Heaven as Described by the Saints
My mother and I often spoke of the brevity of our life on earth. We also agreed that what the saints suffered here below amounts to nothing compared to the joy they now experience. Since my mom’s departure to eternal life last month, these thoughts have returned to me quite readily. While her passing certainly engenders a sense of separation, my predominant sentiment is one of peace. She lived her eighty-seven years on this earth with an eye continually on the life above. I believe that whatever miseries she faced on earth have long melted away in the light of the Holy Trinity. What helped her desire heaven? Unquestionably, the experiences of the saints helped form her aspirations. This article considers heaven as described through the experiences of the saints.
1. Peripheral Beatitude
The primary joy of heaven is the beatific vision of God. Secondary joys are worth noting, however, because they bear close on our human experience. This includes reuniting with our loved ones. Also numbered among the peripheral joys of heaven are the sensory delights of the glorified body. The eyes will behold ravishing beauty, as described later. There is also delight for the ears, namely, glorious music, which according to innumerable saints, is far more ravishing than earthly music.
As I stood there, basking in the splendor of those gardens, I suddenly heard music most sweet - so delightful and enchanting a melody that I could never adequately describe it.— St. John Bosco
Will our sense of taste be useless since Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking? He means here, I believe, that it’s not the essential joy; but certainly, the glorified body will have taste buds. Our bodies won’t require nourishment to live, but food will serve as a bonus pleasure. Finally, there is plenty of laughter of heaven; “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Lk 6:21)
2. Glorified Body
As the body gets nearer to fifty years old, there’s a certain wish for younger parts, such as new knees. The Bible mentions the glorified body in many places, such as from St. Paul, “We have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we await the coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of his glorified body.” (Phil 3:20-21)
St. Thomas Aquinas describes five characteristics of the glorified body. In the first place, the glorified body is incapable of physical pain or death. Secondly, there will be no imperfections in the body but a new form of beauty. It will still be one’s very own body, but restored and glorified. Thirdly, glorified bodies possess subtility, by which the body is under command of the soul; it can pass through walls, for instance (see Jn: 20-19). The fourth power of the glorified body is agility, which enables the body to travel immediately to any distance at the “wink of an eye,” as Thomas puts it. Heaven is not static; a new body implies movement and functionality.
What Is the Resurrection of the Body?
Finally, the glorified body “will shine like the sun.” (Mt 13:43) Theologians call this “brightness”; it will be a sharing of Jesus’ transfiguration experience on Mt.Tabor. When St. Peter exclaimed at the Transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here,” the Greek adjective for “good” here, kalon, means “beautiful.” Glorified souls and bodies are fully alive to beauty.
3. Sublime Beauty
Heaven is indescribably beautiful. This should come as no surprise. Yet, let us consider the experience of certain mystics, such as St. Faustina Kowalska, (1905-1938), a young Polish saint who received manifold revelations, who describes heaven in these terms:
“Today 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.— St. Faustina, Diary, # 777-78
St. Seraphim of Sarov, Russia’s greatest mystic of the 19th century, experienced an ecstasy that lasted for five days. During that time, he contemplated the inexpressible joy and beauty of heaven. He explained his experience to Ivan Tikhonovich: “If you knew what sweetness awaits the souls of the just in heaven, you would be resolved to endure all the sorrows, persecutions, and insults in this passing life with gratitude. Even if your very cell was full of worms and they gnawed on your flesh throughout your entire life, you would accept it all in order not to lose that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love him.”
Indeed, he found it impossible to convey heaven’s beauty. “If the Apostle Paul himself was unable to describe heavenly glory and joy, what other tongue could describe the beauty of the heavenly abode which the souls of the just inhabit? I cannot tell you of the heavenly joy and sweetness I experienced there.”
4. Flowers, Meadows, Rivers
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Such are Jesus’ poignant words to the good thief as He was dying on the Cross. The word paradise derives from a Persian word meaning, 'enclosed park.' Perhaps some may think of heaven as a type of cloudscape with no more flowers or meadows; on the contrary, many saints who glimpsed heaven attest to the presence of meadows covered with exquisite flowers and rivers.
For instance, St. Anna Schäffer (1882-1925), describes what she saw on her three-day visit to heaven: “While I was praying, I was enraptured from the world. My life was hanging by a thread. The clouds opened up and a marvelous garden full of flowers appeared in which I could walk a long distance.”
While describing the scene, she can’t hold back her tears for being detained on earth; “I cannot describe to you all of the marvels that our good God gives to those He loves.” An interviewer asked; “Will we find the things we have here on earth there in paradise?” She answered, “Yes, there are also meadows and forests, rivers and mountains, homes and buildings, but everything is transparent and spiritualized, while here on earth everything is tainted.”
Although several mystics describe heaven in relatable terms, one should not understand heaven as simply an amplified version of earth. The vision of God in beatific light is the ultimate beauty. Nonetheless, such light is impossible for human senses to comprehend until divinized. While rivers, flowers, and trees are evidently part of the heavenly experience, they do not express the ultimate beauty.
