Sunday, January 8, 2023

To See Him As He Is

There are a lot of things I can't remember in life, but I'll always remember the first time I read it. I'd graduated from college two days earlier, and in spite of the workload of all my final papers, I'd been reading a lot that year. Tackling some classics, too. And this was certainly a classic. I reached the end two days after graduation, and I would never be quite the same. The book I'm remembering was written just over seven centuries ago, in Italy, by a man named Dante Alighieri. And in the grand epic poem we today know as his Divine Comedy, he offers a sweeping and imaginative guided tour of the afterlife. Most people thinking of Dante think of the first third of his poem, the part titled Inferno – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” Dante's graphic vision of nine circles of hell, through which he pictures himself slowly descending to witness and interview the fates awaiting various kinds of sinners, has captivated the world's imagination ever since. Nearly forgotten in comparison – and I think it's tragic that they are – are the parts that follow, called Purgatorio and, lastly, Paradiso. In Paradiso, Dante recounts his imagined visit to heaven, ascending sphere by sphere and meeting virtuous and saintly souls.

But what captivated me was the end. Having reached the nine choirs of angels and seen the souls of the faithful enthroned like the petals of a brilliant rose around which the angels fly like bees, it seems that it couldn't get any better than that. But, of course, it can. The last half of the last chapter of the last poem finally reaches the end of Dante's tour. And who else is left to encounter in highest heaven but the One who made it all? “Oh grace abounding that had made me fit / to fix my eyes on the Eternal Light / until my vision was consumed in It! / I saw within Its depth how It conceives / all things in a single volume bound by Love, / of which the universe is the scattered leaves; / substance, accident, and their relation / so fused that all I say could do no more / than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation. / I think I saw the Universal Form / that binds these things, for as I speak these words, / I feel my joy swell and my spirits warm.”1

I remember, I tell you, the night I finished reading the Paradiso for the first time. “Experiencing that Radiance, the spirit / is so indrawn it is impossible / even to think of ever turning from It. / For the good which is the will's ultimate object / is all subsumed in It; and, being removed, / all is defective which in It is perfect.”2 As Dante imagines his encounter with the perfect and unchanging God – the 'Eternal Light,' the 'Universal Form,' the 'Living Radiance' – he realizes that it would be impossible to turn away, because this Light is all he wants to see, the ultimate aim of every human thought and every human desire. And soon, he begins to peer into God, and see the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation – and it was in reading and meditating on these lines, that night nearly thirteen years ago, that I wept tears of joy, and can barely hold them back as I read them now: “Within the depthless deep and clear existence / of that abyss of light, three circles shone - / three in color, one in circumference: / the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow; / the third, an exhalation of pure fire / equally breathed forth by the other two. / But oh, how much my words miss my conception, / which is itself so far from what I saw / that to call it feeble would be rank deception! / O Light Eternal fixed in Itself alone, / by Itself alone understood, which from Itself / loves and glows, self-knowing and self-known; / that second aureole which shone forth in Thee, / conceived as a reflection of the first - / or which appeared so to my scrutiny - / seemed in Itself of Its own coloration / to be painted with man's image. I fixed my eyes / on that alone in rapturous contemplation. / Like a geometer wholly dedicated / to squaring the circle, but who cannot find, / think as he may, the principle indicated - / so did I study the supernal face. / I yearned to know just how our image merges / into that circle, and how it there finds place; / but mine were not the wings for such a flight. / Yet, as I wished, the truth I wished for came / cleaving my mind in a great flash of light. / Here my powers rest from their high fantasy, / but already I could feel my being turned - / instinct and intellect balanced equally - / as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars - / by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”3

Why did I react as I did? Partly because of the profound theological subtleties Dante weaves into his verse – but partly also because of the way his writings, building to this wondrous climax, take up three related questions that I want to lay before you this morning. First question: “Where is the human journey meant to end?” That is, this road of life we're on – if we take the path we're supposed to take, where are we supposed to end up? What's the destination? Second question: “What will bring us true happiness and fulfillment?” What is it that makes a life a really good life? What satisfies our deepest longings? And then a third question: “What is any of this all about, anyway?” That is, why go through the trouble of living? What does it all mean? What's it for?

