Pub. Date:
Oxford University Press
The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times / Edition 1

The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times / Edition 1

by Carol Zaleski, Philip ZaleskiCarol Zaleski


Current price is , Original price is $35.0. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


In every culture, in every epoch, human beings have yearned for heaven—the kingdom of God, abode of the elect, fount of enlightenment, mirror of hopes and desires. Now, in The Book of Heaven, Carol and Philip Zaleski provide the first wide-ranging anthology of writings about heaven, drawing from scriptures, myths, epics, poems, prayers, sermons, novels, hymns and spells, to illuminate a vast spectrum of beliefs about the world beyond.
The Zaleskis present a fascinating array of ancient and modern, solemn and comic meditations, as they explore such topics as the often treacherous journey to heaven, heaven's colorful inhabitants, its topographic features, and its moral architecture. The emphasis is on great literature, with substantial excerpts taken from classic works such as The Iliad, St. Augustine's Confessions, The Prose Edda, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and The Pilgrim's Progress; from sacred texts such as the Bible, the Upanishads, the Qu'ran, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Bhagavata Purana; and from diverse writers such as Plato, Cicero, Thomas Traherne, Henry Fielding, Emanuel Swedenborg, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Hans Christian Andersen, William James, G. K. Chesterton, C. G. Jung, Rupert Brooke, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Selections highlight both the diversity and the universality of reflection on heaven: the sacred chants of the Buddhist Pure Land sutras reverberate alongside John Donne's holy sonnets, and Shaker songs complement Jewish mystical hymns.
From the words of Sioux holy man Black Elk, to a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, to humorous musings by Mark Twain and fantastical passages from The Chronicles of Narnia, this rich anthology will deepen our understanding of the myriad ways in which human beings have envisioned heaven.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195119336
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 04/27/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Carol Zaleski is Professor of Religion at Smith College. She is the author of Otherworld Journeys and The Life of the World to Come (both OUP). Philip Zaleski is Lecturer in Religion at Smith College and Senior Editor of Parabola. He is the author of The Recollected Heart and Gifts of the Spirit, and editor of the annual Best Spiritual Writing series. They live in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Dante Alighieri

The supreme poet of heaven, Dante composed La commedia (later La commedia
divina) while in exile from his beloved Florence. As the Paradiso opens, it is high
noon on the spring equinox, and the pilgrim stands poised for his ascent through
the nine heavenly spheres to the Empyrean

The glory of the One Who moves all things
    penetrates all the universe, reflecting
    in one part more and in another less.

I have been in His brightest shining heaven
    and seen such things that no man, once returned
    from there, has wit or skill to tell about;

for when our intellect draws near its goal
    and fathoms to the depths of its desire,
    the memory is powerless to follow;

but still, as much of Heaven's holy realm
    as I could store and treasure in my mind
    shall now become the subject of my song.

O great Apollo, for this final task,
   make me a vessel worthy to receive
   your genius and the longed-for laurel crown.

Thus far I have addressed my prayers to one
    peak of Parnassus; now I need them both
    to move into this heavenly arena.

Enter my breast, breathe into me as high
    astrain as that which vanquished Marsyas
    the time you drew him from his body's sheath.

O Power Divine, but lend me of yourself
    so much as will make clear at least the shadow
    of that high realm imprinted on my mind,

and you shall see me at your chosen tree,
    crowning myself with those green leaves of which
    my theme and you yourself will make me worthy.

So seldom, Father, are they plucked to crown
    the triumph of a Caesar or a Poet
    (the shame, the fault of mortal man's desires!)

that when a man yearns to achieve that goal,
    then the Peneian frond should surely breed
    a new joy in the joyous Delphic god.

From one small spark can come a mighty blaze:
    so after me, perhaps, a better voice
    may rise in prayer and win Cyrrha's response.

The lamp that lights the world rises for man
    at different points, but from the place which joins
    four circles with three crosses, it ascends

upon a happier course with happier stars
    conjoined, and in this way it warms and seals
    the earthly wax closer to its own likeness.

This glad union had made it morning there
    and evening here: our hemisphere was dark,
    while all the mountain bathed in white, when I

saw Beatrice turned round, facing left,
    her eyes raised to the sun—no eagle ever
    could stare so fixed and straight into such light!

As one descending ray of light will cause
    a second one to rise back up again,
    just as a pilgrim yearns to go back home,

so, like a ray, her act poured through my eyes
    into my mind and gave rise to my own:
    I stared straight at the sun as no man could.

