Standing on Heaven’s mountain with my guide Michael, my ears pick up a sound that is familiar yet unexpected in this setting. “Surely I’m not hearing the clink of cutlery?”
Michael smiles ironically. “As the Solar Boat dips below the horizon, all the stars switch on to light up our celestial realm … and it’s time for dinner. Of course there is no time in heaven, nor does the astral body require food, but the illusion of a daily cycle breaks up the monotony provides the comfort of familiarity.
“Britannia’s root-and-branch reformation has even extended to the entertainment section. She commissioned a survey which revealed a sharp dip in attendance at High Table. The experience was described as a cross between an Oxford college dining hall, a gentlemen’s club and a monastery refectory – stuffy and starchy were the milder words used…
“We tried mixing it up, but it didn’t work. Ladies are now admitted on equal terms but felt unwelcome. Heroes got bored of the company of saints, who in turn got offended at some of the warriors’ more off-colour jokes. Artists and intellectuals wanted wittier conversation, while the martyrs preferred to suffer in silence. In the end nobody was happy.”
Heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in Heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside. (George Bernard Shaw)
“So how was it resolved?”
“Eventually a discreet meeting was set up with the entertainments committee of Asphodel Meadows. Orpheus had the bright idea of a talent contest to inject some new ideas and pizazz into the show. However, top brass thought this was a bit infra dig and chancy. Rather than risk a competition that could be hijacked by the diehards, they simply chose the best person for the job.
“Accordingly, William Shakespeare was appointed Master of Ceremonies by Divine Warrant with a brief to infuse joy into the ceremony.
“After various experiments, he lit on the idea of Theme Nights, offering something for everyone. By popular request he’s kept the traditional structure of the 7-day week, beginning of course on Monday.”
“Monday is Manna Night for the saints and martyrs. Shakespeare graciously acceded to their pleas and reinstated traditional High Table for them. JC himself usually presides.”
“So who sits on his right hand?”
“Nowadays there is a rota. There is some polite jostling and manoeuvring to get onto High Table, but you do have to be on your best behaviour. Conversation is minimal and muted, always high-minded, interspersed with periods of silent contemplation.”
“Well, I hope at least they get a good dinner.”
“Manna is served, being the holiest food. There is a choice of pure water, green tea or kale smoothies to drink. Sometimes the saints are joined by erstwhile hipsters into clean eating, which makes for an interesting mix. White robes are de rigueur, though sackcloth is considered too try-hard.”
“How do all these good people fit onto High Table?”
“There are tables below the salt for those who don’t quite make the grade, including those rather unpleasant medieval theologians whose main pleasure is gloating over the sufferings of the sinners. We don’t like to spoil their joy by informing them that most of the so-called damned are having a ball down in Club Hellzapoppin’.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a’ tiptoe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.
“Tuesday in contrast is the reunion of old comrades at a Victory Banquet. The roast beef of Olde England is served accompanied by the finest clarets.”
“I’m glad to hear that!”
Michael gives me a sharp look. “You may have heard a blasphemous rumour that you can’t get a decent drink here. There are no cellars in Heaven, obviously, but two old comrades cooked up a scheme to ensure the horn of plenty never shall run dry. Sir Francis Walsingham has set up a château on a perfect terroir in Asphodel Meadows. Sir Francis Drake sails down in the tail wind of the Solar Boat, collects caseloads of wine and carries the precious cargo back up.” He smiles. “Of course, strictly speaking this performance is unnecessary since up here any thought or desire can be instantly manifested through the power of imagination. Besides, Our Lord’s favourite party trick is turning water into wine. But such projects keep our action people occupied and connected with the earthly realm.”
“Uniforms are preferred, medals optional. The Lord of Hosts presides. He likes to reminisce about his greatest victories, lamenting the new regulations which forbid turning your enemies into pillars of salt. We’ve heard the stories a thousand times, but there are always new ones from the latest arrivals.”
“Wednesday is Family Night, hosted by the Mother.”
“So families stay together up here?”
“Of course, if they wish to. We’re all one big happy family up here, and the strongest connections are with members of your own soul group. But souls who had a close and loving experience of family life on earth sometimes choose to reunite in Love Heaven, which will be our next port of call.
“Family meals are always popular here. There are no dress codes and it’s very relaxed. We’ve given up trying to make the children eat manna, however healthy.” A subtle grimace contorts Michael’s fine features. “Our chef has found the crowd-pleaser to be something called eggsbeansandchips, washed down by a sugary brown beverage that is very popular on Earth. We make an exception to our no animals at the table rule, and well behaved family pets are welcome on these occasions.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Thursday is Salon Night for artists and intellectuals to share ideas and inspire each other. It is co-hosted by Socrates and Plato in gratitude for their rescue from the grey monotony of Hades’s realm. They preside personally over the philosophical sessions where we brainstorm the Logos. This civilized group comprises the most avant-garde philosophers, including some cutting edge theologians who find the saints a bit conservative, along with the most open-minded scientists, all wedded to enlightenment values. These symposia are brilliant but friendly gatherings open to all on the basis that art and science belong to all.
One learns much more from authors’ conversations than from their books, and the authors themselves are not the source from which one learns most. It is the spirit of social gatherings that…pushes one’s vision as far as it can go.
