Tag Archives: heaven

Heaven and Hell

6 Oct


Some weeks ago, I set myself a challenge. A long time admirer of Clive James, I was impressed and intrigued by his commitment to complete a contemporary  translation of the epic poem the Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri early in the 14th century. Clive James has a terminal illness, and this feat fulfilled a lifelong wish – honouring both his skill as a poet of note, and his ex wife’s status as an eminent Dante scholar. He expresses that he carries some guilt about his role in the eventual breakdown of their marriage.

So the least I could do for Clive, his ex wife (and Dante himself) was to embark on a long overdue attempt at making some sense of the 500+ page poetic masterpiece recording Dante’s imagined journey down through Hell, then up through Purgatory towards a blissful Heaven.

Domenico di Michelino’s fresco of Dante shown above adorns a wall of Florence Cathedral. It depicts the poet holding his most famous work, standing next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above. At present, I am traveling with Dante and his guide Virgil through ‘middle Hell’. I have to say, James’ translation fairly ‘raps’ along – I find myself tapping my foot to the rhythm of the verse, even though Dante’s references to obscure medieval Italian ne’er-do-wells have stretched me somewhat.

As he descends down the circles of Hell, the worldly sins of its inhabitants become more and more dire, culminating in ‘the pits’ as violence, fraud and treachery. They encounter all sorts of horrible predicaments – torture, rivers of boiling blood, slimy snakes and creepy-crawlies aplenty. I can barely wait for the relative promise and relief of Purgatory, portrayed behind Dante in Michelino’s painting as a pyramidal tower whose seven steps rise, Kundilini-like, towards the eternal peace of Heaven.

When I was a hospice doctor in the 90’s, I read both Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, and the classic ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’. I tried to reconcile these visions of an afterlife with the scientific hardline dished out over the past 300-odd years of the ‘Age of Reason’ ie. when we die, everything about us goes away. Our consciousness goes as our brain dies. We have no soul.

This conventional stance would appear paradoxically to be more dogmatic than reasonable. It even conflicts with one of the stated fundamentals of science – the 1st Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy is our universe is never destroyed, rather it is perpetually recycled. At the risk of sounding dogmatic myself, surely the only ‘reasonable’ conclusion that modern scientists should come to is that they have absolutely no clue as to what happens to us when we die.

The emerging science surrounding Near Death Experiences is perhaps one step towards a deeper secular Western understanding of death and dying. There is growing evidence that consciousness persists, even when human brains are inactive. In his 2013  bestseller ‘Proof of Heaven’ the Harvard neurosurgeon Eben Alexander describes his experiences of a sublimely beautiful heaven while much of his brain had turned to mush by E.coli encephalitis. Consciousness, he concludes, cannot reside solely within the living human brain.

My own understanding is influenced as much from the feelings I experience from being in the presence of the dying, as from any of these texts (which admittedly I devour with relish.) Presently my views closely echo the lyrics of one of my favourite singer-songwriters, the Canadian Ron Sexsmith, in his song  ‘God Loves Everyone’:

“There are no gates in heaven, everyone gets in
Queer or straight, souls of every faith
Hell is in our minds, Hell is in this life
But when it’s done, God takes everyone.”

Over the past four years, our family has been suffering from the effects of the very same toxic behaviour as exhibited, in their lifetimes, by many of the unwilling residents trapped in Dante’s Hell. Of course, being subjected to threats and lies by a major corporation that affect our family’s future lifestyle and financial security is but a minor inconvenience compared with the hellish terror inflicted on those poor souls facing execution, and on their desperate families, by terror groups such as ISIS. However, it is largely through our personal recent experiences that I can now truly empathise with Ron’s words: “Hell is in this life.”

But the upside of all this unpleasantness is a growing awareness of how much we have to be grateful for – so many blessings to count.

One of these blessings is the privilege I feel when a family invites me to play a role in the care of a loved one who is facing death. Over the past month, I have been treated to such an invitation from a family who have shared their love and deep respect for their dear wife and mother who passed peacefully a week ago. In her graceful presence, I too was allowed to further transform as I released my need to rescue by being simply present.

This was my glimpse of heaven – a space of acceptance and love.

Glimpses that also come – perhaps more inconspicuously – when I am walking on the beach with Trish and our cavoodle Lily, or when I am attending my children’s and grand-children’s birthday parties, or when I write and sing a song, or even as I write this blog.

These are glimpses of reality and truth – more real and truer by far than our first-worldly battles with large corporations and the legal system, and with those individuals who are so trapped within these illusionary man-made prisons, these modern day cults, that they must struggle to experience that which is really important.

Some of these folk will go on to discover these truths through the trials and tribulations of their own unique lives; some as they themselves catch a glimpse of heaven between their dying breaths; and some maybe within the moment they leave behind their so-transient material existence and wealth for pastures anew.

I don’t envy them, but I do wish them well.