Matt C. Abbott
January 29, 2014
What's heaven like?
By Matt C. Abbott

From time to time, I wonder what heaven is like. I certainly hope and pray to make it there after I die. Just to make clear: Not everyone goes to heaven; that (universalism) isn't what the Church teaches.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1821):
    We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere 'to the end' and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for 'all men to be saved.' She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven:

    Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.
I'm grateful to Father John Trigilio Jr., author, theologian, and president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, for answering the following questions of mine concerning heaven:

Will we recognize loved ones in heaven? Will we relate to them in the same way as we do/did in this life? Given that heaven is eternal life, what will we do to pass the time; to keep from getting bored? What about finding out that a loved one went to hell and is suffering eternal damnation? Even in heaven, wouldn't finding that out be extremely upsetting?

Father Trigilio's response is as follows (slightly edited):
    Since the sudden death of my mother last month on December 28, 2013, I have been pondering and meditating more on the mystery of heaven. Both my parents are now deceased as well as two younger brothers and one older sister who died as a baby. I'll never forget the day my dad died on February 11, 1998 – the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. He had just watched the Mass on EWTN when his breathing became more and more shallow. At one point he opened his eyes and spoke. Around his bed (at home) were my mother, my youngest (and only surviving) brother, and myself.

    My dad said three times, 'I got to go home.' We thought he was delirious from the pain meds and said, 'Dad, you are home. You're not in the hospital.' He kept saying, however, 'I got to go home,' but the third time he added, 'to see the boys.' I said to him, 'Dad, Mark and I are here with you right now.' Again, he said, 'I got to go home to see the boys.' Then he fell asleep or just went unconscious. Twenty minutes later, he passed away.

    It was not until the next day as we planned his funeral that it struck me. I, my brother and my mother presumed that my father was confused and thought he was back at the hospital and wanted to die in his own home, and that he wanted his two sons to be with him when he left this earth. It dawned on me like a eureka moment: Dad was not delirious.

    When he said, 'I got to go home,' he did not mean his physical house on 32nd Street and Melrose in Erie, Pa. He meant his spiritual and eternal home: heaven. And when he said, 'I got to go home to see the boys,' it was not me and my brother Mark, but my brothers Michael and Joseph who were deceased. Joe was killed by an underage drunk driver just six months before my dad died. Michael died from muscular dystrophy five years before that.

    I firmly believe the greatest joy in heaven is the beatific vision: seeing God face-to-face as He is in Himself. As our intellect seeks the truth and our will seeks the good, only in the beatific vision do we have complete satisfaction, as God is the supreme Good and He is Truth itself. Hence, being in the presence of and enjoying the fullness of goodness, truth, love and grace, there is no higher joy possible.

    That said, we also believe in the communion of saints. The souls in heaven, other than Jesus and His Blessed Mother, have no physical bodies. Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in senso. (Nothing is in the mind which was not first in the senses.) Hence, our human knowledge is based on abstraction, where our senses send data to the intellect, which then extrapolates ideas based on, and rooted in, reality. Yet, the souls in heaven have no bodies and therefore no senses to inform the intellect.

    How do the saints know anything after death? St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the human intellect can receive knowledge not only from the senses (abstraction), but also by direct infused knowledge from God. Adam and Eve evidently needed some infused knowledge, as they were not created as infants who spent their childhood learning about the world.

    Likewise, in heaven, God can and most likely does infuse knowledge into the minds (intellects) of the saints. It is finite knowledge since the human intellect is limited. Only the Divine Intellect is infinite. Yet the infused knowledge given to the saints must be similar to the infused knowledge given to the angels at the moment of their creation.

    God gives the saints the knowledge which enables them to recognize each other, and to know what we are doing here on earth. That is why it is called a communion. We are united with the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. In heaven there is perfect unity and perfect communion, so the saints would know and recognize each other. When Moses and Elijah appeared on Mount Tabor with Jesus at His Transfiguration, were they not recognized by the apostles? Neither Moses nor Elijah had a glorified body yet – only a departed soul. Nevertheless, they were seen and recognized.

    Aquinas speaks of seven qualities of the resurrected, glorified bodies the saints will have after the second coming of Christ at the end of the world and final (general) judgment: identity, integrity, quality, agility, subtlety, impassibility, clarity. This means the resurrected body will be recognizable yet different. It will not merely be a resuscitated or reanimated corpse. St. Thomas speculated that as Jesus died at the age of 33, our glorified bodies would be the same age. Hence, an infant who died and his or her grandmother would both get their glorified bodies, but at the appearance of the age of 33.

