On the Happiness of Heaven

And so it is true to say that the joy of heaven, because it consists in the possession of God, the possession of the Supreme Good and the Supremely Beautiful, consists at the same time in God, the Supremely Beautiful, turning towards the blessed individually, knowing that person, and delighting in that knowledge: "You ravish my heart, my sister, my promised bride, you ravish my heart with a single one of your glances, with one single pearl of your necklace." (Sg 4, 1-15; Cf. Sg 2, 13-14).

Of course, it is true that God has always known us, for His knowledge is the cause of whatever is. But in heaven we will know that we are known. As St. Paul says: "Then I shall know even as I have been known" (1 Cor 13, 12). Consider the reaction of the young teenager who has just learned that a certain girl has taken a keen interest in him, that she "likes him". He is overjoyed; he is radiant inside; he is given a new lease on life. And when he enters into a relationship with her, he begins to see himself from her point of view.

Similarly, when we "know even as we have been known", we see ourselves in God. In the book of Revelation, we read: "To those who prove victorious I will give the hidden manna and a white stone - a stone with a new name written on it, known only to the man who receives it" (Rev 2, 17). A name is one's identity, and a name given by God, known only to the man who receives it, is indicative of one's profoundest identity. In other words, God will reveal us to ourselves individually, and we will know ourselves in Him, as He knows us, and we will love ourselves perfectly, without any disorder or egoism, and between us will be a knowledge and intimacy, that is, an intimate space in which no one else may enter. Catholic poet Paul Claudel writes:

Then I shall know even as I have been known," says the Apostle. [1 Cor. 13:12] Then shall we see, as unity is seen in variety, the essential rhythm of that movement which is my soul, that measure which is my self. We will not only see it, we will be it, we will present ourselves in the fullness of freedom and knowledge and in the purity of a perfect love. From the bosom of the Lamb we will borrow our individuality, in order to have something to give to Him. In this bitter mortal existence the most poignant joys revealed to our nature are those which attend the creation of a soul by joining of two bodies. Alas, they are but the lowly image of that substantial embrace when the soul, having learned its name and purpose, will surrender itself with a word, will inhale and exhale itself in succession. O continuation of our heart, unutterable word! O dance divine!

All carnal possession is of limited span and duration; what are its transports compared to this royal wedding? "You have made your people feel hardships; you have given us stupefying wine." [Psalm 59:5] What is the seizing of an empire or of a woman's body in a ruthless embrace in comparison with this divine ravishment, like lime seizing sand, and what death (death, our very precious inheritance) grants us in the end so perfect a sacrifice, so generous a restoration, so fatherly and so loving a gift? Such is the reward promised to all the righteous, and this unprecedented wage which amazes the workers of the parable.

But in reality the dowry of each soul will differ from the next, like the will of which it is the embodiment, the purpose that gave it birth, and the one that gave it glory.13

And so it is true to say that the joy of being in love (eros) and having someone in love with you is a distant and faint echo of the intimacy between God and the blessed in heaven.

What would it be like to be completely forgotten such that no one knows you or your name anymore? One could not conceive of a greater suffering. There is a basic human goodness, an incalculable value, that belongs to each person created in the image and likeness of God that demands to be acknowledged, precisely because it is unique, true, good, and beautiful. Joy does not consist only in knowing something other than oneself, but also in being known and loved. In heaven, we will know that we are known, that is, beheld by One to whom no one else can be compared in beauty and goodness, and He will delight in each person's uniqueness, of which He is the cause. And so the joy will be incomparably greater than any kind of experience of being in love with some marvellously beautiful human being.

And so just as the Father loves the Son, and the Son in turn loves the Father, we too will be taken up into an eternal movement of love in which we delight in His happiness and in the perfect praise He receives from the Son, and in which we are delighted and touched that He has turned to us, taken a keen interest in us, and delights in us individually, and we love Him in return, forever.