In that place first created for mankind
    much more is granted to the human senses
    than ever was allowed them here on earth.

I could not look for long, but my eyes saw
    the sun enclosed in blazing sparks of light
    like molten iron as it pours from the fire.

And suddenly it was as if one day
    shone on the next—as if the One Who Could
    had decked the heavens with a second sun.

And Beatrice stood there, her eyes fixed
    on the eternal spheres, entranced, and now
    my eyes, withdrawn from high, were fixed on her.

Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming
    what Glaucus had become tasting the herb
    that made him like the other sea-gods there.

"Transhumanize"—it cannot be explained
    per verba, so let this example serve
    until God's grace grants the experience.

Whether it was the last created part
    of me alone that rose, O Sovereign Love,
    You know Whose light it was that lifted me.

When the great sphere that spins, yearning for You
    eternally, captured my mind with strains
    of harmony tempered and tuned by You,

I saw a great expanse of heaven ablaze
    with the sun's flames: not all the rains and rivers
    on earth could ever make a lake so wide.

The revelation of this light, this sound,
    inflamed me with such eagerness to learn
    their cause, as I had never felt before;

and she who saw me as I saw myself,
    ready to calm my agitated mind,
    began to speak before I asked my question:

"You have yourself to blame for burdening
    your mind with misconceptions that prevent
    from seeing clearly what you might have seen.

You may think you are still on earth, but lightning
    never sped downward from its home as quick
    as you are now ascending to your own."

As easily did these few and smiling words
    release me from my first perplexity
    than was my mind ensnared by yet another,

and I said: "Though I rest content concerning
    one great wonder of mine, I wonder now
    how I can rise through these light bodies here."

She sighed with pity when she heard my question
    and looked at me the way a mother might
    hearing her child in his delirium:

"Among all things, however disparate,
    there reigns an order, and this gives the form
    that makes the universe resemble God,"

she said; "therein God's higher creatures see
    the imprint of Eternal Excellence—
    that goal for which the system is created,

and in this order all created things,
    according to their bent, maintain their place,
    disposed in proper distance from their Source;

therefore, they move, all to a different port,
    across the vast ocean of being, and each
    endowed with its own instinct as its guide.

This is what carries fire toward the moon,
    this is the moving force in mortal hearts,
    this is what binds the earth and makes it one.

Not only living creatures void of reason
    prove the impelling strength of instinct's bow,
    but also those with intellect and love.

The Providence that regulates the whole
    becalms forever with its radiance
    the heaven wherein revolves the swiftest sphere;

to there, to that predestined place, we soar,
    propelled there by the power of that bow
    which always shoots straight to its Happy Mark.

But, it is true that just as form sometimes
    may not reflect the artist's true intent,
    the matter being deaf to the appeal,

just so, God's creature, even though impelled
    toward the true goal, having the power to swerve,
    may sometimes go astray along his course;

and just as fire can be seen as falling
    down from a cloud, so too man's primal drive,
    twisted by false desire, may bring him down.

You should, in all truth, be no more amazed
    at your flight up than at the sight of water
    that rushes down a mountain to its base.

If you, free as you are of every weight,
    had strayed below, then that would be as strange
    as living flame on earth remaining still.

    And then she turned her gaze up toward the heavens.

St. Bede the Venerable

In this excerpt from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the
learned Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk recounts the Vision of Drythelm, one of
the earliest and most influential of medieval otherworld journeys.

Of one among the Northumbrians, who rose from the dead, and related the
things which he had seen, some exciting terror and others delight. [a.d. 696]

At this time a memorable miracle, and like to those of former days,
was wrought in Britain; for, to the end that the living might be saved
from the death of the soul, a certain person, who had been some time
dead, rose again to life, and related many remarkable things he had seen;
some of which I have thought fit here briefly to take notice of. There was
a master of a family in that district of the Northumbrians which is called
Cuningham, who led a religious life, as did also all that belonged to him.
This man fell sick, and his distemper daily increasing, being brought to
extremity, he died in the beginning of the night; but in the morning early,
he suddenly came to life again, and sat up, upon which all those that sat
about the body weeping, fled away in a great fright, only his wife, who
loved him best, though in a great consternation and trembling, remained
with him. He, comforting her, said, "Fear not, for I am now truly risen
from death, and permitted again to live among men; however, I am not to
live hereafter as I was wont, but from henceforward after a very different
manner." Then rising immediately, he repaired to the oratory of the little
town, and continuing in prayer till day, immediately divided all his substance
into three parts; one whereof he gave to his wife, another to his
children, and the third, belonging to himself, he instantly distributed
among the poor. Not long after, he repaired to the monastery of Melrose,
which is almost enclosed by the winding of the river Tweed, and having
been shaven, went into a private dwelling, which the abbat had provided,
where he continued till the day of his death, in such extraordinary contrition
of mind and body, that though his tongue had been silent, his life
declared that he had seen many things either to be dreaded or coveted,
which others knew nothing of.

