One meaning of contemplation is to gaze upon God, so it is natural for the contemplative to want to see God’s face. At the same time the prospect of what we do not know is scary. This ambivalence is reflected in the Bible, with one tradition saying it is death to come face to face with God (Exodus 33:20) and another saying that Moses talked face to face with God as friends do (Exodus 33:11) and another tradition saying Moses saw the back of God rather than God’s face (Exodus33:23). All those traditions in tension with one another are woven into the same story in Exodus 33. Mystical theology explains that no one can behold God’s glorious essential presence, but we may see God through an intermediary. The most glorious intermediary is Jesus Christ, in whom God took human form (“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” – John 1:18).
We may see evidence of God’s presence in nature, in the stars, in the beauty of art, in the excitement of scientific discovery, in the joy of children, in the love that binds family and friends together, in the heroism that confronts injustice, in the faces of brothers and sisters Christ called “the least of these”. We may even see God in an angelic messenger or a vision of light. All of these are indirect, mediational ways of seeing. Theologians like Albert the Great and his student, Thomas Aquinas, taught that there is no direct seeing of God’s essential presence in this life. The direct beatific vision of God only comes in heaven (see The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany by Bernard McGinn, p.26-27). As the Apostle Paul explains, “now we see in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12a).
The terms “seeing” and “knowing” are often interchangeable in this context. Paul follows the previous quote about “seeing” with words about “knowing”: “Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”. And Paul prays in Ephesians 3:18-19 “that we may have the ability to grasp the immensity of Christ’s love, its height, depth, breadth and length, and to know that love even though it is beyond knowledge.” Ultimately the love of God is a mystery that lies beyond both our seeing and our knowing.
Contemplation lies at this threshold beyond seeing and knowing. Thomas Aquinas taught that the goal of contemplation is the vision of God’s essence in heaven: “now we have imperfect possession of the contemplation of divine truth through mirror and enigma but on this basis we gain the first fruits of beatitude, which begins here in order to find its goal in the future” (quoted in The Harvest of Mysticism by B. McGinn, p.32). This “first fruits” of knowing God is based on loving experience and the humility of acknowledging how little we “know” (McGinn, p.36). So contemplation is always a gift.
There is another way of seeing God, whereby we see God’s glory or the light that surrounds God. God’s glory is a way that God becomes accessible to human beings. I was overcome in the final scenes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev, by the transition from black and white to a glorious light-filled color when we see for the first time the icons which the monk has painted. The icons are a vision filled with God’s glory. The Angel Trinity was one of those icons. I have not been to Moscow to see the original but I was recently at the Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, Massachusetts, where there is an amazing exact modern replica. The Angel Trinity, even in replica, is glorious. As I stand before it I feel inexorably drawn into this inner circle of the Godhead, the Trinity, even though there is part of me that resists the invitation. The small square underneath the table and the opening in the platform below it suggest a gateway for the viewer to enter thereby (I have to get on my hands and knees to do it). It is an invitation to partnership. That partnership brings us to fullness of life. “The human being fully alive is the glory of God”, said St. Irenaeus.
Sometimes when I preached parishioners told me that my face shone. It was always when I was passionate about what I was saying, often after an intense spiritual experience. When one’s face shines it is a sign of being fully alive, reflecting the glory of God. This is God’s intention for us.
I remember just before my father died he had a vision of the light of God and he recited the Gloria Patri: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be, world without end. Amen. His vision and final words have been a profound consolation to me.
I believe his vision was an invitation to this continuing partnership of becoming fully alive and reflecting the glory of God, beginning now and stretching into the forever. We are granted glimpses of God in this life, enough to keep us on the path and to assure us that the face awaiting us at the end of the journey is a smiling one.