The Face to Face EncounterFATHER ANTONINUS WALL, O.P.
What happens to a person who has achieved the perfect love of God that removes all barriers against the face-to-face encounter with him? What will their experience be?
The Face to Face Encounter
These questions usually revolve around particular themes. How does heaven differ from earth? How does the existence of the blessed differ from their mode of being before death? Can the beatific vision be described?
Having never enjoyed the face-to-face encounter with God, I am unable to provide answers to these questions from personal experience. Nor have I ever met another person who was gifted with this vision, and can answer such questions.
I have met persons, and some I take seriously, who have revealed to me that the Blessed Mother appeared to them. I have met others who claim to have seen one or other of the saints. More rare is the person claiming to have seen Jesus. I have yet to meet a person in this world, however, who claimed to have seen God.
Yet I frequently meet persons who report having enjoyed intense experiences of the enveloping presence and embrace of divine love. Such experiences are quite common among spiritual persons. Everywhere I go in carrying out my priestly ministry, I meet persons who are truly holy, who live their lives in the presence of God and Christ. I am no longer surprised at my encounters with saints, though they would be the last ones to think of themselves in such terms. I find them wherever I go. Still, I have yet to meet someone who claims to have seen God face to face.
Saint Thomas, in his earlier writings, entertained the possibility that perhaps two persons while still in this world may have been gifted with brief face-to-face encounters with God. He did so out of respect for the traditions of his time. The two men Thomas had in mind were Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. In his later years, however, Saint Thomas backed away from this position for sophisticated reasons. 
Saint Paul in his epistles describes a man who may have experienced in this life the direct intuition of God. He writes, "And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter."  Some theologians argue that Paul is describing his personal experience, and that it involved the face-to-face encounter with God. Yet the same Paul says elsewhere, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully." 
We read in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus, "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."  Moses, in describing his mystical experience on Mt. Sinai, tells of the burning bush and the voice of Yahweh speaking to him from the bush. Yet we also read in Exodus the Lord telling Moses "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live."  A few verses further, the Lord arranges for Moses to see the Lord's back, and again says "but my face shall not be seen." 
Jesus tells us that "no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."  We read about Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. There he undergoes a Transfiguration. For a moment, the glory of his divinity shines through his humanity. His garments become as white as snow. Moses and Elijah appear at each side of him. And the voice from heaven proclaims, "This is my beloved Son ... listen to him." 
Nowhere in the Gospels, though, do we read of Jesus bringing his followers to a face-to-face experience of the Father. When Philip asked Jesus at the Last Supper to "show us the Father...," Jesus responded, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."  But knowing Jesus in his human nature is to see there a reflection of the Father, not the face-to-face vision.
So we find ourselves on a journey, moving toward a goal that no one in this life has ever seen. Christ, however, does provide us with indirect insights into the mystery of the Godhead. These permit us to speculate about the beatific vision and identify some of the elements it will entail.
One of the teachings of Christ is that the whole of reality is a loving work of divine art.  Creation involves the embodiment of divine wisdom, love, beauty, power, and the riches of being that are proper to God. Therefore, we see the reflections of God's radiant presence in the mirrors of nature, in the Mystical Body outside us, and, perhaps, even in reflections of the divine coming from within.
Building on this teaching of Jesus, we can offer the following argument. If one could reach out, embrace, taste, possess, and experience all the vast created universe in its entirety, and exhaust in this embrace whatever joy and fulfillment the universe can offer, one would still be experiencing only a finite embodiment of the infinite riches, goodness, beauty, and wisdom present in God. Urging his disciples to take up the cross, Christ asks, "For does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.?" 
The joy present in a minimal degree of direct, intuitive encounter with the divine reality would immeasurably transcend the joy potential in the possession of the entire world. God infinitely transcends the cumulative perfection of his creation.
