Today is the day before All Saint’s Day, and so is also known as All Hallow’s Eve. There is a long-standing belief that at this time of year the fabric of the material world grows thinner and we mortals are closer to the heavenly realms than at other times. There is something in this intuition that rings very true. It is not so much that at All Hallow’s Eve the heavenly places actually ‘press in’ closer than they usually are, but that this is a time of year when we remember how fine the line between heaven and earth already is – we live in a world filled with things invisible as well as visible, and now is a time of year for remembering just how much of a reality the saints (and angels) are for us, how alive (indeed, how much more alive) they are, and in doing so, to facilitate a deeper communion with them.
But when we speak of the heavenly realms, the life enjoyed by the saints, what do we actually mean? It is of course true that we know very little of life in Heaven, and that most of what we say about it must therefore consist of negative language, affirming only how much we are at a loss to explain the extent to which life with God exceeds our earthly lives in depth of actuality and also in intensity of love (which are ultimately two ways of saying the same thing). But, grasping for this reality as we must, there have been some compelling attempts to communicate something of what the saints must enjoy; and one of the most exceptional examples is Dante’s Paradiso, the concluding lines of which strive to describe the ineffable:
So my mind, held in complete suspense,
Gazed fixedly, motionless and intent,
And always as if on fire with the gazing.
In that light a man becomes such
That it is impossible he should turn away
Ever to look upon any other thing.
Because the good, which is the object of the will,
Is there in its entirety; and outside of it
There is some defect in what there is perfect.
My language now will be more inadequate,
Even for what I remember, than would that
Of a child still bathing his tongue at the breast.
Not that there was more than a simple appearance
In the living light which I gazed upon
And which is always as it has always been;
It was my sight which was growing stronger
As I was looking; so what looked like one
Worked on me as I myself changed.
Paradiso XXXIII, 97-114 (trans. C. H. Sisson).
Dante’s attempt to turn his eyes heavenwards and describe what his poetic vision can discern provides us with several insights common to what Christianity has been able to say with a reasonable degree of confidence about Heaven. Firstly, that the vision of God in His true nature, unmediated by the things of His creation, is irresistible – Dante describes the beatific vision as something from which ‘it is impossible he should turn away ever to look upon any other thing’. Standing before God, it will be impossible for us to want anything else, and we would wonder with bemusement as to why we ever chose any lesser thing, if we were only able to think of anything else but Him.
Similarly, confronted with the fullness of God, we see in Him absolute Goodness, to the extent that anything outside of His being and will (which are one) has ‘some defect’ in it – when we have known perfection face to face, anything else will seem incomplete. As Saint John wrote, ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5) – all Beauty, all Truth, all Goodness subsist in the life of God, who is an eternal triune community of perfect and irresistible Love. No wonder we also read in Scripture that all those in Heaven continually sing His praises (c.f.; Revelation 4-5), and they do so because all their desires have been fulfilled in Him.
Dante draws attention to one more very important point here. He writes that the light of God (i.e.; God Himself) ‘is always as it has always been’ and that ‘it was my sight which was growing stronger as I was looking; so what looked like one worked on me as I myself changed.’ Our salvation is our sanctification – we are saved by the grace of God which gradually conforms us to the image of Christ and thus to the very life of God Himself (c.f.; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:4). This process remains incomplete for most of us by the end of our lives, which is what Purgatory is for, but this does not mean that the life of the saints in Heaven is static, that they stop growing in beatitude.
We are limited, finite beings, but just as (so we are told) we ordinarily only draw upon a relatively small amount of the potential of our brains, so it is not unreasonable to think that our souls are capable of experiencing a great deal more than they do here and now as well. What Dante points to – that his knowledge and experience of God was progressive, and that this was not because of any change in God but because his own capacity for knowing (and loving) was gradually being expanded and enhanced – is consonant with the intuitions of many throughout the ages who have sensed that the reason our desire for the things of God often exceeds our capacity to receive them is because our desires intuit a time when that capacity for reception will increase.
There is a passage in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia book which describes this process in vivid terms. Lewis emphasises the subjective nature of the experience even more so than Dante, so the description is in terms of how things appear to the one arriving in the new world. But in the context of the book as a whole, and what has been discussed so far, it serves as a very helpful imaginative tool for supposing what the expansion of our capacities when presented with the ultimate reality of Heaven might be like:
‘About half an hour later – or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here – Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. But when you looked down you found that this hill was much higher than you had thought: it sank down with shining cliffs, thousands of feet below them and trees in that lower world looked no bigger than grains of sea salt. Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.
“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”
“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”
Lucy looked hard at the garden, and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.
“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”’
The Last Battle (1990), pp.168-169, Lions.
That we might experience a continual deepening of our experience of and participation in the divine (which, we must remember, is not only a heightening of spiritual experience, but a heightening, however hard this may be for us to imagine now, of sensory experience) is not to say that we will in any way become infinite, that we may actually become absorbed into God’s way of being – our life in Heaven remains very much a participation, not an assimilation into God or involving any change in our fundamental nature. Nevertheless (and Saint Gregory of Nyssa has some interesting things to say about this) we can imagine some kind of expansion of our capacity for being that is far greater than what we know now.
Given that the life of the saints may be described, albeit incompletely and with great caution, as something akin to the above, how does this impact upon what we celebrate on All Saint’s Day? As today is a remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us, and of how full of life they are, a consideration of the exultant and rapturous mode of their being, with its ever-increasing possibilities for deepening our knowledge of and love for God, can provide us with a means for meditation upon at least two central aspects of the Faith.
Firstly, it reminds us of how real the saints are and also how ready they are to help us towards the kind of life they already enjoy. Remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us should be a motivation for us to recall that they are not only ever-present but ever-ready to assist, and that, as they are so intimately involved in the life and will of God, that their prayers are greatly efficacious in drawing us closer to Him (c.f.; James 5:16; Revelation 5:8). Secondly, it reminds us that drawing closer to God and readying ourselves for the hereafter should always be our priority. If life in Heaven is as vastly more joyous and incomparably more…well, life-like, than our mortal existence, then we should always be thinking of the heavenly life (c.f.; Colossians 3:1-4) and ordering our present lives to it. May the prayers of all the saints in glory help to guide us there.