An experience of St. John Bosco bears this out as he saw one of his former students, St. Dominic Savio, in a type of flowery meadow after the latter had died; “None of the plants we know,” says St. John, “could ever give you an idea of those flowers, although there was a resemblance of sorts. The very grass, the flowers, the trees, and the fruit- all were of singular and magnificent beauty.” St. John asked to see some of the supernatural light. St. Dominic told him, “No one can see it until he has come to see God as He is. The faintest ray of that light would instantly strike one dead, because the human senses are not sturdy enough to endure it.”
5. Indescribable Light
The light of the sun provides ineffable joy to man and bugs alike. Nonetheless, it’s no match to heavenly light. So says St. Teresa of Avila in her autobiography; “It is as if on one side, you see very clear water flowing over a bed of crystal, illumined by the sun, and on the other side, muddy water flowing on the surface of the earth on a cloudy day.”
She further conveys how the light is unfading. “It is a light which knows no night,” she says, “Rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it. In short, no man, however gifted he may be can ever, in the whole course of his life, arrive at any imagination of what it is.”
Another Carmelite mystic, St. Mary of Jesus Crucified, 1846-1878, experienced a vision of heaven after she died from several knife wounds. “I saw the Blessed Virgin, the angels and the saints who welcomed me with great kindness,” she says, “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 shone with an indescribable light.”
Finally, in his Ecclesiastical History of England, St. Bede describes a monk who died and came back to life. The monk said that after dying, a beautiful guide in shining garments brought him on a journey to heaven in several stages. “I saw before me a much more beautiful light than before,” he says, “and therein heard sweet sounds of singing, and so wonderful a fragrance was shed abroad from the place, that the other which I had perceived before and thought so great, then seemed to me but a small thing.”
6. Beatific Vision
Perhaps the prospect of seeing God appears rather boring or perhaps terrifying? Yet, it is the ultimate experience of heaven. Consider how Moses asked God to show him His glory and He responded, “No man can see me and live.” Moses could only see the back of God. With the coming of Christ, however, the way opens to behold God face to face. "We are God’s children now,” says St. John, “it does not yet appear what we will be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1 Jn 3:2)
Three Latin words comprise the phrase, beatific vision; beatus, happy, the verb, facere, to make, and finally, visio, which means sight. In other words, a beatific vision is a sight that makes one happy. What is the cause for happiness? It is the sight of God the Trinity. The mystics assure us that to see God’s beauty is worth enduring all manner of hell on earth. Imagine some sight that makes you intensely happy, then multiply it by a billion. There you have a morsel of what happiness flows from the vision of God.
7. Complete Fulfillment: Beatitude
Finally, we come to the experience of the ultimate reality of heaven: beatitude. This experience flows from the vision of God. St. Thomas Aquinas defines beatitude as the perfect good that satisfies the inmost desire of the rational being. “Only the uncreated and infinite good,” he says, “can fully satisfy the desire of a creature which conceives universal good.” In other words, nothing finite, be it pleasures, riches, talents, power, or prestige, can ultimately satisfy the hunger for infinite happiness found within the human heart.
Only infinite beatitude, namely God, can satiate an infinite hunger. Moreover, since He is an endless ocean, there is no limit to how deeply one can plunge into Him. The happiness of the saints in heaven is to give and receive God’s own tide of happiness. “The essence of their supreme joy,” says Père de Caussade, “is but the tide of the very happiness of God ebbing and flowing into their souls, according to the capacity of their hearts.”
Hence, if God is infinite happiness, beauty, and love, how easy it will be to reciprocate His love. Consider a person who has loved you more than any other: perhaps it is a parent, spouse, or friend. In their presence, love naturally flows out of your being. If God is the source of all goodness, then how simple it will be to love Him in response.
As we can see, there are ample reasons to make heaven a primary goal during our earthly sojourn. The saints, many of whom had first hand knowledge of heaven, tell us that its beauty and joy are simply beyond words.
Moreover, with heaven in our thoughts, life on earth becomes easier to bear. Indeed, optimism is healthy food. If I’m flying to a distant country with eager anticipation, the bad coffee on the plane doesn’t irk me. I look beyond it. So likewise, it’s soul nourishing to keep heaven in our daily thoughts. The small annoyances are thus reducible to their true proportion. Meditating upon the heavenly experiences of mystics is therefore highly recommended. It is life-giving nourishment for the journey ahead.
Life Everlasting and the Immensity of the Soul, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. Tan Books and Publishers, 1991
The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, Written by Herself; translated by David Lewis; Benziger Brothers, 1904.
Russian Mystics, Sergius Bolshakoff, Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1977
Divine Mercy in My Soul-Diary of St. Faustina, Marian Press, 2005
The experience of St. Anna Schäffer
St. John Bosco’s experience in Heaven
St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England
© 2018 Bede