Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension, the Body, and the Beatific Vision

Today is the official date of the Feast of the Ascension. In some parts of the United States and in some other countries, the celebration has been moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, here in my home archdiocese of Boston, it is still celebrated today. This is the day that, in a certain sense - as Fr. Ventura said at the evening Mass tonight - sums up the reason we're Catholic: to go to Heaven. Jesus ascended into Heaven, and we hope to get there.

GK Chesterton made a similar statement once when he was asked why he was Catholic. Of course, his questioner was expecting some sort of theological reasoning, perhaps a historical reference, or even an emotional appeal to aesthetics or some such thing. However, in classic Chestertonian fashion, the author responded simply, "to get my sins forgiven."

So here we have to answers to the question of why we are Catholic. One is provided by today's celebration, and might be called the more positive of the two: we hope for Heaven! The second might be understood to be more negative, focusing on that which we hope to escape rather than that which we hope to gain. However, in the classic beauty of the Catholic faith, the reality is that the two answers are not really all that different at all, much less opposed as being two different ways of looking at something. In fact, in a certain sense they are very really the same answer precisely.

St. Augustine touched on this point in one of his sermons on the Ascension. He wrote,

"While in heaven [Christ] is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love."
The last statement really stuck out at me when I read it. We can be in Heaven - even now - by Love. This is really an astonishing statement. I'm sitting in a chair right now as I write this, and as much as I might try to love God, I certainly don't feel like I'm in Heaven. I'm in an orange basement, so far as my eyes tell me, and it seem quite far from Heaven, as you might imagine.

To explain this point further, Augustine speaks more specifically of Christ's incarnation, quoting John 3:13:

"He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven."
This statement is very though provoking. It could be the subject of a great deal of meditation. However, the reality is that its not that profound a statement, theologically speaking. It simply states a very basic theological statement, one which any student would learn in his first year of theology: Christ experienced the beatific vision from the first moment of His existence.

Now, the beatific vision is the very essence of Heaven. To be in Heaven, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, consists in"nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence" (ST, I-II, 3, 8). Heaven is - in all that it is - the state of knowing God. Christ states the same in John's Gospel: "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God..." (17:3)

So Christ was literally in Heaven while on earth, and St. Augustine says that we can be too, through Love. If you've noticed, however, I have been capitalizing "Love" most of the time in this post. This is because it's not our love that Augustine is speaking about, but the Love of God, and this brings us back to Fr. Ventura and GK Chesterton. We are forgiven our sins, per Chesterton's answer, thanks to the Love of God, and we are brought into Heaven, per Fr. Ventura's homily, by His Love as well. John expressed this in his first epistle, writing that what matters is "not that we loved God, but that He loved us..." (4:10).

It gets deeper than this, though. Love doesn't cause our forgiveness and beatification to Heaven simply as a final cause, but also as a efficient cause. In other words, Love isn't simply that which inspires God to forgive us and show us the vision of Himself, but it is also the means by which He does this. In our justification, God's Love is "poured into our hearts" (Rom. 5:5). It is this very Love which wipes away sin. Sin and Love are incompatible, because sin is the contradiction of Love. By pouring His own Love into our hearts, God eradicates sin. At the same time, it is through Love that we know God - that is, see Him. With Love in our souls (which is what "hearts" refers to in Scripture[excluding passages referring to the organ]), we see God. On the other hand, "Anyone who loves," St. John writes, "...knows God." (1 John 4:7).

To know God is to Love, but to Love not with our own, human Love, but with the Love that God has placed in us. Further, to know God is, according to Christ, the essence of eternal life. Love is that which at once - simultaneously - forgives sin and infuses the vision of God into our souls. Just as Christ was in Heaven while on earth, we too can be in Heaven, even while on earth. In fact, anyone who is in a state of Grace (does not have unforgiven mortal sin) is in Heaven, quite literally.

This makes more sense when we recall that Heaven belongs to the soul, not the body. Our bodies will be glorified and brought into Heaven, but even then, it is not by them which we experience Heaven (at least not directly; Heaven will involve the body, but not as a fundamental quality. See ST, I-II, 3,3 and ST, Sup., 92, 2 regarding this point). Heaven consists in the soul's vision of God.

