Question: You said in a previous answer, “We need not presume that we will see God with our physical eyes.” This confuses me, because St. Paul says of heaven that we shall see God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Can you elaborate?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: My use of the word “presume” does not exclude physical seeing altogether but seeks to avoid reducing the beatific vision to natural seeing (light hitting our retina). But while not excluding it altogether, I remain dubious that such seeing will be necessary or even, to some extent, possible. Let’s review and elaborate.
First, there are different ways of seeing, and we commonly use this in our language, as did the Scriptures. One way of seeing is the simple act of physical seeing where light reaches our retina. But there is also an intellectual and spiritual way of seeing. If you are trying to explain something to me and I finally understand it, I will say, “Ah, I see.” But I do not mean my physical eyes see, but that my inner vision comprehends the truth you have said and lights up my mind.
The passage that you quote does speak of seeing, but not physical seeing. The problem with seeing God’s face with our physical eyes is that God does not have a physical “face” to see. Both “seeing” and “face” are used in passages like this as images or analogies of something deeper. Even now we know that the face is the most revelatory quality of a person. We might strain our neck to see a person’s face because, somehow, we know that to see their face is to see them in the fullest sense. And thus, when Scripture speaks of seeing God’s face, it means that we will see him the richest and most revelatory way possible.
It is true that in heaven some people will be able to see Jesus. But our physical eyes will see his human nature, not his divine nature, per se. God, as he is pure spirit, cannot be seen any more than a thought can be seen.
In the Old Testament certain theophanies and visions of angels (who are also pure spirit) are seen with the physical eyes of people. In this case we must conclude that God uses some aspects of physical creation to mediate his presence. Thus, it is possible that God does this in heaven, too.
But why would he? The inner vision of deep understanding and soulful connection is a far richer and more satisfying seeing of God, as anyone who experiences contemplative prayer will attest.
All the great spiritual masters call for a dark night of the senses, pointing beyond the physical senses and to the deeper seeing of contemplation beyond words or images. An ancient maxim says, “I close my eyes in order to see.”
Question: As I pray the Rosary, I sometimes have so many intentions that I cannot remember them all and it takes a long time to try and recall. Sometimes I just lift my hands or my book of intentions. Is this OK?
— Loretta Leonard, Location withheld
Answer: God knows our weaknesses. We cannot always remember everyone for whom we should pray or everything for which we should pray.
St. Augustine says that more things are accomplished in prayer by sighs and tears than by many words.
Thus, while precluding outright laziness or a refusal to resist any mental distractions, we can count on God’s merciful awareness of our prayers and concerns for others, even if these things escape us in the moment.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.