On Losing Religion and Gathering Joy

I do not think that religion is something one has to vanquish and bury in an anonymous grave, all in the name of love and reason, but I do think if one has not yet seen good reasons why it should be so vanquished and dispatched, then one is perhaps insufficiently religious.

What do I mean by this?

Religion evolved as a way of responding to the challenge of being human in a world in which humans live, which living is inevitably circumscribed by perceptual and cognitive horizons. Though in its early incarnations religion attempted to explain the world, we now know that it doesn’t, at least not accurately or well. We can’t, in Merold Westphal’s memorable phrase, “peek over God’s shoulder.” Thus, the utility of religion and related spiritual projects must be located in another domain of living (other than explanation, first causes, et cetera).

We are organisms for whom the world appears as an object or set of objects upon which we can mentally reflect. But perception and cognition are limits. This should not be controversial! We can’t see every color on the light spectrum, we can’t make it rain by dancing, we can’t breathe underwater, and we can’t build a two-story house in fifteen minutes.

But perception and cognition – in part because they are limits – are also creative. Through them, a world comes into being: blue skies, soft clean sheets, compound sentences, ants at picnics, twelve-string guitars on which Bach airs are picked. The world we perceive and think about is the world brought forth by perception and cognition. And it is by definition limited and partial. Thus, “absolute truth” or “objective truth” are lies we tell ourselves (to avoid the responsibility subjectivity entails).

So not only can we not “peek over God’s shoulder,” the very act of trying to do so is a distraction from the work we are actually called (by the world we bring forth through our living) to do. In fact, one can make a good case that we are subject to an ethical imperative to not seek the objective stance, the true perspective, the actual source. Why fuss with an alien God when your brother and sister are right here waiting on your attention and service?

Peter Nelson, an Australian psychotherapist and writer, puts it better than I ever could. “The quest for foundations is a vanity that takes us away from the kind of knowing that is actually possible for us and leads to a fragmentation and separation that contributes to our destruction, ‘metaphorically’ as well as ‘actually.'”

On this view, belief systems – religious and spiritual ones in particular – emerged to help us manage a fundamental state of unknowing and uncertainty. What are we? What happens when we die? What is the relationship between experience and the world? Is there a relationship? Why should I care about my neighbor? My enemy? Folks I’ll never meet? Why do bad things happen? And so on and so forth.

In this way – for a long time – religion comforted us, provided community (of like-minded folk) for us, gave us answers to apparently unanswerable questions and provided behavioral models to facilitate relatively productive living. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing.

However, over time, those belief systems morphed from malleable suggestions to absolute truths. “Here’s a way to think about death and dying” becomes “here is the way to think about death and dying.” And once we start to believe that we are privy to the way and the truth and the life, then it’s a surprisingly quick trip to war, genocide, and torture. We all think “not me – I wouldn’t do that” but in fact we’ve been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years. We are good at it, and the part of us that is good at it, lives in all of us.

Why do we take a few good ideas gathered under the rubric “religion” (e.g., share your wealth, love those who hurt you, welcome everybody to the table) and turn them into absolutes which justify all manner of violence?

Why does love turn so quickly to hate?

Well, in part it does so because we are in a war against uncertainty. We want to know. We believe the truth exists and that the right to know it inheres in us unconditionally. The Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t say “I am the way and the truth and the life” because we want him to be less categorical. He says it because deep down, we believe that’s how you crush uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. You get definite. You go to the land of “THE,” not “A.” And guess who leads the way?

The problem, of course, is that we cannot reach that whole. It is forever closed to us. Certainty is a dream that obscures what is actually possible. We are scaling a mountain that has no summit and it is made of the bones of those we didn’t love because we were too busy climbing a mountain to notice them.

Five thousand years ago, this was less clear than it is now. But today, we know that our senses provide functional translations, not veridical representations. We know that language is symbolic. We know that the self is reflexive and recursive. We don’t need Gods and saviors. What worked about them was always in us anyway, and what doesn’t work about them was always in us anyway, too.

