It is in man’s nature to be happy. But man has never attained perfect happiness here on earth. Not even successful people, with their material wealth, fame and power, are finding happiness. This prompted “success intelligence” guru Dr. Robert Holden, to ponder: “Why do millionaires take Prozac? Why do CEOs have heart attacks? Why do film actors need rehab? Why do rock stars commit suicide? Why do politicians cover up scandals? Why do sports champions self-destruct? Why isn’t their success enough?”1
Nobody is spared when it comes to unhappiness in this world. Poor or rich, sick or healthy, virtuous or evil, success or failure, man will always suffer the effects of Original Sin. But for men of good will, there is one consoling thought: the idea of Heaven. Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: “In the present life, perfect happiness cannot be,”2 and “To God alone may perfect beatitude be attributed, by virtue of His nature.”3 Yet generations of people have been robbed of the true meaning of happiness and have been under constant bombardment by the forces of evil with empty promises of material, physical and psychological “happiness,” which are nothing more than distractions to the practice of true virtue — a key element in gaining true happiness in heaven. By rejecting God and the supernatural and embracing the materialism of the world, man is essentially denying his own nature: “Materialism denies anything metaphysical or supernatural. It acknowledges a material order addressing the ordinary pleasures and bodily comforts of everyday life. It may even promote physical or mental development. However, it does not deal with those specific spiritual desires that are a part of our human nature.”4
To think of heaven is not only a consolation amidst the suffering and unhappiness in this world, but more importantly, it is an aid to one’s salvation since knowing our final destination is indispensable in knowing how to arrive there. Most Americans know the right end of life, as evidenced by polls which show that a majority still believe in the afterlife.5
Atheists, however, put the end of life at death. In an interview with The Guardian, cosmologist Stephen Hawking said: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”6
What people know of heaven and how to get there is as varied as their religious backgrounds or beliefs. Outside the Catholic Church, the idea of heaven has been vague, uninspiring, and worse yet, full of errors and misconceptions. For many centuries heaven has been described as nothing more than a place of harps, hymns, crowns of gold, streets of jasper — symbols to impress an idea of endless happiness. Good for the imagination perhaps, but short on intellectual meaning.
Without mentioning the relationship between the nature of God and the nature of man, this idea of heaven is incomplete and unattractive. Other religions have far worse views on the afterlife which do not deserve to be mentioned in this article. But the fact remains that man has a deep longing for heaven and it is a worthwhile endeavor to promote the true idea of the eternal life.
The Truth About Heaven
There are countless books written about heaven, but one in particular captures very well the Catholic teaching on heaven in a simple and very understandable way. The Happiness of Heaven, by Father J. Boudreau, S.J., was originally published in 1872. In this jewel of a book, Father Boudreau uses simple examples to explain what theologians have written about in complex, technical language.
Father Boudreau defines heaven as “the possession and enjoyment of God Himself in the Beatific Vision, as well as the perfect satisfaction of every rational craving of our nature in the glorious resurrection of the body.”7 From this simple definition, Father Boudreau proceeds to explain the meaning of each word or phrase in the above definition to paint a theologically sound picture of heaven to the reader.
“The Possession and Enjoyment of God Himself in the Beatific Vision”
The Beatific Vision is the essential part of eternal happiness. Without Beatific Vision, the additional pleasures or joys of heaven, called accidental, are not possible. Father Boudreau explains this point with the following illustration: “A man who is gifted with a perfect body and mind not only enjoys life itself, but he likewise receives pleasure from the beauties of nature — from literature, amusements, and society. Now, suppose he loses his health, and is laid on a bed of sickness. He is no longer able to enjoy either life itself or its pleasures.
What is all the beauty of earthly or heavenly objects to him now? What are amusements, and all the joys of sense, which formerly delighted him so much? All these things are now unable to give him any pleasure because he has lost his health, which afforded him the power of appropriating the pleasures of life. Therefore we say that health is essentially necessary, not only to enjoy life itself, but also to relish its pleasures. So too, in heaven. The Beatific Vision is necessary not only to enjoy the very life of heaven, but likewise to enjoy the accidental glory wherewith God perfects the happiness of His elect.”8
Seeing God “Face-to-Face”
Now that we know the importance of the Beatific Vision, the next question is what is it? Father Boudreau explains that there are three acts in the Beatific Vision. Although distinct from one another, they are inseparable, and if one is absent, the Beatific Vision no longer exists.
