As Thomas Aquinas long ago noted, God’s presence is the application of his knowledge, power, and being (and thus, all of his attributes) to space-time. When I teach the attributes of God, I thus discuss God’s presence at the end of the lecture. Moreover, I conclude the discussion of God’s presence with the beatific vision — the final, eschatological gazing upon God. I think that this is helpful. The beatific vision is ultimately grounded upon God; and, as it relates to us, it is the most intense and personal experience of God’s presence.
Today, I have been reading Thomas’s respective Franciscan colleague at the University of Paris, Bonaventure. In particular, I have paid attention to his view of the beatific vision throughout his noted work, Breviloquium. While I have read the book several times, I was surprised by how often he referenced it throughout, even while he did not provide an independent, substantial discourse on the doctrine. It is also notable that Bonaventure refers to the beatific vision by various names, including possession, blessedness, and fullness, and any variation therein.
Under the topic of the final judgment, Bonaventure begins by discussing the basis of the beatific vision: “The First Principle [God], by the fact of being first, exists of itself, by itself, and for itself. It is thus the efficient, formal, and final cause: creating, governing, and perfecting all things. It creates in accord with the loftiness of its power, governs in accord with the rectitude of its truth, and perfects in accord with the plenitude of its goodness” (Bonaventure, Breviloquium, 7:1.2). Always remaining Christ-centered, he elsewhere linked the final vision with Jesus Christ himself, who “was endowed with wisdom both as God and as a human being, as one in full possession [of God] and as a pilgrim [here on earth], as one enlightened by grace and as one rightly formed by nature” (Ibid., 4:6.1). In other words, the beatific vision is grounded in God and possessed first and foremost by Christ.
Bonaventure continues to explain who receives the beatific vision (and alternatively who are judged). His basic answer is that those in Christ receive it (cf. 4:6.2; part 5). He thereafter explains his answer more fully in part 7, connecting his discussion back to the threefold attributes of God’s power, truth, and goodness. According to God’s power, he maintains, God made some creatures in the image of God (that is, humans) who thus have the “capacity for God;” in other words, they are “capable of blessedness,” or the beatific vision (Ibid., 7:1.2). According to God’s truth, there is a law that “invites them to blessedness” (Ibid.). According to his goodness, which “works in accordance with the loftiness of power and the rectitude of truth,” “the consummation of blessedness is granted by the supreme Goodness only to those who have observed the justice which was imposed by the rectitude of truth and who have accepted instruction and have loved that highest and eternal blessedness more than transitory goods” (Ibid.). Consequently, narrowing his answer as he goes, the beatific vision is possible for rational (power), just (truth), and loving (goodness) creatures.
He concludes his densely harmonized work with a prayer, a longing for the day of revelation.
I pray, Ο God, that I may know you and love you, so that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot do so fully in this life, at least let me go forward day by day until that point of fullness comes. Let the knowledge of you grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete. Let your love grow in me here; and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great with expectancy, and there be complete in reality. Lord, through your Son you command, or rather, counsel us to ask; and through him you promise that we shall receive, so that our joy may be complete. I ask, Lord, as you counsel through our Wonderful Counselor. May I receive what you promise through your Truth, so that my joy may be complete. Oh God of truth, I ask that I might receive, so that my joy may be complete. Until then, let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth express it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; my whole being desire it, until I enter into the joy of my Lord, who is God three and one, blessed forever! Amen. (Bonaventure, Breviloquium, 7:7.9).
Notably, Bonaventure perceives all things—whether study, ethical living, thinking, or contemplation—as a preparation for and anticipation of the eventual experience. This life is but a foretaste. As Paul summarizes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). What we live now is, according to Bonaventure, an “until then,” a foretaste of the beatific vision.
I look forward to relating contemplation (i.e., the restful gaze of God as pilgrims) and the final experience of the beatific vision in a later post. Until then….
The contrast between full possession and pilgrim knowledge indicates that Bonaventure refers to the beatific vision in the former instance. This is why many translations simply say, “as one in possession of the beatific vision and as living on earth as a pilgrim.”
He continues elsewhere, “Since it was proper that Christ the mediator possess innocence and the bliss of enjoying [the vision of God] while still being mortal and capable of suffering, he had to be at one and the same time a pilgrim [on earth] and one possessing [the beatific vision]. Something of both states existed in him: thus, it is said that he assumed the sinlessness of the state of innocence, the mortality of the state of fallen nature, and the perfect blessedness of the state of glory” (Ibid., 4:8.3).