So A Course in Miracles makes sense to me as a method for managing one’s living in the world brought forth by their living. It is an effective strategy for being in responsive dialogue with one’s neighbors (thus alleviating apparently external conflict), and for maintaining a healing perspective on one’s interior craziness (thus alleviating apparently internal conflict).

But it is terrible – as virtually all formal religions are – when it comes to explaining how conflict arises in the first case. That’s because A Course in Miracles is simply an extended metaphor for what it means to not be able to “peek over God’s shoulder” and how to live once we’ve accepted that fact. Read in any other light, it’s merely going to confuse and confound us.

Again, it is critical to understand here that Westphal didn’t mean that God literally has a shoulder or even that there is literally a God. Rather, he meant that human beings cannot occupy an objective perspective. We can’t know the truth, nor even whether the truth exists, and what this means in a fundamental sense is that we are called to embrace – to live from in a holy way – epistemic humility. We do not and probably cannot know the Truth, and if our living is predicated on anything but that unknowing, then we are bound for unhappiness, and not just our own. We’re likely to hurt others as well. History attests to this. The consequences of how we think and what is brought forth accordingly are not trivial.

This was the essence of Tara Singh’s beautiful clarity when he called our attention to the lovelessness of the belief that “I’ve got it and you don’t.” The belief that we understand where others are confused, that we have some insight or potential that others don’t have is a form of violence because it is loveless. It does not perceive one’s neighbor as oneself but as something other than one’s self. It stipulates to separation and then doubles down on it.

Conflict arises because we believe that we are apart from the world: we believe that we have separate interests, and that these interests require defense which, in turn, sometimes requires attack. Most of us say we don’t believe this, and we can be very good at persuading ourselves and others that we don’t, but if we examine our living carefully, then we will see that in fact we do believe we are apart from one another, and this separation breeds competition, and we conduct our living accordingly. The people who enacted the Holocaust or separate children from parents at borders or won’t help refugees drowning in the sea are not monsters. They are people like you and me. They are our brothers and sisters and our capacity to bring forth peace and love is contingent in part on our never forgetting that fact.

If we notice lovelessness in the world, then we can respond to it in the moment. If I’m being a jerk in the classroom, then I can be less of a jerk, and make the requisite amends. If I am selfish in my living at home, the same. But as I used to say with respect to making amends as a formal spiritual practice: the point is not to become great at saying “I’m sorry.” The point is to become the sort of living being who does not need to make amends so often.

That is why eventually our so-called spiritual seeking moves us in the direction of what can be applied and brought into application. This was part of what alienated Tara Singh from the Foundation for Inner Peace and FACIM and other more canonical approaches to ACIM. Singh understood that we have to work out A Course in Miracles in the course of our very living; anything else was insufficient. Indeed, anything else was a form of violence that ultimately only perpetuated separation. Pretending we aren’t bodies, or that the world isn’t real, or that ascended masters have everything covered, or that Jesus was a favored male child of a male deity are simply ways of reinforcing the original error of separation. There is another way! And it is to lean into the very living presenting itself in order to bring forth the loving context inherent (if obscured) in that living.

We are called to give sustained care-filled attention to our ideas about living, but we must also – perhaps in an even more intensely holy way – be aware of how those ideas can sometimes take us away from the actual living implied in them. Here is how Christian writer and teacher J.A. Simmons frames it.

Engaging in hermeneutics is absolutely essential for thinking and living well, but sometimes hermeneutic inquiry can invite a second-order existence that fails to find traction in what Wittgenstein might call the “rough ground” of a community’s shared hopes, beliefs, and rituals. This is not an either/or decision between engaged practice or detached theory, but simply a Kierkegaardian reminder not to forget about living while we think about how best to live. Phenomenology in a postmodern/post-secular context should propel us into our historical communities, not away from them. It should call us to critical engagement, not disregard and detachment.

