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Chapter I: Coming Through the Mists
In my earth-life I was called a misanthrope. This is a strange admission with which to break my silence, but being now beyond the consequences to which such frankness might lead, I have no reason – even though I had the will – to speak with less reserve. If any apology be demanded for the pleasant task I have undertaken, let it be found in the ceaseless wail to which I have referred to in my preface to these pages. Is my statement true in that respect? I bid you turn that question inwards. Ask your own heart, and I will be content to take the answer, merely adding that as you are, so is all mankind.
Pardon me one or two sentences in necessary explanation of myself before I carry you across the borders of the other world. My life was overshadowed by the consequences of some prenatal trouble of which I knew nothing, save the phantom remaining to haunt me, and that it robbed me of a mother’s guiding hand. My father was an inflexible Calvinist, with a mode of life as carefully arranged as an architectural elevation, while its working details were as rigorously insisted upon. An elder of the Presbyterian Church, with a banking account of sufficient magnitude to allow him to live a life of most unquestioning faith, he spent all the years of his pilgrimage free from the shadow of reproach.
My brother and sister were not so strictly inclined, and their almost open rebellion, as they grew, by no means tended to soften my father’s character. For myself I neither received from, nor extended to, any member of the household any sympathy. No one ever spoke to me of my mother – her name, in fact, was seldom mentioned – but I always felt that had she lived we should have been all in all to each other, but she was gone, and I was left alone! Books were my only companions – the poets my greatest favourites. My earliest recollections are of the religious baby-farm to which I had been entrusted, whose managers I learned to loathe for the duplicity and hypocrisy they habitually practised there. With a naturally morbid mind, the shadow of some unknown wrong above me, and a soul shrinking from the appearance of deceit, I soon learned to hate those who did not hesitate to lie in act and prayer, and plead with God to grant success to infamy.
By these things I was gradually led to draw all my comfort from books, and to entertain a great aversion to any fellowship with those about me.
I was naturally of a religious turn of mind, but preferred to solve its questions by the light of my own reason and the plain teachings of the Bible as I could comprehend them. A practical acquaintance with the public worship of the various sects only confirmed my original idea of there being much more of form and fashion than solid worship or spirit in them all, therefore in this, as in everything else, I learned to rely upon myself alone, and trust to the leniency and justice of a righteous God in respect to any error resulting from my honest endeavour to do His will according to the light within me.
Nevertheless, I had companionship and sweet communion in my worship, after this manner: Led by some influence, to me nothing less than an inspiration, I would find myself in one of the courts and alleys so numerous in the East of London, where vice, poverty, and wretchedness most abound; where help, though urgently needed, is seldom met with; where the inhabitants are not learned in metaphysics, but hunger for the bread of practical sympathy. Among such outcast and fallen members of our common humanity, I always found I had a sermon to preach which was comprehended in every part, a gospel to proclaim that they would gladly hear, a seed to sow which brought forth fruit sixty or a hundredfold.
If the Church was right, and I at the last found that I was wrong, the gratitude which these poor unfortunates showed for the interest I took in them would be sufficient to make the pains of my punishment not only bearable but welcome. There would be plenty of good people in Heaven to ensure the happiness of every soul who should gain an entrance to those streets of gold. I had no voice to sing, and if the religious conversation on earth were fair specimens of what would be the standard there, the goody-goodiness would have no charm for me. Forced into such society, without any congenial work to do, the place would have no interest – no attraction – for me. It was not my idea of Heaven, consequently I did not want it.
It would be very different with the poor, cast adrift into that other place – for if the Church was right the division would be made more upon those lines than any other. The rich build the temples, keep them out of financial difficulties, are constant at the means of grace, make them fashionable, provide everything necessary to worship God in the beauty of architecture and ritual, while they generously subscribe towards the salary of the minister; paying in every way for their salvation, it is but right and honest they should meet with their reward. But the poor, who have to work long hours, with nothing to give, scarcely one suit to wear, and that unpleasantly suggestive by the odours of the workshop, with their vulgar habits and loud-voiced song, for whose accommodation the white-washed, ill-lighted, draughty mission hall is provided, have no right to expect such an abundant entrance as those who contribute better while they live, and can be drawn in a four-horse hearse when they take their departure.
