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Review of "The Arrivals" by Naomi Gladish Smith - nhpeacenik
Review of "The Arrivals" by Naomi Gladish Smith
(The Arrivals, by Naomi Gladish Smith, Chrysalis books, 2005, www.swedenborg.com)

I have read three Swedenborgian novels in my life, and each of them enveloped me in a supportive, confirming environment while I was reading it. This environment remained my home for quite a long time in each instance, because I read rather slowly. While in the environment of a Swedenborgian novel, I found myself having experiences in my "real" life that were genuinely illuminated by the experience of the book. I have to confess that I can't recall the names of the other such books I read -  only that they were published in the 19th century. I found this third Swedenborgian novel equally wonderful, maybe more wonderful because it references people who have been living in "my" 21st century.

"The Arrivals" tells the story of a group of people who died in a plane crash together and went into the afterlife as a group. Most of them had strong attachments to the lives they had lived, which they needed to work through in order to be ready to start the work that their angel tutors knew they needed to do before entering one of the innumerable heavens and hells that co-exist in the afterlife.  The  stories of the individuals in the group intertwine in various ways, but the path of each individual becomes clearer and more distinct from the others as she/he learns more about the true nature of "life", and relationships between humans, angels and God.

If I were being analytical about the story, I would say that the sheer number of protaganists  can be bewildering at times, that the stories are not all resolved by the end of the novel, and that the novel ends too abruptly (why can't we just read a little more about what happens to Talia and Sherwood and even Malvena?). There is a plot twist near the end that places the novel squarely in the post-9/11/2001 era, but otherwise the atmosphere is timeless (in a very good way). The writing is great; numerous typographical errors (probably introduced by spell-checkers) are annoying but not serious.

I don't really feel like being analytical, though. I recommend this book highly. Smith has at least one other recent book "The Wanderers", which I will be wanting to read.

At the end of the book is a short set of "study-guide" questions and an advertisement for the "source", Swedenborg's "Heaven and Hell". I had attempted to read other books by Swedenborg without finding them compelling. His multi-volume "Acana Celestia" is a set of very short propositions  organized as a philosophical or theological argument, but as I read "The Arrivals" I was led to download the Gutenberg e-text of "Heaven and Hell", and I found it to be quite readable, even in English translation: Here is a random passage:

From this it also comes to pass that an angel who excels in
wisdom instantly sees the quality of another from his face. In heaven
no one can conceal his interiors by his expression, or feign, or
really deceive and mislead by craft or hypocrisy. There are
hypocrites who are experts in disguising their interiors and
fashioning their exteriors into the form of that good in which those
are who belong to a society, and who thus make themselves appear
angels of light; and these sometimes insinuate themselves into a
society; but they cannot stay there long, for they begin to suffer
inward pain and torture, to grow livid in the face, and to become as
it were lifeless. These changes arise from the contrariety of the
life that flows in and affects them. Therefore they quickly cast
themselves down into hell where their like are, and no longer want to
ascend. These are such as are meant by the man found among the
invited guests at the feast not clothed with a wedding garment, who
was cast out into outer darkness (Matt. 22:11, seq.).
This aspect of the afterlife is emphasized in the book. As souls stay longer, they lose the ability to lie and dissimulate; evil qualities can be worked on and minimized, but they can't be concealed. Actions are not necessarily as important in determining what happens as sincere intentions. When two angels look at each other their faces glow with brilliant light.. All this is in "Heaven and Hell". Angels are evolved human souls and not, as in orthodox theology, separate races of beings.

Swedenborg presents a complex multi-level universe that is essentially spiritual, with the physical world and what we call human life on Earth a kind of microcosm, with "correspondences" linking features of the human existence on Earth with eternal realities. People are guided on Earth by four spirits, two good and two evil, which give advice and suggestions. What we come to love on earth determines our destination and vocation in the afterlife, but God and angels can help souls move toward their best possible celestial destination.

As a Quaker, I assert that growing in truthfulness is important and incredibly difficult. When I have meditated, I have often felt a protective benevolent presence that accepts all that I am, similar to the one that envelops the world of this book. It is not for the theology that I recommend the book, but for its effect and its resonance with truths I have been discovering all my life. I am not convinced of the correctness of any theory of the afterlife: it may well be that life on Earth is all we have, but if consciousness has the eternal qualities that it seems (from my experience and that of the authors of these books)  to have, who can say that a consciousness formed in the confines of a body/brain will not continue to have a separate identity related to that body/brain  beyond the death of the body?

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