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Book review: “A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence” by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Life is a journey. We get to the edge, and then — what?

As a Catholic, I grew up with lots of talk about heaven and all the other aspects of the afterlife. As an adult, I’ve approached the question from a different angle.

I am intensely aware that, when I look down the road of life toward its end, there is an edge beyond which I cannot see. It is as if life were a painting which has an exquisitely detailed mass of images on the left side but, on the right side, there is only blank canvas. Or, maybe, it’s not blank canvas. Instead, it’s a hole in the wall, dark, black, empty.

I am intensely aware that, when I get to the edge of life, there will be this great formless white that will show nothing except all that white. When I cross the edge of life, I’ll enter that white, and maybe I’ll cease to exist, or maybe I’ll find myself in the process of reincarnation, or maybe I’ll discover myself to be in hell, purgatory or heaven.

As a Catholic, I believe that there is some sort of an afterlife with God — that God is drawing me and every other person toward union with God. (It would be easier to say “toward union with Him,” but, really, God doesn’t have a gender. To call God a “he” or, for that matter, a “she” muddies the waters, doesn’t it?)

Belief, though, is belief. Even with all the revelation in the Bible and all the thinking that has been put to the question of an afterlife, there’s no proof of an afterlife. No one knows. The land after death is, for those of us living, an edgeless white — until we enter it.


“Many questions unresolved”

Jeffrey Burton Russell’s 1997 book A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence is an account of the various ways that Christian women and men have envisioned the afterlife, specifically heaven, over a period of thirteen centuries.


The book includes Jewish perspectives and culminates in Dante’s creation of The Divine Comedy which Russell sees as the “highest expression” of efforts to envision heaven. Indeed, Dante’s work, completed in 1320, a year before his death, operates so well on so many levels that Russell stresses and seems to endorse the assertion by the poet and some other commentators that the epic poem is as theologically rich as the Bible.

Perhaps. Dante’s poem is certainly deeply detailed, and it’s undergirded by the theological speculations of great scholars. In that way, however, it’s very much not like Scripture. The Bible, after all, is pretty messy when it comes to the idea of heaven.

No single view of heaven [writes Russell] exists in the New Testament, which left many questions unresolved and open to debate in succeeding centuries.

The Epistles and Gospels have little to say about heaven, he continues, because the early Christians expected Jesus to return almost immediately for the end of the world and the Last Judgement. For them, it was a moot question.

Be that as it may, the reality is that there’s no biblical schematic about how this afterlife thing is going to work — nothing as detailed as, say, the Ten Commandments, no parables such as the Prodigal Son or the Good Shepherd.


“A mouthful of cheese”

So there were many attempts over those first 1,300 years to envision heaven. (Russell deals with the ideas of heaven in the centuries after Dante’s Divine Comedy in a second book Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, published in 2006.)


Theologian-philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to use logic and the Bible to figure heaven out while poets and mystics sought to intuit the answer.

Most picture a garden of one sort or another with wonderful smells and beautiful views in perpetual springtime. (As someone who likes autumn and winter better than spring, I don’t find perpetual springtime all that enticing, but….well, never mind.)

One delightfully idiosyncratic vision that Russell mentions is from The Passion of Perpetua, an account which used the third century saint as the stand-in for humanity:

I saw a garden of immense extent, in the midst of which was sitting a white-haired man dressed as a shepherd; he was tall, and he was milking sheep. And he raised his head and looked at me and said, Welcome, child. And he called me and gave me a mouthful of cheese from the sheep he was milking.

Such a homey, tranquil, serene image. I could really enjoy a heaven overseen by God as “a white-haired man dressed as a shepherd.”


russell.heaven.vertical“Singing stones”

Another interesting way of thinking about heaven came from the School of St. Victor, a group of scholars near Paris in the twelfth century — the metaphor of sealing wax:

We are the wax, the seal is the Trinity, and the medium is the likeness of the seal imprinted on the wax. We remain essentially different from God (we are wax; he is seal), but he has directly imprinted himself on us.

This was the way these scholars dealt with the confusing questions about whether God is the same as the cosmos or larger than the cosmos, and how God might be in each of us, and why we feel ourselves drawn toward God, and just what the relationship is between God and us.

Culture seems to come into play in these visions, such as a tenth century Irish account which said the inhabitants of heaven “wear white linen cassocks with radiant hoods” as they surround the throne of God and spend their time in contemplating God.

Beneath the canopied throne [writes Russell] are four columns made of singing stones (an Irish motif) or jewels. Three noble birds (possibly representing seraphim) perch on the throne, praising the Lord in sweet adoration. Over the throne, which burns with unconsuming fire world without end, is a great arch like a helmet or a crown.

Completing this vision is the explanation that, although everyone present faces and communes with God, no one faces the back or side of another: “All face and love one another as all face and love God.”


“The sociology of heaven”

Some writers over those 13 centuries suggested that maybe everyone goes to heaven, but, apparently, the fact that there have been some really bad people in history, such as Adolf Hitler and Nero, kept that concept from gaining much traction.

One idea that has gotten a lot of attention has been that everyone in heaven is blessed, but some are more blessed than others. Describing St. Paul’s ideas, Russell writes:

The sociology of the kingdom of heaven is characterized by the freedom of its citizens, by equality (the equal blessedness of all members of Christ’s body), and by hierarchy (some are closer to God than others).

Russell describes at several points the tendency of, for instance, monks to envision the highest level of heaven being populated by — surprise! — monks, and bishops to see bishops at those high levels, and so on.

St. Jerome explained that there was a good reason to have this sort of tiered heaven:

If all are equal in heaven, our humility in this life is in vain.

So, it seems, his idea was to be humble now so you don’t have to be humble up there with God.


“The best metaphor”

That was an example of the tendency to picture heaven as a lot like this world, only better.

Another example is sex.



Mystics who prayed so deeply and opened themselves up so completely to God described the ecstatic visions they received in terms that often echoed the sex act.

St. Agnes, for instance, is said to have described it this way: “When he enters me, he makes me whole.”

St. Angela of Foligno related:

And very often [Christ] called me, “Daughter and my sweet bride…Therefore, since I have entered you and rested in you, you may now enter me and rest in me.”

Russell discusses this tendency:

The idea of a union with God comparable in intensity to that of spouses in loving intercourse was reinforced by Bernard’s commentary on the Song of Songs…Human physical love is wondrously good in the sight of God, so much so that it is the best metaphor for the union of God with the human soul.

I think that makes a lot of sense although it seems that few theologians or church leaders are very comfortable with such comparisons.

That’s not surprising, I guess, since even the very mildest of recognitions of the human body around the altar — liturgical dance — results in a lot of church folk breaking out in metaphorical hives.


The singing silence

The metaphor that sticks with me from Russell’s book is God as the singing silence.

I like the apparent contradiction in that idea. It seems to get at the unknowableness of God.

The direct experience of the silence of God [writes Russell] is ineffable, beyond words, and therefore notoriously difficult to discuss.

The way to approach God in this life is called spirituality which Russell describes as “a loving prayer, above all a choice to life a live of love, to fulfill one’s humanity by seeking one’s natural state of being in love with God and the cosmos, open, flowing, free.”

God is love, the Catholic faith preaches and I believe. And love is a good signpost down the road of life.

It’s a good way to listen to God’s singing silence.

At the edge, when I get to that vast empty formless white, that silence of song will lead me across the line, and I will find………….



Patrick T. Reardon

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