The Beatific Vision

"Empyrean," by Gustave Dore, an illustration in Dante's "Divine Comedy"
“Empyrean,” by Gustave Dore, an illustration in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”

The whole point of trying to become a saint is to go straight to Heaven, right?  Skip Purgatory and see God face-to-face.  That’s what is called the “beatific vision,” a word I see coming up as the purpose of trying to live a life of holiness.  To confirm my deduction, I looked up the term in the Catholic Encyclopedia here and found its mention in the Catechism here.

I pray that I’m not causing scandal in others by asking this question: What’s so cool about the beatific vision?  I had been tackling this question for a while since I’ve accepted the universal call to holiness.  It didn’t make sense at first because I thought that in the person of Christ I was seeing God.  God the Father is abstract, but God the Son is visible.  Wasn’t looking at Christ on the Crucifix seeing God face-to-face?

The question went on the back-burner for a while as I pursued other avenues of the faith.  Now, that I’m back exploring the interior life and Catholic spirituality, I am seeing this term again.  Beatific vision.  Intellectually, I get that “seeing God face-to-face” should be awesome.  Yes, but what does that mean?  I get it up here (tapping head), but what does it mean here (pounding stomach)?

Praise the Holy Spirit for the gift of understanding (#2 of the Seven Gifts)!  One day, as I looked at Hana smiling back at me, I got the intuitive feeling of what it meant to have the beatific vision.  In her cute little mind, my face, my body… my person is, for her, a source of joy, happiness, mercy, comfort, and unconditional love.  My wife, her mother, is all that and more for Hana.  So, when the two of us walk into the home after a date, and Hana is squealing and simultaneously kicking both her chubby legs, it is as if she is besides herself with ecstasy.  Is my baby having a transcendental, mystical experience?  I don’t know, but I know she is REALLY happy to see both of us in person.  A photo of us won’t cause the same reaction.  It has to be either mommy or daddy in person.  Better, both.

So, I imagine her sudden burst of joy in seeing my face, multiply that by infinity and that’s the happiness I’d feel when I see my Heavenly Father face-to-face.  Beatific vision.  Gut-feeling.

A moment of contemplation made me consider that, in that encounter, I would also see every single person who has ever brought me joy and happiness, but I would see how that person was really an emissary of God.  I would learn how every event that gave me happiness was the result of a chain of people who made that possible.  I would meet these people and learn that they, too, were emissaries of God.  I would meet all the saints who prayed for me.  And then I would see God.

It’s kind of like one of those romantic movies where there is an elaborate proposal.  The girl coincidentally runs into all her good friends and then all of his best friends, one after another.  Each one tells her something nice about the man who is going to propose to her and then gives her successive clues to where she can find the man who has been after her heart all these years.  She finally sees him and they marry.  The thought of spending the rest of her life with this perfect man has her heart overflowing with joy.

In the beatific vision, I would be like that girl.  I would finally see God.  He’s the one who has been after my heart all these years.  I would spend my eternal life with Him.  And the party would be for an eternity.  And there are no limits to how many guests can come.  The food and wine, of course, would be endless.  I know that there is more to Heaven than endless food and drink (cf. Rom 14:17-19); this would be more like a welcome party followed by the hallowed work of saving as many souls as possible before the Last Judgment.  Still, I’ll have some time with my One True Love before that holy task.  I would turn to God and say, “It was you.  It has always been you.  Thank you.  I love you!”

The Field of Our Soul

I came across a wonderfully analogy for the pursuit of the interior life in Dan Burke’s book, “Navigating the Interior Life.”  He also maintains a website promoting the themes in his book.  I highly recommend the book to anyone whose prayer has led them to an awareness that a spiritual director is needed.  While you’re still searching for one, this book is a godsend.

