What starry nights, church ceilings and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity teach us about eternity

Occasionally when I witness a particularly breathtaking starry night, I recall the phrases from Coldplay’s song, “Yellow” — “Look at the stars — look how they shine for you” — and Tyler Brown William’s refrain “Forever Was Made For Me and You.” This summer, one of my plans entailed hiking in the desert and witnessing the majesty of the stars under the open desert sky. Although the trip ended up being postponed, I found myself out in the country, nestled in an open plain where the grandeur of the stars was often displayed.

On such nights, the stars silently proclaim the words of the psalms: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5-6). Similar to any encounter with authentic beauty, the stars invite us to ponder universal truths and reveal the truth about ourselves and of our destiny: We are designed for eternity.

In his poem, “The Stars Are Mansions Built By Nature’s Hand,” Wordsworth refers to the stars as “mansions” where “happily, there the spirits of the blest dwell, clothed in radiance.” These guiding lights, the poet continues, reflect “a habitation marvelously planned, for life to occupy in love and rest.”

Want more Radiant? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Our end is the result of something “marvelously planned.” In creating us, God fashioned us for eternity: “for life to occupy in love and rest,” for our end consists in a loving adoration of God, a resting in his gaze. This is why St. Augustine observes that we have a certain restlessness, a sense of longing on this earth, which only will be quenched when we finally rest in God.

During the silence of the night, the stars allow us the opportunity to be captivated by beauty and to ponder our existence. In this way, the starry sky reveals eternity to us, reminding us of our end.

Starry ceilings

Wordsworth describes the stars as places where souls of the just rest. Interestingly enough, this is a familiar image in sacred art, for the ceilings of many Gothic Churches constructed in the Middle Ages portray a starry night sky. Though this sight may at first seem strange to behold in a church, the painters use this image to depict a theological reality.

In the history of sacred architecture, the church building is understood to be a visible sign of the heavenly Jerusalem where the faithful cross the threshold into the eternal, participate in the heavenly liturgy and become swept into the divine. The ceiling of the church, therefore, is considered the dome of heaven. Thus, the design on the ceilings of Gothic churches in the Middle Ages were completed with stars shining on a night blue sky to convey to the faithful that there, in the church, they experience a foretaste of heaven.

A prominent example of such a ceiling can be seen in the stunning Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. Although the starry sky was a common design during the Middle Ages, the ceiling of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is most noteworthy. It takes on the form of the “heavens” as not only gold stars, but also images of the saints and angels illuminate its blue sky.

Walking down the nave of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the vaulted ceilings and starry sky convey a sense of one’s littleness before the sacred. On this journey to the altar, the faithful are met with angels and saints who communicate that we too are “citizens of heaven,” for heaven is our true home where God has destined a place for us. St. Paul shares this reality with the early churches, writing that God has prepared for us a city (cf. Heb 11:16), and that we have a building from God not made from human hands, but one that is eternal (cf. 2 Cor 5:1).

These souls resting on the dome of heaven perpetually remain before the Lamb, where God has reserved a place for each one of us “from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). The presence of the angels and saints on the church’s ceiling not only invites the faithful to worship with them, but also reminds that the souls of the just join those on earth at Mass to participate in the saving action of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The liturgy then enables us to step into eternity, for there we experience a foretaste of heaven as heaven meets earth where all the angels, saints, souls in Purgatory and the faithful are united in one act of worship. In this way, the angels and saints on Santa Maria Sopra Minerva’s starry ceiling relay eternity to us: both that we are made for eternity and that on earth, we can experience eternity.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

Staring at the stars both on a clear night and on a Gothic church’s ceiling can instruct us that we are not only made for eternity, but also that we have eternity within us. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas notes the virtue of faith enables the Christian life on earth to be eternal life begun.

From the foundation of the world, God desired to be with us, to be one with us. Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper reveals this, for he asks that the glory, which the Father has given him, may be shared with us: that God would be within us, and we in God.

At our baptism, God places eternity within us, for we become dwelling places of the Triune God. There, God extends his very life to us, allowing us to be partakers in the divine life on earth, and communes with us in the intimacy of our souls. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity uniquely understood this mystery, as she was gifted with the graces of recognizing the presence of God within her and of being acutely aware of the workings of each person of the Trinity in her soul. She relayed that God’s “desire to have us with itself” begins “not only in eternity, but now in time, which is eternity commenced and yet always becoming.”

The beauty of the Divine Indwelling held Elizabeth captive, enabling her to experience heaven on earth through a continual remembrance of God’s presence within her. In her Prayer to the Holy Trinity, St. Elizabeth petitioned that her soul be “established in You as still and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity . . . make it your Heaven, Your beloved dwelling place and Your resting place.” The saint continued, begging for the grace to “never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to Your creative action.”

Elizabeth shared this continual gaze upon God in her soul enabled her to accept all as “coming directly from His love.” Regardless if she experienced joys or sufferings, God’s union within her caused this saint to bear all for the sake of eternity. Elizabeth’s prayer reflects this as she wrote that despite “all nights, all voids, all helplessness” she wanted “to gaze on [Christ] always and remain in [His] great light.” Even in times of trial, she beseeched her “Beloved Star” to “fascinate [her] that [she] may not withdraw from [His] radiance.”

Such attentiveness to the Divine Indwelling the saint disclosed, results in being “possessed by God,” radiating him and becoming “another humanity in which He can renew His mystery.” On account of this profound union, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity proclaimed she “found heaven on earth, since Heaven is God, and God is [in] my soul.”

Finding our heaven on earth

Like St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, we, too, can discover heaven on earth, since God resides in our souls. We just need to be cognizant of this fact and cultivate an increasing awareness of God’s presence within us. This saintly mystic provides the manner of being “wholly attentive” to the indwelling of the Trinity. She writes that “it is so simple,” for “He asks us to live in His company.” As God abides with us, the secret is to “enter in the depth of [one’s] soul” and “be with Him always yourself. Through all your actions, in all your sufferings, . . . remain in His sight. See Him living in your soul.”

Though this advice may seem difficult or perhaps even unrealistic at times when we find ourselves caught in the daily demands of family life, social commitments and work schedules, St. Elizabeth counsels that we should not be troubled. Instead, we should simply take a moment, think of God and utter a prayer while performing whatever task the present moment requires for “it’s enough to think of Him.” Additionally, the Carmelite nun recommends that we spend some time meditating “that after Communion we possess all of Heaven within our soul except the vision,” for when worthily receiving Christ in the Eucharist, the presence and work of the Trinity increases in our souls. By continually recalling and remaining in the presence of God dwelling within our souls, both during the day and after holy Communion, we begin to abide in God and experience a foretaste of eternity on earth.

The stars do shine for you and me. They shine to remind us of our final end — of our heavenly home. The stars encourage us to look within our souls and to wonder at ourselves, for as St. Augustine notes in his “Confessions,” many “pass by themselves without wondering.” When we awake to the marvels within us, we learn we are indeed “crowned with glory and honor” for, when in the state of grace, we bear God within our souls. Though we can gaze at the stars and marvel at the star-studded ceilings of Gothic ceilings to be reminded of eternity, we only have to look within our souls to ponder this truth. We have God within our souls.

@Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.