The Divine Life of Animals

Divine LifeAfter I finished The Beaten Path, my book writing was once again interrupted – as it had been when I’d finished This Tree Grows Out of Hell — by the tiresome necessity of looking around for a “real” job. I was living in New York by this point, and a friend of mine told me the magazine where his wife worked was looking for an editor. A magazine I’d never heard of before, called Guideposts.

Guideposts shows up once a month in a million or so mailboxes – a drop from its peak in the eighties when it showed up in about five million of them — and many, many doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms. I worked at Guideposts and its sister magazine, Angels On Earth, for a little under nine years. I enjoyed those years a great deal, and though much of the stuff I banged out during those years was a tad less complex and nuanced than I’d have liked, I learned, in doing them, a great deal about the craft of writing. (I would often tell the other content-producers there, younger people longing to be at The New Yorker or The Paris Review or Vanity Fair, that they should just relax into where they were and learn how to pound out the pulp they were directed to pound out. In doing so, they would learn all manner of things about basic storytelling that they could use later on, when their lives took them, at last, to the classy publications they dreamed of writing for. I still think it was pretty good advice.)

One idea that occurred to me while I was at the magazine was this: All spiritual matters reduce down, in the end, to one question. Humans either are, or aren’t, both physical and spiritual beings. There either is, or there isn’t, a spiritual world out beyond the borders of the material world, and the material world either is upheld and fed by that invisible world at every moment, or it isn’t. If this spiritual dimension exists, then all kinds of questions can be asked, and all kinds of discussions can take place. If there isn’t such a world, then it doesn’t matter if a spiritual book or magazine is highly complex and esoteric or written for Iowa soccer moms. Either way, the writers of both kinds of books and magazines are just sadly deluded dupes, because the world they think they’re talking about, in their variously complex, variously nuanced ways, just isn’t really there. The spiritual world is real, or it isn’t. The rest is all just footnotes.

If the spiritual world did exist, however, it made sense that someone like me, who came from such a different background from the average Guideposts or Angels on Earth reader, would be able to find points of commonality with those readers all the same. And that is indeed what proved to be the case. Over my years at those magazines, I came to understand one reason why, in the world’s spiritual literature, the spiritual dimension is so often compared to an ocean. You can approach the ocean in all kinds of ways. You can go to the beach on a day when the weather is nice and the waves are calm, or a stormy one when the sea is white to the horizon with breakers. You can get in a boat – a large comfortable one, or a small, dangerous one – and you can head off into that ocean for an afternoon cruise, or for several weeks, or even several months. The ocean can be relaxing and pleasant, or vast and terrifying. It can soothe one person, and drive another one slowly mad. But in all cases, it’s the same ocean. You can talk about that ocean in a thousand different ways, from the profound and perceptive to the superficial and silly, and everything in between. But the only really silly thing to say about that ocean – the only totally unworkable thing – is to suggest that it doesn’t exist.

A lot of my time at Guideposts was spent ghostwriting stories, but after a while one of my bosses – the one in charge of Angels On Earth — had me write some essay-style pieces as well. Most of these turned in one way or another around the hidden spiritual elements of everyday natural objects (The Rose, The Shell, The Seed, the Egg, the Snowflake…. I even wrote pieces on those two perennial workhorses of flaky new age spirituality, the Rainbow and the Unicorn). While writing these pieces (a number of which are still floating out there on, I always had to keep things fairly simple. But keeping things simple did not (on good days at least) mean making the stories shallow and one-dimensional. Most of the natural objects I wrote about in these essays were mysterious precisely because they were at once simple and not simple, completely and humbly understandable, and, at the same time completely and fathomlessly complex.

I also wrote a lot of animal pieces during those years, sometimes in my own voice and sometimes in the voice of other narrators. These pieces very often turned around the death of the animal in question, and when they did they would take me back to a concern I’d thought about a lot when I was younger, mostly during my early teenage years.

What happened to an animal’s soul at death?

So pressing was this question to me that I would often check the index, when deciding to read this or that book about myth or religion or philosophy – if there was anything in the index about the souls of animals.