When we begin the work of a serious commitment to holiness, we will discover that the field (the soul) that we desire to plow and plant is riddled with rocks (sins) that need to be removed in order to make progress.  At this point of discovery, the faithful farmer begins to remove these big obvious rocks (usually mortal sins).  At some point the farmer becomes satisfied with this effort, pulls the plow out of the shed and sets out to prepare the soil, but then is startled at a disconcerting discovery: Though all the big rocks are gone, there are many more rocks that are smaller (venial sins) that had not been seen before.  The big rocks had properly drawn all of the attention.  Now that the big rocks are clear, a more detailed and sometimes more rigorous effort is then needed to further prepare the field.  The same is true with the progressive nature of root sin identification and clarification as we grow in spiritual maturity.

Natural Good Used for Evil

The same weekend that I posted “Wanted: Spiritual Director” I went to Confession on Saturday to get spiritual direction.  I figured, “I have the priest’s attention, already.  Why not ask him a few questions?  There’s usually hardly anyone waiting in line.”  Sure enough, I had Fr. O’Brien for as long as I wanted.  God bless Fr. O’Brien.  He was the answer to my prayer.

As I had written earlier, I was trying to discern whether to get more involved in the Church, to volunteer as a catechist in addition to being in the choir.  If I was called to be a catechist, should I get an advanced degree so I could do a better job?  I felt obsessed about this question, especially the last one.  It got to a point where I was wondering whether I should leave the Foreign Service to serve God full-time.  Serving God equals loving God, right?

The priest’s answer surprised me.  After he confirmed that I was married and with children, he told me that I should focus on my family.  Being involved in various apostolates could be a danger because it would take me away from my wife and children, who deserve all my energy.  These apostolates have a way appearing more important than the humble services I give as a husband and father (i.e., going out on a date with my wife vs. attending RCIA to catechize eager souls; helping my wife bathe the children vs. preparing for a talk on the spiritual disciplines of the Church, taking my children to play in the park vs. counseling a young man from suicide, etc.)

These were the same words that my wife told me many times before: “You need to focus on the family.  You will become too involved; it will take you away from the family.”  And, it’s not like I did not believe my wife.  I still obeyed her and refrained from being more involved.  What she asked me to do was not a sin.  But, this desire to serve the Church persisted in my thoughts.  Am I disobeying God by obeying my wife?

So, the priest’s answer was Christ’s answer.  While it is good to serve the Church, it is not good to be motivated by spiritual pride.  My confessor helped me see my spiritual blind spot.  The moment he told me “you should focus on your family”, the Holy Spirit helped me exercise my Gift of Understanding to see that it was spiritual pride all along that motivated me.  It would be the devil’s irony that my own family would be weakened — even destroyed — because I would be so focused on “unselfishly” serving the Church.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert
“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert

God bless Fr. O’Brien.  God bless confessors and spiritual directors everywhere.  May they lead more souls to holiness.

The Spiritual Disciplnes

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany
Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I’m waiting for God to lead me to my spiritual director, I can continue practicing the spiritual disciplines I learned from Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline.”  Although the author is from the Quaker tradition, many of the insights to these disciplines come from saints canonized by the Catholic Church (i.e. St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, etc.)

Foster divides up twelve spiritual disciplines into three categories:

  1. The Inward Disciplines – Meditation, Prayer, Fasting and Study
  2. The Outward Disciplines – Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Service
  3. The Corporate Disciplines – Confession, Worship, Guidance and Celebration

It would be nice at some point to reflect on how I’ve put these disciplines into practice.  For now, I’d like to highlight some passages that stood out for me in the introductory chapter:

God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.

Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines.  The purpose of the Disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear.

We need not be well advanced in matters of theology to practice the Disciplines.

The struggle [relying on our willpower and determination to overcome ingrained sin] is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse yet, so proud of our external righteousness that “whitened sepulchers” is a mild description of our condition.

The moment we feel we can succeed and attain victory over sin by the strength of our will alone is the moment we are worshiping the will.

As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever.

Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received.  The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.  The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.  We cannot attain or earn the righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.

We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur.  This is the path of disciplined grace.

When we genuinely believe that inner transformation is God’s work and not ours, we can put to rest our passion to set others straight.

