On the Happiness of Heaven

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

The happiness of heaven exceeds our ability to imagine and articulate. For St. Paul says: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Co 2, 9). But just as we can come to some understanding of God indirectly, that is, by considering what He is not, so too can we come to a very real understanding of the happiness of heaven by a similar negative method, that is, by coming to understand what happiness is and what the happiness of heaven is not. Allow me to begin with a few points on human happiness.

A person is an individual substance of a rational nature (Boethius). A man is a person. He has the capacity to know and to love. Knowledge and love are two ways that the human person expands or becomes larger, and happiness has everything to do with personal expansion or enlargement.

To know something outside of you, such as the oak tree in your front yard, is to be united to it in a certain way. Knowledge is in you, and so the thing you know (oak tree) is in you, but not in the same way it exists outside of you - i.e., the oak tree does not exist in you physically, but mentally (as a concept). The tree, or whatever it is we are knowing, exists in the mind immaterially, which is why Aristotle said that the mind becomes in a way all things.

In other words, in knowledge, you and I become something other than ourselves without ceasing to be ourselves. And so knowledge is a kind of expansion or enlargement of the self. And as Aristotle says in his first line of his Metaphysics, "all men by nature desire to know". In other words, all men by nature desire to become more than they are.

The difference between knowing and eating is that eating results in the destruction of its object, while knowledge does not. Moreover, eating results in the physical enlargement of the self, while knowledge brings about a spiritual or mental expansion.

The reason all men by nature desire to know is that "good" is a property of being. Just as rationality is a property of man, and growth is a property of living things, so too is "good" a property of being, so that whatever exists is good, in so far as it exists. The good is an object of desire, and all things desire, at a basic level, to be most fully, which is why plants strive to keep themselves alive via nutrition and why animals hunt for food and run from danger, etc. And that is why man desires to know, because knowledge is a way to exist more fully, that is, to be more than what one currently is. It is a way to be more perfectly.

It follows from the above that man naturally loves himself; for to love another is to will the good of another. We naturally will the best for ourselves, that is, we naturally will our own perfection. Now, we know ourselves as persons with the capacity for knowing, and so we know ourselves as incomplete and thus open to expansion. We also know others as beings of the same nature as ourselves, that is, as human persons. But we don't necessarily love them as we love ourselves. To love them as another self is to will the best for them as we will the best for ourselves. And just as we will the best for ourselves for our own sake, to love another as another self is to will his good for his sake, not for the sake of what that might do for me. But to love the other as another self is something that one can only decide to do or not to do; it is not something that occurs necessarily, but by choice.

To decide to love the other as another self, however, is to become that person without ceasing to be myself. In love, I exist as him. His good has become my good, and so if I love him, I rejoice in his well-being.

This too is a kind of self-expansion, an enlargement of the self. If I refuse to love the other for his sake, but choose, rather, to love myself for my sake and the other only for what he or she does for me, then I do not love the other as another self. And so I have not become the other; I have not expanded. My love for the other is much like my love for food, which I love for my sake, not for the good of the food; for we do not destroy what we love, but we destroy food in the process of eating it. The love we have for food and drink is nothing more than self-love.

And so true disinterested love is the love of the other for his sake, not for my sake, and it is this love that achieves a real enlargement of the self. Now to exist is good, but to exist more fully is better. And so a rational kind of existence is better than a non-rational kind of existence; it is better to be a person than to be a plant. And since happiness is another word for "well-being", happiness has to do with being most fully. To be happy is to exist well.

Now, to know is good, but to know and love is even better. It follows that the greater our knowledge and love, the larger we are, and thus the happier we are.

There is something more noble about love of another than knowledge considered by itself. When something is known, it exists in me in a new way. But when I love another person as another self, I exist outside myself as him, without ceasing to be myself. And so love involves a kind of ecstasy. The very word ecstasy comes from the Greek, exstasis, which means "to be outside oneself". In order to love someone as another self, I have to first know him as someone like myself, and so the self-expansion involved in the love of another can only occur in addition to the self-expansion involved in knowing. Hence, love achieves a greater self-expansion than does knowledge alone. That is why we all agree that a knowledgeable person is not necessarily a good or noble person.