These are three questions we dare not suppress or ignore. All too often, though, we – or our neighbors – pass the days, the weeks, the years, the decades, and try their best to dodge such questions. And in refusing to pose these questions, we untether our lives from the pursuit of what's really true, really good, really beautiful.

A long time ago, there was a psalmist who didn't make that mistake. The author of Psalm 27 was living in hard times: “Evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh” (Psalm 27:2). “False witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence” (Psalm 27:12). It would have been frightening, if it weren't for the confidence of his faith in his God sustaining him. “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (Psalm 27:3). And the God in whom he trusts had given a command, given it to all and sundry: “Seek my face.” In return, the psalmist's heart replies: “Your face, O LORD, do I seek!” (Psalm 27:8). And so we catch the psalmist praying for three things to happen. First, his desire is “to inquire in his temple.” The word for 'inquire' there is very similar to 'seek.' He wants to keep seeking, and he wants his seeking to be in the right place, in the temple, in God's palace. Second, his desire is to “dwell in the House of the LORD all the days of my life.” At one level, he's looking for shelter and guidance, a refuge and help amidst his struggle with his enemies.4 But at another level, he's looking beyond that. The psalmist wants to finally find a restful home in God's heavenly palace. He wants to rest in God, to live with God, and never have to leave. In the face of this changing world, he wants an unchanging place he can't be forced out of. And third, his desire is “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4). Just like Dante imagined seeing into the Eternal Light of God, the psalmist wants to move into the temple and spend eternity gazing on God's beauty.

Almost two and a half centuries before Dante, another Christian writer – Anselm, the bishop of Canterbury in England – opened a very influential work of philosophy with a prayer inspired by Psalm 27. And here's what he said to God: “Never have I seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.… What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and yet cast off far from your face? He yearns to see you, and your countenance is too far away from him. He desires to come close to you, and your dwelling place is inaccessible. He longs to find you, and does not know where you are. … I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet accomplished what I was made for. How wretched man's lot is when he has lost that for which he was made!”5 Anselm was struggling with the distance between where he was – this world and its confusion, where we don't quite know where to find God, where we don't have access to God's heavenly palace, where we can't yet see God's face – and the deep-felt truth that he was made in order to see God and be with God forever.

The Apostle Paul talked about that distance, in one of the passages we read this morning. On the one hand, we are now wayfarers on the journey. And that, Paul says, is when spiritual gifts have their uses, to build up the church on the journey. But these things have their limits. “We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Right now, we live in a time and place of the partial. It's not nothing! It's not only distance, not only exile. But there's coming a day when the partial will yield ground to the perfect. Right now, our knowledge is partial: “Now I know in part.” Our knowledge is mixed with ignorance, assumption, even sometimes doubt. But at the end of the road, there's something more: “Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul compares the way we're going to know God, if we're faithful, as similar to the way God knows us – and that's only possible if God shares something with us of his own knowledge of his own essence, the “Self-Knowing and Self-Known.”6 That's what Dante was recounting: “the truth I wished for came, cleaving my mind in a great flash of light.”7

Paul also talks about our present perception being partial: “Now we see in a mirror dimly.” Our vision is dim and distorted. What we look at, even when we look to God, is somewhat of a cloudy reflection of who he is. It isn't directly at God we're able to look, but – like Moses – more at the after-effects of glory at his backside after he passes by (Exodus 33:20-23). “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” as Moses did, “but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The psalmist asked for it; now Paul says there's hope of getting it, when the partial gives way to the perfect.

And the Apostle John agrees, in the other passage we read this morning. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! And so we are” (1 John 3:1). If you're in Christ, you are a son or a daughter adopted into the family of the Almighty, the Most High, the Maker of the most distant stars, the Designer of the subatomic details that make up everything we see. Isn't that incredible? Isn't that dazzling, to be part of the family of God (as we're so fond of singing)? Aren't we so glad for it? It's an act of love, to be so adopted into such a family, that the Father chose to become our Father. He doesn't merely call us children, as if it were an inside joke, or a legal fiction. He has made us, truly and really and astonishingly, his children: “So we are.” But did you know that there's something even better?