In slightly less academic terms, sometimes we think so hard and deeply about love, that we entirely miss the opportunities to manifest that love in our living. It is like so deeply pondering the importance of service to one’s brothers and sisters that we altogether miss the homeless child in front of us asking over and over if we can spare a dollar.

By all means study. Indeed, our cognitive capacities – our gift for logic, rational thought, evidence-gathering, clarifying bias and so forth – are incredibly useful in figuring out why suffering happens and how to minimize that suffering, our own and everyone else’s.

But our study is sterile if it does not reach the moist potentiality of actually living in the world in which our living occurs. Its creativity and helpfulness is roots, blossoms and re-seeds itself in the messy and confused loveliness of our living as loving languaging beings, each of one of whom could be the other.

Tara Singh once pointed out that when Jesus said “I and the father are one” he spoke to his reality. When we say it, it’s just words. And he called on us to learn why it was just words so that we could learn how to live in a way that it was our actuality. Or, better yet, find our own actuality – our own experience of unity, oneness, love – and a corresponding language that expresses it without qualification or condition.

That is the work, and no other work is really satisfying. The work, so to speak, appears differently for each of us, but it is not different in any fundamental way. How shall we bring forth love? The answer is within us in the form of that which obstructs the free flow of love, and it is without us in the sense that the context of bringing forth appears in the other, or, in approximately ACIM terms, our brothers and sisters.

Earlier, I suggested that a religious experience was valuable to the extent that it undermined religion. That is, the map must take you so deeply into the territory that the map is no longer helpful. Religion must carry you so deeply into the self and the world that even religion is undone. Saint John of the Cross understood this intimately. He said that if we want to be sure of the road on which we walk, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. That’s not an argument for placing one’s faith in an external deity; it is a description of what it means to live in a holy way when one cannot ever know for certain, the deity or anything else.

Religion can be a useful helpful way to work out the terms of our living, which is to say, to learn and go on learning how to bring forth love in our living with others who could be our own self. But it is only effective to the very extent one sees the way in which it arises as a condition of the very problem (separation) it aims to solve. Thus, religion and related spiritual projects are not about what is actual, but about what is possible.

The Alternative to Defining God

The question of whether God exists as an object that can be defined and perceived by another object – i.e., a self apart from yet yearning to return to God – is not as helpful as it may seem. In effect, it reinforces the very confusion it purportedly aims to undo.

“Purportedly” works here because it allows for the possibility that we actually like what doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. Seeking can be a very effective way to avoid seeing what is already wholly given.

Being a student of A Course in Miracles means in part raising to question literally every single belief to which we cling.

To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning. No belief is neutral (T-24.in.2:1-3).

Nothing is excluded, including our ideas about God, wellness, holiness, wholeness, et cetera.

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now.

The upshot of all this questioning tends not to be answers as such but more a general recognition that there are no answers in terms the questioning self would recognize or accept. That is, eventually one realizes that the world and self as we understand and relate to them cannot satisfy that which longs to be satisfied.

There is no body, no object, no idea, no place, no practice and no activity that is going to bring and allow us to retain peace.

At that sterile juncture – that appearance of nothing – our lives can seem like an exercise in futility.

But “futility” is not precisely the word, for the surrender to which we refer owns a joyful quality. It arises less out of defeat and more out of a recognition that there is no battle being fought. We aren’t losing a war – we are realizing that we aren’t fighting a war in the first place.

What does a soldier do who suddenly realizes his life is not in danger? That she does not have to kill or hurt anyone?

One thing that happens is they can rest: they can draw a breath and let it settle. With respect to the question of defining God, one might discover that it is less pressing now that the incessant need to understand, explain and explain literally everything has abated.

This is not to suggest that inquiries into the nature of God (or Source or First Cause et cetera) are wrong or unhelpful. Rather, it is to note the way in which the inquiry both arises and is undertaken: is joy or peace conditional on the answer? Is being right or wrong at stake? Is there some conviction that this question is more important or valuable than, say, what to have for dinner?