And so the more we love others for their sake (disinterestedly), the larger we become and thus the better we become. Hence, the happier we become. The more we "exit" ourselves in a genuinely disinterested love of the other, the more ecstatic life becomes.

Notice how this rings true to our own experience. If I truly love another, such as my daughter, as another me, then her happiness becomes my own, and so I genuinely delight in her well-being. When she is happy, I am happy. Consider someone you truly love and recall how happy you are to discover that this person has become truly happy. The more people we love with this kind of selfless love, it only follows that the happier we will become, for our happiness will be doubled, and tripled, and quadrupled, etc.

There are a variety of ways to become more than what one currently is. This is another way of saying that there are certain intrinsic goods that perfect us as human persons. One's own physical life can become better, or healthier. The possession of truth, as we said above, involves an expansion of the self, whether that turns out to be scientific, historical, philosophical, or theological truth, etc. One is raised up or taken outside of oneself (exstasis) through the contemplation of the beautiful, as we might find in beautiful music, poetry, scenery, photography, or paintings, etc. The production of works and the development of our natural talents for certain activities (mechanical, musical, athletic, etc.) perfects us as human persons.

Of course we become more than what we are considered individually through relationships grounded in love, such as friendships, acquaintances, and in our relationship to our parents and particularly to the civil community as a whole. In fact, an element of our own happiness is the feeling of having a debt that cannot be paid. Without that feeling, one lacks gratitude, and without gratitude, our relationship to our parents and to the civil community as a whole is not what is can and ought to be.

In marriage, two become one flesh, one body, something much more than an individual considered in himself. Moral integrity, which is the harmony that exists between reason and one's choices, is a higher good than any of the previously mentioned, and it is fundamentally related to the highest intrinsic human good, which is the virtue of religion, which is the virtue by which one renders due worship and reverence to God, the source of all that is good and who is Goodness Itself.

Those who choose to love the good itself, not merely their own private good, will be moved to seek the giver behind the gifts that enrich their lives and of which they know they are not the cause. And so on a natural level they seek the face of God: "Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbor. He shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves him. Such are the men who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob" (Ps 24, 3-6).

To seek to know God, to seek His approval, is to seek His face. But we cannot find it directly on our own. Nevertheless, something of His face is discerned in his effects, just as we form an image of a person's face, whom we've never met, in the reading of his correspondence, or in his works: "For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made" (Rm 1, 19-20). Moreover, as St. Bernard writes: "Reason and natural justice alike move me to give up myself wholly to loving Him to whom I owe all that I have and am. But faith shows me that I should love Him far more than I love myself, as I come to realize that He hath given me not my own life only, but even Himself. Yet, before the time of full revelation had come, before the Word was made flesh, died on the Cross, came forth from the grave, and returned to His Father; before God had shown us how much He loved us by all this plenitude of grace, the commandment had been uttered, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy might' (Deut. 6:5), that is, with all thy being, all thy knowledge, all thy powers. And it was not unjust for God to claim this from His own work and gifts. Why should not the creature love his Creator, who gave him the power to love? Why should he not love Him with all his being, since it is by His gift alone that he can do anything that is good?"1

The Happiness of Heaven (the Beatific Vision)

Although we might seek the face of God as the cause of all the goods of the physical universe, knowing God intuitively or directly, as He is in Himself, exceeds the capacity of human nature. This means that we depend on God to freely and gratuitously grant us a sharing in His divine nature (grace), which is supernatural. But this dependency on the gratuity of another - in this case God's gratuitous self-giving - is something that we already know through our natural friendships, as well as through our parents and the social whole. Our natural happiness, which is an imperfect happiness, is dependent upon the gratuitous self-giving of others, for we cannot force anyone to receive our love, that is, to be our friends; love isn't love unless it is freely given. And we know the feeling of having a debt that cannot be paid in full, both with respect to our parents as well as to the civil community as a whole, in particular with regard to the sacrifices of countless others (i.e., soldiers) who have gone before us, etc., and that feeling, which when welcomed translates into gratitude, is also an element of our happiness.

