In ancient Israel it was believed, and rightly believed, that no one could see God and live. Thus when old Simeon saw clearly in the infant before him the person of the Deity he knew that his time on earth was at an end. Yet he responded not with fear but with gratitude, ahead of him he saw light not darkness, joy was to be his portion in eternity however much sorrow he may have experienced in time.
It was with faith and by the power of the Spirit that Simeon was enabled to see in Jesus the Logos of God. Others who saw Him did not discern it. Even Cephas and the Boanerges on the Mountain of Transfiguration could not discern in the shining figure before them what Simeon had seen in Mary’s child, both the glory and the Cross. It is only by grace through faith that a person can see God. There is no effort we can make by ourselves alone, no straining of our spiritual eyes, which will give us the ability to see the Holy One. There are things, like prayer and fasting, which we can do to prepare ourselves for the encounter as Simeon and Anna did, but then we must wait in patience before the Lord whose good will may be to remain hidden from us in this life.
The Christ inaugurated a new covenant, to enter which we must be born again. This means that when we see Him for who He is we must die indeed but once we have died we will come to a new life in and through Him. Saul of Tarsus after his epiphany on the way to Damascus was buried in sightless darkness for three days, like his Master in the Holy Sepulchre he neither ate nor drank in all that time. Then the scales fell from his eyes and he could declare ‘And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.’ St John of Patmos saw the vision of a man-
‘The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame.
His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water.
In his right hand he held seven stars.
A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest.’
In response the Saint ‘fell down at his feet as though dead.’ But he was brought back from death by the Alpha and the Omega “then he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not.”
This cycle of vision, death and rebirth was not a phenomenon only of the biblical times but is an inheritance of the Church’s saints and will be until the end. St Catherine of Siena, for example, effectively buried herself in the tomb of her cell in the Benincasa household for three years before emerging to begin her public apostolate. She thereby illustrated an important point. No Christian receives a vision of God (or of the Virgin) for themselves only. We are members of one another and the gifts we are given are for the benefit of the whole body. Even if called to the hermitage or the cloister the impetus that a grace-filled vision provides is for building up the house of God through prayer and contemplation or through prayer and active service not through private enjoyment.
Yet however active our life might be, however deeply we are immersed in the activities and needs of the Church-in-the-world, we are never of the world. Visionaries in particular retain a nostalgia for the transcendent throughout all their time in the mundane. A part of them did, in fact, fully and finally die to this life when they saw and understood Him for the first time. That part ever longs to return to Him and to be with Him forever. With Solomon it sings-
‘O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is oil poured out;
therefore the virgins love you.’
This mystical nostalgia always enjoys the final victory. The desire for the world and the things of the world is gradually slain, the flesh is conquered, the spirit reigns supreme. And in the end God calls His saint home. What seems like a final defeat to the worldly who observe it is, in truth final victory because Jesus triumphs through death.