"Heaven" a sermon by St Alphonsus de Ligouri for the Second Sunday of Lent
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.” – Matt. 17:4
In this day’s Gospel we read, that wishing to give His disciples a glimpse of the glory of Paradise, in order to animate them to labour for the divine honour, the Redeemer was transfigured, and allowed them to behold the splendour of His countenance. Ravished with joy and delight, St Peter exclaimed: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Lord, let us remain here; let us never more depart from this place; for the sight of Thy beauty consoles us more than all the delights of the earth.
Brethren, let us labour during the remainder of our lives to gain heaven. Heaven is so great a good, that, to purchase it for us, Jesus Christ has sacrificed His life on the cross. Be assured, that the greatest of all the torments of the damned in hell arise from the thought of having lost heaven through their own fault. The blessings, the delights, the joys, the sweetness of paradise may be acquired; but they can be described and understood only by those blessed souls that enjoy them. But let us, with the aid of the holy Scripture, explain the little that can be said of them here below.
According to the Apostle, no man on this earth can comprehend the infinite blessings which God has prepared for the souls that love Him. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what thing God hath prepared for them that love Him.” In this life we cannot have an idea of any other pleasures than those which we enjoy by means of the senses. Perhaps we imagine that the beauty of heaven resembles that of a wide extended plain covered with the verdure of spring, interspersed with trees in full bloom, and abounding in birds fluttering about and singing on every side; or, that it is like the beauty of a garden full of fruits and flowers, and surrounded by fountains in continual play. “Oh! What a Paradise,” to behold such a plain, or such a garden! But oh how much greater are the beauties of heaven! Speaking of paradise, St Bernard says: O man, if you wish to understand the blessings of heaven, know that in that happy country there is nothing which can be disagreeable, and everything that you can desire. Although there are some things here below which are agreeable to the senses, how many more are there which only torment us? If the light of day is pleasant, the darkness of night is disagreeable: if the spring and the autumn are cheering, the cold of winter and the heat of summer are painful. In addition, we have to endure the pains of sickness, the persecution of men, and the inconveniences of poverty; we must submit to interior troubles, to fears, to temptations of the devil, doubts of conscience, and to the uncertainty of eternal salvation.
But, after entering into paradise, the blessed shall have no more sorrows. “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” The Lord shall dry up the tears which they have shed in this life. “And death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And He that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.” In paradise, death and the fear of death are no more: in that place of bliss there are no sorrows, no infirmities, no poverty, no inconveniences, no vicissitudes of day or night, of cold or of heat. In that kingdom there is a continual day, always serene, a continual spring, always blooming. In paradise there are no persecutions, no envy; for all love each other with tenderness, and each rejoices at the happiness of the others, as if it were his own. There is no more fear of eternal perdition; for the soul confirmed in grace can neither sin nor lose God.
In heaven you have all you can desire. “Behold, I make all things new.” There everything is new; new beauties, new delights, new joys. There all our desires shall be satisfied. The sight shall be satiated with beholding the beauty of that city. How delightful to behold a city in which the streets should be of crystal, the houses of silver, the windows of gold, and all adorned with the most beautiful flowers. But, oh! How much more beautiful shall be the city of paradise! The beauty of the place shall be heightened by the beauty of the inhabitants, who are all clothed in royal robes; for, according to St Augustine, they are all kings. How delighted to behold Mary, the Queen of heaven, who shall appear more beautiful than all the other citizens of paradise! But what it must be to behold the beauty of Jesus Christ! St Teresa once saw one of the hands of Jesus Christ, and was struck with astonishment at the sight of such beauty. The smell shall be satiated with odours, but with the odours of paradise. The hearing shall be satiated with the harmony of the celestial choirs. St Francis once heard for a moment an angel playing on a violin, and he almost died through joy. How delightful must it be to hear the saints and angels signing the divine praises! “They shall praise thee forever and ever.” What must it be to hear Mary praising God! St Francis de Sales says, that, as the singing of the nightingale in the wood surpasses that of all other birds, so the voice of Mary is far superior to that of all the other saints. In a word, there are in paradise all the delights which man can desire.
But the delights of which we have spoken are the least of the blessings of paradise. The glory of heaven consists in seeing and loving God face to face. “Everything that we expect,” says St Augustine, “is expressed in a word of one syllable, namely, God.” The reward which God promises to us does not consist altogether in the beauty, the harmony, and other advantages of the city of paradise. God Himself, whom the saints are allowed to behold, is, according to the promises made to Abraham, the principal reward of the just in heaven. “I am thy reward exceeding great.” St Augustine asserts, that were God to show His face to the damned, “Hell would be instantly changed into a paradise of delights.” And he adds, that were a departed soul allowed the choice of seeing God and suffering the pains of hell, or of being freed from these pains and deprived of the sight of God, “it would prefer to see God, and to endure these torments.”