How much more is this gratuitous element and the feeling of having a debt that cannot be fully repaid an essential part of the supernatural happiness that comes from knowing and loving God directly in the Beatific Vision? And so man's complete and utter fulfillment consists in the possession of God through direct knowledge and love, and this depends upon the divine initiative to lift him beyond the powers of his limited nature through divine grace and reveal Himself to him in the Beatific Vision. St. Alphonsus Liguori writes: "The glory of heaven consists in seeing and loving God face to face….The reward which God promises to us, does not consist altogether in the beauty, the harmony, and other advantages of the city of Paradise. God himself, whom the saints are allowed to behold, is, according to the promise made to Abraham, the principal reward of the just in heaven."2

God is the source of all that is good, and since the effect cannot exceed the cause, He contains within Himself all the perfections of the created order. These perfections exist in God as God. For example, beauty exists in God not as a property, but as God. And so God is Beauty Itself. And since God is without limits, God is Beauty without limit. It follows that there is no beauty that can exist which exceeds the beauty of God.

So too is God Goodness Itself, as well as Truth Itself. To know Truth Itself and to possess Goodness Itself and to contemplate Beauty Itself is to achieve a perfect and unimaginable happiness. It is simply not possible to desire other finite goods for our own fulfillment, goods that are not God, when we possess the Supreme, Perfect, and Unlimited Good.3

It is possible for us to get a tiny glimpse of this through prayer - at least a certain level and intensity of prayer.4 Sometimes a person becomes so entranced by the goodness and beauty of God in prayer, a goodness and beauty that he or she has come to apprehend through a life of faith and the light that belongs to faith, that he or she desires nothing else but to rest in God for as long as possible. At such times, one does not wish to engage in any kind of activity except that of prayer, which at this level is a resting in God. It is at such times that one begins to understand that the happiness of heaven is a perfect resting in God (Cf. Heb 3, 11).

But this rest does not imply a cessation of desire. Rather, it involves a cessation of a certain kind of desire, that is, desire that is part and parcel of the state of imperfection, that is, the state of being on the way to God. In heaven, one does not desire the perfect good as if one does not possess it, but one desires God in a way that is consistent with the possession of God. St. Alphonsus Liguori writes:

But the joys of Paradise constantly satiate and content the heart. "I shall be satisfied when thy glory shall appear" (Ps 16, 15). And though they satiate, they always appear to be as new as the first time they were experienced: they are always enjoyed and always desired, always desired and always possessed. "Satiety", says St. Gregory, "accompanies desire" (Mor., bk 18, ch. 18). Thus, the desires of the saints in Paradise do not beget pain, because they are always satisfied; and satiety does not produce disgust, because it is always accompanied with desire. Hence the soul shall be always satiated and always thirsty: she shall be for ever thirsty and always satiated with delights.5

St. Bernard also writes: "Here indeed is appeasement without weariness: here never-quenched thirst for knowledge, without distress; here eternal and infinite desire which knows no want; here, finally, is that sober inebriation which comes not from drinking new wine but from enjoying God".6

But all this does not really capture the happiness of heaven from the inside, so to speak. Yet I believe we can do so, to some extent at least, by analogy, and the best place to begin is by considering the happiness or ecstasy that results from a genuinely disinterested love.

To love another disinterestedly, as we said above, is to will his good, at least as much as I will my own. To will his good is to will that he be most fully (to be fully good, and fully beautiful). Obviously this includes the will that the other know his goodness and delight in it, that is, to be happy. To know that the one we love is as happy as he deserves to be makes us happy, if we truly love him.

Now, to praise another is to acknowledge his goodness. Praising another expresses the delight we take in his goodness. If the other does not delight in his own goodness because he is not fully aware of it, we praise him in order to acknowledge what he has yet to acknowledge, because we want him - or her, of course - to delight or rejoice in that goodness. We praise our children because we want them to know their own goodness as we know it and to be as happy as they deserve to be. To praise another genuinely is to share in his happiness, or to help make him as happy as we'd like him to be - as happy as we are, if not more so.