This thought might be stated in a slightly different way. If one were to distill from the hearts of all humans who ever existed whatever joy they have derived from the vast variety of good things with which God has populated the world, and this distillation of the joy of billions were to be concentrated in the heart of one person, that joy would still be one derived from the experience of the finite goods of God's creative work. The minimum, direct encounter of the lowest saint in heaven with the unlimited riches of God would produce a joy that infinitely transcends the cumulative potential joy present in the universe.
Christ, therefore, teaches us that whatever joy we experience in this life from any of the Father's creative gifts is a foretaste of the joys that will be experienced in heaven. As one author states it, the joys of this world are like hors d'oeuvres preparing our appetites for the banquet planned for us in heaven. In fact, a good part of Jesus' apostolic mission was directed to assisting his followers to enjoy more fully the good things of this life precisely as preparations for the joys to come in heaven.
For such enjoyment, Jesus was severely criticized by his enemies. They accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton.  His response was revelatory of the promise of the life to come: "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." 
Christ sees himself as a groom in his relation to his followers, who are his bride. He compares his presence with this bride to a wedding feast.
For the Jews of his time, the peak experience of life was the wedding celebration that could last several days. It was then that friends gathered to rejoice in their experience of the loving presence of Yahweh and in their love for one another. When Christ was asked explicitly what heaven would be like, he compared it to a wedding feast. 
There is a significant difference between the Christian Faith and that of Jewish and Islamic believers in their perception of God. All three major religious faiths are monotheistic.  Christian Faith, however, affirms that within the unity of the Godhead there exists a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son (Word), and Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Godhead involves a community of divine persons existing within the unity of the divine nature. Hence, the encounter with God involves entering into a loving community of divine persons.
The wedding feast in Jesus' description of heaven involves more than a human, communal gathering, lovingly observed by God from without. Rather, it is a direct involvement in the dynamic loving relations that bind Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The divine wedding party has been going on from all eternity. Christ invites us to enter as guests. Christ teaches his followers on earth to see, in the joy of the wedding gatherings in this world, a mirror of the joy eternally present in the loving relations of the three divine persons.
It is necessary to understand the nature of knowledge when we reflect on the face-to-face encounter with God, the Beatific Vision. Saint Thomas distinguishes two basic forms of knowledge. The first he calls speculative knowledge, and the second, affective knowledge. 
Speculative knowledge provides the intellect with the truth of a reality. It is knowledge, we might say, through the "head." Affective knowledge puts the "heart" into contact with the goodness or loveableness of a reality through actual experience of the affects of the object. Affective knowledge, therefore, is practical, existential, experiential knowledge. It is knowledge through love.
We tend to think of the encounter with God more in terms of the affective than the speculative. God invites us to "taste and see that the Lord is good." 
The face-to-face encounter surely entails both speculative and affective knowledge. In that Beatific Vision, we know the truth of God and we experience the infinite loveableness of God. The Beatific Vision entails, therefore, an immediate, practical, intuitive, loving possession of the infinite goodness of God. We will be possessed by God both in the heart and in the head.
This loving union with God involves more than a passive sitting and staring at the Godhead. It is more a loving embrace in which God draws us into an intense participation in the divine life. Christ promises in the Eucharist, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him."  As the Father and the Son share the same life, so we will share this life with them. 
The life we are invited to share is the source of all existing beings. It holds all things in existence. Our participation in this divine life immediately places us into a new relation with the entirety of God's creation.
Consider again someone visiting the Sistine Chapel who is contemplating Michelangelo's masterpiece. Imagine that a stranger comes to the visitor's side and begins to point out aesthetic aspects of the frescoes that he had failed to see. As he listens and begins to see the masterpiece through the stranger's eyes, it is as if he were seeing this work for the first time. He can only marvel at the new levels of his experience of the paintings when seen under the direction of the stranger. The stranger then leaves, and the visitor turns to the person next to him to ask, "Who was that man?" The person replies, "Didn't you recognize him? That was Michelangelo."