Mostly, there wasn’t, and at a certain point at the magazine I had a sort of realization. Among the things I did have in common with the scores of (largely) middle-American Christian women out there who formed the base of both magazines was an interest in exactly this question. This realization led to an idea for an article – one that I was so sure would be popular that I pitched it to the boss of Guideposts itself, rather than taking it over to Angels, where my brainstorms generally got a more enthusiastic reception. Many of Guideposts’ readers were women in their seventies and eighties. Women, as a rule, outlive men, and many of these readers were widows. On top of that, many of them were widows with dogs or cats or some other companion animal. One that, now that their husband was gone and the kids had moved away and so forth, played an enormous emotional role for this theoretical person. Inevitably, this animal would die as well. What happened then? Well, the bereaved widow and pet owner would go to her local chaplain and enquire of him whether she would ever see her beloved pet again.

When this happened (we’re still in my pitch to my boss), the churchperson’s answer might be this or it might be that, but very often, I suspected, it would be a simple “No.” Humans have souls, animals don’t. So you can go on and keep looking forward to your joyful reunion with your husband, your parents, and whoever else, but as for your beloved poodle, no dice.

As it happens, it turns out that this answer is rather hopelessly simplistic. In order to answer it properly we have to go back to that essential initial question I mentioned above. If there is no spiritual world, if humans and animals are carbon-based accidents of an accidental cosmos, beings that came to accidental birth and that possess consciousness because their accidental physical brains just accidentally started producing it because at some point in the past consciousness turned out to be an efficient tool for survival… if we buy, in short, the materialist/naturist view of things, then yes, your hope for seeing your dear poodle in the life to come is a pathetically deluded one.

But… if you take the step into acknowledging that there really is a spiritual world, that consciousness is not a generic and purely emergent product of the physical brain, and that individual consciousness survives the death of the physical body…. Well then, it’s an entirely different story.

Not only that, but it turned out that if one really looked into things, it turned out that this was the case, or could quite arguably be said to be the case, within the confines of the Christian tradition. This became overwhelmingly apparent when one looked into what the Fathers of the Eastern Church, most particularly Maximus the Confessor (though certainly not him alone), had to say on the matter.

But one scarcely needed to delve that deep. Commenting on Romans 8:22 (“For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”), the decidedly mainstream has this to say:

“In view of the physical evil and misery prevalent in the world, the Apostle attributes a human consciousness of pain to the rest of creation. It groans and travails together, i.e., every member of it in common with its kind. The idea of travailing, as in childbirth, has reference to the future prospect of joyful delivery.”

The boss saw what I was getting at and gave me the okay to write my piece. Published under the title “Do Pets Go to Heaven?” it did not exactly plunge to fathomless metaphysical deeps. But it dished up enough evidence to cancel the depressing council delivered by that hypothetical pastor. 

And as it turned out, just as I had suspected, there were jillions of very non-hypothetical widows (and other sorts of people) out there in Guideposts-land who had been told just what I imagined that hypothetical jerky pastor of mine had said. Guideposts at that time was still something of an institution in mainstream Christian America, and it turned out that for many, many readers, if Guideposts said there were pets in heaven, then there were bloody well pets in heaven, end of story. For weeks, and even months after the piece came out, I received letter after letter from readers thanking me for telling them what they had known in their hearts but that no one in a position of authority (like me, lol) had confirmed. Of course, I also received the inevitable letters from clergy people, chastising me for such a scandalous and un-Biblical article. Heaven was for people, not poodles. But the ratio of such grouchy letters to the cheerful/thankful ones was about a hundred to one.

“Do Pets Go to Heaven?” eventually turned out to generate the event that led to my departure from Guideposts. That event came in the form of a contract to write a book on the subject. The contract came from Crown, a division of Random House, and I received it thanks to Rachel Klayman, the same editor who had secured me an advance for Paradise Fever years before.

There are writers who can work at a magazine and write a book at the same time, and there are writers who can’t. I, alas, fell into the latter category. There was no way I could do the research I wanted to do for the book and grind out the material I was called upon to grind out for the magazines as well, so with regret I left the magazine and returned to the life of solitude I had enjoyed before coming to the magazine. Though the book is short (like all my books) and barely scratches the surface of the topic, it turned out to be sufficiently dense that it disappointed a great many readers who had come to it expecting a collection of inspirational stories and no hard stuff. This has long been my problem as a writer. The stuff I turn out is too “popular” to be taken seriously in an academic way, and too academic for “popular” audiences. So it goes.