There is a certain oneness in this - one knowledge (he and I both know his goodness), and one joy (he and I both rejoice in his goodness). In other words, I delight in his glory, and if his goodness is recognized by others, I delight in that acknowledgment, that he is being praised by others as he deserves. Moreover, I delight also that his happiness is increasing in this very acknowledgment and praise; for he is happy that he has pleased us, because he loves us too and does not want only to please himself. He is good, and so he wants that goodness to spread out beyond himself to others. He delights that we are delighted, and we are delighted that he is delighted and that his delight has been increased. We also may hope that it continues to increase, and knowing that it will only renders us increasingly happy.

That Our Principal Happiness in Heaven is in the Happiness of God

Charity is disinterested love of God. It is an intimate love of God under the aspect of personal friendship. Now friendship implies a certain common quality, and thus a certain equality. Divine grace is precisely this common quality that brings about a certain equality of sorts; for divine grace is a sharing in the divine nature. By divine grace we are raised to a supernatural level without ceasing to be human. In other words, grace renders us holy, and God is Holiness Itself.

Charity is the love of God for God's sake, not for our own. To love with charity is to love God because He is supremely good and deserving of love. Bishop Bossuet wrote: "It is agreed with the majority of the School that Charity is a love of God for himself, independently of the Beatitude to be found in him."7

St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of the four degrees of love, beginning with the love of self, moving on to the love of God for the sake of myself, to the love of God because God is good in Himself, and finally to the love of self in God. He writes: The third degree of love… is to love God on His own account, solely because He is God."8 He continues: "The fourth degree of love is attained for ever when we love God only and supremely, when we do not even love ourselves except for God's sake; so that He Himself is the reward of them that love Him, the everlasting reward of an everlasting love."9

If we love God for His sake, we have "become Him" without ceasing to be ourselves; for all disinterested love is a "becoming the beloved" and thus a self-expansion. This "exit of self" towards "becoming Him" is only possible through His grace, for it is only through Him (His grace, which is a sharing in His divine nature) that we can "go out to meet Him" to love Him as another "self".10 God loves Himself in us. We do not will that He become most fully the Person He is meant to be, because He is that eternally. But we will His Supreme Goodness, we know It, affirm It, praise It, and delight in It, which He is perfectly and eternally. He is eternally and perfectly happy, and so we are happy that He is perfectly and eternally happy as He deserves and as no other creature deserves to be.

Hence, we share in His infinite happiness. That happiness is our greatest happiness.11 That He is joyful, that He is Joy Itself, renders us full of joy. The blessed see his glory, and they are happy that He is glorified in heaven and that all praise Him for His supreme goodness, for His mercy, His justice, His Love, His wisdom, His generosity, etc. That He is praised by so many only increases our joy.

And God is pleased by our praise, which adds nothing to His greatness, but He is pleased nonetheless, because He loves us, and our praise is good for us, although we praise Him not for our sake, but on account of Him. That He is pleased with us serves to increase our delight, because we love Him and want Him to be pleased, as a child is pleased that his father is pleased with him; for he loves his father and wants to please him. Hence, we are of one love, of one happiness, of one joy. This one joy is God's happiness, and it is God, since whatever is in God is identical to His Act of Existing. In short, His happiness is the cause of our joy; it is the principle of our happiness. That is why he says: "…Come, enter into your master's joy' (Mt 25, 21)." We do not enter into our own joy, but a joy that is larger than ourselves, for God cannot be contained.

Now, not even the entire host of heaven can praise God as much as God deserves to be praised and loved. And that could become a source of sadness for us; our joy would be imperfect if this state of affairs went unrectified. But it is the Son who offers Him perfect praise that measures up to what He is deserving of. And so we delight in the Son's love of the Father. Our happiness is complete in the knowledge of the Son's perfect love of the Father, His perfect praise of Him. But such worship of the Son is also deserving of immeasurable praise and glory in return, and so we delight in the knowledge of the Father's love of the Son. It is a perfect love, a love and praise equal to what He deserves.