    Thus he related what he had seen. "He that led me had a shining countenance
and a bright garment, and we went on silently, as I thought,
towards the north-east. Walking on, we came to a vale of great breadth
and depth, but of infinite length; on the left it appeared full of dreadful
flames, the other side was no less horrid for violent hail and cold snow flying
in all directions; both places were full of men's souls, which seemed
by turns to be tossed from one side to the other, as it were by a violent
storm; for when the wretches could no longer endure the excess of heat,
they leaped into the middle of the cutting cold; and finding no rest there,
they leaped back again into the middle of the unquenchable flames. Now
whereas an innumerable multitude of deformed spirits were thus alternately
tormented far and near, as far as could be seen, without any intermission,
I began to think that this perhaps might be hell, of whose intolerable
flames I had often heard talk. My guide, who went before me,
answered to my thought, saying, 'Do not believe so, for this is not the hell
you imagine.'

    "When he had conducted me, much frightened with that horrid
spectacle, by degrees, to the farther end, on a sudden I saw the place begin
to grow dusk and filled with darkness. When I came into it, the darkness,
by degrees, grew so thick, that I could see nothing besides it and the
shape and garment of him that led me. As we went on through the shades
of night, on a sudden there appeared before us frequent globes of black
flames, rising as it were out of a great pit, and falling back again into
the same. When I had been conducted thither, my leader suddenly
vanished, and left me alone in the midst of darkness and this horrid
vision, whilst those same globes of fire, without intermission, at one time
flew up and at another fell back into the bottom of the abyss; and I
observed that all the flames, as they ascended, were full of human souls,
which, like sparks flying up with smoke, were sometimes thrown on high,
and again, when the vapour of the fire ceased, dropped down into the
depth below. Moreover, an insufferable stench came forth with the
vapors, and filled all those dark places.

    "Having stood there a long time in much dread, not knowing what to
do, which way to turn, or what end I might expect, on a sudden I heard
behind me the noise of a most hideous and wretched lamentation, and at
the same time a loud laughing, as of a rude multitude insulting captured
enemies. When that noise, growing plainer, came up to me, I observed a
gang of evil spirits dragging the howling and lamenting souls of men into
the midst of the darkness, whilst they themselves laughed and rejoiced.
Among those men, as I could discern, there was one shorn like a clergyman,
a layman, and a woman. The evil spirits that dragged them went
down into the midst of the burning pit; and as they went down deeper, I
could no longer distinguish between the lamentation of the men and the
laughing of the devils, yet I still had a confused sound in my ears. In the
meantime, some of the dark spirits ascended from that flaming abyss, and
running forward, beset me on all sides, and much perplexed me with their
glaring eyes and the stinking fire which proceeded from their mouths and
nostrils; and threatened to lay hold on me with burning tongs, which they
had in their hands, yet they durst not touch me, though they frightened
me. Being thus on all sides enclosed with enemies and darkness, and looking
about on every side for assistance, there appeared behind me, on the
way that I came, as it were, the brightness of a star shining amidst the
darkness; which increased by degrees, and came rapidly towards me:
when it drew near, all those evil spirits, that sought to carry me away with
their tongs, dispersed and fled.

    "He whose approach put them to flight, was the same that led me
before; who, then turning towards the right, began to lead me, as it were,
towards the south-east, and having soon brought me out of the darkness,
conducted me into an atmosphere of clear light. While he thus led me in
open light, I saw a vast wall before us, the length and height of which, in
every direction, seemed to be altogether boundless. I began to wonder
why we went up to the wall, seeing no door, window, or path through it.
When we came to the wall, we were presently, I know not by what
means, on the top of it, and within it was a vast and delightful field, so
full of fragrant flowers that the odour of its delightful sweetness immediately
dispelled the stink of the dark furnace, which had pierced me
through and through. So great was the light in this place, that it seemed
to exceed the brightness of the day, or the sun in its meridian height. In
this field were innumerable assemblies of men in white, and many companies
seated together rejoicing. As he led me through the midst of those
happy inhabitants, I began to think that this might, perhaps, be the kingdom
of heaven, of which I had often heard so much. He answered to my
thought, saying, 'This is not the kingdom of heaven, as you imagine.'