The delights of the soul infinitely surpass all the pleasures of the senses. Even in this life divine love infuses such sweetness into the soul when God communicates Himself to it, that the body is raised from the earth. St Peter of Alcantara once fell into such an ecstasy of love, that, taking hold of a tree, he drew it up from the roots, and raised it with him on high. So great is the sweetness of divine love, that the holy martyrs, in the midst of their torments, felt no pain, but were on the contrary filled with joy. Hence St Augustine says that when St Laurence was laid on a red-hot gridiron, the fervour of divine love made him insensible to the burning heat of the fire. Even on sinners who weep for their sins, God bestows consolations which exceed all earthly pleasures. Hence St Bernard says: “If it be so sweet to weep for Thee, what must it be to rejoice in Thee!”
How great is the sweetness which a soul experiences, when, in the time of prayer, God, by a ray of His own light, shows to it His goodness and His mercies towards it, and particularly the love which Jesus Christ has borne to it in His Passion! It feels its heart melting, and as it were dissolved through love. But in this life we do not see God as He really is: we see Him as it were in the dark. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then face to face.” Here below God is hidden from our view; we can see Him only with the eyes of faith: how great shall be our happiness when the veil shall be raised, and we shall be permitted to behold God face to face! We shall then see His beauty, His greatness, His perfection, Hs amiableness, and His immense love for our souls.
“Man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred.” The fear of not loving God, and of not being loved by Him, is the greatest affliction which souls that love God endure on the earth; but, in heaven, the soul is certain that it loves God, and that He loves it; it sees that the Lord embraces it with infinite love, and that this love shall not be dissolved for all eternity. The knowledge of the love which Jesus Christ has shown it in offering Himself in sacrifice for it on the cross, and in making Himself its food in the sacrament of the altar, shall increase the ardour of its love. It shall also see clearly all the graces which God has bestowed upon it, all the helps which He has given it, to preserve it from falling into sin, and to draw it to His love. It shall see that all the tribulations, the poverty, infirmities, and persecutions which it regards as misfortunes, have all proceeded from love, and have been the means employed by divine Providence to bring it to glory. It shall see all the lights, loving calls, and mercies which God had granted to it after it had insulted Him by its sins. From the blessed mountain of paradise it shall see so many souls damned for fewer sins than it had committed, and shall see that it is saved and secured against the possibility of ever losing God.
The goods of this earth do not satisfy our desires: at first they gratify the senses; but when we become accustomed to them they cease to delight. But the joys of paradise constantly satiate and content the heart. “I shall be satisfied when Thy glory shall appear.” And though they satiate they always appear to be as new as the first time when they were experienced; they are always enjoyed and always desired, always desired and always possessed. “Satiety,” says St Gregory, “accompanies desire.” Thus the desires of the saints in paradise do not beget pain, because they are always satisfied; and satiety does not produce disgust, because it is always accompanied with desire. Hence the soul shall be always satiated and always thirsty: it shall be forever thirsty, and always satiated with delights. The damned are, according to the Apostle, vessels full of wrath and of torments, “vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction.” But the just are vessels full of mercy and of joy, so that they have nothing to desire. “They shall be inebriated with the plenty of Thy house.” In beholding the beauty of God, the soul shall be so inflamed and so inebriated with divine love, that it shall remain happily lost in God; for it shall entirely forget itself, and for all eternity shall think only of loving and praising the immense good which it shall possess forever, without the fear of having it in its power ever to lose it. In this life, holy souls love God; but they cannot love Him with all their strength, nor can they always actually love Him. St Thomas teaches that this perfect love is only given to the citizens of heaven, who love God with their whole heart, and never cease to love Him actually.
Justly, then, has St Augustine said, that to gain the eternal glory of paradise, we should cheerfully embrace eternal labour. “For nothing,” says David, “shall Thou save them.” The saints have done but little to acquire heaven. So many kings who have abdicated their thrones and shut themselves up in a cloister; so many holy anchorets, who have confined themselves in a cave; so many martyrs who have cheerfully submitted to torments – to the rack, and to red-hot places – have done but little. “The sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come.” To gain heaven, it would be but little to endure all the pains of this life.
Let us, then, brethren, courageously resolve to bear patiently with all the sufferings which shall come upon us during the remaining days of our lives; to secure heaven they are all little and nothing. Rejoice then; for all these pains, sorrows, and persecutions shall, if we are saved, be to us a source of never-ending joys and delights. “Your sorrows shall be turned into joy.” When, then, the crosses of this life afflict us, let us raise our eyes to heaven, and console ourselves with the hope of Paradise. At the end of her life, St Mary of Egypt was asked, by the Abbot St Zozimus, how she had been able to live for forty-seven years in the desert where he found her dying. She answered: “With the hope of paradise.” If we be animated with the same hope, we shall not feel the tribulations of this life. Have courage! Let us love God and labour for heaven. There the saints expect us, Mary expects us, Jesus Christ expects us; He holds in His hand a crown to make each of us a king in that eternal kingdom.