This beautiful May morning was the first time since the bleak days of early November that I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face as I dipped my kayak paddles into the glittering waves of Lake Ontario. For me, this is nothing short of heaven. Besides being with those I love, or making or listening to great music, it is being out in nature that inspires me and brings me to a place of stillness and creativity. It is one of the times I feel closest to the transcendent. Looking at the red tulips pushing through the soil in my front garden, I marvel that those drab bulbs survived our very cold, grim winter and flower into blossoms of spectacular vibrancy. Being a church musician, I am confronted weekly with life’s big questions. What is paradise? What is a soul? What happens to us after death? Do we, like seeds, emerge as something quite wondrous in a new life after death? Is heaven filled with ‘golden gates’ or is it simply our own vision, like being out in a kayak?
The other evening I listened to an interview featuring Anita Moorjani telling of her near-death experience while dying of cancer and her miraculous recovery. In her book ‘Dying To Be Me’ she talks about what heaven means to her. There is no shortage of books penned by authors that have travelled through the tunnel of light only to return to their very earthly hospital bed both changed and inspired. (‘Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife’ by Eben Alexander; ‘Embraced By The Light’ by Betty Eadier; and ‘Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back’ by Todd Burpo are among the most popular books on the mass market).
I thought I would spend a bit of time with this blog featuring composers who were drawn to the image of heaven and life’s final journey. As I child, I use to play ‘Oh Them Golden Slippers’ with my grandfather on the accordion. Thumbing through old Victorian hymn books, I notice that heaven for many of these hymn writers, is a place where the streets are paved with gold, and the souls of the righteous have crowns of jewels sitting on their heads as a testament to the just and holy life lived while on earth. Some musicians are inspired to sing about the 12 gates to the city of heaven.
“Three gates in the east; Three gates in the west; Three gates in the north; Three gates in the south; That makes twelve gates to the city Hallelujah; Oh what a beautiful city; There’s twelve gates to the city Hallelujah”
Robert Plant Band Of Joy – 12 Gates To The City
Many books featuring near death experiences talk about being greeted by loved ones. Their role, much like a Walmart greeter, is to welcome us and introduce us to our new heavenly realm. In Christian rites drawn from the Funeral Mass or Requiem, it is angels and martyrs that guide us on our way.
‘May the Angels lead you into Paradise. At your coming may the martyrs receive you and conduct you into the Holy City Jerusalem. May the chorus of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a pauper, eternally may you have rest.”
In Paradisum – Requiem Gabriel Faure
Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir of Toronto. Directed by Kelly Galbraith.
William O’Meara organist; Pianist Ellen Meyer, Emperor String Quartet
Throughout history and across many cultures, the notion of a ‘soul’ takes on many guises. In the Christian tradition it is considered to be the essence of you that survives after death.
In Gerald Finzi’s setting of ‘Intimations of Immortality’, Wordsworth’s poetry takes us to a place of gentle remembering. ‘Our birth is but a sleeping and a forgetting. The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar.’
Gerald Finzi – Intimations of Immortality Op. 29, 1st and 2nd movements Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Conductor: Richard Hickox; Tenor: Philip Langridge
Every image of heaven features light. Light is good. Light is love. Light is enlightenment. “Dear Beauteous death! The jewel of the just, shining nowhere but in the dark. What mysteries do lie beyond the dust? Could man outlook that mark? And yet, as angels in some brighter dreams call when man doth sleep, so some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes and into glory peep. I saw eternity the other night, like a great ring of pure and endless light, all calm, as it was bright. And round beneath it, time in hours, days years, driven by the spheres like a vast shadow moved in which the world and all her train were hurled.”
