Bede is an artist with an interest in theology and the lives of the saints.
Passing Light and Enduring Light
Sitting in the sun on a fine spring morning—is it not a faint image of heavenly glory? It's as if the rays gently tug at the seeds of joy hidden within the soul. Alas, our seedlings soon wilt, however, as the noonday sun arrives. Surely, there must be a better image of heaven?
The saints tell us that the life above is not basking before a soulless orb—pleasant as that may be—but sharing in the very life of the Holy Trinity. It is not a transitory morning glory but an everlasting light. In heaven, the soul fully blossoms under the Eternal Sun, who is God Himself; His happiness penetrates the deepest recesses, causing joy and praise to spring up in the soul.
This understanding of heaven is confirmed by mystics who traveled there ahead of time, such as St. Faustina Kowalska. She says:
“Today [Nov. 27, 1936], I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its inconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death. I saw how all creatures give ceaseless praise and glory to God. I saw how great is happiness in God, which spreads to all creatures, making them happy; and then all the glory and praise which springs from this happiness returns to its source; and they enter into the depths of God, contemplating the inner life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom they will never comprehend or fathom. This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures." (Diary, 777-78)
While the nature of heavenly life remains obscure to us here below, let us try to pull aside the veil and catch some of its rays. To accomplish this, we turn to the experiences of the saints and the help of Scripture.
Questions covered in this article
- What is the essential joy of heaven?
- Is there a contemporary person who has seen heaven?
- What is the glorified body all about?
- Is it possible to be bored in heaven?
- Do the blessed in heaven achieve impeccability?
- Will there be marriage or work in heaven?
- What saints have seen heaven?
- Will everyone be equal in heaven?
- What are peripheral joys in heaven?
- How do I get to heaven?
1. What is the essential joy of heaven?
The essential joy of heaven is the beatific vision, which in Latin means "a sight that brings happiness." What does one see? It is the sight of God. "Surely, that must be boring after ten minutes?" Not so, because God is an endless ocean and effervescent life. Furthermore, because He created the soul with an infinite longing for happiness, His joy is to satiate that yearning.
While experience teaches that no earthly delight can completely satisfy the desire for happiness, the situation is different in heaven: God fills the soul's infinite thirst with his unlimited happiness. God's happiness is infinite! Therefore, the soul is continually refreshed with joy at the sight of God.
Moreover, the sight of Him engenders love. Consider the sight of your smiling grandmother with a plateful of freshly baked cookies—your heart leaps forth with love. Now think of God, the source of all beauty, joy, love, and delight: the soul melts in happiness because love generates love. What is the saint's supreme joy in heaven? It is the tide of God's infinite love and happiness satisfying the depths of their souls.
2. Is there a contemporary person who has seen heaven?
Fr. Jose Maniyangat was born in Kerala, India, and is now a priest of the diocese of Jacksonville, Florida. On Sunday, April 14, 1985, he was traveling by motorcycle to say Mass in the northern part of Kerala. He was unfortunately hit head-on by a drunk driver. As an ambulance rushed his mangled body to the hospital, his soul met with the radiant figure of his guardian angel who said to him, "I am going to take you to Heaven; the Lord wants to meet you and talk with you."
Fr. Jose's angel escorted him through a long, dazzling tunnel. "I never experienced this much peace and joy in my life," says Fr. Jose. "Then immediately the heaven opened up and I heard the most delightful music which I never heard before. The angels were singing and praising God. I saw all the saints, especially the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, and many dedicated holy Bishops and Priests who were shining like stars."
He says words cannot express the beauty of heaven:
"There we find so much peace and happiness, which exceed a million times our imagination. Our Lord is far more beautiful than any image can convey. His face is radiant and luminous and more beautiful than a thousand rising suns. The pictures we see in the world are only a shadow of His magnificence. The Blessed Mother was next to Jesus; she was so beautiful and radiant. None of the images we see in this world can compare with her real beauty. Heaven is our real home, we are all created to reach heaven and enjoy God forever."
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3. Is it true that the blessed will have a glorified body?
Indeed, the happy ones in heaven will eventually meet again with their earthly body. And what a reunion!
"Hey, old stinker! Great to see you again!"..."Old stinker? Why, that's a thing of the past!" Yes, not only will the body be freed of the miseries known on earth, but it will attain far greater power and beauty; that is to say, it will be a glorified body, sharing in the splendor of the soul.
No one in heaven has yet received a glorified body except Jesus and the Virgin Mary. However, every soul receives back the body it had on earth after the Final Judgment. The body of the saints will take on an inconceivable beauty and power, as St Paul indicates in the letter to the Philippians: Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be like his own glorified body (Phil. 3:21).