St. John goes on: “We are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). It hasn't yet been revealed. All that the Bible has said? It has not told us what the next step is after becoming children of God. What we're going to become, what we're supposed to be made into, what our real destiny is, is beyond all that has been revealed, all that God told us through the apostles and the prophets. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him,” to borrow again from the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:9). If you receive that final transformation of grace, you will become something beyond everything your eye has ever seen. You will become something you've never even heard of. You will enter into a reality that outstrips everything your wildest imagination can concoct. God has prepared it already! Something greater is in store for us. “But we know that when he appears” – or, when it is revealed at last – “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). What God has prepared is for us to be like him, like Jesus.

And as if that weren't enough, St. John drops a bombshell when he explains how that transformation happens, and what it really means. “We shall be like him, because... we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Pause there, pause on those words. Really think about what John's saying. The transformation that takes us beyond children of God to something even more unimaginable, the transformation that makes us like God in ways we dare not begin to dream, comes about through seeing him. And not just seeing him as we imagine him, or as we reflect him, or as we see him in that dim and darkened mirror. It comes on the day we see him as he is, see him in his fullness face-to-face, see him in his very essence. In the way Moses was denied seeing God, in a way no mortal can survive seeing God, we will see God as he is, and that vision will change us.

In the Bible's last chapter, John makes sure we don't forget that, either. As John explores a new heaven and new earth, as he passes by the tree of life growing freely in the garden-city that's Eden and Jerusalem rolled into one, he finds that Genesis 3 is undone, and everything is back on track: “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3). “The Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Natural and artificial light become irrelevant when God's light shines everywhere, shines even in his people where curses are no more. In this perfect world, those who dwell with God are pictured as living forever and reigning forever, finally holding the dominion for which we were made, and more. And what's the secret heart of this? “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). It's such a simple phrase, we could easily miss it. But those who dwell with God in this new world are promised to see God's face, to see God as he really is, thanks to the light he shines. And that is what transforms us into our supernatural destiny. In that experience, in that beatific vision, we will at last reach total and complete blessedness, which is to perfectly possess the perfect good with a perfect grasp.8

Anselm dared to pray, “I was made in order to see you.” And seeing God is not something that we, as creatures, are capable of in our own bare nature. This is a supernatural destiny, a supernatural completeness beyond all we are. But that really is what we were made for. That really is what God means for us. And that's why I find Dante's poem so moving. Because through his vivid imagination, I feel like I can catch, for a fleeting moment, an infinitesimal glimpse. And though neither my heart nor Dante's heart can imagine how much higher and vaster and greater the truth really is, yet even that dim reflection of the Love that moves all things is moving.

We earlier faced the question, “Where is the human journey meant to end?” And the answer is, in seeing God as he really is. The human journey is meant to lead us to seeing God unveiled, seeing God with eyes that God alone can strengthen to behold his brightness. As was said more succinctly by somebody else: “The final end of human beings is the vision of God.”9 Seeing God as he is – that's our destination. Seeing God as he is – that's our goal. If our journey ends anywhere else, anywhere short of that, then we have missed our meaning. And if our journey is not guided in the direction of this destination, then that is the definition of being lost.

Another question we faced earlier: “What will bring us true fulfillment and happiness?” And the answer is, knowing and having God in a way that can't help but satisfy us so completely and so comprehensively. For to see God is to become light in his light, to be assimilated to his own blessedness, to be happy with his very own happiness, to live with his very own life, to love him with his very own love.10 Everything else we think will make us happy – well, on a merely natural level and in a merely temporary way, some of it might. But full satisfaction, soul satisfaction, isn't something we can find in the world. “You rouse [us] to take delight in praising you: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you”11 – that's what St. Augustine prayed over sixteen centuries ago, and it's no less true today. We are so made that nothing can give our hearts true rest until we rest them in God, and nothing can satisfy us perfectly except God's own delight in himself shared with us. Reaching it is what heaven is, where “the souls of all the saints... see the divine essence... plainly, clearly, and openly; and in this vision, they... are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest... without any interruption and without end, until the Last Judgment and from then on forever.”12