The first act is the sight or vision of God; the second is the love of God; the third is the enjoyment of God. The first act, the vision of God is the root or fountainhead of the other acts which makes the Beatific Vision complete. It means that our intellect, which is the noblest faculty of our soul, “is suddenly elevated by the Light of Glory, and enabled to see God as He is, by a clear and unclouded perception of His divine essence.
It is therefore, a vision in which the soul sees God, face to face; not indeed with the eyes of the body, but with the intellect. For God is a spirit, and cannot be seen with material eyes.”9 To illustrate this point, Father Boudreau uses the analogy of the sun, which is the source of light and heat and therefore of life and beauty of the world. With its absence, the world would be left dark and become a silent grave of every living creature. In like manner, the vision of the divine essence is the root or source of the Beatific Vision. Without it, darkness and sadness would seize upon the blessed. To complete the Beatific Vision, the soul must also love and enjoy God because knowledge alone cannot satisfy it completely.
Impossible to See God Face-to-Face and Not Want to Love and Enjoy Him
To see and know God in His divine beauty and goodness necessarily makes us want to love Him with all the power in our being. Here, Father Boudreau illustrates this point by picturing an immense fire. The closer you are to it, the more you feel the heat. Seeing God in His divine essence inflames us with divine love spontaneously, intensely and supremely. The third element of the Beatific Vision is the act of enjoying God.
This act proceeds spontaneously from both the vision and the love of God. This joy necessarily includes the possession of God because without possessing God, the Beatific Vision would not be complete. To make this point clear, Father Boudreau uses the following illustration: “A beggar, for instance, gazes upon a magnificent palace, filled with untold wealth, and all that can gratify sense.
Does the mere sight of it make him happy? It certainly does not, because it is not and never can be his. He may admire its grand architecture and exquisite workmanship, and thus receive some trifling pleasure, but as he can never call that palace or its wealth his own, the mere gazing upon it, and even loving its beauty, can never render him happy. For this, the possession of it is essential.”10
The Parable of the Blind Orphan
In summarizing the idea of the Beatific Vision, Father Boudreau tells a beautiful story which illustrates clearly all three acts of the Beatific Vision: “A kind-hearted king, while hunting in a forest, finds a blind orphan boy totally destitute of all that can make life comfortable, takes him to his palace, adopts him as his own, and orders him to be cared for and educated in all that a blind person can learn. It is almost needless to say that the boy is unspeakably grateful, and does all he can to please the king.
When he has reached his twentieth year, a surgeon performs an operation upon his eyes by which his sight is restored. Then the king, surrounded by his nobles and amid all the pomp and magnificence of the court, proclaims him one of his sons, and commands all to honor and love him as such. And thus the once friendless orphan becomes a prince, and therefore, a partaker of the royal dignity, of the happiness and glory which are to be found in the palace of kings.”11
In the story, the sight of the good king in all his glory and magnificence represents the first act; the intense love which is produced by the sight of the king represents the second act and the enjoyment of the king’s society and all the happiness as a result represents the third act. The king, of course, is God Himself, and the orphan boy represents us, who are lost in the wilderness of this world.
“The Perfect Satisfaction of Every Rational Craving of Our Nature in the Glorious Resurrection of the Body”
The second part of Father Boudreau’s definition of heaven pertains to the fact that by nature, man is composed of body and soul. As such, man’s eternal happiness will not be complete without being reunited with his own body, glorified like the glorious body of Our Lord Jesus Christ when He resurrected from the dead. To have a faint idea of this glorious transformation, Father Boudreau invites the reader to take a look at some transformations that occur in the mineral and plant kingdoms: “What is the diamond? It is nothing more than a crystallized carbon or charcoal… yet, how great a difference, in appearance and value, between that precious gem and a thimbleful of coal dust!” “Of what are plants composed? They are all composed of four elements of matter, which have no remarkable beauty of their own… by the power and laws of life these are transformed into that endless variety of beauty and color, odor and taste, so striking in the vegetable world… now if, in the natural order, God can and does transform coarse and shapeless matter into forms so beautiful and so glorious, what shall we say of the beauty and perfection into which He will change our vile bodies!”12
Attributes of Our Glorified Bodies in Heaven
One of the supernatural gifts God bestows on our glorified bodies is the fact that we will no longer need food, drink, and sleep for sustenance and strength. However, all of our senses will still be gratified to the fullest. Here, Father Boudreau offers the following analogy: “When the butterfly was a caterpillar, it devoured green leaves with pleasure and avidity. They were its very life. But now that it is changed to a beautiful butterfly, it lives on honey and exquisite perfume of flowers. If you offer it those same leaves that it loved so much while a caterpillar, it scorns them; for the leaves are now unable to give the butterfly, in its new transformed state, any pleasure.