Some of the greatest wounds that reside deep within adults have to do with broken relationships and unresolved issues with their own father, or their mother, their family or spouse. But the most significant human relationships in our lives, the relationship we have with our father, mother, family, or spouse, which are all meant to be a prelude to a perfect father's love, a perfect mother's love, the love of a perfect family, and the love of a perfect spouse, will be fully achieved in our union with the one Triune God. In heaven, when we are completely and directly brought into the inner life of the Trinity, we will know the joy of being loved by one who is more perfectly our Father than our own biological father. At the same time, we will know the joy of a perfect Mother's love: the Holy Spirit, the Uncreated Immaculate Conception, who delights eternally in the love between the Father and the Son. That mother's love will know us and take hold of us. At the same time, the joy that we long for of being known, loved, accepted, and embraced by a family, will be perfectly achieved within the inner life of the Trinity, the eternal and perfect family.

Rejoicing in the Happiness of the Blessed

In heaven we delight in the happiness of others, because we love them. We acknowledge their good and delight in it, that is, in their glory and happiness, because their happiness is one with God's; for there is only one happiness in heaven: "…that they may be one as we are one, Father" (Jn 17, 11). We delight in their glory because they glorify God, and we love them in God; for their glory is a proclamation of His glory, and although they add nothing to His greatness, they glorify Him and so they delight us. What they have become tells of God in some way we do not, and this is what we love. They will proclaim something that I do not, and I will delight in what they say, that they say it, that it belongs to them to say it, and that they are happy to say it. My praise of them, my reverence for them, will be a continuation of my praise and reverence of God. I will totally delight in their happiness, and I will rest in the knowledge that they are at rest, and of course their rest is God's rest in which they share. In heaven, it all begins and ends in God, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last (Rev 1, 8). And so our happiness for them is really a function of our happiness for God. He is pleased with them, and so we are pleased with them. That He is pleased with them makes them happy, and so that makes us happy as well - since we love them as much as we love ourselves (as another self). St. Anselm writes about this joy:

Now surely, if someone else whom you loved in every respect as you do yourself were also to have such happiness, then your own joy would be doubled; for you would rejoice for him no less than for yourself. And if two or three or many more persons were to have such happiness, you would rejoice for each of them as much as for yourself - assuming that you loved each as you do yourself. Therefore, in the case of that perfect love whereby countless happy angels and men shall each love the other no less than himself, each one shall rejoice for every other as much as for himself. So, then, if the heart of man shall scarcely be able to contain its own joy over its own so great good, how shall it be able to contain so many other equally immense joys?

Surely, each person rejoices in another's good fortune to the extent that he loves this other. Therefore, in that perfect happiness, just as each person will love God incomparably more than himself and all those who are with himself, so each will rejoice inestimably more over the happiness of God than over either his own happiness or that of all the others who are with himself. But if with all his heart, all his mind, and all his soul each [of the just] shall so love God that his whole heart, whole mind, and whole soul will not exhaust God's worthiness to be loved, surely with all his heart, all his mind, and all his soul each shall so rejoice that his whole heart, whole mind, and whole soul will not be able to contain the fullness of that joy.14

In heaven, there is a desire for the body, but this desire does not compete with the desire for God. The desire for a body is nothing but a function of one's love for God. St. Bernard explains this:

What of the souls already released from their bodies? We believe that they are overwhelmed in that vast sea of eternal light and of luminous eternity. But no one denies that they still hope and desire to receive their bodies again: whence it is plain that they are not yet wholly transformed, and that something of self remains yet unsurrendered. Not until death is swallowed up in victory, and perennial light overflows the uttermost bounds of darkness, not until celestial glory clothes our bodies, can our souls be freed entirely from self and give themselves up to God. …the spirit would not yearn for reunion with the flesh if without the flesh it could be consummated….The body is a help to the soul that loves God, even when it is ill, even when it is dead, and all the more when it is raised again from the dead: for illness is an aid to penitence; death is the gate of rest; and the resurrection will bring consummation. So, rightly, the soul would not be perfected without the body, since she recognizes that in every condition it has been needful to her good.15

