When I began to study A Course in Miracles, an early hurdle was the idea that the world was not real. This is not metaphorical language, but literal.
The world was made as an attack on God. It symbolizes fear. And what is fear except love’s absence? Thus the world was meant to be a place where God could enter not, and where His Son could be apart from Him. Here was perception born, for knowledge could not cause such insane thoughts” (W.pII.3.2:1 – 5).
Whatever its merits from an intellectual standpoint, in application this concept can tie you up in metaphysical knots from which escape is just – pardon the pun – a dream. At least that’s how it unwinds for me.
Of course, there are plenty of ACIM students for whom the course is simply another new age tool whose usefulness is measured by the degree to which it improves their lives in the world. That’s okay. I’ve been there and I’ll be there again, I’m sure. But it’s not what the course asks. It’s not what the course teaches.
Yet still, accepting the world as a dream remains daunting to me – a river I can’t cross because I don’t, in my heart of hearts, believe I’m meant or allowed to. And I get the ACIM drill. I know that our job is not to get this stuff all at once – to suddenly and perfectly reject illusion in favor of reality – but rather to forgive the world slowly, one argument at a time, one sunset at a time, one hoagie at a time.
I wrestle with forgiveness all the time – what it means and how to apply it. I am less interested than I used to be in talking Course talk. These days, I want to make it work – I want the experience. The walk, as it were.
In prayer, I am often reminded that to pretend I am not a body in this world is an unhealthy form of denial.
So I look closely at the world – very closely – and I see, amongst other things:
1. Disease and famine riding whole populations into dirt;
2. Starving children;
3. Beaten children;
4. Bad men using terror and deprivation to hold power over people;
5. Mistreated animals;
6. Scourged earth.
I see poverty and violence, in other words. Not just that. But a lot of that.
And I take it to Jesus. I do what the Course tells me to do. I say to Jesus, look at this with me, okay? I remind myself that the horror and hell I perceive in the world is actually in me. When I forgive it out there – which is what seeing it with Jesus enables – then it is forgiven inside. I understand that. I try to do that.
And the horror show continues.
The last best effort Catholicism offered me (before I finally split) was the Catholic Worker. I fell hard for the few women and men who chose radical poverty and service as a worldly expression of fidelity to Christ. Sometimes I think that the reason I fell for the Course the way I did was that Tara Singh was my first formal teacher. Even a cursory review of his books demonstrates his commitment to equality and peace in the world. Service to others, not owning property. It felt right to me. It felt consistent. It still does.
I was reading G.K. Chesterton today, What’s Wrong With the World.
As long as nineteen men claim the right in any sense or shape to take hold of the twentieth man and make him even mildly uncomfortable, so long the whole proceeding must be a humiliating one for all concerned.
This is why, according to Chesterton, jailers and hangmen were always held in contempt (while we admire and even cherish murderers like Jesse James and Robin Hood).
To kill a man lawlessly was pardoned. To kill a man lawfully was unpardonable. The most bare-faced duelist might almost brandish his weapon. But the executioner was always masked.
Oh how that resonated for me. We are not separate. We are brothers and sisters – however we want to justify or explain the semantics. So how can we make that real? How can we rescue it from the hopelessness of mere words?
In The Future of Mankind, Tara Singh writes that affluence without true wisdom was destructive and violent. It was the engine of doom.
Problems of deprivation in an industrial age are unthinkable from a humanistic point of view . . . Without goodness and harmony the very lure of prosperity deceives man, and leads him to degeneration . . . Man’s brain has invented the finest and the most advanced commodities, but the inner man is lonely, afraid and panicky.
He quotes Mother Teresa who differentiated between the material poverty of places like India and the spiritual poverty of the West.
There are different kinds of poverty. In India, some people live and die in hunger . . . But in the West you have another kind of poverty, spiritual poverty. This is far worse. . . This poverty of the heart is often more difficult to relieve and to defeat.
Mother Teresa often pointed out that there was a terrible deprivation inherent in getting what one wants. It’s like that U2 lyric: “I gave you everything you ever wanted – It wasn’t what you wanted.” We equate the Course’s promise of joy and peace with getting what we want here in this world. Heaven must be satisfied desire, right? But it’s not. It can’t be.
Singh also talked about how we, as a species, simultaneously repudiate and embrace war. What does Einstein say on the bumper sticker? You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. If we want to end war – if we want to end scarcity – then we must end the conflict in ourselves. There is no other way.
I say this over and over to people. I have good friends – people I deeply admire – who are politically active. They vote, they hold signs, they give money. That routine was once very important to me. I had big hopes for it – and for me in it. But our participation in that system legitimizes it and thus legitimizes its lovelessness and violence. It wants no real solution – it abides no such solution – and we legitimatize it anyway. We give it our lives and it takes them, and others to boot.
Chesterton again, on self-governing countries.
The abnormal person is theoretically thumped by a million fists and kicked by a million feet. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him. That is the only possible meaning of democracy…
We are doing it. We are doing it. If there is going to be a solution, it is going to have to come from a place unknown to our best intentions, inured to our addiction to action. Can we accept that? Can we even find that place anymore?
I have students who have been to the OWS protests in New York and Boston. I love these students. They are brave and smart and curious. They passionately want to do something good and right. It’s a positive energy to be around. Even without a focus, it has a healing quality, an invigorating quality.
And yet, their general sense of a solution to the economics they protest – that we must put “people before corporations,” or at least achieve a better balance between those competing interests – feels deeply unsatisfying to me as a man bent on understanding and following Jesus. The system – call it democracy, call it capitalism – eats our activism. It is as Chesterton pointed out – we think we act separately but the body politic is one. We all suffer. We are all guilty. We are all of us making the machine go. Jesus knew there was another way. We do too, but it’s blurred now and maybe getting blurrier.
Wendell Berry, writing in The Hidden Wound, notes how his family doctored their guilt at having once owned slaves by recalling how they were so much kinder to their slaves than other owners. But that’s a lie, concluded Berry. Once you accept that a human being can be chattel, can be owned by another human being, then you are in as deep as you can go. We don’t like hard truths, bright moral lines. Bob Dylan sang that “you either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no middle ground.” We don’t want men like that at the dinner table. There’s a reason Wendell Berry never got an invitation to be on Oprah.
So what am I saying here? Or trying to say? That I fear using A Course in Miracles as a way of avoiding hard choices. That I scared I am defining forgiveness down – ensuring that it remains well within my political and social and economic comfort zones.
That I am not following Jesus, but maybe possibly getting around to perhaps testing out temporarily considering following Jesus.
I have been meditating lately about the past ten years. I am not where I thought I’d be, not who I thought I’d be. Not at all. There have been passages and arrivals. Transitions, transformations. The form has altered, yet the content – the desire to know God, the fear that I am doomed by even trying – remains largely unaltered.
If there is a real theme, it is that I clearly don’t know as much as I think I do. Or wish I did. The path is there – of this I am sure – but it is often obscure, veiled, narrow and rocky. I stumble after God – there is no other way to say it. I long for the clarity of Tara Singh, the courage of Dorothy Day. In their examples, forgiveness seems buttressed and promising indeed. Perhaps one day.
Meanwhile, I stumble – a shoeless prattler – in the direction I think Jesus went, what seemed like only seconds ago.