So shall it be with us after the resurrection. Our tastes shall be so refined that we shall scorn the low animal pleasures which are fit only for our present corruptible bodies.”13 Aside from being free from the necessities of nature, our bodies will be totally subject to the spirit, thereby making us free of our inordinate passions and concupiscence, which we struggle against constantly in our earthly life.
Agility, which is the power of transporting ourselves from place to place with the rapidity of thought, and Subtlety, which means that our risen bodies will be endowed with the power of penetrating all things, even the hardest of substances, shall also be part of the powers of our risen bodies. The gifts of Impassibility, which is the total loss of the power of suffering, and Immortality, which is the incorruptibility of the glorified body, considered by Father Boudreau as the crowning glory of all the supernatural attributes, completes some of the supernatural gifts God will bestow on the bodies of the just.
Life in Heaven
After seeing God face to face with all the acts of the Beatific Vision and now with the glorious gifts of the risen body which perfect all the operations of the soul and glorify all the senses, man begins a life in a new world of beauty and perfection with peace, rest, intellectual pleasure, love, and perfect enjoyment. Since man is a social being, he will also enjoy a life of pure and perfect social pleasure, derived from each other’s virtue, learning, beauty, refinement, mutual love, and ties of kindred. The degree of happiness each one will have in heaven will be according to his merits acquired in this life. Thus, our happiness in heaven will be directly proportional to the degree we achieve virtue while in this world.
The Road to Heaven
Saint Robert Bellarmine says that, in general, “all who walk along the right path are sure to arrive at the place of their destination, while, on the contrary, they who wander from the right path will never arrive at their journey’s end.”14 But is heaven just a reward for a life well-lived? Or is it a result of a life well-lived? The twentieth century apologist, Frank Sheed wrote: “this life is not only a test which men must pass in order to obtain the reward of heaven, it is a preparation which man must successfully undergo in order to live a life in heaven.”15 Another great Catholic thinker and author, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira wrote: “The Kingdom of God will attain its fulfillment in the next world. For all of us, however, it already begins to exist germinally in this world — just as in a novitiate the religious life is already put into practice, albeit as a preparation, and in a military school a young man trains for the army by living a military life.”16 With the aid of God’s supernatural grace, through the help of His Blessed Mother and His saints, we continue to keep our greatest hope alive till we reach our final destination — heaven!
- Robert Holden, PhD, Authentic Success (Hay House, Inc., 2005) p. 37.
- Josef Pieper, Happiness & Contemplation (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998) p. 27.
- Ibid., p.28.
- John Horvat II, “The Flight of Happiness” (Crusade Magazine, Nov-Dec 2010), p. 37.
- USA Today, “Many beliefs, many paths to heaven?” Dec. 18, 2008.
- Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk).
- Father J. Boudreau, S.J., The Happiness of Heaven (Tan Books, 1984) p. 2.
- Ibid., pp.5-6.
- Ibid., pp. 7-8.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Ibid., pp. 15-17.
- Ibid., pp. 63-64.
- Ibid., p. 79.
- Saint Robert Bellarmine, Live Well, Die Holy — The Art of Being a Saint, Now & Forever (Sophia Institute Press, 1998), p.3.
- Frank Sheed, A Map of Life (http://www.ewtn.com/library/SPIRIT/MAPLIF.TXT)
- Plinio Correa de Oliveira, “XXI Century Crusade” (http://www.tfp.org/xxi-century-crusade/)