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When St. Thomas Aquinas had a foretaste of heaven on St. Nicholas’ feast day

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

December 6, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) –  As we know from Divine Revelation, the ultimate goal of our pilgrimage of faith in this life is the face-to-face vision of God, the beatific vision, in the world to come. What will heaven be like? St. Thomas Aquinas spells it out in a memorable phrase: “Perfect vision, full embracing, and the clinging of consummated love.” The Christian longs to see God, longs to be united with Him forever.

God delights in Himself eternally, He rejoices in His own infinite goodness. He is His own happiness, God and bliss are one and the same. Our happiness is nothing other than to be raised up into this blessed life of His, this life that He is. 

And how do we get there? What is the path we follow?

St. Thomas, citing St. John Damascene, uses the image of fire to describe the effects of eating the Eucharist in a soul well-disposed for it: “The fire of that desire which is in us, taking ignition from the burning coal (that is, from this sacrament) will burn up our sins and light up our hearts, so that by participation of the divine fire we may be set on fire and deified.”

Aquinas goes on to say in his own words:

The proper effect of this sacrament is the conversion of man into Christ, that it might be said with the Apostle, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). … Through this sacrament’s power the soul gains spiritual nourishment, for the soul is gladdened and, in a way, inebriated with the sweetness of divine goodness, as we read: “Eat, friends, and drink, and be drunk, my dearly beloved” (Cant 5:1).

Thus, the answer is: we eat and drink our way to heaven!

In the Dominican tradition to which St. Thomas belonged, there is a strong emphasis on eating and drinking the Word of God, on feasting and even—in a spiritual sense—getting drunk on heavenly wine. Even sober St. Thomas speaks this way: the culmination of Christian theology is mystical drunkenness, sobria ebrietas.

Towards the end of his life, Friar Thomas was known to weep copiously during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. It was obvious that, young though he was (not yet 50), the Lord was ready to call him to Himself, to the eternal wedding feast. While Friar Thomas was offering Mass for the feast of St. Nicholas 745 years ago today, on December 6, 1273, God revealed Himself to the saint in a vision that shattered his writing career and left him, for the remaining three months of his life, longing for the reality that had been disclosed to him. He had drunk so abundantly of the Lord’s sweetness that he could say: “All that I have written seems like straw to me, compared with what I have seen.”

Indeed, we can understand what he means: to a lover, would not all written notes seem like straw, compared with the presence of one’s beloved, in person, face-to-face?

It was Jesus who, at the Last Supper, drawing nearer to us in His friendship than any earthly lovers could ever draw close to each other, changed bread and wine into His Body and Blood, in fulfillment of the promise He had made: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (Jn. 6:54, 56–57). 

Our Lord is talking about a total, if gradual, change of heart, mind, soul, and strength—an affectionate intimacy, a close-knit sympathy produced by living and suffering, dying and rising together. This dying and rising begins in the sanctuary of the soul: as we read in St. Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2); “we destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). The person who is feeding upon sacred mysteries and gaining nourishment from them already has one foot in heaven, though the vision is veiled.

The experience of St. Thomas Aquinas on the feast of St. Nicholas demonstrates to us that Christian life derives its inner energy from the mystical encounter with Christ in the holy sacraments, finds rest in His intimate friendship, and attains ultimate glory in the face-to-face vision that puts all our efforts and sufferings in this life into perspective.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.