Opening Heaven’s Door, by Patricia Pearson: Review

By: Philip Marchand

The subtitle of Patricia Pearson’s book Opening Heaven’s Door is arresting, as subtitles should be: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going. Note the words “may be” — as opposed to “are.” Pearson, in this study of near-death and related spiritual experiences, tries very hard to adopt a tone of reasonableness, acknowledging that she’s venturing into terrain where scientific proof is lacking and may never be, given the nature of the case, available.  And if the dead really are trying to tell something, these communications may always remain in the realm of hints and cryptic commands.

There is nothing tentative, however, about the book’s opening sentence: “My father died in his blue-striped pyjamas on a soft bed in a silent house.” It was three or four in the morning. At the same time, 100 miles to the east, Pearson’s sister Katharine was awake and restless. She had no idea that her father had just died, but at about 4:30 she felt his presence. She herself was dying from metastatic cancer, and her father had a message for her. “I felt hands on my head and experienced vision after vision of a happy future,” Katharine told mourners at her father’s memorial service.

Of course it’s possible to deny the reality of such things. Pearson writes about a conversation she had with an old acquaintance. After hearing the above story, her listener replied, “I don’t mean to be unkind, but it is very likely that she was imagining all these things.”

So there. Spooks don’t exist. Sophisticates in our culture deprecate the earnest telling of such stories, and if the teller seems to believe them then they must be very kindly told that they’re “imagining all these things.”

Pearson’s book is a well-researched argument that we have no business telling people their “spiritual” experiences are simply products of longing or wish fulfilment or rattled brains, in the same class as hallucinations. We have no business telling them this not only because we are polite but because these experiences are not in fact delusions. In their utter clarity and coherence and intensity, near-death experiences as related by Pearson defy the increasingly feeble attempts of dogmatic materialists to explain them in scientific terms.

“This book has been fiendishly difficult to write for a number of reasons,” Pearson writes in the acknowledgments.  The research alone, while far from covering all the ground — and a vast ground it is — must have been exhausting, involving as it did wading through scientific documents and interviewing numerous survivors and witnesses.  That’s not all. By beginning the narrative with her sister’s strange experience and then ending with the story of her attempt to contact Katharine in the otherworld using a medium, Pearson is left extremely vulnerable.  It’s possible to dismiss her as a special pleader, falling for the spirit world because of her own personal tragedy.

It is well to remember that most people do want to believe in the hereafter and it is an emotionally healthy longing, according to Carl Jung. “As a physician I am convinced that it is hygienic — if I may use the word — to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose,” Jung writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul.  “I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene.”

Using mediums, however, is another matter. The Hebrew Bible in particular is firmly against the practice. In a rare Old Testament episode of necromancy, King Saul pleads with the Witch of Endor to raise the ghost of the prophet Samuel — a ploy that actually succeeds, although not to Saul’s benefit. The medium engaged by Pearson does seem to have uncanny awareness of her departed sister, and he also seems to be an honest man — but despite this, or because of it, he represents an emotionally unsafe practice, if only because that practice has historically and currently been rife with fraud. It is much safer to stick to things like precognition. “There is no reason to assume that presentiment is anything other than a natural physical process,” Pearson writes. “It’s just a process we don’t understand.”

This “natural physical process” conjures 19th-century essayist Thomas Carlyle’s term, “natural supernaturalism.” For Carlyle, too, the “natural” encompassed things we have no understanding of. “Nature remains of quite infinite depth, of quite infinite expansion,” Carlyle wrote. “What are the laws of nature? To me perhaps the rising of one from the dead were no violation of these laws but a confirmation.” For an orthodox religious individual, a materialist, brain-centred explanation of near-death experiences may be less threatening than natural supernaturalism — the opposition between natural and supernatural fading as we discover more about our mysterious universe. (I recall the late scientific publicist Carl Sagan talking about black holes with the fervour of a spiritualist talking about astral planes.) It is true at any rate that Pearson’s view of the dead does not “dovetail properly with Christian doctrine.

”One difference between the feelings generated by near-death experience and religious traditions is that, with near-death experiences, Heaven’s door flies wide open at the slightest nudge. There are a few near-death experiences, it is true, that convey menace in the other world, but the tenor of most of them is sheer bliss.  That contradicts Tibetan Buddhist teachings about the bardo state, for example — the transitional state after death. “It might be ecstatic but may also be hellish,” Pearson writes, “and if you don’t keep your cool as you encounter demons, wrathful deities and monstrous wolves, you will race for the nearest available exit, which could result in rebirth as a stick insect or an aloe vera plant.”

In Catholic and Orthodox Christian belief, purgatory awaits the soul that is saved but still needs purification. It’s not a day at the beach, although the suffering is ultimately joyful.

The near-death experience is not necessarily the most impressive phenomenon recorded in the book.  What is particularly haunting is what one might call the poetry of the dying, based on a knowledge that the dying possess, inaccessible to others.  This poetry usually takes the form of travel metaphors. “Hospice staff know that when their patients begin to talk about travel, they are announcing their departure,” Pearson writes. “They request tickets, or boats.  Some ask for their coats, others inquire about the bus schedule.” In its minimal form, the poetry is still effective — a prime example being the death of the soul singer James Brown who was hospitalized with pneumonia. It was not expected to be altogether serious — but someone or something knew better.  Brown uttered the fatal words — “I’m going away tonight” — one day after his hospitalization.

Like many another episode in Pearson’s book, Brown’s utterance strikes the reader as uncanny and in its way marvellous.  It is a message to us, the living, that the world we know is richer and stranger than we think.