Lenten Meditation on Eternal Happiness by St. Francis de Sales

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, February 20, 1622, concerning our inability to comprehend eternal happiness, the ability of the soul in Heaven to use its faculties to understand clearly and to love ardently, the soul’s joy in heavenly conversations with angels, saints, Our Lady, Our Lord, and with the Most Holy Trinity, the soul’s great joy in recalling Our Lord’s mercies to it, His Passion and death, and in seeing the love of His Heart for it, each soul’s great delight in receiving a secret name known to God alone, the kiss given by God to the blessed soul, and the endlessness of the joys of eternity.

“I know a man in Christ – whether he was in or outside the body I do not know, God knows – who was snatched up to the third heaven…and heard secret words, words which it is not granted to man to utter.”

-2 Cor. 12:2-4

When the great Apostle St. Paul was snatched up and raised even to the third heaven, he did not know whether he was in or outside his body, and he affirmed that no man may or could tell what he saw there or what wonders he learned when they were shown him in his rapture.  Now, if he who saw them cannot speak of them – if even after having been snatched up even to the third heaven, he dares not say a word of what he witnessed – much less should we presume to do so, we who have never been raised even to the first, or the second, let alone the third heaven.

The discourse of the Gospel [Matt. 17:1-9] which I am to give you today treats of eternal happiness.  I must begin by giving you a parable.  In treating of the marvellous things of the next world in his Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great affirms the following:

“Picture a pregnant woman who is put into prison, where she remains until the time of her delivery.  She even gives birth there and is then condemned to pass the remainder of her life in the dungeon and to bring up her child there.  As he grows older, the mother desires to give him some idea of things in the outside world, for having lived only in that continual darkness he has no idea of the light of the sun, the beauty of the stars, or the loveliness of nature.  Since the mother wants to teach him all these things, they lower a lamp or a lighted candle to her.  With this she attempts to make him conceive, as best she can, the beauty of a bright day.  She tells him: ‘The sun and the stars are made like this and spread out a great light.’  It is all in vain, for the child, having had no experience of the light of which his mother speaks, cannot understand.  Then the poor woman tries to give him an idea of the beauty of hills covered with trees and various fruits: oranges, lemons, pears, apples, and the like.  But the child knows nothing of all that, nor of how it can be.  And although his mother, holding in her hand some leaves of those trees, may tell him: ‘My child, they are covered with leaves like these and, showing him an apple or an orange, ‘They are also laden with fruits such as these; are they not beautiful?’  The child remains in ignorance.  His mind simply cannot comprehend what his mother wants to teach him, for all that she uses is nothing compared to the reality itself.’”

The limitations are the same, my dear souls, with all that we can say of the grandeur of eternal happiness and of the pleasure and beauties with which Heaven is filled.  Indeed, there is greater proportion between the light of a lamp and the splendor of those great luminaries that shine upon us, between the beauty of the leaf or fruit of a tree and the tree itself laden with both flowers and fruit, between all that this child comprehends of what his mother tells him and the reality itself of the things spoken of, than there is between the light of the sun ands the splendor which the blessed enjoy in glory; between the beauty of a meadow sprinkled with flowers in the springtime and the beauty of these heavenly gardens; between the loveliness of our hills covered with fruits and the loveliness of the eternal hills.  But be that as it may, and we may be certain that we can say nothing in comparison to the reality; still we ought to say something about it.

I have already preached here many times on today’s Gospel and on this topic.  Therefore I want to speak on a point which I have never yet treated.  But before beginning it, I must clarify some difficulties which might prevent you from really understanding what I want to say.  I do this eagerly because I want this point well thought over, considered, and understood by you.

The first difficulty seen in the question is: Can the souls of the blessed, separated from their bodies, see, hear, consider, and understand?  Can they, in short, exercise the functions of the mind as freely as when they were united to their bodies?  I answer that not only can they act as before, but much more perfectly.  And to support this theory I shall give you a story from St. Augustine, an author in whom one can place complete trust.  He relates that he was acquainted with a physician from Carthage who was famous in Rome as in that city, both because he excelled in the art of medicine and because he was a very good man, one who did many charitable works and served the poor gratis.  His charity towards his neighbor moved God to lift him out of an error into which he had fallen as a young man.  God always greatly favors those who practice charity toward their neighbor; indeed, there is nothing that draws down His mercy upon us more abundantly.  Our Lord has declared it His own special commandment [Jn. 15:12], the one He loves and cherishes most.  For after that of the love of God, there is none greater.  [Matt. 22:37-40].

St. Augustine recounts how this physician told him that when young he began to doubt whether the soul, separated from the body, can see, hear, or understand anything.  One day, while in this error, he fell asleep.  Suddenly, a handsome young man appeared to him in his sleep and said: ‘Follow me.’  The physician did so, and his guide led him into a large and spacious field where on one side he showed him incomparable beauties, and on the other allowed him to hear a concert of delightful music.  Then the physician awoke.  Some time after, the same young man again appeared to him in sleep and asked: “Do you recognize me?”  The physician answered that he did indeed recognize him distinctly, that it was he who had conducted him to the beautiful field where he had heard such pleasing music.  “But how can you see and recognize me?”  asked the youth.  “Where are your eyes?”  “My eyes,” he replied, “are in my body.”  “And where is your body?”  “My body is lying in my bed.”  “And are your eyes open or closed?”  “They are closed.”  “If they are closed, they can see nothing.  Admit, then, since you see me even with your eyes closed, recognize me distinctly, and have heard the music even though yours senses slept, that the functions of the mind do not depend on the corporal senses, and that the soul, even when separated from the body, can nevertheless see, hear, consider and understand.”  Then the sacred dream ended and the youth left the physician, who never after doubted this truth.

This is how St. Augustine tells it.  He further mentions that the physician told him that he heard that divine music sung on his right in the field mentioned.  But he firmly added: “I do not remember what he saw to his left.”  I mention this to point out how precise that glorious saint was, saying only what he knew to be the truth in this story.  After this we must never again allow this “difficulty” entrance into our minds, namely, whether our souls, when separated from our bodies, will have full and absolute liberty to perform their functions and activities.  For then our understanding will see, consider and understand not only one thing at a time, but several together; we shall be able to give our attention to several things at one time without one of them displacing any other.

Here, we cannot do that, for whoever wants to think of more than one thing at a time always gives less attention to each and his attention is less perfect in all of them.  It is the same with the memory; it will furnish us with many recollections, and one will not interfere with the others.  Our will will also have the facility of willing many different things without being weakened or loving any one less ardently than the other.  That can never be done in this life while the soul inhabits the body.  Here our memory does not have complete liberty in its operation.  It cannot have many recollections, at least at the same time, without one interfering with the other.  Likewise, our will loves with less ardor when it loves many things together.  Its desires and willing are less passionate and ardent when there are many of them.

This article is taken from part of a chapter in The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales: For Lent by St. Francis de Sales which is available from TAN Books

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was a prolific author who was once Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland.  He is best remembered for his wonderful books on the topic of spiritual direction and spiritual formation.  He has been called "the Gentleman Saint" on account of his patience and gentleness.