For a link to buy To Heaven and Back or to join in the discussion about it, go to Patheos Book Club here.
To Heaven and Back tells the story of Dr Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, who drowned in a kayaking accident in the Chilean Andes, went to heaven and was revived by the efforts of her companions. But it isn’t just another I-died-and-went-to-heaven-then-came-back book, although it certainly does tell the story of a woman who did exactly that. Dr Neal tells that story with clarity and in detail. But what sets the book apart is Dr Neal’s life in Christ. That’s what inspired me.
It is the story of God’s interaction with Dr Neal throughout the course of her life. Dr Neal has the charism of discerning Divine Providence in the events of her life and the grace of accepting this Providence for what it is when she encounters it. She is unembarrassed to share these experiences in an age when people who admit they see God at work in their lives are often the butt of jokes.
It’s too bad that Edward Kennedy had already taken the name True Compass. It would have been a perfect fit for this book. Following Jesus and living her life for Him have provided a true compass for Dr Neal throughout her life, not just on that day in Chile when she died.
The accident in Chile wasn’t Dr Neal’s first close call. When she was in college, she and her diving instructor had a narrow brush with disaster on her first free dive. She and the instructor accidentally swam into an underwater cave. They didn’t discover where they were until night was falling and they were both running out of air. Dr Neal says:
I kicked the bottom of the lake with my fins and raised clouds of silt. We were running out of air and the tank alarms were echoing. That’s when I remembered to pray. I called out to God and I was immediately filled with the feeling of God’s presence and the knowledge that He would show us the way out … The silt cleared and we saw several fish … lining up together, swimming in the current. They seemed to beckon us to follow, which we did.
The fish led Dr Neal and her instructor out of the cave. By the time they got to the surface, her instructor’s tank was completely empty of air. Her instructor
believed we had survived by pure luck. He … proceeded to drink himself into oblivion. For my part, I had a profoundly different response to our survival. I did not believe that luck was involved … I believed that we had survived because God intervened, even though we had been such knuckleheads and He had to essentially push us out of the cave.
That is one of the better descriptions of the difference in how providential living and existential living affect people’s responses to life that I have read. Dr Neal viewed the event through the lens of faith. She was willing to give God His due when He helped her. This faithful life view allowed Dr Neal to see meaning and purpose in the near disaster in the underwater cave. Her instructor saw what had happened as a random accident. Faith gave Dr Neal emotional resilience, while her instructor had to drink away the trauma.
She was severely injured when she drowned in Chile and endured a long recovery afterwards. But the greatest challenge of her life came when her son died. I don’t believe that anyone who’s lost a child is ever the same afterwards. Dr Neal says that she is not and never will be the same as she was before her son’s death. The grief she describes was so acute that she had to hold onto her faith like a lifeline. In her words:
I taped the following daily creed to our refrigerator and grasped onto it for survival.
My Daily Creed
I believe God’s promises are true.
I believe heaven is real.
I believe nothing can separate me from God’s love.
I believe God has work for me to do.
I believe God will see me through and carry me when I cannot walk.
God continued to carry our family month after month, as we struggled to put one foot in front of the other. I do not understand how anyone can make this journey without trusting in God’s plan.
Even though she suffered grievously, Dr Neal’s charism for seeing Providence in the simple things was balm to her wounds during this period. Her willingness to accept God’s love was the saving grace, not only for her, but for her husband and her other children.
To Heaven and Back is an easy read, dealing with one woman’s life in Christ. It deals with life, love, grief, death and authentic living in an honest and unembarrassed Christian manner. These topics are at the core of the human experience, while most of the things we consider more important are far out on the periphery.
I think one reason why books that relate honest human experience in these areas often seem simple is that they are simple, but not in the sense that they are simplistic or shallow. They are simple in the way that elegance is simple; because it is true.
I’m glad I read To Heaven and Back. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own walk with God. I recommend it.