"What if a person's body was burned to ashes and tossed to the wind?" Even so, God will make it whole again. Moreover, earthly defects and blemishes will be perfected: "Behold, I make all things new." (Rev 21:5)
The glorified body has five known aspects that correspond to Jesus' resurrected body: it is impassable (not subject to pain); it attains perfect beauty with no defects; the glorified body possesses subtlety by which it can pass through walls, for example; The glorified body gains agility which enables it to travel great distances in a split second. Finally, the glorified body will shine like the sun (see Mt. 13:43), such as Jesus' body on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration.
4. Why won't I be bored in heaven?
Perhaps you have visited a famous museum, such as the Uffizi in Florence? While I love beautiful art, overwhelm usually oppresses my soul about halfway through. It's like feasting on a plate of dainties—yawning eventually replaces enjoyment. The soul's capacity for material beauty has limits.
"Won't it be the same experience in heaven?" Not so, say the saints, because the soul's capacity is continually refreshed only to be inundated once again with the sight of God. In fact, the soul has to be specially fitted for such a vision because it's unsupportable on earth. Therefore, since heaven is the contemplation of God, who is infinite in beauty, love, wisdom, charm, and every good thing, boredom will be impossible. Even the works of God on earth give us a foretaste of this reality.
For example, if the study of insects or the behavior of birds and animals, cause fascination in human beings, how much more will gazing on the Creator of this beauty not intoxicate? Thus, our appreciation of God can never cease—He is an immeasurable ocean and a fountain without limits. The experience of heaven will therefore not weary but energize throughout eternity. As St. Francis de Sales puts it, "Do not imagine then, my dear souls, that our spirit will be dulled or drowsy by the abundance and joys of eternal happiness. Quite the contrary! It will be very alert and agile in its various activities."
5. Do the blessed in heaven achieve impeccability?
Yes, the blessed in heaven share in God's attribute of impeccability, that is to say, they are incapable of sinning. There is no longer any fear of falling as was their frequent experience on earth. Their impeccability has three causes: In the first place, the beatific vision fully satisfies every longing; secondly, concupiscence is vaporized which makes the desire to sin impossible; finally, God clothes them in white (see Rev. 3:5), which means that He grants them the gift of his holiness.
"Does this mean that there will be no free will in heaven?" The will continues to be free but is confirmed in grace and can never sin. This is comparable to the angels who chose to adhere to God rather than follow Satan. In a word, sin is impossible in heaven because nothing impure exists in heaven (see Revelation 21:27).
What Heaven Is Like
6. Will there be marriage or work in heaven?
While a husband and wife may love each other in heaven, they will no longer be married as they were on earth. Jesus indicates this when He says, “At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) Therefore, marriage, as an earthly institution, dissolves at death. Nonetheless, the blessed souls in heaven are married—to God Himself.
The matter of work in heaven remains a mystery. On the one hand, Scripture tells us that the saints "will rest from their labor." (Rev 14:13) On the other hand, work seems so ingrained into human consciousness that life in heaven without it would appear boring for many. What will we do? The chief occupation in heaven is praising God, but is there more? Perhaps the new heaven and new earth will involve the cooperation of human creativity—God's nature is creative and energizing and heaven is a sharing in God's very life.
If work exists in heaven, however, it will likely be like that of Adam and Eve's experience in the Garden before the Fall. This form of work did not involve drudgery or monotony but was delightful. Jesus speaks in parables of those who were faithful over very little who afterward have "authority over ten cities" (Luke 19:17), perhaps indicating that some sort of governing body exists in heaven. Ultimately, it simply remains unknown if the blessed in heaven continue to work as we understand the word, or if their sole occupation is praising God.
7. What saints have seen heaven?
Many saints have been privileged to view heaven before their death. St. Paul, for example, was caught up to the "third heaven," and heard and saw things that no human may utter. St. John the Beloved, while exiled on the island of Patmos, glimpsed heaven's splendor while immersed in ecstasy. He tells us of heaven's radiance, myriads of angels, saints dressed in white, the River of Life and the joy of the Holy City.
Through the ages, God permitted other saints to see heaven. Their experience is not necessarily enviable, however, because returning to earth was torturous for them. Nonetheless, their glimpse conveys to us the joy, peace, and indescribale light of heaven.
St. Teresa of Avila, for example, speaks of the sweet light of heaven: "It is a light that does not wane, a candidness full of sweetness, a splendor infused that deliciously enchants the eyes without tire, as does the clarity in which one sees the sublime reality. It is a light so different from ours that shines from the sun, that in comparison the sun seems very dim." Afterward, she said that everything on earth seemed like dung.
St. Mariam Baouardy was brutally stabbed by a fanatical Muslim. She found herself transported to heaven: “I saw the Blessed Virgin, the Angels and the Saints who welcomed (me) with great kindness; I even saw my parents in the middle of them. I contemplated the radiant throne of the Holy Trinity, and Our Lord Jesus Christ in his humanity. There was no sun, no lamps, and yet everything shined with an indescribable light."