There is nothing in heaven the desire of which competes with the desire for God. Whatever we love in heaven, we do so only insofar as it has reference to God, that is, in so far as it is a function of our love for God, or better yet, God's love for Himself. Whatever we see with the glorified body is beheld differently because of our union with God. And that is something we already experience here. Without God, creation becomes nauseatingly empty: "Now I see: I recall better what I felt the other day at the seashore when I held the pebble. It was a sort of sweetish sickness. How unpleasant it was! It came from the stone, I'm sure of it, it passed from the stone to my hand. Yes, that's it, that's just it - a sort of nausea in the hands" (Sartre, Nausea, p. 10-11). But the more we are immersed in God, the more beautiful creation becomes for us. We see it for what it really is. And so just as "the heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft" (Ps 19, 2), so too in heaven, creation continues to proclaim His glory: "Dew and rain, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Frost and chill, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Ice and snow, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever… Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever" (Dn 3, 68-70; 76). These will praise and exalt him above all and forever, eternally, and the blessed in heaven will love them for that reason, in Him in other words; for the blessed, more than ever before, see creation for what it really is, namely a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. Just as a person in love sees the face of his beloved everywhere, so too wherever one looks and whatever one hears or touches, one perceives what he loves principally, which is God.

Concluding Thoughts

If the above is true, it follows that the envious, or the proud, or simply those who love ultimately for the sake of themselves despite appearances to the contrary, will not be able to come to a genuine appreciation of the happiness of the blessed, because they don't know disinterested love, and the happiness of heaven consists in precisely this kind of love. And because it consists in precisely this kind of love, the preparation for heaven is arduous and difficult, because it is ultimately about learning to love, or better yet, learning to lose oneself: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt 16, 25)16

Love is difficult and requires a great deal of time, tribulation, suffering, as well as prayer and reflection on divine providence. William of St. Thierry writes:

For through this picturing of your passion, O Christ, our pondering on the good that you have wrought for us leads us forthwith to love the highest good. That good you make us see in the work of salvation, not by an understanding arising from human effort nor by the eyes of our mind that tremble and shrink from your light, but by the peaceful experience of love, and by the good use of our sight and enjoyment of your sweetness, while your wisdom sweetly orders our affairs. ...In sweet meditation on the wonderful sacrament of your passion she muses on the good that you have wrought on our behalf, the good that is as great as you yourself are great, the good that is yourself. She seems to herself to see you face to face when you thus show her, in the cross and in the work of your salvation, the face of the ultimate Good. The cross itself becomes for her the face of a mind that is well-disposed toward God.17

The achievement of love requires tribulation and suffering only because inordinate love of self is almost invisible to the one who has it and is far more difficult to uproot - and requires much more time - than the uprooting of a large oak tree, for example.

But now is the only time to begin doing that difficult work: "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Co 6, 2). Unless a person strives with the utmost effort to enter into the narrow gate of pure disinterested love of God, a gate so small that only a child may enter, one dies unprepared and ill disposed to enjoy the company of the saints, who will inevitably appear as a company of strangers.


1 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, ch. 5. [Back]

2 Sermons of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Serm. 16, 4. Second Sunday of Lent. [Back]

3 Joseph Owens writes: "…for Aquinas, a thing can have three ways of existing. Its first and most fundamental way of existence is in the divine intellect. There it is the same in reality as the divine essence, differing only in concept. The second way is by existing in itself, or in an angelic mind. Both these types of existence depend immediately upon the first type. The third way of existing is in the human intellect, and is based immediately upon the existence of the things in themselves. The existence of things in the divine intellect is accordingly for Aquinas a much stronger and more perfect existence than their existence in themselves. It is prior to the real existence in the created world, and not dependent on it. It is an existence that lasts forever, because it is really identical with the creative essence. This eternal existence of things may be found instinctively surmised at times. On the death of a family pet dog known from their earliest conscious years, children will react with the spontaneous conviction that some day they will be with Heidi again. Browning was able to write in his poem "Abt Vogler": "There never shall be one lost good; what was, shall be as before." Both the instinctive reaction and the poetic inspiration seem well grounded in reality when they are assessed from the viewpoints of Aquinas' metaphysics. In its highest point of elevation the existence of every creature is eternal. …all things whatsoever have eternal existence in the divine creative intellect, and that this is the highest type of existence they can have.

