Friday, June 26, 2009


"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." ~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V

I am a firm believer in Heaven. I can feel it with my heart and my soul and within the essence of my spirit. Although atheists may believe that the notion of Heaven is "opiate for the masses", I remain firm in my contention that there is another realm of being after this life on earth. Life is far too precious and far too short to simply end unresolved. What I've found most fascinating, after years of studying the subject, is that all religious traditions have similar beliefs in a post-life experience. The language each one uses may be different, and therefore, may lead to disagreement and confusion. However, the fact that, just as with the Great Flood, this notion exists at all in cultures around the world, leads credence to a universal, human belief and universal memory of Heaven.

In Larry Libby's wonderful children's book, "Someday Heaven", the author explores his own opinion, mixed with Christian tradition and Biblical references, about the possibilities of what lies beyond this life. When I was the Director of Education for our church, I used this extraordinary book as the basis for a unit study, as well as with my own young children when my father passed away. "Someday Heaven" paints a beautiful picture, describing Heaven in metaphors that children can relate to. Mr. Libby asks his readers to imagine having a wonderful day...the best they had ever had. He goes on to describe that feeling of having to get off your favorite swing, put your toys away and to say goodbye to your friends. He then invites us to imagine never having to say those goodbyes, never having to end a game, and never having to relinquish that delicious feeling of having the time of your life. The truly inspiring aspect of this book was how much it has touched every adult I've ever met who has read it, and been uplifted by it. When a children's book, even one on spiritual matters, can be understood at a deeper level by grown ups, I believe it has exceptional merit. The picture "Someday Heaven" paints is one of hope, of comfort and of a delightful a "good day that lasts forever".

Painting, the art form, is often the medium that best captures different individuals' ideas about Heaven. Reubens, Da Vinci, Micheangelo, Botticelli, El Greco, Velazquez and countless others created the artistic equivalent of a snapshot of their own beliefs and opinions as to the nature of Heaven. The extraordinary Mandalas created by Buddhist monks evoke "visions of Heaven", as they envision them. The beautiful aspect of the Mandala is its circular nature: it has no beginning and no end. The images we see of Heaven are as varied as human beings themselves. Just as no two artists imagine Heaven in quite the same way, neither do no two people. We bring with us our own preconceived notions, our own imaginations and our own belief traditions. We bring with us, as we create our personal imagery, our childhood ideals, our adult concepts and our religious training. We carry forward our unique personalities and our special preferences. The artistic impression of Heaven is neither right nor wrong. It is that personal, exceptional and individual concept of Heaven that I find so captivating.

I believe no film has ever had a greater impact on me than "What Dreams May Come", starring Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Far from the usual Robin Williams flair for off the cuff comedy, this brilliantly and beautifully created film captures the horror of what happens in one family, and the exceptional world in which they reunite. Using one family member's paintings as the impetus for Heaven, Robin Williams takes a journey throughout the next realm to find his loved ones once again. In taking up this quest, his character comes to understand a great deal more about life on earth, about his role as husband and father and about the power of love. Buddhists might use this film to establish the concept of Enlightenment. Christians would clearly see the metaphors for how we live on Earth effecting our existence in Heaven. And yet, specific religious traditions aside, the stunning concept of stepping literally into a painting, as the basis of Robin Williams' idea of Heaven, comes closer to my own personal beliefs than any I've encountered.

The Maoris believe in levels of the afterlife, closely resembling the ideas accepted by the Hindu faith. The Jews picture the"World to Come" and the Baha'i tradition believes Heaven is an eternal alignment with God. Christian views differ greatly, depending upon the tradition of any particular school of though, but all see Heaven as an infinite existence of everlasting joy. Plato saw our world as mere shadow of the idealized, perfected world that awaits us. But, what do my own personal beliefs tell me? I believe my own conception of Heaven has been created by my own life experiences, my own tastes and sensibilities and my own hopes in what I wish to see. I do believe that I have created my own reality in how I perceive "The World to Come" with an Episcopalian twist. But, deep down, I submit that most people have probably done the same thing. For my husband, a lover of nature and especially of the steep hills and woods of New England, I see a Heaven of extraordinary trails and mountains views. For my mother, I envision an idealized Europe, full of art, music, culture and all the dogs she's ever loved welcome at every outdoor cafe. For myself, I picture a mixture of all the eternal worlds of those I love. I see myself able to travel between them all with ease. I see a magnificent English library, containing floor to ceiling books, and eternity to read them all. I imagine the world's most comfortable chairs, a roaring fire, my precious pets at my feet and a cup of perfectly brewed tea at my elbow at all times. I envision a lovely conservatory off to one side with sweeping views of the places I love best. Perhaps I will see Notre Dame Cathedral one moment, and Sugarloaf mountain the next. Maybe I will see the beautiful foothills above Santa Barbara, the canals of Venice or the bright lights of Broadway. I can just as easily picture our own quiet cove in Maine, as I can my honeymoon spot in the extraordinary Austrian Alps.