Blessed Anna Schafer had an ecstatic vision lasting three days in which she saw heaven. She said,
"The clouds opened up and a marvelous garden full of flowers appeared in which I could walk a long-distance...I cannot describe to you all of the marvels that our good God gives to those He loves. [There are] meadows and forests, rivers and mountains, homes and buildings, but everything is transparent and spiritualized, while here on earth everything is tainted by the curse of sin!"
St. Seraphim of Sarov similarly had a vision of heaven which he described to a fellow monk named Ivan Tikhonovich:
“Ah, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits the souls of the righteous in heaven, you would be determined during your life to bear any offenses, persecutions or slanders thankfully. If this entire cell were filled with worms and if these worms ate our flesh throughout our entire lives, you would accept it all in order not to lose that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love him...there is sweetness and joy unutterable."
8. Will everyone be equal in heaven?
The capacity for God varies in each soul according to the level of merit acquired on earth. St. Faustina tells us: "Although the chosen ones in heaven see God face to face and are completely and absolutely happy, still their knowledge of God is not the same...This deeper knowledge begins here on earth, depending on the grace [given], but to a great extent it also depends on our faithfulness to that grace." (Diary, 771)
Therefore, each soul's capacity for God is different. Metaphorically speaking, some souls have a teacup capacity, while others have a barrel, and yet others are like a gigantic basin. Yet, since each soul is filled to the brim, there is complete fulfillment without any feeling of envy.
"But, how is there such a variance in soul capacity?"
The soul's capacity varies according to the level of grace acquired while on earth. Charity and humility are the main contributors to heavenly glory as well as endurance of sufferings. The greatest saint in heaven was the most humble and loving on earth, and also who suffered most. This explains why some saints who have glimpsed heaven speak of a hierarchy, whereby the saints are arranged in an orderly fashion.
For example, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) had a vision of heaven on November 1, 1819; she said:
"Above, high in the center, the Seat of Divinity rose infinitely arrayed in splendor. The Saints and the priests were subdivided according to their position in religious life. The religious were assembled according to their Order and were classified or elevated according to the personal battle that they had endured in their earthly life. The martyrs were all close by, and likewise were honored according to the degree of their victory and were subdivided according to their aspirations to holiness. They lived in marvelous gardens full of light and houses."
9. What are the so-called "accidental joys in heaven?"
As mentioned, the prime joy of the blessed in heaven is the beatific vision. It fully satisfies every longing. Nonetheless, peripheral or "accidental" joys help fill out the picture. First, there is a more perfect knowledge of the mysteries first perceived on earth, such as the creation of the cosmos, the Incarnation and Redemption of the Logos, and God's marvelous providence and wisdom.
Secondly, the glorified body will afford many exquisite joys—the reception of aesthetic delights in music and beauty; the glorified body will also be capable of acrobatic movements implied with agility and subtlety. Third, there is a reunion with loved ones that we knew on earth. Fourth, there is the communion of saints, by which one may behold the marvels that God formed in each of the glorified souls. Finally, laughter and singing are included in the peripheral joys. Whether there are animals and birds remains unknown, but these will also belong to the peripheral joys of heaven.
10. How do I get to heaven?
Jesus says, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and few find it." (Mt. 7:13-14) Can we understand these words in a practicable way? Fortunately, St Faustina had an ecstatic vision that brings to life what Jesus meant.
She saw two roads—one broad and covered with flowers, music, and joy; the other was thorny and rock-strewn. Those who traveled the flowery road enjoyed the pleasures of life without a thought for God. Unfortunately, this road ends in a horrible precipice, that is, the abyss of hell.
The ones traveling on the thorny path, "fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road, there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant, they forgot all their sufferings." (Diary, 153)
Thus we see that suffering is a type of passport to heaven. "Yes, but isn't suffering bad?" Yes, by itself it is worthless and evil—however, when consciously accepted for the love of God and in union with Jesus' sufferings, trials merit an eternal reward.
Besides suffering, charity and works of mercy are essential to gaining Paradise. The former we gain through prayer and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession, and the latter we strive to perform as much as possible. Jesus indicates that at the Last Judgment, He will say to the just, "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." (Mt 25:35) If we can't perform corporal works of mercy, at least we can perform spiritual works of mercy, such as praying for others.
Lastly, since nothing impure enters heaven (Rev. 2:17), we strive to keep our garments clean by avoiding muddy paths, namely, sin and temptation.
While wealth, honors, pleasure, health, or power have beneficial aspects, the truly wise understand that these pass like a beautiful spring morning. True wisdom, then, seeks the Light which never fades and endures the thorny path to reach that garden whose beauty never wilts. There, the seeds once buried on earth grow like sunflowers before the Divine Sun through all eternity.
Information on St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi
An article on St. Mariam of Jesus Crucified
Information on Blessed Anna Schaffer
An article on Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich
St. Seraphim's vision of heaven
The Diary of St. Faustina: Divine Mercy in my Soul
Fr. Jose's life after death experience
More from the life of St. Mariam
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Bede