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Swedenborg: Pictures of heaven

Posted on 14 October 2011, 17:18

I recently worked on an abridged version of Swedenborg’s classic: Heaven and Hell.

He was an interesting man who fascinated such alumni as William Blake, Goethe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung.

He was the son of a bishop, but for reasons not hard to understand, both he and his father had a difficult relationship with the established church. The 18th century generally was a time of revolt against faith. ‘In the higher circles of society, everyone laughs if one talks of religion,’ said Montesquieu on visiting England, where the church had sunk to new lows of worldliness. It was in this setting that John Wesley, a contemporary of Swedenborg, appeared as such a bright light.
 
In Sweden, the Church was equally sick. As one commentator said, ‘Its priesthood had become a mere corporation for reading so many prayers for so much money.’ It was at the time when the church was at its least convincing that Swedenborg’s revelations arrived.

He was not an orthodox reformer however, for Swedenborg explicitly rejected two key doctrines of the Lutheran church at that time. He rejected their understanding of the Trinity as a Trinity of Persons, which he claimed was not taught in the early Church. Swedenborg believed God exists in one Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and claimed that ‘Mohammedans, Jews and Gentiles of all cults’ were put off Christianity by this strange doctrine of three Gods.

He was also at odds with the church concerning the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. Swedenborg believed both faith and charity were essential for heaven to exist in someone.
‘There is not a single genuine truth at this time remaining in the church,’ he declared bleakly. ‘The light of the truth derived from the bible is well-nigh extinguished, so that in this day there is scarcely any faith because there is not any charity.’

Here he describes the essence of God and its impact in heaven:

13. In heaven, the essence that flows from the Lord is called divine truth, for a reason that will presently become apparent. This truth flows into heaven from the Lord, out of his love. Divine love and divine truth are related to each in the same way as the fire of the sun and its light in the world. Love resembles the fire of the sun and truth the light from the sun. Moreover, by correspondence, fire signifies love, and light signifies truth going out from love.


14. The essence in heaven which makes heaven is love, because love is spiritual union. It unites angels to the Lord and to one another; indeed they are so joined that in the Lord’s sight they are all as one. Moreover, love is the very being of every one’s life; consequently from love both angels and humans have life. Every one who takes time to reflect will know that our innermost vitality arises from love, since we grow warm from the presence of love and cold from its absence; and when deprived of it we die. And remember that the quality of our love is what determines the quality of our life.

15. In heaven there are two distinct loves: love for the Lord and love for our neighbor. Love for the Lord is in the innermost or third heaven. Love for our neighbor is in the second or middle heaven. They both flow from the Lord, and they both comprise heaven. How these two loves are distinct and how they are joined is seen clearly in heaven, but only with difficulty in the world. In heaven, loving the Lord does not mean loving his person; rather, it means loving the good that comes from him; and to love good is to will and do good out of love.

Similarly, to love your neighbor does not mean loving a companion as a person; rather, it means loving the truth that is from scripture; and to love truth is to will it and do it. However this can scarcely be comprehended by people unless they know what love is, what good is and who the neighbor is.

16. I have repeatedly talked with angels about this matter. They were astonished, they said, that church people do not realize that to love the Lord and to love their neighbor is to love what is good and true and to do this from their will. They should surely know that one draws out love from another by willing and doing what another wishes? It is this that brings reciprocal love and union, rather than loving another without doing what they wish which is not loving.

People should also know that the good that goes out from the Lord is a likeness of him, since he is in it; and that those who allow this good and truth into their life by willing them and doing them they grow like the Lord and are united with him.

17. All experience in heaven attests that the essence that flows from the Lord and that affects angels and makes heaven, is love. For all who are in heaven are themselves forms of love and charity, and appear in indescribable beauty, with love shining out from their faces, their speech and from every aspect of their life. Moreover, there are spiritual spheres of life emanating from and surrounding every angel and every spirit, by which the quality of their love is known, sometimes even at a great distance. For with every one, these spheres flow out from the life of their affection and consequent thought; or from the life of their love and consequent faith. The spheres that emanate from angels are so full of love that they affect the innermost parts of those who are with them. I have seen angels on numerous occasions and they have always affected me in this way.

That it is love from which angels have their life is also clear from this: that in the other life, every one turns them selves towards what they love. Those who show love towards the Lord and towards their neighbor turn themselves always to the Lord; while those whose love is for self, turn them selves always away from the Lord. This is so, whatever their bodies might suggest, since in the other life, appearance relates to the person’s inner life. And yet it is not the angels that turn themselves to the Lord; but the Lord who turns to himself those who love to do the things that are from him.

18. The essence of the Lord in heaven is love, for the reason that love is receptive of all things that make heaven, such as peace, intelligence, wisdom and happiness. For love is receptive of each and every thing that is in harmony with itself; it longs for them, seeks them and drinks them in spontaneously for it’s eternal desire is to be enriched and perfected by them.
So there were some simple-minded folk in the world who changed when taken up into heaven. When they were with the angels they acquired angelic wisdom and heavenly happiness, because they had loved what is good and true for its own sake, and had implanted it in their life. For this reason, they had become able to receive heaven with all that is beyond description there. But those who are in love with self and the world have no capacity for receiving what is good and true; they loathe and reject it and at its first appearance and touch, they flee and associate themselves instead with those in hell who share their loves.