Leo Tolstoy observes, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So true.  I am open to God changing my inner heart, my whole life.  Going through the book once with the men’s prayer group was a fruitful introduction.  It was like we all went to the gym and learned how to use the spiritual weight machines.  We flexed our souls and had lots of fun supporting and encouraging each other.  Now that we’ve finished the last chapter, it would be very easy for me (and quite advantageous to the enemy of my soul) to just forget about these Disciplines.  If I’m serious about finding a spiritual fitness coach, then I can practice these exercises until I can find him.

Wanted: Spiritual Director

I need a spiritual director.  It’s not safe to develop my spiritual life alone.  I need a spiritual fitness coach like my body needs a fitness coach.  Where do I begin?  How do I know he’s the right one?  What can I expect in spiritual direction?  Basic questions that are surprisingly hard to answer.  Fortunately, God did not abandon me.  I see the light.  And, I’d like to share, in case others might be facing the same problem.

There was an Advent Penance Service on Monday.  My wife and I went, and as I was doing my examination of conscience, I recognized the threat my spiritual life was facing: I was on fire for God, but I am constantly being led astray.  I would lose spiritual battles either from the devil’s tricks, the world’s seduction, or the weakness of my flesh.  There was a pattern of failure: the more in love I am with God, the more vicious the spiritual struggle.  It’s especially difficult after Confession, or on Sundays after Communion.

So, during Confession on Monday, I asked my priest where I could get spiritual direction.  He was open to the task, but I suspected he might be too busy.  I didn’t want to put him more on the spot than I already was at the moment.  I mean, he just absolved me from my sins.  It seemed ungrateful to guilt him into such a commitment.  Although I left feeling the sublime joy of reconciliation, the question of finding a spiritual director stayed with me.

The need for a director is becoming more pressing because of other decisions I’m considering.  I’m afraid of going down the wrong path.  I’ve been discerning whether I should volunteer as a catechist, for example, in addition to singing in the choir.  Should I get a MA in Theology or just get continuing education courses as a catechism instructor?  Long-term, like when my daughters are older, I am discerning whether God is calling me to the permanent diaconate.  These are some big decisions.  I still have a full-time job as a diplomat, another full-time job as a husband & father.  There’s so much room for pride to sneak in, temptations for shortcuts, and distractions in worldly pursuits.  A spiritual director, I hope, will help me see my blind spots.  Like an athletic coach, he would see where I need training and give me an idea (a direction) on how to win the championship title: a faithful child of God.  Sainthood.  Eternal life with my Creator.

God bless Dan Burke and Fr. John Bartunek!  They created a wonderful website about spiritual direction, and I found many comments highly recommending their book, “Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.”  I quickly got my questions answered:  What is spiritual direction?  It’s “a relationship through which we come to better know, love, and follow Christ through the help of a kind of spiritual coach.”  He lists what spiritual direction is not:

  • It is not a boss/employee relationship: just as with a coach in any sport, the athlete is the one that is ultimately in control.
  • It is not confession: while one’s confessor also used to be spiritual directors, that is no longer necessarily the case.
  • It is not spiritual friendship: like a coach, the directee needs to be firmly challenged, pushed, and encouraged toward concrete progress.
  • It is not a Catholic self-help program: it’s not just a quick pep talk and then we go about on our own again.  There’s a relationship that’s needed for the director to see one’s blind spots.
  • It’s not psychological counseling: one needs to seek specially-trained professionals for serious emotional/psychological issues.
  • It is not a one-time emergency-room event
  • It is not wandering around with a spiritual companion

The main focus of spiritual direction is union with God.  The central aim of spiritual direction is to help guide the directee to purposefully, consistently, and substantively grow in their relationship with God and neighbor.  It’s about developing a love relationship with God that inevitably spills into all other areas of our lives.

God has yet to provide me a spiritual director, but He’s letting me know that I’m not alone.  He’s sending help.  I just need to be patient, pray for additional guidance, and be persistent about this goal.  It’s a good thing.  Our Father loves giving us good things.  It’s all about timing.

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