The practical implications of this are tremendous. So long as we are in Grace, we are in Heaven, even here on earth. Christ experienced Heaven, even as He hung on the cross, and we can experience Heaven even as we bear some terrible pain or sadness. This explains the ability of the saints and the apostles, as recorded in Scripture, to profess tremendous joy even in their sufferings. By this, they were able to rejoice in their sufferings, as St. Paul said (Rom. 5:3). The pain can be overwhelming, but the soul is still in Heaven.

This also has implications for our consciences. Our bodies are afflicted with sin, even when our souls are striving for God. We will become angry without intention, our eyes will be drawn to look upon an illicit image, evil thoughts will pass through our minds. This does not matter. Our body will do these things even while our souls rejoice - in a certain very real sense unbeknownst to us - in the vision of God. Sin enters when we consent to these things, by allowing them in the door of our souls as it were. Make no mistake, to consent to or willingly engage in bodily wrong is sinful. It is also true that gradually, through living virtuously, God's Grace will heal our bodies so that these things will happen less and less, and if you are blessed in a special way, never at all. This must be what we strive for, but we must also not be discouraged if it does not happen this way. Some of the saints, for example Augustine, struggled with their bodies until their death.

And so as we go through life, it is easy to expect that we will have a lot of "cleaning up" to do in Purgatory. For many of us this will be the case. However, it is also possible that our souls may be much cleaner than we imagine. This is important to understand for the sake of perseverance, as it can be a great encouragement. Nevertheless, there is great danger in thinking of it in any way more than this. We all have many sins which indeed are in our souls, which indeed we do consent to and even engage in purposefully, and we needn't any excuses.

Rather, what we need to do is recognize just what it means to be in the state of Grace and strive to stay there. We need to recognize the reality that our souls are in Heaven even now, and live for that. "Is this song fit for a soul in Heaven?" "Is this movie something that is good to see when I can be seeing God?" "Should I spend time experiencing this when God is there for me to experience?"

And this is where all of this should bring us: to prayer. Our souls are filled with God's Love - they can see God - but because of our emphasis on the body, we don't recognize this. God is there, waiting to be experienced, and we don't even realize it. In prayer, we reach beyond the bodily senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, and reach the senses of our souls, the senses that have direct access to God Himself. We have this power, and we simply don't even realize it because we have never used it. Imagine if you had been fed intravenously your entire life and never had anything put into your mouth so that you didn't even realize there was such a thing as taste for never having used it before. This is the state we are in in regards to our souls.

In prayer, gradually and slowly, we are able to peel off the layers of flesh until we recognize these senses, the senses of our souls. I am not referring to verbal prayer, but mental prayer, to meditation. "Blessed is the man who... meditates night and day," David tells us in the first Psalm. Mary herself, the one creature living in the greatest communion with God, led a life of meditation, as Luke tells us when he says that Mary treasured sayings about Jesus and pondered them in her heart (2:19).

Our souls do not yet see God fully. As we grow in prayer and holiness, we will see God more and more as He is. If it is difficult to pray now, to take the time to do it, or to avoid sin, it will become easier. It can be frustrating when we struggle so much with these things, but we needn't feel this way. As we see God more and more, the choices between sin and God, or between one thing and the prayer by which we know God, will become easier. After all, the more we grow the more we will see Heaven - see God - and the choice between anything and this is really a very simple one when we see the choice we're making.

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12). St. Paul wrote these words immediately before writing that Love is the most important thing. I want to end on this point. Love is truly the most important thing in the world. To Love is literally to know God! All of our actions, be they of Love, are actions of prayer and actions of Heavenly contemplation. God is Love! When we Love, we are knowing God. If we Love, we are experiencing God, even if we can't quite see it yet. St. Thérèse understood this, and so she Loved. And she Loved some more. And she Loved and she Loved and she Loved. As John wrote, "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19). He gave us His Love so that we can give it to others. By doing this - by Loving - we are entering more and more into the realm of God. Each simple, Loving action is nothing less than another step further into Heaven itself.

Take a plunge.

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