Heaven and Hell: A 2011 Abridged Edition by Emanuel Swedenborg with Simon Parke is published by White Crow Books.
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Heaven and Hell: A 2011 Abridged Edition - Emanuel Swedenborg & Simon Parke

 


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‘The Imitation of Christ’ – a spiritual classic

Posted on 05 October 2011, 20:02

I recently worked on a modern version of The Imitation of Christ, which is reckoned to be the second best selling spiritual book after the bible.

It first appeared 1418, published anonymously but spread quickly around Europe. A Latin manuscript from 1441 exists, but there was a German translation as early as 1434. A French translation appeared in 1447, a Spanish edition in 1482, and an Italian one in 1488. The first English translation appeared in 1503, which was just Book 4, but the other three books followed in the same year and a complete translation appeared in 1556. In 1663, an Arabic edition was printed in Rome, and in 1837, a Hebrew version printed in Frankfurt.

It has since been translated into many languages, and has won for itself a variety of celebrity admirers. John Wesley and John Newton were men of the Evangelical wing of the Church yet both named this Catholic manual as important in their conversion, while General Gordon took it into battle with him. Thomas More, St Francis Xavier and Dr Johnson were other famous devotees.
The author was Thomas a Kempis, a German monk, who is described by his biographer as a man of medium height, dark complexion with a wide forehead and piercing eyes. He had the reputation of being kind and friendly to everyone in the community, especially those who were troubled or sad. Thomas was a fine writer, with a gift for expressing things well and memorably. He appears also to have been a modest man and one who tended to solitude both by nature and conviction. As he said of himself, silence is my friend; work, my companion and prayer my aid.

He apparently found it difficult to express an opinion on worldly matters but spoke eloquently and with passion if ever the subject turned to God or the soul. When tiring of company, he would sometimes excuse himself with the words: ‘I must leave you, my brothers. Someone is waiting to speak with me in my cell.’

Apart from these things, there is little to record of a life lived away from the public gaze. From the outside, his passing years would have appeared uneventful; but this would not have been Thomas’ understanding. 

There is a manic-depressive feel to much of the writing, which can be disturbing for the modern reader. Although Thomas calls Christians to an equanimity that is neither too happy when things go well or too sad when things go badly, the author’s own mood tends to be either one of extreme despair and self-hate or an ecstatic happiness at the sweetness of God and the joy to be found in him.

To an extent, this mirrors the character of the God he describes who both loves us unendingly whilst also preparing eternal punishment for the unfaithful. Kempis offers no resolution to these apparently opposing ideas; but sensed in all he writes is the fire of personal dismantlement through which humans must walk in the cause of their spiritual development. Here is a radical and disturbing self-help book, penned for the 14th century monk.

Thomas writes as a monk for monks, but clearly his passion and insights spill well beyond the cloistered world of the monastery. One writer called it ‘The diary of a soul on its way to perfection,’ which captures well the author’s spiritual ambition both for himself and others. As he himself says in the second book, ‘Disdain that which is superficial, dedicate yourself to your inner being and you shall see that the Kingdom of God grows inside you.’

Here are two brief extracts on the themes of humility and over-familiarity

Humility

Everyone naturally desires knowledge, but what good is knowledge without the fear of God? Indeed a humble peasant who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects their soul to study the course of the stars. Those who know themselves well become suitably worthless in their own eyes and are not happy when praised by others.

The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged unless your life also is more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill; rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. So do not pretend wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why rate yourself more highly than anyone else when many are more learned and more cultured than you? If you wish to learn and appreciate something valuable, enjoy being unknown and considered as nothing.

Truly to understand and maintain a humble estimate of your self is the best and most perfect advice. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. So if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain well. All of us are frail, but consider no one frailer than your own self.

Over-familiarity

DO not open your heart to just anyone, but discuss your affairs with one who is wise and who fears God. Do not keep regular company with young people and strangers. Do not fawn upon the rich and equally, do not grow attached to the company of the great. Associate with the humble and the simple, with the devout and virtuous; and with them speak of edifying things. Do not be intimate with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God and of his angels, and avoid the notice of others.
We ought to have charity for all people but familiarity with all is not helpful. Sometimes it happens that a person enjoys a good reputation among those who do not know them, but at the same time is held in slight regard by those who do. Frequently we think we are pleasing others by our presence but in fact we may displease them by the faults they find in us.

And finally…

Thomas on reading

At the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.

Thomas on forgiveness

Be assured that if you knew all, you would pardon all.

The Imitation of Christ: A Revised 2011 Edition is Available from White Crow Books.

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The Imitation of Christ - Thomas A. Kempis & Simon Parke

 


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