Purpose of Lent? To See God

Reclaiming the Beatific Vision

For Christians lent is about answering the question, what are we made for? The answer may seem obvious. Yet when you think more deeply it is not. Is it to be a good person, to help others, to serve God, be a disciple, be more like Christ, or share the gospel with others? All good things, but not ‘the’ goal of the Christian life. They are the ‘consequences’ of our goal, not ‘the’ goal. For patristic and medieval thinkers having a ‘beatific vision’ or, ‘seeing God’ was the undisputed purpose of the Christian life.[1] This long tradition of reflection on the beatific vision is based on the biblical promise that after death believers will see God face to face, along with descriptions of theophanic experiences of Old as well as New Testament saints, and passages that speak about life before God in terms of vision and/or light.[2] For instance, Moses’ encounters with God on the mountain and Paul’s post-resurrection meeting with Jesus.

The marginalization of the beatific vision in today’s western Church[3] has left our ‘spirituality’ floundering in this-worldly human desires rather than on God. And because the purpose of human beings has been separated from its true end, a vision of God in Christ, we are confused about our true identity and consequently the shape the Christian life should take. Therefore, I will attempt to retrieve what the beatific vision is about by considering what the 4th century mystical theologian Gregory of Nyssa says about this doctrine, which was of great significance to him. In particular, I will draw from what he says in his sixth sermon on the Beatitudes and his commentary on The Life of Moses.

Purification and Seeing God

Jesus says in Matthew 5:8, blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Yet, as Nyssa recognizes, this contradicts what John, Paul and Moses say elsewhere.[4] These saints contradict what Jesus says on two counts. First, no one can see God’s being or essence and two, if only the pure in heart can see God, who can ever claim to be pure? In his attempt to solve this paradox, Gregory distinguishes between God’s nature and, what he calls, ‘His energies, for He may be contemplated in the things that are referred to Him’.[5] These ‘things that refer to God are creation and what the soul sees in the human heart. But only, as Nyssa says, ‘if a man’s heart has been purified from every creature and all unruly affections, he will see the Image of the Divine Nature in his own beauty’.[6] Gregory, agrees with the saints that even if ‘the eye of one’s soul has been purified, he is not promised a direct vision of God’. Nevertheless, you can see ‘the purity, sanctity, simplicity, and other such luminous (and the key word here) reflections of the Divine nature, in which God is contemplated’.[7] For Gregory, seeing God means seeing traces of God in the ways in which he works in the world and in the reflection of his purity in our lives. Still, although Gregory has dealt with the paradox of seeing God in his ‘operations,’ or as ‘reflections’ of God as in a mirror, the requirement that we be pure of heart to see God seems hardly feasible. For the solution, let’s now turn to his commentary on the ‘Life of Moses’.

Life of Moses: Perpetual Progress Towards Purity

Gregory redefines purity from that of an arrived position to one of journey[8] that is always progressing towards moral perfection in the Christian life, yet never reaching it. Gregory accepts that ‘what the petitioner seeks cannot be contained by human life … [nevertheless, because of] its desire of heavenly things, [she] strains ahead for what is still to come’.[9] Human perfection as an end product can never be reached in this lifetime. Still, because of our insatiable desire to see God, we continue, along with Paul, ‘to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:14). It is in striving for purity in our life to see God that we also, participate in God’s nature.[10] For Gregory, ‘[t]his is truly the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him … one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more’.[11] Seeing God kindles a desire to see more of Him, which is why we continually, as does Paul, strive for perfection in life.

Implications of the Beatific Vision for Today’s Christian

Gregory teaches us that the purpose of the Christian life is seeing, albeit in an indirect, reflected way, God in Christ. The priority to see God above all else in life has important implications for Christians today. First, this-worldly realities cannot ultimately satisfy our desires. This is not a new idea. St. Augustine and, of course, the bible teaches us the same thing. But Gregory further teaches us that just knowing ‘about’ God in Christ is not the end goal of the Christian life. Just knowing about God from what you read in your bible and/or from what your priest preaches will not turn your attention away from your misplaced desires for earthly things to bring you joy and purpose in your life. We need, not just information about God, but to know God Himself in Christ to change and transform the orientation of our desires and actions. That is why, for Gregory, ‘seeing’ God is the goal of the Christian life.

Second, the kind of knowing or seeing God Gregory considers means the only way to approach God is with wonder,[12] something that is sorely lacking in today’s Church. Church leaders talk a lot about visioning and good communication strategies, while parishioners want to know ‘what can God do for me’. Yet there is little focus in our worship on the wonder of seeing God’s glory and beauty in Christ. For Gregory, ‘the appropriate kind of knowing is precisely the knowing that has become utterly worship, the knowing-in-adoration for the transcendent of glory perceived, traveled in, but not enclosed’.[13] If Gregory is right, and I believe he is, the issue in the worship experience offered by today’s churches is not whether it should use ‘traditional’ versus ‘user-friendly’ liturgies. Instead, more focus is needed on, irrespective of which liturgy is used, the ‘aesthetics’ of our worship – e.g., attention to detail and the liturgy’s theological depth, does the liturgy engage all our senses and portray a sense of beauty, is the music thoughtful, poetic, theologically deep, inspiring, yet invites congregational participation, and attentive to detail.

Lastly, human identity can only be found in our search to see God. Human identity is connected to its telos, purpose, or goal in life. We become whatever we ultimately desire in life. Today’s abandonment of a beatific vision of God in the Church is why the desires of so many Christians for meaning, purpose, and joy in life is not being satisfied in today’s Church and, consequently, why so many churches are empty. The Church does not exist to just talk ‘about’ God, but rather to lead people to God. Unless we start orienting its mission, ministry, and worship accordingly, the Church will continue in its downward trend.

[1] I am grateful to Hans Boersma’s insightful work on the beatific vision in, “Becoming Human in the Face of God: Gregory of Nyssa’ Unending Search for the Beatific Vision,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology. Vol. 17.2, April 2015.

[2] Ibid., 133.

[3] It’s important to note beatific vision of God continues to be of central importance in the Orthodox Church. There are many reasons why it’s not important in the western Church. Mostly it is because, influenced by the the scientific way of knowing, we no longer believe that earthly realities can point us to God.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, “The Lord’s Prayer and The Beatitudes,” in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Ed. by Johannes Quasten and Joseph Plumpe Tran. by Hilda Graef (London: Longmans, Green and Co: 1954), 143.

[5] Nyssa, “Beatitudes,” 146.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Ibid., 150.

[8] Kaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2011), 161.

[9] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Harper Colins, 2006), 103.

[10] Boersma, Becoming Human, 141.

[11] Nyssa, Life of Moses, 105.

[12] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea, 164.

[13] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea, 165.

Purpose of Lent? To See God
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