“The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity.” (CCC 260) This is the salvation of man: The everlasting enjoyment of the Most Holy Trinity. Thus, the dogma of the Trinity is no mere theoretical exercise of academia, but is rather most intimately united with man’s fulfillment and happiness.
Still, we know that man’s nature does not demand the revelation of the Trinity – for the revelation of God is supernatural and entirely exceeds the demands of nature. Hence, it would be possible for man to be fulfilled and perfectly happy on a natural level without attaining to the vision of the Blessed Trinity, without coming to the beatific vision of the Divine Essence. Still, salvation proper (i.e. the supernatural salvation gained through the gift of grace) necessitates the vision of God as he is, the Most Holy Trinity.
A brief consideration of how the Trinity is our salvation, will prepare us for the upcoming solemnity of Trinity Sunday.
Perfect natural happiness does not require the revelation of the Trinity
For man to be completely and perfectly fulfilled according to his nature, there is no need for God to reveal himself as Trinity. It is true that man cannot be happy, cannot have natural perfection without the contemplation of the Divine Essence – and, hence, natural happiness cannot be attained without a natural union with God (i.e. to know and love God by man’s own natural powers, rather than by the theological virtues). Always, and in every hypothetical or possible world, man’s happiness is in knowing and loving God; but this union with God need not be a supernatural union.
Perfect natural happiness, by very definition, would be natural and not supernatural. But the revelation of the Trinity is supernatural and beyond the natural powers of man. Therefore, the revelation of the Trinity would not be required for the perfection of man’s natural happiness.
However, God did not will that man should only attain to perfect natural happiness (though he could have willed this, he did not). Rather, the Lord desires to elevate man above his nature and to bring him into a supernatural participation in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. God desires to give himself to man as Trinity – and this is the life of grace (since sanctifying grace is nothing other than the indwelling of the Trinity). God desires to receive man into himself – and this is salvation (since salvation is nothing other than man’s entrance into the perfect unity of the blessed Trinity).
In a mystical vision, our Savior spoke of this movement from grace into glory to Blessed Angela of Foligno: Et postquam ego collocavi vel pausavi me in te, modo colloca te tu in me vel quiesce tu in me. “And after I have laid myself in you and rested, likewise lay you yourself in me and rest in me.”
Supernatural happiness, or salvation, is the vision of the Divine Essence
Salvation is nothing other than the vision of the Divine Essence. The supernatural happiness to which man has been elevated (according to the generous will of God) is not perfected in the vision of any creature, but only in the vision of God himself. Having been filled with grace (God’s indwelling in this life), heaven is the creature's entrance into God in the life to come.
However, if man’s salvation is the vision of the Divine Essence, how does the Trinity play a part in this? Is salvation only the vision of God’s unity?
We turn to the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “I give you but one divinity and power, existing one in three, and containing the three in a distinct way. Divinity without disparity of substance or nature, without superior degree that raises up or inferior degree that casts down. . . the infinite co-naturality of three infinites. Each person considered in himself is entirely God. . . the three considered together. . . I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me. . .” (Oratio 40, 41; CCC 256)
The Divine Essence is the three persons together and each of the three persons is the Divine Essence. The whole God is wholly in the Father, but also the whole God is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Spirit. The Father is wholly the whole God, yet so too the Son is wholly the whole God, and likewise the Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God; and together they are one God. There is no fourth reality, no separated substance of the Divine Essence – rather, the Divine Essence is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (each individually and all together).
Therefore, the salvation of man is the vision of the Divine Essence, which means the vision of the Trinity, and of each of the three persons. But this vision is not a vision of an outsider. Rather, the vision is of one who is deeply immersed in the Trinitarian life. Heaven is not looking upon the Trinity as something far away and distant; rather, heaven is the entrance of the creature into God.
The humanity of Christ, the general resurrection, and the communion of the saints
Salvation is the vision of the Divine Essence, which is the entrance of the creature into the blessed life of the Most Holy Trinity. This alone is salvation properly so-called. Thus, Pope Benedict XII declared in the Dogmatic Constitution Benedictus Deus (1336) that the entirely pure souls enter heaven and behold the Divine Essence immediately face to face, by the Divine Essence offering itself to them immediately, uncovered, clear and open, and that by reason of this vision and of this happiness they are truly blessed and have eternal life and eternal rest. (Cf. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott)
However, we ought not to think that all the rest is left behind. How then is the humanity of Christ, first of all, related to man’s salvation? The humanity of Christ is the united instrument of man’s salvation. This nature has been so assumed by the Divinity as to be personally and hypostatically united to the Divine Essence in the person of the Word. On this account (i.e. on account of this union and not on account of its own nature), the sacred humanity of Christ is to be worshiped and adored by all people through all ages and in all eternity. Heaven will include the vision (even the material and physical vision, after the general resurrection) of the humanity of Christ. However, this vision of Christ’s humanity is not man’s salvation properly so-called, since we have already seen that salvation proper is not in the vision of any creature, but of the Divine Essence itself.