Compare the situation in the Sistine Chapel to what happened when the disciples heard Jesus speak about the wonders of nature. It was through the Word that "all things were made."  The followers of Christ were seeing these wonders through the eyes of the very artist who created them. So, they saw nature as they had never seen it before. They saw nature as a mirror of the divine.
Let us take this example one step further. Imagine what your experience would be if you could enter inside the head and heart of Michelangelo. Imagine that you see his works as he himself sees them. Consider the differences between your experience of the Sistine Chapel and the experience Michelangelo enjoyed when he contemplated the same paintings. Imagine, if you can, the experience you would have if you could stare out from Michelangelo at his Pieta, or Moses, or David, and see and experience them in the same way that the artist did.
In the Beatific Vision we will enter into the mind and heart of God. We will see and experience his creative work as he himself sees and experiences it from within. Imagine seeing the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as God sees these things that originated within himself and are held in being by his love.
Think of seeing your parents, family members, and friends as God sees them and loves them. Imagine seeing the human nature of Christ and that of his Mother, Queen of the Heavens, as God the Father sees and loves them.
All of this enters into the eternal wedding feast: the feast which, with the communion of saints, Christ invites us to enjoy as his guests.
The symbol of the eternal wedding feast in heaven brings with it the connotations of food. By implication we are brought to consider the role that our bodies will play in that heaven.
At the heart of the Catholic Faith is the understanding that humans are embodied spirits and are not angels. We are not pure spirits experiencing an unfortunate, negative linkage with the material world through our bodies.
A number of ancient philosophies, including Manichaeism and Platonism, held the view that our souls, or spirits, were temporarily imprisoned in our bodies.  This view led to the denial of Christ's bodily resurrection by Corinthian Christians.
Some Christian sects today accept the view that we are spirits experiencing an unfortunate linkage to the material world. The Catholic Church affirms that we are embodied spirits. The human body is an essential part of the perfection of human nature. The Church holds that our link with the material world is a positive one and that the material world itself is a gift of God.
Christ comes to redeem our entire human nature, body and soul. Salvation involves the full reconstitution of our intact humanity. The resurrection of Christ's own human body three days after its death on the cross is the clearest revelation of this truth. In the reality of the resurrected body of Christ, we have our best insight into the reconstitution of our bodies in heaven.
What happened on that first Easter evening when the resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples? They were cowering behind locked doors in the upper room. Did they jump up with joy to welcome him? Rather, they cringed before him in fear, convinced that they were seeing a ghost. Christ said to them, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have." 
They still could not believe that it was really him. He then asked them to give him something to eat. It was only as he ate the food they gave him, the most elementary of physical, human activity, that they finally became convinced that it was truly him, fully alive, body and spirit.
Later, when they reported the good news to the Apostle Thomas, he refused to believe them. His response was, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." 
Jesus again appeared in their midst and said to the doubting Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing."  Thus Thomas knew that the risen Christ possessed not only a true human body, but the same body that he surrendered on the cross.
Saint Paul speaks of Christ's resurrected body as a spiritual body, having different qualities from the body that died on the cross. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul tells of the resurrected bodies of the elect: "For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality." 
Christ's resurrected body is, as Saint Paul tells us, the "first fruits" of the salvation purchased on the cross; at the final judgment our bodies will be resurrected as imperishable spiritual bodies. 
Saint Thomas points out four properties of resurrected bodies.  The properties characterize the bodies of the risen Christ and of the elect who will be resurrected at the final judgment. The new characteristics are agility, impassibility, subtlety, and clarity.
Agility means that the body is perfectly responsive to the will. It appears wherever the will chooses it to be. Impassability means that the body is no longer subject to sickness and corruption. Subtlety means the body is no longer limited by material reality. For example, Christ appeared behind the locked doors of the upper room on that first Easter. Clarity means the body will radiate the beauty of the soul. Christ's body radiated the beauty of the spiritual perfection of his human soul briefly on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
One further question invites our attention. How aged will our resurrected bodies be, following the reconstitution of our human nature? Saint Thomas takes this very human question seriously. He conjectures that our resurrected bodies will be, approximately, thirty-three years of age. 