    Nevertheless, we would be recognizable by the grace of God to each other. This means the glorified body is whole and intact, even if one was born missing a limb or organ. The blind would have eyesight, the deaf would have hearing, and so on. There would be no defects, no disabilities, no imperfections. No need for eyeglasses or contact lenses. No hearing aids. No pimples, no baldness, no one would be too short or too tall, too fat or too thin. No coughing, no nausea, no need for sleep. No hunger or thirst. Food will not be necessary to live, but can be eaten to enjoy the taste and the social benefit of dining together. No diabetes, no hypertension, no cholesterol and no carbohydrates to worry about.

    Our five senses will be in ecstasy enjoying beautiful music, enjoying wonderful aromas, tasting delicious food and drink, and feeling the softest and smoothest of textures. The ability to walk through locked doors and walls. You get from point A to point B merely by willing it and not having to walk until you're ready to drop. Like Goldilocks, it will not be too hot or too cold, but just right. And we will shine or reflect the glory of God from our glorified bodies.

    It is crucial to imagine and desire the glories of heaven, especially the beatific vision and the resurrected and glorified body, as well as the reunion with our deceased loved ones. If we do not want it bad enough, then we will not do anything and everything to obtain it. The parables of the pearl found of great price or the buried treasure. If we want something desperately, we are consumed to acquire it. If heaven is merely an ethereal existence where we wear white gowns, float with wings and play a harp, it is not enough to die for, let alone suffer any sorrow on earth to achieve. The goal or objective must be real.

    Christian heaven is not like the paradise some have where virgins are popping grapes in your mouth. But neither is it some vacuous and nebulous misty dimension where we just exist and do nothing. We worship God with the angels and it is something we want and we will enjoy doing. We will also be happy to be reunited with our loved ones. That is the only thing that helps when our beloved die.

    Yes, I still miss my dad and my brothers and now my mom, too. Because I miss them so much, I long and desire to be reunited with them. If I did not miss them, if there was no pain of loss, if their deaths did not leave a hole in my heart, why would I want to be with them for eternity?

    My disabled brother Michael was in a wheelchair since the age of ten until his death, when he turned 26. He and I talked about the glorified body, and he longed for the day when he could walk on his own. He imagined not having to wear leg braces or eyeglasses. Yet, all these are nothing in comparison to the joy we will have seeing God face to face.

    The beatific vision will satisfy all our desires. However, Aquinas believed the generosity and magnanimity of God is infinite; that He, in a sense, goes overboard and showers us with more than we could ever imagine. Hence, the increase of joy after our bodies are resurrected and glorified. Meanwhile, the souls in heaven are happy and joyful. They know each other and they know what is going on in our lives here on earth thanks to the communion of saints. So, no boredom in heaven and no complacency either.

    Today, so many people – children and adults, young and old, men and women of all walks of life – have limited attention spans. They have trouble focusing and spend hours texting, Web surfing and so on, but would go nuts if there was no electrical power available to run their devices. For them, heaven must be like an Amish retreat: no high tech. But you do not need nor want it in heaven. You have all you truly need. No more imperfect substitutions. The real thing – God – is now in your hands.

    Regarding the reprobate damned souls in hell, they put themselves there. God merely sanctioned and ratified their decision. There can be no sorrow in heaven if you have the beatific vision; hence, you cannot mourn the souls of family and friends who may have ended up in hell for eternity. That is not being hard or callous. Neither is it uncompassionate. The damned freely chose to turn their back on God. No one slips or trips into hell; they go with eyes open.

    Mortal sin requires deliberate consent of the free will and full knowledge, as well as grave matter. It is no accident and no mistake. So we cannot be sad for those who freely chose to forsake heaven. The irony is found in John Milton's poem Paradise Lost when Lucifer says 'far better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.' Lucifer chose to be the master of everlasting fire and torment rather than enjoy the bliss and peace of serving the Lord in heaven. Pure and sheer pride. Service in heaven is neither odious nor difficult; it is fun, enjoyable and rewarding.

    If we meditate often on the pains of hell (in order to avoid them) and even more often on the joys of heaven (in order to yearn for it with our whole heart and soul), it will be to our advantage. If heaven is just ambiguous or esoteric, we do not cultivate a hunger for it.

    What keeps people in medical school or law school or seminary? Is it not the light at the end of the tunnel? Do students not long for and desire the day of graduation? We must see heaven not as inevitable, but as possible. Desire it and go for it. Don't let anything or anyone prevent you from obtaining it. Salvation came at a great price. Don't squander the precious gift.
© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

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