For this reason the poor always had my sympathy. When I thought upon the subject, I often felt as if I should be glad to find the pearly gates shut upon me, if by that means I could be some little consolation to the multitudes in hell. It was wicked – blasphemous – to feel so, so the vicar once told me; but it was constitutional – part of my unfortunate malady, and he found it useless to attempt to change my mind.
I never could understand the righteousness of poverty here and damnation there; or the logical sequence of riches here and salvation there. It was not according to my reading of the Bible, or the teaching of Jesus in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, as I understood the English language. It may have been a defect in my power of analogy, but if so I held to the delusion.
It was one evening, when on my way to visit some of these uncared-for people, that the great change overtook me. I was walking along a crowded footpath, engaged in the contemplation of the lights and shadows visible on the faces of passers-by, when I heard a scream, and saw a child in deadly peril among the horses in the road. He was not far away, so bounding forward – with no thought but for his safety – I reached and dragged him from his hazardous position, then turned, and…
Something touched me. I clasped the boy more firmly and stepped forward. The noise ceased, vehicles and street faded away, as if some great magician had waved his wand, the darkness disappeared, and I was lying upon a grassy slope in an enchanted land.
Neither did all the changes lie in our surroundings. Few people would have been enamoured of the ragged child I rushed to save, with his shoeless feet, matted hair, and unwashed face; but the angel I found lying upon my breast would have driven an artist into raptures. For myself, in that instant, I had changed my morning suit for a loosely flowing robe which somehow seemed to be a part of myself; and though I was fully assured of my own individuality. I was curious to know what had taken place, and by what means, in the interval of one solitary step, a transformation of such completeness had been effected.
The lad, though evidently conscious of the alteration, looked into my face with calm laughing eyes, void of any trace of fear; perhaps he expected me to give some explanation, but I needed that myself. Then he buried his head in my shoulder and fell asleep. I sat and nursed him, trying to answer the only question which occupied my mind – “Where are we?”
I was reclining upon the grass of what can only be described as the auditorium of an immense but natural amphitheatre, with the arena occupied by a multitude who appeared to be engaged in the reception of strangers, whom they were welcoming and congratulating. If only I could have understood it, the scene would have been as pleasing as it was brilliant, but, under the circumstances, my feelings were more of curiosity than of appreciation. It resembled the performance of an elaborate tableau of which I held no descriptive programme, being alike ignorant of the place, the players and the purpose. This was all that I could understand: – There were two classes of persons represented – the one, evidently residents, attired in garments embracing almost every shade of colour with which I was familiar, and some the like of which I had never seen before, and therefore have no means to make you understand. The other, by far the smaller of the two, gave me the idea of strangers, who, having just arrived, stood in need of the help and assistance so freely proffered. Where did they come from, I asked myself? To this I was enabled to find a somewhat satisfactory reply. Before me lay a plain, across which numbers were continually coming and going; at its further side I saw a heavy bank of fog lying, the outlines of which were boldly portrayed as if confined within certain limitations. The atmosphere was so unusually clear, that although the fog was perhaps some two miles distant from where I lay, I could easily discern that they entered the plain from that direction. I now became intensely interested in something which baffled my powers to determine whether it was real or an optical illusion. I noticed that the variegated colour of the dresses worn by those who went from us towards the mists gradually faded, until in the distance but one uniform tone of grey was visible; on the contrary, as they, returned the original hues were as mysteriously restored. It seemed to me, at length, as if some magical influence was exerted by that vapour or that the plain was one which might legitimately, be called enchanted.
