Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.
Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin. (photo: Picasa / Public Domain)

Which way is heaven? For those of us who are keen to get there, this is an important question; indeed a crucial one. Do we look up at the twinkling stars, wondering what they are in childlike contemplation? Is this assent to the innocence of wonder the ascent to heaven, or the necessary prerequisite for such an ascent? Plato would say so, and so would Thomas Aquinas.

Or should we look to the east, orienting ourselves towards the rising sun and reminding ourselves that orient means east because it originally meant to rise (oriri)? If the sun rises in the east, might we rise in the east also? Is the mystic east not merely where the sun rises but where the Son rises also? The Church would seem to suggest that this is so. Churches were always built with the altar in the east so that the priest at the altar could always face ad orientem, towards the east, orienting himself and his fellow worshippers towards the Rising Son. This is the orientation celebrated by the poet Roy Campbell in his sonnet “To the Sun”:

Oh let your shining orb grow dim,
Of Christ the mirror and the shield,
That I may gaze through you to Him,
See half the miracle revealed …

It was also the orientation celebrated by C. S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the intrepid voyagers sail east until they get to the end of the world and can tread the dawn in Aslan’s Country.

But what of the mystic west? What of that west into which Frodo and the Elves sail from the Grey Havens at the end of The Lord of the Rings:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that … the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed west from Ireland into unknown waters on a quest for the “Isle of the Blessed,” a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean in which the sun never sets and it is always day. This same vision haunts George Mackay Brown’s modern epic Vinland, set in the Orkney Islands in the early 11th century, which focuses on the life of a farmer, Ranald Sigmundson, who, as a child, had sailed to the New World (Vinland) with Leif Ericson. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, especially the Orkneyinga Saga but also the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, Vinland culminates in a mystical meditation on the mystery of life, and the mystery of life after death. As an old man, Ranald is seemingly obsessed with sailing west. He is asked whether it is Vinland that he wishes to see once again. 

His eyes brightened at the mention of Vinland. “I’d very much like to go there,” he said. … “But I’m not sailing to Vinland. The island lies away beyond Vinland …”
“And who … is going to sail with you on this famous voyage?”
Ranald said nothing. Then his eyes brightened again and he said that maybe a few old Orkney folk might be eager to sail with him. But they would have to be old. It would be a sorrowful thing to have a young man, or a child, on the ship.

Not surprisingly, these rambling thoughts of an old man, near to death, are seen as signs of dementia. What else is one to think of a frail elderly farmer’s plans to sail further into the uncharted west than even Leif Ericson, with a crew comprised exclusively of other old men and women? And yet the young folk are forced to concede that “he seems gentle and happy”: “I haven’t known him so contented,” says his son. “And yet there’s an eagerness in him, too.” Soon afterwards, on Easter Monday, Ranald dies. The fishermen carry his body into the chapel, which “was shaped like a little stone ship.” He had set sail. “On the third day, the monks sang a requiem for him.” He had finally arrived at the Isle of the Blessed, far beyond Vinland in the mystic west, in the safe harbor that Hopkins would call “the heaven-haven of the reward”:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.