That praise of the Son has planted Itself on earthly soil (Calvary), and so now the earth offers the Father, in the Son, fitting and perfect praise. Creation may now achieve perfection in him who praises the Father perfectly and loves all things on account of Him, and for Him, that He may be perfectly loved and praised. And the Father loves all things on account of the Son, Jesus Christ, and for him, that he may be loved, praised, and glorified. And so all things were created through him and for him: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him" (Col 1, 15-16).

The angels worship Him, and one angel's worship of Him is beautiful, but it does not do Him perfect justice, although He delights in it: "Lord, extolled in the heights by angelic powers, you are also praised by all earth's creatures, each in its own way. With all the splendor of heavenly worship, you still delight in such tokens of love as earth can offer. May heaven and earth together acclaim you as King. May the praise that is sung in heaven resound in the heart of every creature on earth" (from Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer, Sunday Week III).

The entire hierarchy of angels offers Him fitting praise because it is total, and that worship increases our joy, because our joy is in His happiness. But that praise and worship does not measure up to what He fully deserves. For He is deserving of infinite and omnipotent praise, the praise that only He, the Lord, can give. God the Son praises the Father, loves the Father, adores the Father, offers Himself to Him, and the Father loves the Son and glorifies Him as He deserves. This mutual love of the Father and the Son is our life in heaven. It is All for everyone and everyone's All (1 Co 15, 28).

On the Joy of Being Known

Aristotle understood that man's greatest happiness consists in the contemplation of the highest things. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he writes: "...the activity of our intelligence constitutes the complete happiness of man,...So if it is true that intelligence is divine in comparison with man, then a life guided by intelligence is divine in comparison with human life. We must not follow those who advise us to have human thoughts, since we are only men, and mortal thoughts, as mortals should; on the contrary, we should try to become immortal as far as that is possible and do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest in us."

We believe this, of course, but we would tweak this slightly and say that man's perfect happiness consists in the contemplation of the highest being, who is Truth Itself, Goodness Itself, and Beauty Itself, that is, God Himself.

But this tells only half the story. The Jewish understanding of "knowledge" is very different than what we find in the world of the Greek thinkers, and when we consider it in light of the subject of our discussion, namely the happiness of heaven, I believe we come to a more complete picture of what the joy of heaven might involve.

For the Jews, to know is to experience, to taste, to enter into a kind of union that is best likened to the relationship between a bride and her groom. At the Annunciation, when the angel revealed to Mary that she will conceive and give birth to a son, she replied: "How can this be since I do not know man" (Lk 1, 34). In other words, Mary had not experienced sexual union with a man, for she was a virgin.

Moreover, to know another is to "convert", that is, to turn to him, to face him, that is, to see him. One turns towards what one loves. Sexual union involves the lover and beloved mutually facing one another. To love the poor, such as the widow and the orphan, is to "see" them, that is, to visit (visitare, visere) them.

Jesus pointed out that at the end of time, he will respond to certain others who will claim to have prophesied, exorcised demons, and worked miracles in his name: "I never knew you. Out of my sight, you evildoers!" (Mt 7, 23). In other words, these people did not allow Christ to enter into them, to know them, to visit them, that is, to live in them. "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him" (Jn 14, 23). In the book of Revelation, we read: "Here I stand, knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with me" (Rv 3, 20).

To possess truth, that is, to know, is to possess a person, and a bride possesses her husband by receiving him into herself, and he by entering into her. To know is to have entered into a relationship of love. That is why the sexual imagery of the Song of Songs is a fitting vehicle to describe more perfectly the relationship between God and Israel: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (Sg 1, 2)12; "I sleep, but my heart is awake. I hear my Beloved knocking. "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is covered with dew, my locks with the drops of night. I have taken off my tunic, am I to put it on again? I have washed my feet, am I to dirty them again?' My Beloved thrust his hand through the hole in the door; I trembled to the core of my being (Sg 5, 2-4).

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