All things, it will mean, are possessed in the beatific vision of the divine creative essence. They are possessed cognitionally in it in their highest kind of existence. Anything missed or sacrificed for the sake of the right or the holy is accordingly never lost. Rather, eternal possession of it is assured. "Possession," in fact, may be a weak word here. The "possession" consists in being those things cognitionally, and not in the comparatively weak way of a cognition that follows upon and is dependent upon the things in their sensible existence. Rather, it is like the angelic cognition in having them as objects in their highest way of being. In the gradated orders of existence listed by Aquinas the existence of things in the divine intellect is prior to their existence in themselves, while their existence in themselves is prior to their existence in present human cognition. It is not hard to see in this perspective the definitive answer to the objection that contemplation is a shadowy and unreal possession of things, like having them in a day dream. On the contrary, just as existence for sensible things in themselves is real in comparison with their cognitional existence in the human mind at present, so their existence in the beatific cognition is of a higher type than their real existence just in themselves. It is in this sense that "every perfection of things good" is attained in the beatific contemplation, when explained in the metaphysical perspective of Aquinas." Human Destiny: Some Problems for Catholic Philosophy. The Catholic University of America Press, 1985. p. 45-46 [Back]

4 "How great is the sweetness which a soul experiences when, in the time of prayer, God, by a ray of his own light, shows to her his goodness and his mercies towards her, and particularly the love which Jesus Christ has borne to her in his passion! She feels her heart melting and as it were dissolved through love. But in this life we do not see God as he really is: we see him as it were in the dark". St. Alphonsus Liguori, op.cit., 16, 6. [Back]

5 Ibid., 16, 8. In the same sermon, he writes: "They shall be inebriated with the plenty of thy house" - Ps., xxxv. 9. In beholding the beauty of God, the soul shall be so inflamed and so inebriated with divine love, that she shall remain happily lost in God; for she shall entirely forget herself, and for all eternity shall think only of loving and praising the immense good which she shall possess for ever, without the fear of having it in her power ever to lose it. 16, 8. [Back]

6 St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God, ch. 11. [Back]

7 Quoted in On Prayer: Spiritual Instructions on the Various States of Prayer According to the Doctrine of Bossuet Bishop of Meaux 1931. London: Burns and Oates & Washbourne, 1931. p. 90. He also writes: "It is said that Christians have become accustomed to seek God only for their interest and beatitude: but who has accustomed them? Not the Bishop of Meaux, who set himself to show from the Scriptures, from the holy doctors and most of all from S. Augustine, that the love which we bear to God as a beatifying object (that is, as the source of our happiness), necessarily presupposes the love we have for him because of his perfections and his infinite lovableness, without which charity itself would no longer exist, bereft of its principal object, which is the excellence of the divine nature." Ibid., p. 90-91. [Back]

8 On Loving God, ch. 9. [Back]

9 St. Bernard also writes: "How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree of love, wherein one loves himself only in God! …In Him should all our affections center, so that in all things we should seek only to do His will, not to please ourselves. And real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in gaining transient pleasures, but in accomplishing God's will for us….To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red-hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated as to be light itself; so in the saints all human affections melt away by some unspeakable transmutation into the will of God. For how could God be all in all, if anything merely human remained in man? The substance will endure, but in another beauty, a higher power, a greater glory." Ibid., ch. 10. [Back]

10 The distance between the creature and God is an infinite distance, and so nothing but the Divine Nature Itself, which is infinite, can bridge that infinite distance. [Back]

11 St. Francis de Sales writes: "the height of love's ecstasy is to have our will not in its own contentment but in God's". Treatise on the Love of God. Bk 6, ch. 2. [Back]

12 St. Francis de Sales writes: "The great Solomon describes, in an admirably delicious manner, the loves of the Saviour and the devout soul, in that divine work which for its excellent sweetness is named the Canticle of Canticles....Now making the spouse or bride begin first by manner of a certain surprise of love, he first puts into her mouth this ejaculation: Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. Notice, Theotimus, how the soul, in the person of this shepherdess, has but the one aim, in the first expression of her desire, of a chaste union with her spouse, protesting that it is the only end of her ambition and the only thing she aspires after; for, I pray you, what other thing would this first sigh intimate?...A kiss from all ages as by natural instinct has been employed to represent perfect love, that is, the union of hearts, and not without cause: we express and make known our passions and the movements which our souls have in common with the animals, by our eyes, eyebrows, forehead and the rest of our countenance....And thus one mouth is applied to another in kissing to testify that we would desire to pour out one soul into the other, to unite them reciprocally in a perfect union." Treatise on the Love of God, bk 1, ch. 9. [Back]