    "When we had passed those mansions of blessed souls and gone farther
on, I discovered before me a much more beautiful light, and therein
heard sweet voices of persons singing, and so wonderful a fragrancy proceeded
from the place, that the other which I had before thought most
delicious, then seemed to me but very indifferent; even as that extraordinary
brightness of the flowery field, compared with this, appeared mean
and inconsiderable. When I began to hope we should enter that delightful
place, my guide, on a sudden stood still; and then turning back, led me
back by the way we came.

    "When we returned to those joyful mansions of the souls in white, he
said to me, 'Do you know what all these things are which you have seen?'
I answered, I did not; and then he replied, 'That vale you saw so dreadful
for consuming flames and cutting cold, is the place in which the souls of
those are tried and punished, who, delaying to confess and amend their
crimes, at length have recourse to repentance at the point of death, and
so depart this life; but nevertheless because they, even at their death, confessed
and repented, they shall all be received into the kingdom of heaven
at the day of judgment; but many are relieved before the day of judgment,
by the prayers, alms, and fasting, of the living, and more especially
by masses. That fiery and stinking pit, which you saw, is the mouth of
hell, into which whosoever falls shall never be delivered to all eternity.
This flowery place, in which you see these most beautiful young people,
so bright and merry, is that into which the souls of those are received who
depart the body in good works, but who are not so perfect as to deserve
to be immediately admitted into the kingdom of heaven; yet they shall all,
at the day of judgment, see Christ, and partake of the joys of his kingdom;
for whoever are perfect in thought, word and deed, as soon as they
depart the body, immediately enter into the kingdom of heaven; in the
neighborhood whereof that place is, where you heard the sound of sweet
singing, with the fragrant odour and bright light. As for you, who are now
to return to your body, and live among men again, if you will endeavour
nicely to examine your actions, and direct your speech and behaviour in
righteousness and simplicity, you shall, after death, have a place or residence
among these joyful troops of blessed souls; for when I left you for
a while, it was to know how you were to be disposed of.' When he had
said this to me, I much abhorred returning to my body, being delighted
with the sweetness and beauty of the place I beheld, and with the company
of those I saw in it. However, I durst not ask him any questions; but
in the meantime, on a sudden, I found myself alive among men."

    Now these and other things which this man of God saw, he would not
relate to slothful persons and such as lived negligently; but only to those
who, being terrified with the dread of torments, or delighted with the
hopes of heavenly joys, would make use of his words to advance in piety.
In the neighborhood of his cell lived one Hemgils, a monk, eminent in
the priesthood, which he honored by his good works: he is still living, and
leading a solitary life in Ireland, supporting his declining age with coarse
bread and cold water. He often went to that man, and asking several questions,
heard of him all the particulars of what he had seen when separated
from his body; by whose relation we also came to the knowledge of
those few particulars which we have briefly set down. He also related his
vision to King Alfred, a man most learned in all respects, and was by him
so willingly and attentively heard, that at his request he was admitted into
the monastery above-mentioned, and received the monastic tonsure; and
the said king, when he happened to be in those parts, very often went to
hear him. At that time the religious and humble abbat and priest,
Ethelwald, presided over the monastery, and now with worthy conduct
possesses the episcopal see of the church of Lindisfarne.

    He had a more private place of residence assigned him in that
monastery, where he might apply himself to the service of his Creator in
continual prayer. And as that place lay on the bank of the river, he was
wont often to go into the same to do penance in his body, and many times
to dip quite under the water, and to continue saying psalms or prayers in
the same as long as he could endure it, standing still sometimes up to the
middle, and sometimes to the neck in water; and when he went out from
thence ashore, he never took off his cold and frozen garments till they
grew warm and dry on his body. And when in the winter the half-broken
pieces of ice were swimming about him, which he had himself broken, to
make room to stand or dip himself in the river, those who beheld it would
say, "It is wonderful, brother Drithelm, (for so he was called,) that you are
able to endure such violent cold;" he simply answered, for he was a man
of much simplicity and indifferent wit, "I have seen greater cold." And
when they said, "It is strange that you will endure such austerity;" he
replied, "I have seen more austerity." Thus he continued, through an indefatigable
desire of heavenly bliss, to subdue his aged body with daily fasting,
till the day of his being called away; and thus he forwarded the salvation
of many by his words and example.

Customer Reviews