What is a 'beatific vision'?

Q. We have been told that when we go to heaven we will have a "beatific vision" of God. This has always baffled me. What do those words mean? (Oneonta, N.Y.)

A. The "beatific vision" means the eternal and direct visual perception of God. It means seeing God face to face.

We have some sense, even in the natural order, of the importance of direct perception: Those who endured years of meetings by telephone conference call can appreciate what an advance "videoconferencing" has been, allowing people to see one another, and thereby making their presence much more real.

In the divine scheme of things, Christians have always believed that this direct vision of God is the goal that awaits us all. St. Paul said: "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13:12).

St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned that one is perfectly happy only when all of one's desires are perfectly satisfied, and this cannot occur until we are fully united with God.

That complete union can happen not through human imagining nor even in the most deeply contemplative prayer, but only by the direct presence of God in heaven.

It is a human instinct, and a good one, to try to imagine what heaven will feel like.

When I was a child, I may have thought that heaven would be like playing baseball all day, with occasional breaks to drink soda and read comic books - but deep down I knew even then that it would be much, much better than that.

We are cautioned that all of our efforts at imagining must fall short. (St. Paul says in I Corinthians 2:9 that "eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, (is) what God has prepared for those who love him.")

But it doesn't hurt to dream.

Last year, a young woman, who would die two days later from cancer, told me what she was expecting in heaven.

"I think it will be like the way my mother loves me," she said, "times a thousand."

Fr. Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. He is the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

(Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle, the new "Question Corner" writer, at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.)

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011