Faith & Thought

Father Michael Himes and ‘The Beatific Vision’

I think I first heard the words “the beatific vision” in grammar school, and it was used to name the experience we will have of God in heaven. I do not recall what grade I was in when the teacher used the words, but I do recall having an image of a gigantic screen, something like a movie screen, and all of us in heaven would be looking at that screen which somehow had an image of God on it. 

It was not long before I realized the weakness, indeed the error, of the image I had of the beatific vision. However, for years the image entered into my mind whenever I heard the term, “the beatific vision,” even though I knew the image was erroneous. Images that we embrace when we are very young are not easy to be rid of, even when we know the images do not express well the truth. 

Another example I think of is the image of God the Father that Michelangelo left us. The image of God the Father that Michelangelo painted was of an old man with a white beard. I know God the Father is not an old man with a white beard, but frequently when I pray the Our Father the image enters my mind. 

One of the most interesting and stimulating sections in Michael Himes’ “Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service” (New York: Paulist Press, 1995, 152 pp., $12.95) is the section in which Michael discusses “the beatific vision.” He writes the following: 

“The Christian theological tradition speaks about ‘the beatific vision,’ and the joy of that vision. I suggest that we not think of the beatific vision as our seeing God face to face, as if God were another one ‘out there’ at whom I look. 

“Rather, think of the beatific vision as a way of seeing. That is to say, instead of our seeing God, we begin to see as God sees. And what God sees is a universe in which everything is you and nothing is it, everything is that other which God is loving into being as good. Seeing the world that way is union with God. 

“God is not the object of beatific vision. God is the style of vision which is beatific. We are called to see as God sees. … God has looked on creation and seen that it is good. And we are invited to look at the universe in the same way and make the same judgment. 

“Whatever the occasion — the person, thing, place or event — which enables you to see the other as other and so to see the other as held in being by absolute love, that occasion is what we mean by sacrament. This idea of sacramental vision is what holds together the whole understanding of Christianity. It is what is catholic about being Catholic” (pp. 112-113). 

As I have been writing this series commenting on the theology of Father Michael Himes, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, has been going through my head. The title of the poem is “God’s Grandeur.” The following is the poem: 

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then not reck his rod? / Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. / And for all this nature is never spent; / There lives the deepest freshness deep down things; / And though the last lights off the black West went / Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — / Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” 

I cannot be sure of this, but I suspect that Father Michael Himes knew this Hopkins poem well. And I suspect he may have thought of it, perhaps frequently, as he was putting together his book. 

Why do I suspect that? Because what Michael has written as theology, Hopkins has expressed poetically. Both Himes and Hopkins believed in a world that, because of Christ’s self-gift, was radically sacramental. 

The poem was recited at my first Mass the morning after I was ordained a priest. Msgr. Gene Molloy, one of my heroes who guided me to the priesthood, recited the poem as part of his homily. 

I think that is one reason that the poem is special to me. I have a copy of the homily. Though Msgr. Molloy’s homily was delivered more than 60 years ago, I can vividly recall the experience of hearing it.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.