The moment I saw the fog I was conscious of a cold chill running through me, not due to any change of temperature, which was warm and genial, but such as one experiences at the thought of leaving a cosy fire to become enveloped in the piercing mist of autumn or early winter. What caused this is more than I can say – perhaps it was sympathy with those I saw emerging from such surroundings; for many were so overcome they scarcely had the strength to reach the open plain; while for some the watchers plunged into the mists and carried them through; others being borne all the way across the plain before they had the power to stand upon their feet.
How long I was thus employed I cannot tell, but suddenly my attention was attracted to someone standing beside me and I arose, for the first time becoming aware that the slope whereon I had been sitting was occupied by many, evidently strangers, like myself. This, however, did not interest me so much just then as it would previously have done; all my mind being centred upon the person who stood beside me, in the hope that he would be able to solve the problem so perplexing to me.
He divinedmy purpose before I had time to frame a question, and, stretching out his hands towards the still sleeping lad, said:
“There is someone coming who will answer all your enquiries, my duty is to take the boy.”
“To take the boy?” I answered, scarcely knowing whether I ought to give him up. “Where? Home?”
“But how shall we get back? How did we come here? Where are we?”
“You must be patient for a little while,” he answered, “then you will know and understand all about it.”
“But, tell me, is this delirium or a dream?”
“No! You will find you have been dreaming; now you are awake.”
“Then, please, tell me where we are, and how we came here; I am so perplexed to know that.”
“You are in a land of surprises, but you need not fear, it will bring for you nothing but rest and compensation.”
“That only increases my difficulty,” I said entreatingly.
“But just now it was night in London, where I saved that boy from being run over. Then everything faded like a flash and l found we were here. Where then, is this place. – What do you call it?”
“The land of immortality?”
“What! – Dead? – How?”
I was conscious of falling back a step as the stupendous announcement fell upon my ears, but there was something so reassuring in his manner that I instinctively returned and grasped the hand he held out to give me welcome. Among all the theories by which I had tried to solve the mystery, this one had never suggested itself – it would not have been entertained for a moment if it had, while the unexpected surroundings would have warranted me in dismissing it. I was astonished at the unquestioning faith with which I accepted his declaration, while his sympathetic composure absolutely forbade any sense of agitation as the startling truth was fully comprehended.
“No! Not dead!” he replied, after a moment’s pause.
“Did you ever know dead men to talk, and be surprised? When a boy leaves home for school, or school to take his part in the more serious events of life – when a girl leaves her father’s for her husband’s home, have you been in the habit of saying they were dead ? Certainly not! Neither are you right in supposing you are dead since passing through the change which has overtaken you.”
“But I have made an unmistakable exit from one world and an entrance into another; therefore while I am alive to this new life, I am dead to that which I have left behind.”
“You will now be called upon to enlarge your conceptions and ideas ; as your homes on earth are separate habitations, and nations form the dominions of different kings, so the various states and worlds in this life become the many mansions in the universal kingdom of our Father – God. Therefore you are only dead to earth in the same way as the schoolboy dies as a scholar, but has the greater power of a teacher; or as the girl ceases to be a resident, and becomes a visitor.”
“I do not understand you,” I replied.
“Let me give you the outline of a parable over which you may reflect until someone else is sent to afford you clearer information. Children are coaxed to sleep on earth by the singing of nursery rhymes, the fabulous heroes of which become historical characters in the minds of the little listeners, until the realities of life dispel the illusion. So children of a larger growth, upon entering this life, find that even so have they been lulled to spiritual slumber by the fictions of the nurses of their souls. It is the awakening to the truth of this fact which makes this a land of surprises, as you will find it to be as you proceed. But now I must leave you and take our little brother to the children’s home, where you will meet him again presently.”
With a kindly salutation he departed, and I was left alone to think on all he had said. His parable was pregnant with revelation that the future alone could intelligently unfold, but one thing was evident – I had taken the irrevocable step – had solved the grand secret; yet what had I learned? I was merely waiting with the knowledge that the act of dying had been unconsciously accomplished. What would be the result? Whatever it might be I could not now go back; I had to meet my fate. One thing I had been assured: there was no need to fear. I did not – was not even anxious – I was content. So I waited and pondered.