“Eternal Light, shine into our hearts, Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil, Eternal Power, be our support, Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance, Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen”
Leo Sowerby ‘Eternal Light’
It is not a coincidence that there are no massive monuments to the dead in Hinduism, no tombs, or pyramids to mark the final resting place because death is not a final stopping point. Hindus believe that all beings die and are reborn as long as they are working through their karma. The physical remains are only a transient and insignificant reminder of one’s passing. ‘I died a mineral and became a plant. I died a plant and rose an animal. I died an animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as man to soar with the blessed angels. But even from angel hood I must pass on. All except God perishes. When I have sacrificed my angel’s soul, I shall become that which no mind ever conceived. O let me not exist! For non-existence proclaims, “To Him we shall return”.
Gustav Holst’s setting of the ancient sacred Hindu texts ‘The Rig Veda’
Gustav Holst – Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op. 26
Sir David Willcocks, Royal Philarmonic Orchestra
The Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ is a carefully documented system of ancient beliefs. The lasting testament of pyramids pointing to the heavens is a reminder of the Ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt, individuals were thought to possess multiple souls all of which served different functions. The Pharoah was revered as the child of the sun God Ra and thus a God himself.
The Pharaoh ascended to heaven upon his death either by a ladder or boat that made its way across the sky to the west. Or, he transformed himself into a bird. The Pharoah had the divine right to enter the heavenly realm but the souls of others had to disembark and proceed through seven gates. Mortal souls had to consult the Book of the Dead in order to recite the names and formulas that would allow further progress.
In this spirited selection from Philip’s Glass’ opera, Akhnaten the men sing: “Hail bringer of the boat of Ra. Strong are thy sails in the wind. “
Philip Glass – Funeral Of Amenhotep III
Egypt. The very name resonates in the collective memory of Jewry. Judaism affirms the coming of the Messiah and the emphasis is on personal redemption and justice that comes through daily life. The celebration of Passover reminds the Jews of their deliverance from the hands of the Pharoah. The door of the house is opened to allow the spirit of Elijah to enter. With his spirit comes all good things, literally, heaven on earth.
Best Seder in the USA (The Passover Song) sung by Jewish Treets
In many religions, the departed soul has to cross a river either using a bridge or a boat. The most famous boatman was the Greek figure Charon who ferries the dead across the River Styx, or Archangel Michael who rows the boat ashore. In Delius‘ setting of Walt Witman’s ‘Joy! shipmate joy!’, voices sing of one such final cruise.
Joy shipmates, joy. (Pleas’d to my soul at death I cry;) Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave, The ship is clear at last, she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore, Joy! shipmate, joy!
Delius: Songs of Farewell – Joy, Shipmates, Joy
‘Darest thou now, O soul, walk with me toward the unknown region…I know it not, O soul, nor dost thou, all is a blank before us. All awaits undreamed of in that region, that inaccessible land.” Vaughan Williams’ setting of Walt Witman’s poem Toward the Unknown Region” is a song for chorus and orchestra.
Hertfordshire Chorus; Aurelian Ensemble, conductor David Temple
Buddhism has some similarity to Hinduism in that it embraces ideas of reincarnation and karma. The virtue of hard work and strick religious observance brings the soul closer to the ultimate goal which is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth – to free oneself from the desire of things in this world so that you don’t want to be reborn. For Buddhists, life is the source of suffering and the ultimate death. Getting off the wheel of reincarnation is nirvana, paradise.
Christianity also puts emphasis on the value of hard work resulting in jewels for the heavenly crown. “Even so saith the spirit. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord for they rest from their labours and their works follow them. The cripples who never walked, leap around in paradise. The deformed, who had never even crawled, fly about through the air. The eyes of the blind and the deaf who yearned from the womb, hungering for the light which they failed to see, now rejoice to behold the beauty of paradise and the mighty sound of harps give comfort to their ears.”
Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir; Kelly Galbraith Director, Ellen Meyer, pianist; Jennifer Harewood -Kokoue soloist
Most sacred choral music does feature music about death, suffering, redemption, and heaven. Am I closer to having definite answers to the weighty questions of life? Not at all. But I do believe with all my heart that whatever heaven is, there most certainly is unconditional love, light, compassion, and of course great choral music!