged access to God, a glimpse into the divine Face reserved for those who cross the threshold of death and enter the blessed state of Heaven- but his vision is only a finite fraction of the infinite God.
God grants this privilege to Moses that he might mediate that blinding light, that divine presence, to the Israelites. The earthly vocation of the saints is highlighted here: they channel the overwhelming love of God to people capable of receiving only a portion of that love, intercede for those mired in sin or despairing of God’s help, stand in the breach left by the ravages of infidelity or indifference, and fight on God’s behalf so that others may be emboldened to do the same, sanctifying themselves in the process.
The death of God’s holy ones, of course, is only the beginning of true life, for they will see God “as He is” (1 John 3:2), to the full satisfaction of their souls’ capacity to take in the immensity of uncreated light. Though their joy is in no way affected by our desire to join them, they nevertheless desire to share their vision of God with us. They no longer suffer (passio), but they do extend their compassion (compassio) to us so that their joy may be ours. For that reason, the saints are powerful intercessors as we make our way down the road they have already traveled. We likewise owe prayers and encouragement to those souls who still stand in need of final purification, of that ultimate opening of their eyes to receive the fullness of heavenly light God wishes to give them.
The feasts of All Saints and All Souls fall together every year as a reminder that the divine life of Heaven is for everyone, and that the salvation of one can and should spark the desire of all for that same salvation. Everyone is created to be a saint; every eye is meant to be filled with the light proper to it, whether earthly or heavenly. The example of the saints, who shine with the reflected glory of the Lord, must illumine our own spiritual eyes so that we might desire that same ability to enkindle and enlighten those who still walk in the valley of darkness and the shadow of death.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.