The Beaten Path didn’t get too many reviews, but one place it did get reviewed was in New Age Magazine. The reviewer liked the book well enough, but said something to the effect that I’d done a lot better job of pointing out the shortcomings of contemporary spirituality than I had of coming up with any real answers to the conundrums of life myself.
The reviewer, it seemed to me, was right. In England, the book had actually been published under the original title I’d intended for it, The Book of Answers. The title was meant to be tongue in cheek. After all, who was I to provide any ultimate answers to the question of what life was all about? But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that this whole attitude was something of a cop-out.
So in the back of my mind, I determined that someday, if I had the chance to, I would write a book that was, in tone, exactly the opposite of what The Beaten Path was. A book that really was a kind of book of answers, at least to the degree that I could find
The Modern Book of the Dead is that book. In it, I try to lay out, in a fairly shameless fashion, what I really think the human story is about. Why we live, why we die, and what will ultimately become of us.
The subtitle of the book
contains the adjective “revolutionary,” a fairly obnoxious adjective for a book to claim for itself. I put the word in, however, because I believe that the story The Modern Book of the Dead tells really IS revolutionary. I do not, however, take any real credit for it, for the material I assemble in the book has been sitting around for quite a while now, and has even been put together by other people into the same basic shape I put it into. So all in all, and despite that “revolutionary” I threw into the title, I’d say it’s actually my least original book.
So where did I get off writing it? One way to answer this question is with a quote by the Swiss philosopher and metaphysician Frithjof Schuon. Addressing the issue of how repetitive his books often tended to be, Schuon once remarked that “the truth can bear repetition.”
I love everything about this statement. First off, there’s Schuon’s boldness in believing that there is such a thing as truth with a capital “T” to begin with: a highly unfashionable idea in philosophical circles in the twentieth century. Then there’s the equally impressive fact that Schuon felt he possessed this Truth. And third, of course, there’s the explicit point the sentence makes: that
Schuon could have cared less if people got bored with hearing him say the same thing again and again. He didn’t get bored of repeating it.
This isn’t to say that I agree with, or for that matter even entirely understand, everything that Schuon, who died in 1998, had to say on matters of truth and of what the universe and human life are really all about. Nor am I unaware of how close this sentence of his strays to the border of between likable self-confidence and unlikable, closed-minded arrogance (that latter quality being one that the real-life Schuon sometimes possessed in abundance).
But all the same, the sentence has long stayed with me, and it
came to mind one day when I was finishing work on the first draft of The Divine Life of Animals. That day, I came across a mention of a book called The Country Beyond by a woman I’d never heard of before named Jane Sherwood. I looked the book up on Amazon, and discovered that it was out of print. It did, however, have one customer review, that contained the following sentence:
“The most clear, logical, straightforward account of the afterlife I’ve ever read.”
“Clear,” “logical,” and “straightforward” were not words I associated with accounts of the afterlife, modern or ancient. In fact, in the course of writing The Divine Life of Animals I’d
often despaired at how conflicting, cantankerous, and mind-bogglingly confusing the different afterlife models of the world’s spiritual traditions were. Plenty of people had made black-and-white, Schuon-like statements about the afterlife over the centuries, but the more black-and-white those statements were, the less likable and reliable they tended to sound.
I knew I believed in the afterlife. To me, it was about as far from a dumb subject as one could get. But I knew as well that a book that addressed itself to what REALLY HAPPENED to the soul at death (if indeed there was any such an item as the soul to begin with) was most likely going to be either
a) A scholarly work, dealing with what cultures past thought on the matter but not treading into the question of whether any of these views were true or not
b) A book speaking directly and exclusively from one or another religious tradition, or
c) A popular modern account, open minded about different spiritual and religious perspectives but woefully short on genuinely believable details.
This isn’t to say that all the books on the afterlife I was familiar with fell into these categories. But the great majority of them did, and when I ordered that used copy of Sherwood’s book that day, I knew I was most likely wasting my money. I’d leaf through it, find some completely silly statement that put me off the whole thing, and place the book aside.
But when the book arrived and I opened it, something weird happened. The book was extremely clear, and refreshingly free of either doctrinaire, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong pronouncements or vague, mushy new age nonsense. I read page after page, and I kept NOT running into that inevitable silly sentence that would make me put the book down. After an opening paragraph that struck me as strangely well written, Ms. Sherwood went on to describe her search for evidence that her deceased husband was still alive in a realm beyond the physical.
By the time I finished the book, she’d managed to convince me that he really was.
The Country Beyond led me into a whole world of books on spiritualism, mediumism, and psychical research: topics that up to that point I’d never have dreamed I would have had any interest in. From Sherwood’s book I went on to Robert Crookall’s The Supreme Adventure, Stuart White’s The Unobstructed Universe, Geraldine Cummins’ The Road to Immortality… and so forth. A universe of (almost entirely out of print) authors who decisively filled in the gap that I had for so long felt existed between responsible (but uncommitted) scholarly literature, committed but overly doctrinaire traditional religious literature, and modern new age mush.
That isn’t to say that I think all the popular stuff out there right now is mushy. There are a good number of titles on the afterlife published in the last few decades that I like quite a bit, and there’s plenty of interesting channeled material that I find believable and suggestive as well, even if I can’t decide entirely what I think of all of it. But essentially, Jane Sherwood’s book opened my eyes to a whole body of literature that – as far as I’ve been able to tell – not that many people these
days know about. It’s a body of literature whose boldness is rivaled only by its eerie believability.
It might, in short, really be true. And if it is, it is most definitely worthy of repetition.