Bereavement is one of life's supreme experiences. Torn is the veil of illusory things when death comes very near us, and through the rent pours "the white radiance of eternity," giving us truly an inkling of Reality — interpret it as we may when the brief moment of insight is over.
The Testament of Immortality (1) is a collection of such interpretations, a collection made by the anonymous author-compiler to sustain his heart at a time when he had suffered the loss of his only son in the prime of youth and promise. Wide reading and a kindly breadth of culture are so evident here that we follow the author delightedly in his selection and arrangement of these intuitive thoughts from great and lesser writers of both East and West. We thank him too for the list of authors cited, with their "dates," and a brief notation about each; and even the index shows the careful touch of the scholar.
The book itself is a garland sweet with the fragrance of trust and resignation; a pot-pourri filled with the essence distilled from grief, or from joy at the revelation of the happy thing that death is after all. It is a fitting gift to one in sorrow.
This is the first and chief impression; but if more is now said in a slightly different vein, it is because there may be value in going deeper; the truest solace is found after all in truth itself. So I would say that the effect of reading this book (or reading in it, for one does not sit down and read it through, naturally) is to induce a mood of exaltation which brings the emotions to a pleasant tension, satisfying to the esthetic sense, while the mind remains as much at sea in the Mystery as before. This is because, while we are led onward and upward by the mystical beauty of the thoughts, what we miss in them is a definite philosophy. The higher emotions are touched, but the longing for definite knowledge is not fulfilled.
Curiously enough, we have little suspected that there could be such definite knowledge. And yet Theosophy has it to offer, and on a highly scientific basis. We have to overcome the long-prevalent attitude that we must accept without question the inscrutable workings of a Law we were not meant to understand. The new time into which we are entering demands that we go forward with minds open to new spiritual possibilities. We must have the courage of research into the things of the spirit, yet always keeping close to the anchorage of the innate sense of right and fitness abiding in the heart.
Only one or two selections in the book contain any description of what may have really befallen the departed soul. On page 201 the writer quoted speaks truly of the experiences of death and birth as having been made familiar to the many-times-incarnated soul by long repetition; but her teaching that "We are conscious one moment on the physical plane and a moment later we have withdrawn on to another plane and are actively conscious there" is open to doubt. The Theosophical teaching postulates a longer or shorter period of unconsciousness immediately after the shock of death, to give rest and readjustment to the soul in its new conditions: a rule which seems not only merciful but very natural. This unconsciousness, we are taught, in the case of average human beings of virtuous life, continues more or less complete until the first main stage of post-mortem life, the kama-loka, is passed, and the vivid and blissful dream of the devachan, or assimilation-period, begins.
There is more than a hint too in the book of that curious haunting doubt: shall we really survive the change? and what proof can we have that we shall persist? Throughout the book, therefore, runs an undercurrent of reassurance (Are we whistling to keep up our courage?) The thoughts expressed do not rest on proof, they are bright inspirations of intuitive minds that hit upon the truth that we do survive, because that certainty is inherent in the spiritual soul itself. We simply know.
But only the ancient doctrine of Reincarnation as revived in modern Theosophy can give an adequate picture of the continuous and harmonious progress of the soul in its eternal journey.
Noble and majestic are the ideas that throng this anthology, coming as they do from some of the finest minds of this and other times; yet, when all is said, the marvel remains with us that for so long in the West death has been regarded, if not with horror and dread, at least as cause for grief and mystification. The sense of loss, the heavy heart, seem to be its inescapable concomitants as things are now, and we need powerful helps to ease the load. But when we grow into an understanding of the real nature of our very selves and of our destiny in a perspective far beyond this one small life; when we take to ourselves this large and comprehensive philosophy which transcends emotion and makes clear the reasons for all our changing fortunes, we shall look calmly upon the face of "delicate death," because we shall know whither she is leading us. Peace comes with knowledge.
1. The Testament of Immortality. An Anthology selected and arranged by N. G., with a Preface by T. S. Eliot. Faber & Faber, Ltd., London. 280 pp. (return to text)