What Is Heaven Like?
What is your conception of heaven? Is it something like an extended day at the beach without obnoxious children? Alternatively, do you dream of gorging on unlimited apple strudel? Alas, these conceptions of heaven hold little attraction for me. Why not simply nestle into earthly life and not consider heaven? Yet, as the Bible speaks of something far greater than what the imagination can conceive, there must be more to it- much more. This article considers some aspects of heaven as seen through the eyes of mystics.
1. Peripheral Beatitude
Our first peek through heaven’s portal considers its peripheral or accidental beatitude. Theologians tell us that the primary joy of heaven is the beatific vision of God. Secondary joys are worth noting, however, since they bear close on our human experience. In the first place, we live in hope to find our beloved family members and friends once again; “A great number of our dear ones there await us,” says St. Cyprian, “Parents, brothers, children, a dense multitude longs for us, already secure in their safety but still anxious for our salvation. To these, beloved brethren, let us hasten with eager longing!” (Treatise on Death, 26)
In addition to this, there is our life-long companion whom we shall behold-our guardian angel. So also, heaven is home to the vast assembly of saints, whose friendship will afford endless delight. Also numbered among the peripheral joys of heaven is the glorified body. We shall look at this more in depth under the next heading, but here, let us consider what our senses will perceive. First, there is delight for the ears, namely, glorious music, which is far more ravishing than earthly music, according to the experience of some saints.
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
Scripture explains that the sights of heaven are beyond human reckoning. (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9) The implication is that ravishing beauty is an essential component to the heavenly experience. What becomes of our sense of taste? Will it be useless since Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking? It seems to me, that Jesus means that it’s not the essential joy; certainly, the glorified body will have a sense of taste. 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
Do you feel uncomfortable in your body? Possibly, it’s too small, plump, oddly shaped, or defective in some way. My bodily defect is sore knees which prevent me from jogging. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a new and superior body? Such is the promise of Scripture 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 tells us five characteristics of this glorified body. In the first place, the glorified body is impassable, or incapable of physical pain and death. The glorified body will also have no imperfections but will receive a new form of beauty. There will be no defects or lost body parts. The glorified body is still 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. By this gift, the body can travel immediately to any distance at the “wink of an eye,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is good to know in as much as some people may think of heaven as totally static and stationary. New bodies imply 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 exclaims at the Transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here,” the Greek adjective for “good” here, kalon, is synonymous with “beautiful.” Glorified souls and bodies are fully alive to beauty.
3. Overwhelming Beauty
It should come as no surprise that heaven is indescribably beautiful, according to those who have glimpsed it. Take, for instance, the experience of St. Faustina Kowalska, (1905-1938), a young Polish saint who received manifold visions and revelations. She wrote down her experiences in notebooks, which the Catholic Church has consequently approved as authentic revelations. While it is true that she visited hell, she also had a foretaste of heaven. This is how she describes it:
“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. (Diary, # 777-78)
4. Indescribable Light
From St. Teresa of Avila, we gain some insight into the beauty of heavenly light. She complains that her description amounts to nothing when comparing earthly and heavenly light: “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. Not that there is anything like the sun present here, nor is the light like that of the sun: this light seems to be natural; and, in comparison with it, every other light is something artificial. It is a light which knows no night; 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.”
While she complains that her comparison falls short, St. Teresa of Avila conveys some semblance of heavenly light as compared to earthly light; “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… It is a light which knows no night; 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.”
St. Mary of Jesus Crucified, 1846-1878, experienced a vision of heaven after she temporarily died from several knife wounds; “I saw the Blessed Virgin, the angels and the saints who welcomed me with great kindness,” she explains, “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.”
5. 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.
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 started to cry for her detainment 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.”
While 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. The sight of rivers, flowers, and suchlike in heaven is an experience conditioned to earthly senses.
An experience of St. John Bosco bears this out as he saw one of his 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.” d 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
From our vantage point, the prospect of seeing God may seem rather terrifying or perhaps even boring. Yet, it is the ultimate experience of heaven. Consider Moses, who often went into the tent of meeting to speak to God face to face, (see Ex 33-34). Although he received an intense experience of communion, causing his face to shine, Moses still did not take in the direct vision of God. God is spirit, so Moses’ experience was a prefiguration of the ultimate reality.
Consider how Moses asked God to show him His glory; God responded by saying, “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; 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)
In simple terms, then, what is the meaning of the phrase, beatific vision? Will it be like looking at loveliest of sunsets? Not quite, yet beauty is an essential component. Three Latin words comprise the phrase, beatific vision- beatus, happy, the verb, facere, to make, and finally, visio, which means sight. In other words, beatific vision is a sight that makes one happy. What is the cause for happiness? It is the sight of God the Trinity. Consider some sight that makes you intensely happy, such as seeing a friend, and multiply it by a billion. There you have a crumb of what happiness flows from the vision of God.
7. Complete Fulfillment: Beatitude
St. Thomas Aquinas defines beatitude as the perfect good that satisfies the inmost desire of the rational being; “Only the uncreated and infinite good 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 can satiate an infinite hunger. God alone is infinite beatitude.
Moreover, since He is infinite, there is no limit to how deeply one can plunge into Him. He is an endless ocean. Consider how the great Père de Caussade describes the happiness of the saints: “The essence of their supreme joy is but the tide of the very happiness of God ebbing and flowing into their souls, according to the capacity of their hearts.”
Thus, if God is infinite happiness, beauty, and love, how easy it will be to reciprocate His love. Consider a person in your life 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 heart. If God is the source of love, then how simple it will be to love Him in response.
The experience of heavenly beatitude, then, is to “Enter into the joy of the Lord.” (cf. Mt 25:23) Indeed, infinite beatitude is a person, God Himself. As St. Augustine says, “God is the goal of our desires; He is the one whom we shall see without end, whom we shall love without weariness, whom we shall glorify forever without fatigue.” (City of God, II 30:1) With heaven on our thoughts, rising above the tedium, annoyances, and sadness of this life becomes easy.
Meditating upon heaven is like nourishing the soul with healthy food. For lack of healthy nourishment, the soul may become depressed and even despair. To ponder the joys of heaven is like an immigrant who endures her arduous journey with joy, knowing that her husband awaits her in the New World. The discomfort, hunger, and seasickness of her journey, dissipate into nothingness as she recalls her husband’s smile and loving embrace. Longing for heaven should have a place in our daily thoughts. Just think! A new body, an experience of unfathomed beauty and light, total fulfillment in the ocean of God: such contemplation nourishes optimism. We spend ample time each day preparing and eating meals for our earthly bodies; why not spend five a minutes a day nourishing the soul?
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.
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