The vision of Christ’s humanity is considered to be a part of the “accidental blessedness of heaven” – i.e. this vision is united to salvation without being that salvation properly so-called. Hence, according to his humanity, we are co-heirs with Christ. According to his divinity, Christ is that salvation to which we have been made heirs. In heaven, we shall see, enjoy, and adore the humanity of Christ; and this humanity continues to be united to (and remains an instrument of) our salvation.
Likewise, the resurrection of the body and the communion of the saints. These are what we call the “accidental blessedness of heaven.” Especially, when considering the communion of the saints, we can see that this communion is not salvation properly so-called, but is a communal sharing in salvation (which is the vision of the Divine Essence).
God does not save us simply as individuals, but rather unites us together in the Church. For this reason, we are not at all surprised to realize that salvation is not simply the immediate relation of the soul to Blessed Trinity, but this beatitude is mediated through the humanity of Christ and is shared in the communion of saints.
Dante’s vision of heaven
It may sometimes be difficult for some to imagine how the vision of the Divine Essence could bring about perfect happiness. In this regard, the final canto of the Divine Comedy may give us some indication of the joy which awaits us, and of how this joy will fulfill our every desire.
I offer below the final portion of Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso, in the translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
From that time forward what I saw was greater
Than our discourse, that to such vision yields,
And yields the memory unto such excess.
Even as he is who seeth in a dream,
And after dreaming the imprinted passion
Remains, and to his mind the rest returns not,
Even such am I, for almost utterly
Ceases my vision, and distilleth yet
Within my heart the sweetness born of it;
Even thus the snow is in the sun unsealed,
Even thus upon the wind in the light leaves
Were the soothsayings of the Sibyl lost.
O Light Supreme, that dost so far uplift thee
From the conceits of mortals, to my mind
Of what thou didst appear re-lend a little,
And make my tongue of so great puissance,
That but a single sparkle of thy glory
It may bequeath unto the future people;
For by returning to my memory somewhat,
And by a little sounding in these verses,
More of thy victory shall be conceived!
I think the keenness of the living ray
Which I endured would have bewildered me,
If but mine eyes had been averted from it;
And I remember that I was more bold
On this account to bear, so that I joined
My aspect with the Glory Infinite.
O grace abundant, by which I presumed
To fix my sight upon the Light Eternal,
So that the seeing I consumed therein!
I saw that in its depth far down is lying
Bound up with love together in one volume,
What through the universe in leaves is scattered;
Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All interfused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.
The universal fashion of this knot
Methinks I saw, since more abundantly
In saying this I feel that I rejoice.
One moment is more lethargy to me,
Than five and twenty centuries to the emprise
That startled Neptune with the shade of Argo!
My mind in this wise wholly in suspense,
Steadfast, immovable, attentive gazed,
And evermore with gazing grew enkindled.
In presence of that light one such becomes,
That to withdraw therefrom for other prospect
It is impossible he e'er consent;
Because the good, which object is of will,
Is gathered all in this, and out of it
That is defective which is perfect there.
Shorter henceforward will my language fall
Of what I yet remember, than an infant's
Who still his tongue doth moisten at the breast.
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
Was in the living light on which I looked,
For it is always what it was before;
But through the sight, that fortified itself
In me by looking, one appearance only
To me was ever changing as I changed.
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold colour and of one dimension,
And by the second seemed the first reflected
As Iris is by Iris, and the third
Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.
O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, 'tis not enough to call it little!
O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest,
Sole knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself
And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!
That circulation, which being thus conceived
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
When somewhat contemplated by mine eyes,
Within itself, of its own very colour
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein.
As the geometrician, who endeavours
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,
Even such was I at that new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;
But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Et postquam ego collocavi vel pausavi me in te, modo colloca te tu in me vel quiesce tu in me. “And after I have laid myself in you and rested, likewise lay you yourself in me and rest in me.”
- Revelations to Bl. Angela of Foligno