What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9).
It is often observed that we as Catholics today don’t generally talk much about heaven, the goal of our salvation. Why are we not more prayerfully mindful of heaven, the very testament of our redemption? And how might we become so?
First, a summary of the Church’s basic teaching on heaven in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1023-1029):
Baptized souls – whether by water, blood, or desire – who believe in Jesus and die in the state of grace are immediately upon death and the “particular” judgment taken into heaven, perhaps by way of purgatory where they may need first to be purified of unexpiated sin. There they exist in blessedness until the “general” last judgment when their souls are reunited with their gloriously risen bodies.
The essence of heaven consists in a consummate, divinely bestowed knowledge of and communion with the Transcendent God: living in Him eternally, in absolute happiness, with the Mother of God and all the angels and saints – seeing Him as He is, face to Face, in the unutterable beatific vision. Free of sin and all infirmity, in perfect charity, the members of the Church Triumphant in heaven worship the Trinity, pray for us, the Church Militant, and reign with Christ forever, fully realizing their human identity.
Heaven is the “proof” of our salvation, but not the most important element of its story. We must comprehend the salvific plan as a coherent whole – as essentially enunciated in the Apostles’ Creed. We necessarily ponder and speak much of each of the Creed’s fundamental truths of our redemption, yet we do not reflect as pointedly and frequently on its last dogma: “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting” – the culmination of our redemption in the unalloyed peace, supreme liberty, and immortal bliss of heaven in the unfathomable Life of the Blessed Trinity.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey, 85% of American Catholics believe in heaven. Why would seven in eight Catholics acknowledge that there is a heaven but not pay more attention to it as the fulfilled promise of their salvation?
The Catechism states, “Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation. . . . The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory ‘the beatific vision’ ” (1028).
I propose that it is because of the literally mystifying prospect of heaven as preeminently an experience of the ineffable beatific vision – which the Catechism also characterizes as a “mystery . . . beyond all understanding and description” (1027) – that heaven is commonly regarded as beyond inquiry, or even uninteresting – which disaffection can, of course, be compounded by an attachment to the world and its material pleasures.
We tend not to think and speak, or even pray, about what is incomprehensible or unfamiliar to us, or what exceeds our powers of expression. While there are mystics who are given an ecstatic insight into the transcendent, they are never able to capture in words the supernal nature of that vision. The Apostle Paul epitomizes that inexpressible mystical moment: “I know a person in Christ . . . caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows . . . caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Cor. 12: 2,4).
Because we can neither comprehend nor describe the beatific, therefore, we tend to conceive of heaven in earthly terms, which has a certain validity and value in as much as heaven is a physical place – home to the bodies of Jesus and Mary. We aspire to hear heaven’s ethereal music, see its pristine waters, smell its unearthly flowers, breathe its rarified air, taste of its paradisic banquet – meet there in joy our family and friends (which we will). Transfigured as these natural phenomena may be in our imagination, still they are not the quintessence of heaven, nor do they satisfy our deepest desire.
Almost all the books of the Bible mention or allude to heaven, but they do not speak expressly or intimately of heaven as a consummate communion with the very God Who dwells there. They speak of heaven as a place of total fulfillment and devoid of tears, where the blest are rewarded, where all is transformed and imperishable – as God’s sublime abode.
Jesus Himself, Who refers to heaven dozens of times, specifically describes heaven just once, and then only metaphorically, using a common image: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). He says nothing about the beatific relationship of the saved with His Father. Even the Book of Revelation, abounding as it is with celestial spectacle, does not penetrate the personal beatitude of the elect embraced by transcendent Divinity – although St. John does say that his “servants” will “see his face” (Rev. 22:3,4).
If Jesus Himself and Holy Scripture say nothing directly or expressly about the beatific vision – and if St. Paul says we cannot – how can we presume to think, pray, and speak about heaven more knowingly?
Yet God – Who cryptically names Himself “I Am Who AM” – calls us to know Him. For as Jesus at the Last Supper said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). That knowledge of God, specifically of the Father transcendent, is identified by Jesus with “eternal life” – with heaven.
How, then, might we know, here and now, the “only true God” of heaven Whom we cannot perceive or imagine with our senses or apprehend with our reason?
St. Paul points the way: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Eph. 1:17-18). In effect, Paul acknowledges that one cannot receive this “spirit of wisdom and revelation” and “come to know Him,” unless, as the Catechism says, God “gives him the capacity for it” (1028), for which the Apostle prays – and for which we, too, must pray.
Coming to know in prayer the mystically Divine Essence is not the exclusive domain of practiced contemplatives. To pray, genuinely, is to be truly in the presence of God, however earthbound it may feel, with or without words, images, thoughts, or mystical transport – even if it consists of a pious recitation of formula devotions.
For inevitably, communing regularly with the Holy One brings one to an intimate – not necessarily an emotional or visionary – but to a supernaturally infused knowledge of Him in His inmost Being, which is inseparable from His beatific Presence. We do, therefore, meaningfully meet and know the transcendent God of heaven in prayer, and so we can and should deliberately reflect on, speak about, and advance in this knowledge as we aspire to heaven and motivate each other toward its realization.
Such a disposition St. Therese of Lisieux exemplifies: “Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love. . . .”
Mary, Gate of Heaven, pray that we might increasingly know what “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face,” (1 Cor. 13:12).