The Habit of Seeing God Face to Face

One of those great insights of the early Church was to see that what the Greek philosophers had been talking about when they used the term “virtue” could be applied to the Christian life, even to those dispositions that are clearly gifts of God’s grace. Employing the term “virtue” to describe faith, hope, and charity, for example, wasn’t obvious since “virtues” were understood by the Greeks to be settled dispositions, usually acquired through discipline and repeated practice (a species of what, in the Middle Ages, would be called a habitus). Whereas faith, hope, and charity are gifts infused by God. It was the genius of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and others to conceive of an effective synthesis of the two and to realize that with faith, hope, and charity, the “gift” God infused was precisely the habitus of the virtue.

As infused virtues, faith, hope, and love become settled dispositions of our character, like courage and justice: they become part of who we are and thus principles of how we live. So too, as infused virtues, faith, hope, and love, although they are dispositions God gives us, are also dispositions that, when we have them, we must act upon – albeit always with His continued help. God gives us the habitus as a free gift, but we must act in conjunction with this new freedom.

Love, for example, even human love, is not something we earn. It is something given as a free gift. But when we are loved freely, then we are called upon to love freely in return. Thus if I say “I love my wife,” but then I treat her badly, I make myself a liar. Or if I say, “I love my children,” but then I refuse to feed them when they are hungry, then although I may have a warm, fuzzy feeling when I look at them, we would hardly call that “love.” Love isn’t merely a “feeling,” it is a choice and a commitment to the good of another.

As John 4:1 tells us: “We love because God has loved us first.” But as James 2:15-16 also tells us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” God has given us the gift of charity. Or as Thomas and his contemporaries would have put it, He has infused in us the habitus of charity. But we must still act in accord with this new capacity God has given us, and by acting, we (with God’s help) develop the virtue, just as by acting courageously or temperately, we develop and solidify in ourselves the virtues of courage and temperance. Whereas if I have the virtue of courage, but fail to act on it, what good is that?

“Rosa Celeste” by Gustave Doré, c.1865
“Rosa Celeste” by Gustave Doré, c.1865

Take, for example, the virtues of faith and charity. The ultimate culmination of the gift of faith, its final realization, consists in seeing God face to face. This much is generally well known. But now consider: Having been given the gift of faith – that gift by which I begin, however dimly, to see the one, true living God as He is a God of love and justice, as an eternal triune communion of love – how then do I act?

Let me suggest that one way would be to develop the habitus of seeing God face to face, and one of the best ways of doing this, the saints tell us, is to begin to see the face of God in others we meet everyday. So I ask myself: When I meet others, do I see in them the face of God? Do I search for it, in their eyes and in their faces? Do I even look in their eyes at all? And so too, when they see me, do I show them the face of God? Or do I more often show them the face of that other fellow from the less pleasant place, who isn’t exactly the source of everlasting joy?

We are made, we are told, “in the image and likeness of God.” That’s the original plan, at least. But we have marred the image. We no longer are a clear mirror reflecting God’s benign countenance. We’ve become like one of those fun house mirrors that makes a person look misshapen and deformed. How, then, do we begin once again to reflect the true image and likeness of God?

The Ten Commandments are good place to begin; they reveal to us what it means to be in the image of God. And the Beatitudes show us what it is to be “like Christ.” There is, thus, we might say, a moral dimension to the imago dei.

To know that we have been made in the image of God and that, although we have marred the image, it has been restored by Christ, should come as good news to human beings who are often enough disposed to think of themselves as either the playthings of petty, capricious gods or the accidental by-products of a random cosmic event in an essentially meaningless universe. But it is not only news, it is a command. It is not only a piece of static information; it is a dynamic promise that should propel us forward.

When we read the message of Genesis, and begin to appreciate its message of unmerited love, we should keep in mind the obligations that come with that love, as come with any love.

To whom much has been given, much will be expected. If the gift we have been given will allow us to see God face to face, and the love we have been given is God’s own love, what, for heaven’s sake, do you suppose is expected of us?

If we want to see God face to face, we’d better start now.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.