His reasoning behind this seemingly arbitrary conjecture is simple enough. According to the tradition of his time, Jesus would have been more or less thirty-three years of age when he was crucified. Saint Thomas argues that Jesus would not have wished to offer his life to the Father one minute before life was perfect in him, or one minute following its attainment of perfection. Therefore, if he was thirty-three when he died, this must be the ideal age. Behind this thinking is the conviction that the resurrected human body will exist at its most mature, perfect stage of physical development.
With this somewhat pious insight of Saint Thomas, I will bring this reflection on the journey to the face-to-face encounter with God to a close.
As I write down these thoughts, my mind leaps ahead. I look to the time when I, in my reconstituted body, will see with my physical eyes the resurrected bodies of my mother, who died at eighty-two years of age, and my father, who died at sixty-four. The thought of seeing them as a young, vigorous couple of thirty- three years of age, makes the future promising indeed.
I also look forward to seeing the human nature of Christ with my physical eyes, and hearing his human voice with my ears, and feeling his embrace with my body. I think of my incarnated encounter with Mary, his Mother, and with Saint Dominic, Saint Catherine, Saint Francis of Assisi, and the other inspirations of my life.
I think of greeting Saint Thomas, and thanking him gratefully for the many insights I have gained from him into the ultimate meaning of life. I look forward to greeting Mother Teresa as a vital, young woman of thirty-three who approaches me to encourage me "to do something beautiful for Jesus."
I think, in a special way, of the tiny infants I have baptized, and then buried before they grew beyond their infancy. I look forward to meeting them as fully mature, beautiful young adults. I rejoice in thinking of the surprise and joy that they will bring to their parents, who remember them as helpless babies.
I offer a final word of thanksgiving to God for the gift of my Catholic Faith. Through this gift of Faith I rejoice with Saint Paul in saying, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" 
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, First Part, Q12, A11 and Second Part of the Second Part, Q175.
 2 Cor. 12: 3-4.
 1 Cor. 13-12.
 Exodus 33:11.
 Exodus 33:20.
 Exodus 33:23.
 Matt. 11:27.
 Matt. 17:5.
 John 14:8-9.
 Cf. Luke 12:24-28.
 Mark 8:36. Other translations read "forfeit his soul."
 Luke 7:34.
 Matt. 9:15.
 Cf. Matt. 22:1-10.
 All three of the major monotheistic religious faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism – agree that God (Yahweh, Allah) is one in nature.
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, Question 18, Article 6.
 Cf. Psalm 34.
 John 6:57.
 Cf. John 14:6-7; John 1:1-5.
 John 1:2-3. “He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
 Since the 4th century AD, Manichaeism has been considered a Christian heresy as well as a separate gnostic religion. It is named after Mani, a Persian who lived in the 3rd century AD. As taught by Mani, salvation requires liberating the soul from the material darkness in which it is trapped. Elements of Manichaeism have surfaced in later periods–notably among the Albigensian heretics in 12th century France. Platonism can refer to many elements of the thought of the great Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC). Plato’s influence has had a continuing vitality to the present day.
 Luke 24:39.
 John 20:25.
 John 20:27.
 1 Cor. 15:53.
 Cf. 1 Cor. 15:51.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Supp. Third Part, Qs 82-85.
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Four, Chap. 88 .
 1 Cor. 15:54-56.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. "The Face to Face Encounter." Chapter 13 in The Journey to God (Antioch, CA: Solas Press, 1999): 133-146.
Reprinted by permission of Father Antoninus Wall and Solas Press.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P., a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.
Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at email@example.com
Copyright © 2010 Solas Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.