Dante: On the Beatific Vision
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Dante: On the Beatific Vision
I have been in the heaven of God, and what I saw there I can barely express in human language. All I can say is that I felt like Glaucus, the hero in a story by a writer I love almost as much as Virgil: Ovid.
Glaucus was a humble fisherman who lived by the sea. One day, as he was drawing out fish with a pole and laying their bodies beside him on the surf, he turned to find that the fish had vanished. Angry and a bit bewildered, he leapt to his feet and scoured the beach for any sign of a thief. Instead, he saw two of the fish he had captured hop twice on the golden sand and then leap into the sea.
Helpless to explain the phenomenon, Glaucus studied carefully the ground where he had placed the dead fish. There he discovered a strange, greenish herb that he had never seen before. “Could this herb” he thought to himself, “have the power to revive the dead?” Then, without giving a thought to danger, he swept up the herb, placed it in his mouth, and bit through its rough hide.
Immediately, a burning sensation ran up and down his spine, pressing outward to his fingers and toes. The burning quickly increased until he feared that his skin would burst into flame. Then the oddest thing of all happened. Though the fisherman could not swim, he was suddenly overcome with a desire for the sea. Unable to stop his own legs from moving, he rushed headlong down the beach and dove into the water.
The moment he hit the water, his legs were forced together and transformed themselves into a fin. His hair and eyes turned the color of coral, and his skin grew hard and scaly. Gils appeared on his neck, and his lungs filled with water. With one flip of his tail, he propelled himself downward into the murky depths and disappeared from view.
He had become a merman, a god of the sea.
I had always imagined heaven as a destination, as a place believers went to when they died. But it is far more than that. As I moved upward through the levels of paradise in my ascent to God, I came to realize that I was not so much going somewhere as becoming someone. I wasn’t just traveling; I was changing. As my eyes grew stronger, I saw more and more of the heavenly light, but I also participated in it more and more.
Four centuries before Christ, Plato had understood and taught the nature of this transformation, of this metamorphosis into something better, nobler, and truer. For him, it was the movement from ignorance into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and wisdom into virtue. It meant pulling oneself out of the darkness and into the light, away from the shadows and into the reality.
Plato and his fellow virtuous pagans called it the Beatific (or blessed) Vision, and they sought it as the proper end of a life of philosophy and contemplation. The Christian writers who followed them—particularly my master, Thomas Aquinas—kept both the phrase and the desire to achieve it, but they broadened and deepened the meaning.
You see, my friends of the future, for Plato the end point of the Beatific Vision was impersonal. His goal was not to merge with the immortal gods, for they were far from perfect and were as controlled by their base passions as the mortals whose lives they interfered with. No, what awaited Plato at the culmination of his journey upward were the Forms, the unseen originals of goodness and beauty, truth and justice, courage and love. Above all, what waited was the Form of the Forms, the supreme Form of the Good that illumines the spiritual world as the sun does the physical.
My friends, your age is too apt to agree with Plato: not about the Forms, which most of you have rejected, but about the ultimate reality being impersonal—something to be studied rather than something to be known. You look to the heavens to find laws and principles; what I witnessed as I soared through the heavens on my way to God was pageantry and intimacy.
I encountered both activity and contemplation, but they were directed, not toward mathematical theorems or philosophical formulas, but toward a personal, triune God who wants to be known and who freely pours forth self-knowledge.
To achieve the Beatific Vision of Plato and his pre-Christian heirs is to move to a place of absolute serenity, removed from the passions and emotions of our world. That is not what I encountered in paradise. Far from a place of stoic calm, heaven overflowed with ecstasy and jubilation; everywhere and on every level the blessed souls sang and danced with joy.
I myself as I approached the presence of God felt suddenly calm, but it was a rapturous calm that took me out of myself without effacing my identity. As I gazed on the supernal form of God, I was able to do what I could not do on earth: study and enjoy the object of my contemplation at the same time.
I would tell you more, my friends, but the Vision so ravished me with its beauty that it sank into a portion of my soul that lies deeper even than memory. Still, the feelings it provoked in me remained. Such is the case with vivid dreams: we wake to find that all of the images have faded, but that the strong emotions associated with them continue to trouble us throughout the day.
Think of footprints in the snow that disappear and leave no trace when the sun reaches its zenith. Or again, think of those mystical leaves on which the Sybil wrote her oracles; when the door was opened, the leaves scattered, taking with them all certain knowledge of the future.
Still, I saw, though I did not understand, the dual mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Just as vitally, I apprehended, though I could not fully comprehend, how I myself fit into the divinity and humanity of God the Son. That knowledge came to me in a flash of revelation that cleaved my mind in two and drew me into the very heart of the Beatific Vision.
Alas, my friends of the future, I have neither words nor images nor analogies to describe that surpassing knowledge that was granted to me in the Empyrean of God. And that is as it should be, for, if you would know how your own individual story merges with that of the Incarnate Son, then you must take the journey yourself.
Originally published by The Imaginative Conservative
Louis Markos (amazon.com/author/louismarkos), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 22 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition, From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, and The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes.