Jonathan Stedall


What is essential is invisible to the eye, the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

My title Where on Earth is Heaven? is a question that my son Thomas asked nearly twenty years ago, when he was seven years old. It’s a good and reasonable question whatever age you happen to be. He went on to become a physicist and is, I believe, asking it still ’ albeit using different words and concepts. This book is an attempt to address that question, for what lies behind those words has long interested me.

Thomas and Ellie 1989.

Thomas and Ellie 1989.

I’m sure that I didn’t ignore or evade my son’s curiosity all those years ago, but now I would like to share with him and his equally inquiring sister, Ellie, some thoughts I have had in the meantime; thoughts, too, about immortality. It is a decision partly prompted by the growing awareness that I won’t be around forever, at least not in my present shape and form – an awareness heightened for me by a recent and potentially serious illness.

All of us have had parents and most people become parents themselves. Such relationships can be a bond of extraordinary power, and the prospect of their severance is deeply disturbing. Yet despite this underlying fear, and the overwhelming sense of separation and loss that most people initially experience on the death of someone they love, I do believe that our relationships with one another, all relationships, survive as more than just memories. The story of how I came to this conviction is what I want to share not only with my son and daughter, but also with anyone else who might find this journey of mine of interest and perhaps of help.

Many people are content to say that we simply cannot know what lies beyond death, yet have faith there is more to life than meets the eye. Others dismiss the whole notion of a spiritual existence as fanciful and escapist. For me personally faith is not enough; I am more curious. I am also someone for whom the idea of a supersensible dimension to reality makes a great deal of sense. Yet I am very aware that however deep one’s questions, the great mysteries of existence are not instantly forthcoming or easily accessible. I will only hear and understand what I am ready to understand.

I am also aware that the word ‘survive’ in relation to some sort of after-life may be misleading. People talk about life after death. What about life before birth? Or is there, perhaps, a timeless level of existence – neither past nor future – which itself is the source of what we call life? My physical body is certainly mortal, but this other aspect of my being – the very core of my existence – may not be bound by the laws of time and space. Are we, therefore, both mortal and immortal? The 19th-century American writer and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson called his body ‘the office where I work’.

Nevertheless, death can seem very final. Eternity and infinity are words we’ve coined, but are concepts of which we have very little, if any, experience or understanding. Yet perhaps we already live in this eternal dimension of existence to a far greater extent than we experience consciously – above all in that third of our life we spend asleep – and where the notion of life and death may have a quite different meaning. If so, are heaven and earth perhaps not as separate as some people imagine? These are some of the questions that I have lived with for a long time and which I want to explore in the pages that follow.

Picasso once wrote to his friend Matisse: ‘We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.’ Perhaps Picasso needn’t have worried, and after Matisse’s death their dialogue did continue, and does so still.

For years I have kept a notebook in which I have written what for me have been helpful and inspiring quotations, along with various thoughts of my own. I make no apology that what follows will at times seem like an anthology. (The bibliography contains details of all books mentioned in the text.) I am an observer and a listener by nature, and my work has been about selecting and editing the words, deeds and images that have touched me, and then turning them into films. A recent entry in my notebook reads: ‘Each time we fall asleep we awaken to eternity.’ I have a strong feeling that at death we face a similar threshold, but on a far larger scale. And perhaps this will not come as such a surprise if, as I have already suggested, we expand into that reality every night when we fall sleep.

However, in describing what have been meaningful awakeners for me, I am well aware that what I have found helpful may not necessarily be so for someone else. I am also aware that history is littered with examples of people attempting to impose their views and beliefs on others, whether at the point of a sword, from the nib of a pen, or nowadays at the touch of a keyboard. Nor is what follows intended to be an autobiography, though at times it may appear so. It is the story of an inner rather than outer journey, though frequently the two have intertwined.

As a documentary film director for forty years, more than half of which were spent with the BBC, I have been fortunate to be able to pursue much of this quest of mine through my actual work; and it is this work which I shall be drawing on extensively, taking you into the African bush, to the hill temples of northern India, into the streets of San Francisco, to a Taiwanese funeral, by train to Arcadia and by bicycle into the lanes of Cornwall – and above all into the minds and imaginations of some distinguished observers of our human condition; for in making these films I have worked alongside an extraordinary range of interesting and thoughtful people including the poet and broadcaster John Betjeman, astronomer Bernard Lovell, writer and explorer Laurens van der Post, playwright Alan Bennett, cultural historian Theodore Roszak, novelist Alexander Solzenhitsyn, writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, poet Ben Okri, philosopher Jacob Needleman, physicist Fritjof Capra, politician Michael Portillo, economist E.F. Schumacher, broadcaster and writer Mark Tully, and artist Cecil Collins – all of whom cast their light on these pages.

And on this journey my life has also been enormously enriched by encounters with hundreds of other men, women and children whose names will almost certainly never find their way into the history books – a peasant farmer in the Indian state of Bihar, a Russian cameraman, an American Sikh, a night-nurse in Birmingham, a Romanian bishop, the inhabitants of a Quaker Home for the elderly in Bristol, and many of those classed as having special needs – people who, in my experience, often have as much to give and to teach the world as they need help and support from us. I have also been fortunate to make films about the lives of several outstanding individuals from the past including Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Carl Gustav Jung; and films, too, about the educational, curative and medical work inspired by the research and insights of Rudolf Steiner.

As a film-maker I have always seen myself as a bridge between the subjects that I have found interesting and a largely anonymous audience ‘out there’ who may happen to be watching television on a particular evening, at a particular time – some out of choice, some by chance. I suppose in the end what has guided me is trust – trust in life, and in what I have found meaningful while at the same time respecting what has meaning for others; and also trust that in their hearts everyone is a searcher like myself, with the same sort of questions, fears and hopes.

I approach the writing of this book in much the same spirit that I have made my films. In this case the rushes, the raw material, are some of the experiences and ideas that I have had in response to the questions I have asked of life along the way, and some of the thoughts that life has whispered back to me. The venture has been much helped and inspired by a quotation often attributed to Goethe, but in fact written by the Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray: ‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too … Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.’

This courage to simply take the plunge was once demonstrated to me by the theatre director and dear friend Ron Eyre. We had worked together in the 1970s on a BBC series called The Long Search that Ron wrote and presented, and in which we attempted to understand something about other people’s beliefs and faith, and the age-old search for meaning. That task was challenging enough, but what followed some eight years later was in many ways more daunting. Our plan was to make a series of seven films exploring the seven phases of life as outlined in Jacques’s famous speech ‘All the world’s a stage’ in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The canvas was huge. All the sixty or so million inhabitants of Great Britain were qualified to take part. How and where should we select participants, and what should we film for that all-important introductory sequence?

Sometime earlier Ron had told me the story of a summer holiday he had as a small boy with his parents at Scarborough. His father had been unsuccessfully trying to persuade and encourage his somewhat timid son to go into the sea. Apparently Ron’s final response, confronted by all those waves, was ‘I’ll go in when it stops’. Thus Scarborough became the setting for our opening sequence to the series. This time it was a grown-up and courageous Ron Eyre standing on the beach at the edge of the sea with a film crew in tow. He briefly outlined the idea of Seven Ages and the enormity of our task. He then told the story of his childhood fear of the sea. But this time he took the plunge: he ran into the sea, and so began the series.

Tomb of Richard FitzAlan, tenth Earl of Arundel, and his wife 
Eleanor of Lancaster in Chichester Cathedral.

Tomb of Richard FitzAlan, tenth Earl of Arundel, and his wife Eleanor of Lancaster in Chichester Cathedral.

So I too will simply dive in. Above all I want to try and share my sense that our existence in some mysterious way transcends what we experience as time; and that the essence of this existence is a web of relationships. And for reasons which I hope will become clear as this story unfolds, I believe it is vital – both for those of us who are alive, as well as for those who are seemingly no longer present – that this communion is both acknowledged and fostered; indeed that we keep in touch. You can simply call it unfinished business. Another word that springs to mind is love – the love that Philip Larkin hints at in his poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’. In Chichester Cathedral an Earl and his Countess are commemorated side by side in the hard formality of stone; but then the poet notices ‘with a sharp tender shock’ that they are holding hands. Is it, he wonders, a confirmation of what we hardly dare believe: ‘What will survive of us is love.’

Where on Earth is Heaven? cover

All text and images © Jonathan Stedall