And then there's that other question: “What is any of this all about, anyway?” And the answer is, it's all about God's loving desire to share his blessedness, his perfect delight in perfectly possessing the perfect good – himself – with a perfect grasp – which is also himself. And so he made us so that he could elevate us even beyond what he made us by nature. He made us so that he could show himself to us and share himself with us. He made us so that knowing God directly and loving God unrestrainedly would make us as much like him as a creature could ever be, and indeed, far more than we find it possible to imagine. He made us so that his own life and love could be ours to savor eternally by this radical grace. He made us to see him as he is, and so to be made like him by having him and holding him, and therefore enjoying him forever. That is what it's all about.

Why does it matter that we know this? Because a pilgrim journey is all about its destination. And just by being human, we are on a journey that is supposed to lead us to this specific destiny, and it will be a tragedy if any of us end up anywhere else, and it would be madness for any of us to live so as to meander and wander in the desert when we could be hastening toward our promised land and our promised love. So for the first half of this year, we're going to spend our time together reflecting on the journey and on some ideas and practices that will hopefully be helpful in orienting us toward our destination and helping us to draw closer to it. But as you hear it, as you meditate on it, as you pray about it, I want you to keep your destination firmly in mind. Because if we do not hear these things and understand these things and use these things as part of a quest to see God as he is, then what good are all the sermons in the world? What good is anything, if you do not use it in keeping with what – and who – you're for? Our quest, our desire, is spoken of by the psalmist and Paul and John, by Augustine and Anselm and Dante: To be made into the people who see God as he is, to have our vision all consumed in the Eternal Light, and so to behold all things bound up in unity within the Love that is God. May you reach it!  May you enjoy this heavenly vision forever!  May you content yourself in the pursuit of nothing less than to see God as he is!

O God, Eternal Light, Self-Knowing and Self-Known, you Father who called us out of darkness into marvelous light, who even now declare us your children, and who has prepared for us a glory beyond all seeing and hearing and imagining:  Show us your glory!  Pour your light of glory onto our intellects, cradle our wills in the forge of your loving will, and enrapture us to a supernatural destiny which this life cannot contain or comprehend.  Though you are Creator and we are creatures, yet you love us more than our nature can hold, and so you purpose to open us up to your life, to your happiness, to your blessedness, in us.  Bring us where our natural powers fail, and grace us with your supernature.  From the wayfarers and pilgrims we are in this exile, make us then comprehenders fully at rest in you when we reach your heaven, there to gaze eternally on your beauty and there to be made more like you than we even dream.  Fit us for this beatific vision that will change us so.  Let us behold you at any and all costs, and make all our days and all our hours about pursuing the holy love whereby we can be the saints we are already called as, and so be ready to see you.  Turn us, by your love, from glory to glory, from light to light, until at last we find our perfect beatitude in perfecting having and holding you, whom we have already begun to glimpse in the face of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God-made-manifest.  Amen.

1  Dante, Paradiso 33.82-93, in John Ciardi, tr., Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (New American Library, 2003), 892.

2  Dante, Paradiso 33.100-105, in John Ciardi, tr., Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (New American Library, 2003), 892.

3  Dante, Paradiso 33.115-146, in John Ciardi, tr., Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (New American Library, 2003), 893-894.

4  Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 140.

5  Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion 1, in Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford University Press, 1998), 85.

6  Dante, Paradiso 33.126, in John Ciardi, tr., Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (New American Library, 2003), 893.

7  Dante, Paradiso 33.140-141, in John Ciardi, tr., Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (New American Library, 2003), 893.

8  Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 8.

9  Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 2018), 17.

10  Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 2019), 10.

11  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.1.1, in Thomas Williams, tr., Augustine: Confessions (Hackett Publishing Company, 2019), 1.

12  Pope Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus, 29 January 1336, in Heinrich Denzinger and Peter Hünermann, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 43rd ed. (Ignatius Press, 2012), 302-303.

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