“Like as from polished and transparent glass,
Or as from water clear and luminous,
Whose shallows leaves the bottom shadowless,

The image of a face comes back to us…

So I saw faces , many and diverse,
Eager to speak.”

— Dante, “Paradiso”[1]

So begins Dante Alighieri’s description of his first meeting with the souls of the blessed in heaven. They appear as clear forms, translucent to the point of near invisibility. Indeed, as he ascents higher to meet the saints closer to God, the light shining from them will overwhelm his vision and he will see them more and more as pure luminescence, sharing in the radiance of the divine glory.

There is a saying attributed to St. Catherine of Siena: “If you could see a soul in the state of grace, you would think that you were seeing God.” In the Nicene Creed, God is called Light, and Jesus His Son is “Light from Light.” Dante described the saints as forms of light to show that they share in the nature of God. This image of light is a symbol of wholeness, integrity, for light is whole and unbroken unless it is prismed. Jesus said, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; … If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.”[2]

The saints are seen as light because they are whole and wholly integrated, and they are therefore capable of sharing in the whole perfection of God. We saw this integrity in our previous article when we considered Mary and her question to Gabriel. She showed no division in her responses, no conflict between her mind and her heart, between her will and her belief. In this she was like Adam and Eve in their primal integrity and wholeness.

Dante’s description is, of course, a fiction. What the saints look like in heaven is beyond our imagining. But it is a matter of faith that they share in the holiness of God. In English etymology, we find that “holy” and “whole” share a common root kail (proto-Indo-European) meaning “whole, uninjured.”[3] We saw the wholeness in which God created human beings when they were “naked, and were not ashamed.”

Adam and Eve were whole, and the saints in heaven are whole. Yet there is a difference between the two states of wholeness. It is the difference between a gift offered and a gift accepted. A gift is not fully a gift until it has been accepted. Until then it remains an offering. If it is not accepted and the giver insists on making the receiver take it, it becomes an imposition. Groomers frequently shower their victims with gifts in their attempts to manipulate them.

God is no groomer, trying to manipulate us. In His generosity, He gifts us into existence. All that we are is His pure gift. That is what the word “grace” means: a pure, unmerited gift. The saints have shown by their lives that they have accepted His gifts. Mary, in particular, has totally accepted to be all that God willed to give her.

Adam and Eve also had to choose whether or not they wanted to accept the gifts of themselves that God had given them. This choice is presented in Genesis as the prohibition of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[4]

There have been various explanations of what this prohibition means. One explanation is that the knowledge of good and evil was a grace that God intended to give to Adam and Eve at a later time. The most common explanation, however, is that the knowledge of good and evil means the right to decide what is good and what is evil and that this is something that God reserves to Himself.

I want to propose another explanation. Let us look at the meaning of the word “to know.” For us modern Westerners, to know usually means to have a concept of something, an idea in our mind. For us, knowing involves information. In the Bible, it has a very different meaning. We see this in the beginning of chapter 4 of Genesis where it says, “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.”[5] Here “knowing” indicates the deep intimacy of intercourse. This use is continuous throughout the Bible, as we see when Mary tells the Angel, “I do not know man.”[6] This understanding of the act of knowing indicates an identification between the knower and the object that is known. A Latin phrase puts it thus: “Cognoscere est fieri aliud in quantum est aliud.” “To know is to become the other in as much as it is other.” Benedict XVI explains it in this way: “Only the Son truly ‘knows’ the Father. Knowing always involves some sort of equality. ‘If the eye were not sunlike, it could never see the sun,’ as Goethe once said, alluding to an idea of Plotinus. Every process of coming to know something includes in one form or another a process of assimilation, a sort of inner unification of the knower with the known.” [7]

Considering then, the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” a Biblical reader would understand that to eat of its fruit is to be united with good and evil, to experience them in oneself.

This brings us to the question of what is meant by “good and evil.” As Catholics, we believe that all creation was brought into being by God. Everything that is not God was created by God. And “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[8] Everything that is, is good. In that case, what is ”evil”? Since everything that is, is good, evil can only be a distortion of what is good. An apple is good. A wormy apple is a distorted apple. The worm, as a worm, is good, but its activity in the apple distorts the apple. Evil is the absence or the distortion of something that in itself is good. This was the great discovery of St. Augustine, the insight that led him out of the Manicheans who believed that both good and evil were actual beings. Augustine came to share the Catholic understanding of evil as being an absence or a distortion of good.

With this understanding of knowing and of good and evil, we see that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil means to choose to experience in oneself both one’s innate goodness and the distortion of that goodness.

The fallen angels chose to experience this. As angels, they were the highest beings in God’s creation. All angels were faced with the decision that comes with every gift: to accept it or reject it. They had to choose whether to accept to be what God had made them, or to distort their own being. The good angels chose to be the glorious beings that God had made them. The fallen angels chose to be something less, and they distorted themselves. They tempted Adam and Eve to make the same choice. In order to do this, the serpent insinuated that God had lied to them, that He had not really made them in his image and likeness. He had kept something essential from them, something that they could only obtain by experiencing both good and evil. They succumbed to the temptation and rejected their trust in God. They chose to “know good and evil.” They chose to distort themselves. With this choice, they lost their wholeness, they gained fear and distrust of God, as well as suspicion of each other. Throughout the rest of the Bible, we see how the effects of this choice unfolded through their descendants.

I gave the title “Spiritual Abortion” to this article. Abortion is an focal subject of discussion in our world, but the word always applies to the physical abortion of a child. Abortion was certainly known in the ancient world, but one of the Fathers of the Church understood the reality of abortion in a deeper sense. St. Gregory of Nyssa applied it to our whole being: “We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good. Such a choice becomes possible for us when we have received God into ourselves and have become children of God, children of the Most High. On the other hand, if what the Apostle calls the form of Christ has not been produced in us, we abort ourselves. The man of God must reach maturity.”[9]

Adam and Eve made their choice, and we are faced with the same decision: do we accept to be what God has created us to be, which is “very good”? Or do we choose to be something less?

We also need to consider God’s response to mankind’s choice. “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.’”[10] If knowing good and evil means to experience it in oneself, how can God “know good and evil”? How can God experience good and evil in Himself?

Being outside of time, God knew the choice that Adam and Eve would make to distance themselves from Him and He refused to leave them in their misery. He promised them a redeemer: “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’”[11] Without making the same choice, this redeemer, Jesus Christ, would share the effects of all of mankind’s choices. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[12] He accepted to experience in Himself the effects of a choice that He never made. This led Him to the agony in the garden and the torture of the cross. By His choice to endure the evil of humanity, He transformed the choice of Adam and Eve into life everlasting.

We are, spiritually speaking, abortion-survivors. God did not let the choice of our first parents lead to our complete annihilation. Neither they nor we ceased to exist; but, just as children that survive a physical abortion can be born physically handicapped, we came into life spiritually handicapped. We will see in subsequent articles the effects of these human and divine choices.


[1] Dante, “Paradiso,” Canto III, 10-7, translation by Dorothy Sayers, Penguin Edition, 1960

[2] Lk 11, 34-36

[3] https://www.etymonline.com/word/holy and https://www.etymonline.com/word/whole

[4] Gen. 1, 17

[5] Gen. 4, 1

[6] Lk. 1, 34

[7] Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth” Doubleday, New York, 2007, p. 340

[8] Gen. 1, 31

[9] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily 6, PG 702-703, Liturgy of the Hours, vol 3, p. 238

[10] Gen. 3, 22

[11] Gen. 3, 14-15

[12] 2 Cor. 5, 21

Image: Paradiso XVI, Gustave Doré

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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