 Paul Claudel. I Believe in God: A Meditation on the Apostle's Creed. ed. Agnes Du Sarment. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York:. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. p 298-299. He writes: "Such is this new name mentioned in the Bible, this proper name by which we have been called unto eternal life, this unutterable name which always remains a secret between the Creator and us, and which is imparted to no other. To learn this name is to understand our own nature, to be sustained by our own raison d'etre. Like a word made up of vowels and consonants, our soul draws from God with each breath the fullness of its resonance. Thus, for the soul, birth will be identical with understanding, with a fully illuminated awareness". Ibid., p. 309. [Back]

14 Proslogion, ch. 25. In the same chapter, he writes: "Do you delight in friendship? They shall love God more than themselves and shall love one another as themselves; and God shall love them more than they love themselves. For through Him they shall love Him and themselves and one another; but He loves Himself and them through Himself. Do you want unison? They shall all have one will, because they shall have no will except the will of God. Do you desire power? They shall be all-powerful in will, even as God is all-powerful in will. For as God is able to do through Himself that which He wills, so they shall be able to do through Him that which they shall will. For as they shall will nothing other than He shall will, so He shall will whatever they shall will. And what He shall will must come to pass. Do honor and riches delight you? God shall set His good and faithful servants over many things; indeed, they shall be, as well as be called, sons of God and gods. And where His Son shall be, there they too shall be, for they are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. Do you want true security? Surely they shall be certain that they shall never in any way lack these many goods - or rather this one Good - even as they shall be certain (1) that they shall not lose it of their own free wills, (2) that God, who loves them, shall not rend it away from them against their wills while they are loving Him, and (3) that nothing more powerful than God shall separate them from God against their wills. But where goodness of such quality and of such enormity is present, how rich and how extensive must be the corresponding joy! O human heart, heart beset with need, heart versed in tribulation - yea, overwhelmed with tribulation - how much you would rejoice were you to abound in all these goods!" Anselm of Canterbury, Volume One, edited and translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert W. Richardson. Toronto, Edwin Mellen Press, 1974. [Back]

15 On Loving God, ch. 11. [Back]

16 "I know your longings and I have heard your frequent sighs. Already you wish to be in the liberty of the glory of the sons of God. Already you desire the delights of the eternal home, the heavenly land that is full of joy. But that hour is not yet come. There remains yet another hour, a time of war, of labor, and of trial. You long to be filled with the highest good, but you cannot attain it now. I am that sovereign Good. Await Me, until the kingdom of God shall come.

You must still be tried on earth, and exercised in many things. Consolation will sometimes be given you, but the complete fullness of it is not granted. Take courage, therefore, and be strong both to do and to suffer what is contrary to nature.

You must put on the new man. You must be changed into another man. You must often do the things you do not wish to do and forego those you do wish. What pleases others will succeed; what pleases you will not. The words of others will be heard; what you say will be accounted as nothing. Others will ask and receive; you will ask and not receive. Others will gain great fame among men; about you nothing will be said. To others the doing of this or that will be entrusted; you will be judged useless. At all this nature will sometimes be sad, and it will be a great thing if you bear this sadness in silence. For in these and many similar ways the faithful servant of the Lord is wont to be tried, to see how far he can deny himself and break himself in all things….

Bow humbly, therefore, under the will of all, and do not heed who said this or commanded that. But let it be your special care when something is commanded, or even hinted at, whether by a superior or an inferior or an equal, that you take it in good part and try honestly to perform it. Let one person seek one thing and another something else. Let one glory in this, another in that, and both be praised a thousand times over. But as for you, rejoice neither in one or the other, but only in contempt of yourself and in My pleasure and honor. Let this be your wish: That whether in life or in death God may be glorified in you." Imitation of Christ, bk 3, ch. 49. [Back]

17 William of St. Thierry, On Contemplating God, Prayer, Meditations, Meditation 10:7. [Back]

1, 2,