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Dear Father Angelo,

I am Alessandro, I have written to you several times.

I was reflecting on negative theology, in particular on the beatific vision.

It was St. Thomas Aquinas who closed the question on the comprehensibility and incomprehensibility of God by elaborating the concept of comprehensive vision, which is exclusive to God because it embraces the infinite essence of God, and only God can understand himself in His infinity.

The beatific vision will therefore take place according to the merits of each one and the creature’s limits, even if extended by the light of glory (lumen gloriae).

Yet I have never understood what the vision of God “wholly, but not totally” consists of, it seems to me a contradiction in relation to the divine substance which is simple: either it is not seen at all or it is seen totally, because it cannot be broken down.

So, my first question is: how is the beatific vision, possible for the creature, distinguished from the comprehensive one?

A second question concerns the comprehensive vision itself: one cannot understand God, therefore it is proper only to God. But it is impossible to know God wholly only with the intellect, or even to come into contact with the nature of God in His whole infinity, under the penalty of being swept away by His infinite power? Let me explain: if an Angel, or a man, had a comprehensive vision for just one instant, would he not be able to understand God only with his intellect, therefore he would survive, or would he be completely destroyed?

Thanks a lot, and best regards.

Dear Alessandro,

1. For our visitors I immediately say that by negative theology we mean that we do know God, but He always remains superior to what we have understood of Him and we understand more what He is not than what He is. It would be necessary to be God Himself to fully understand Him. But this is impossible because, however raised by the light of faith in the present life and by the light of glory in the future life, our intelligence is always a created, finite, limited one and therefore not like God’s infinite one.

2. Secondly, when we say that God is unknowable, we do not mean that we know nothing, but that He is infinitely higher than what we understand. This is why Sacred Scripture says that God inhabits an inaccessible light. It is St. Paul who reminds Timothy: I charge you “to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see” (1Tim 6:14-16). Therefore St. Thomas was not the first to make this statement. Indeed, the Holy Fathers, who chronologically are all prior to St. Thomas, were strongly convinced of this.

3. But now we come to the thought of St. Thomas. He says that only God perfectly knows (understands) himself. And here is the reason: “A thing is said to be comprehended… when it is known as perfectly as it is knowable. (…). Now it is manifest that God knows Himself as perfectly as He is perfectly knowable” (The Summa Theologica, I, 14, 3).

4. Starting from the affirmation of St. John who asserts that we shall see God as He is (1Jn 3,2), St. Thomas concludes that we will certainly know the essence of God in the afterlife. In his argument he writes: “what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light. Therefore, some who considered this, held that no created intellect can see the essence of God. This opinion, however, is not tenable. For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else beside God; which is opposed to faith” (The summa theologica I, 12, 1).

5. Even in Paradise however, man cannot understand it perfectly because “what is comprehended is perfectly known; and that is perfectly known which is known so far as it can be known. (…) But no created intellect can attain to that perfect mode of the knowledge of the Divine intellect whereof it is intrinsically capable. (…) Now no created intellect can know God infinitely. For the created intellect knows the Divine essence more or less perfectly in proportion as it receives a greater or lesser light of glory. Since therefore the created light of glory received into any created intellect cannot be infinite, it is clearly impossible for any created intellect to know God to an infinite degree. Hence it is impossible that it should comprehend God” (The summa theologica, I, 12, 7).

6. Then he specifies: “ “Comprehension” is twofold: in one sense it is taken strictly and properly, according as something is included in the one comprehending; and thus in no way is God comprehended either by intellect, or in any other way; forasmuch as He is infinite and cannot be included in any finite being; so that no finite being can contain Him infinitely, in the degree of His own infinity. In this sense we now take comprehension. But in another sense “comprehension” is taken more largely as opposed to “nonattainment”; for he who attains to anyone is said to comprehend him when he attains to him. And in this sense God is comprehended by the blessed, according to the words “I took hold of him and would not let him go” (Cant 3:4); in this sense also are to be understood the words quoted from the Apostle” (Ib., ad 1).

7. And: “the word “wholly” (totaliter) denotes a mode of the object; not that the whole object does not come under knowledge, but that the mode of the object is not the mode of the one who knows. Therefore, he who sees God’s essence, sees in Him that He exists infinitely, and is infinitely knowable” (Ib., ad 3) and therefore superior to his capacity for perfect comprehension.

8. The understanding of God and the beatific vision are not two different realities, but they factually coincide. “Comprehension is not a distinct operation from vision; but a certain relation to the end already gained” (The summa theologica, I-II, 4, 3, ad 3). The beatific vision is the moment in which God enters into our mind which, in the meanwhile, has been empowered to see Him through the light of the glory and enables us to know Him. He wholly enters, but without our total comprehension (totus sed non totaliter)

I wish you to be one day among those who comprehend God by means of the beatific vision, I remind the Lord of you and I bless you

Father Angelo