That's the amazing part of "My Blue Heaven"'s ever changing, it's dynamic and it's unique to me. In the same way, I imagine your own Heaven to be unique to you. Regardless of whether or not one shares in my beliefs, I find the subject and idea of Heaven to be a true delight. Whether Heaven is "a good day that lasts forever", "eternal oneness with the Divine", "a peaceful way station before the World to Come" or simply another doorway, I believe each of us have our own stamp on what part of us goes on forever. For those who believe this world simply ends, and we cease to exist, that too, is a concept of closing a chapter. But, in my C.S. Lewis belief fashion, I look forward to my own journey of "Onward and Upward".

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lost in Translation

"Follow the yellow brick road..." L. Frank Baum, "The Wizard of Oz".

One of the features my car came equipped with is a built in GPS system. Using global positioning, the computer can tell me where I am, and give me clear directions to my destination. I have found this tool to be incredibly helpful, over the past two years, during one cross country drive, and many trips around New England and Canada for my teenagers' athletic and school events. No more fussing with maps. No more arguing with my husband as to what is a highway, and what is, in fact, a river. Because our honeymoon was spent in the Austrian Alps, driving from one beautiful vista to another, maps began to be a bone of contention in my marriage, as I seem to lack the basic intellectual brain chip that would enable me to plan and plot a reasonable (and possible) course. Hence, having a GPS, after 20 years of marriage, seemed like a gift from Heaven....the computer could tell us which turns to make, what landmarks we would pass and even help us to find the most feasible rest stops. Unfortunately, this past weekend, our directions were lost in translation.

Our daughter was going to spend the week at a friend's house in southern Massachusetts. The highway route and directions from the interstate to her classmate's home were clear and easy to follow. We gratefully listened to "Please exit to follow I-495 South" and "Turn right at the next intersection". We were very pleased when the GPS informed us that "We had arrived at our destination". Unfortunately, our return home was not as simple. For reasons we have yet to comprehend, the GPS computer didn't backtrack the way we came. Instead, we found ourselves being ordered to drive around random neighborhoods, head away from the highway and traverse towns completely out of our way. We turned onto tiny rural roads, and drove through main streets of unfamiliar villages. In short, the GPS lost us. It insisted we take roads that would lead us away from our destination or from any main roads. It demanded we make U-Turns if we tried to head in the general area we knew needed to be. It became difficult and argumentative when we chose not to follow its ridiculous directions. I may be anthropomorphising the GPS, but I think it was angry at us, and vented.

Eventually, my husband and I, having lived in various parts of New England for most of our lives, simply ignored the GPS. We looked at the map it supplied, but refused to listen to one more directed turn into a residential development. After a great deal of confusion, heated debate on which way to proceed, we found a familiar road number eventually, one that we knew would take us to the highway. We did learn our lesson. GPS computers are simply tools. They are not, as I had once believed, magical devices created just to make my life easier. Sometimes the information they dispense is incorrect, but because they are not thinking, creative humans, they just regurgitate what information they posses. Eventually, we found our way, we came to more familiar territory and we arrived home safe and sound, and not too much later than we'd planned to be.

This experience helped me to think deeply about communication, and about how much we depend upon information given to us, rather than information we ferret out for ourselves. While services like the GPS, Internet search engines and the media can give us information, how accurate can we trust it to be? How meaningful to our specific need is this recommendation or guidance? While news and reports are valuable tools, we must not stop simply taking each piece we receive as the absolute truth of any situation, whether it is driving directions or seemingly factual accounts of note. It is critical that we learn to process the knowledge given to us and create our own sense of accuracy and believability. Just as my husband and I were positive the GPS was shepherding us further and further away from our path, we must be clear about the other information we receive in our lives, and in which direction it leads us. We must become literate in our decision making, and not be led astray, just because we are told a path to take. We must learn to trust our intuition, at times, and readjust our direction if we head off course, both figuratively and literally.

In Yoga, one of the asanas that can aid in helping us discern our direction is Gate Pose. In Gate, we are opening our bodies, in two ways: the first is the outward expression of reaching upwards and opening our hearts. The inward work that Gate post can help us accomplish is to allow our hearts to be open to both the outward flow from within us, as well as the inward flow from the universe into our lives. Gate pose is one of the asanas that allows us to find our direction. We can stretch our bodies and work into the incredible sense of openness, and we can work our minds and hearts to achieve that same kind of flexibility. We can move out of the pose and readjust by making small changes to help us to gain the maximum benefit. Just as in the rest of our lives, Gate pose can aid us in finding areas in which we are heading correctly, as well as those spots we need to rethink.

On life's journey, take the time to reassess your situation. Don't blindly listen to directions if they seem wrong or out of balance. Process the information you're given and use it in the way that best suits your goal. Above all, don't be afraid to simply stop and turn around. It's much better to reverse direction than it is to wind up in a river.