“Scholarly symposia alternate with literary soirées. Here you find the wittiest conversation, highest inspiration and also the hottest gossip – not that there is much to gossip about up here, but it’s amazing what juicy rumours fly around. Guest speakers include history’s most illustrious poets and novelists. Occasionally Shakespeare himself makes a surprise appearance and puts on one of his latest plays. He has gathered together the most talented bunch of thespians you’ll find outside the Royal Shakespeare Company. Additionally there are operas and recitals of the sweetest music you’ll hear outside the heavenly choirs.
“Guests on these occasions are less fixated on food and feasting, happy with a glass of wine and a few delicious canapés rustled up by Elizabeth David. The dress code is open and always changing. Guests enjoy dressing up to the nines and trying out outrageous new fashions. At impromptu fancy dress parties the cultural creatives vie with each other not only in originality of costume but in transforming themselves into characters from history, myth and story. Their fellow guests then have to guess who the character is and who the original face.
“Friday is Fusion night.”
“My favourite, make mine a Pad Thai.”
“Haha,” Michael laughs politely. “Fusion Night is a symposium open to all comers, whatever their background in faith or doubt, spirituality or materialism, religion or science. The aim is to get beyond the narrow constraints of belief and dogma to the open space of pure energy, truth and love.
“Britannia hosts the happening, as a non-sectarian Goddess. This is the only event of the week to which outside guests are invited – from parallel and alternative Heavens, including some who were our rivals in the past. But nowadays it’s all sweetness, light and common ground. Our first symposium was with the Greek Cousins, following the success of Socrates’s salon. Sadly, some are not content with visiting rights and are muttering about more ancient lineages. But they’ve been out of office so long that nobody takes them seriously – while still enjoying their company.”
“How do you take care of their different dietary requirements?”
“The house special is that most versatile vegan food: tofu in all its many delicious variations. Thus we keep it simple without offending anyone in this universalized multicultural domain.
“We are now angling to invite our most honoured guest: Gautama Buddha from the Pureland Paradise. On Earth he outranked JC, being the son of a maharajah, but up here we pay no attention to the maya of social status. However it’s hard to totally drop the hierarchies of Old Heaven. Buddha’s people argue that enlightenment eclipses resurrection since it requires many lives of discipline and conscious evolution to achieve – liberating yourself with no need for salvation. Therefore in the Buddhist bardo, the Buddhas rank higher than the Gods. Jesus’s followers simply reply that however you spin moksha/nirvana, there’s something about the charisma of a fully fledged God; nobody outranks One.
“Meanwhile, a more urgent concern is losing bums on pews to more progressive Upper World Destinations (UWDs). The Arts & Ents programme has helped stem the flow, but the cool kids hang in Osho Bardo in a sunny corner of the Lotus Paradise.
If music be the food of love, play on.
“Saturday is party night, yes, even in heaven. Everyone (apart from the holiest saints and martyrs) gathers in Valhalla Bar, run by Thor who has been partly reinstated on parole because he’s the best bartender. Beer on tap, mead if you must, champagne flows in fountains. But Thor moves with the times and now makes a mean Negroni. On special occasions Nectar is served.”
“That sounds a bit virtuous.”
“Oh no! Nectar is the best drink ever invented on earth or in heaven. It gets you higher than a kite while remaining clear-minded and warm-hearted. Would you like to try a drop?”
I nod enthusiastically, and Michael produces a golden goblet out of thin air with a flourish and hands it to me. I take a sip of the bubbling golden liquid and am instantly transported to an even higher level of consciousness, filled with joy and fizzing with inspiration.
“The crowd then moves on, flying out through the Pearly Gates to Club Cloud(Cuckoo)Land where you can let your hair down and let the good times roll. These parties are spirited but decorous in contrast to the raucous entertainments and gross pleasures enjoyed by the low lifes down in the Dives. We know how to enjoy ourselves without making an exhibition of ourselves. On party night the celebrities from Happy Valley come out in force outblinging each other as they did on earth. We have a classical orchestra conducted by Henry Purcell, although our younger residents rock out with the stars. The hottest ticket this week is the party to celebrate the arrival of the newest star in Rock & Roll Heaven.
“On Sunday we hold our Agape Feast.”
“Sounds a bit Greek to me.”
“It does hark back to those glory days but has evolved into something more spiritual. It is a love feast, open to all. Any soul residing in our open house is welcome at Agape: a celebration of life, love and laughter.
“There used to be strict dress codes, but nowadays it’s very relaxed. The suggestion is to be yourself but better. The saints still tend to favour flowing white robes (to distinguish themselves from the orange and saffron robes popular in the Pureland Paradise). It’s hard to part heroes from their uniforms and medals. Mothers insist their families put on their Sunday best, while the cultural creatives break out their finest costumes.
“Well, it does sound more fun than the old days of standing around singing songs of praise all day.”
Michael smiles wryly. “I was coming to that. Don’t think you can get out of your praise duties that easily. Heaven wouldn’t be Heaven proper without our community singsong, and on Agape Day everyone is expected to join in. But we’ve moved on a bit from Kumbaya. There are all kinds of different bands and choirs you can join nowadays to suit your style. Our new celestial choirmaster, the Queen of Gospel, knows how to work a room and even get the angels to work up a sweat.
“Alternatively there is the more traditional option of singing choruses of praise to their Lord-and-Ladyships, glorifying their great victories over heaven and earth; life, death and rebirth.