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now. We want to become aware of our willingness to have the Truth obscured under the guise of seeking Truth.

When we see clearly the nature of our resistance and unwillingness, it naturally subsides, leaving in its place a quiet and self-sustaining happiness. This is “the condition in which God is remembered” (T-24.in.1:2).

The Sufficiency of Life

. . .  and am reminded that when we die nothing really happens: the whole loveliness of the world continues, the whole sufficiency of life – of us, together, one within the other – continues. Our subjective experience of life ends, yes, but nothing is contingent on our subjective experience – it is merely awareness in a particular form, and the particular is always folding back into the general, the ultimate, the absolute, forever subsumed in the whole . . .

Dust to dust, flowers into the earth (bluets leaving to reappear), waves into sea . . . there are little brooks I pass on my walk that eventually trickle into Bronson Brook, which in turn reaches the Westfield River, which in turn flows into the long blue ribbon of the Connecticut River, which in turn reaches Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, opening at last into the broad Atlantic Ocean . . .

No matter how we think of it, we cannot undo truth. Reason doesn’t change anything – it merely observes what is. Or rigorously observes what is. Death is built in – it is inherent. We know how to die, in the sense that we don’t have to teach our bodies what to do. They understand entropy perfectly! It is clear and natural, like rivers or flowers. Our cells are not lamenting endings or celebrating beginnings. It’s all just movement. It’s all just flowing.

We confuse our subjective awareness of the whole – of the flow – with the whole and with the flow – and this confusion is what A Course in Miracles calls “ego.” It is the idea that we are separate from each other in a real and substantive way, and that this separateness matters, matters deeply, so that what we are in truth – our self, our being – is thereby contingent on this separation, these apparent differences. And that’s okay – it’s one way to do it, one way to see it – but it’s not the only way. All A Course in Miracles is saying is that maybe there’s another way to look at it. That’s all. All a student of A Course in Miracles really does in the end is say yes, okay, I’ll give attention to this other way and see what happens. I don’t know what will happen but I am ready – with you I am ready – to find out.

Life is hardly so concerned with separation – with separate selves living separate lives, forging disparate meanings, clinging to ideas and ideals and so on and so forth. Life takes nothing personally – cancer, volcano eruptions, famine, pestilence. Life does not behold these events/objects differently than it does roses, orgasms, sunsets and chocolate. It’s all the same.

You can see it that way if you are willing. You don’t have to accept it – you can always go back – but still. You can see how simple life is, and how perfectly it takes care, how sustaining it is. It is not hard to do this at the level of the intellect. Attention reveals it to us: life is, and it is not contingent on us or our ideas. It contains them – enfolds them – effortlessly, perfectly. Our subjective experience is okay – life is not trying to wrestle it away from us – but it is merely what passes, not unlike the chickadee, not unlike the chickadee’s shadow on the snow as it flies into the pines. What passes is not the problem: but our attachment to what passes, which is a kind of resistance to flow, is a problem, simply because it hurts so much. Simply because it begets so much sorrow and grief. We can live that way if we want but really: seeing the truth of it, why would we?

Getting to this intellectually matters because then we can begin to bring it into application. The level of intellect is like a seed that the loam of experience turns into flowers. That is the function of reason! If we understand a truth is true, then even if it’s hard, even if it’s confusing, even if it is contrary to what we have long believed, then we will accept it. We will align with it. The fruit of this alignment may take time to emerge, but it will emerge. We are never truly in error. Once we perceive the whole, the fragments – the reflections – inevitably restore to awareness the grace of source.

I say it and I say it in order to remember it: you already know it. But you are kind to listen to me, whose wordiness is yet a step on the path-that-is-not-a-path to the home that is home because nobody ever left it. You are patient and kind: and my gratitude bounds forth on the grass accordingly.

Communication Breakdown

One way to think about the separation is that it is simply a failure of communication, a breakdown of the natural channels between the self and truth, or God. The truth is always true, and it is always extending itself, and yet we are not always aware of its extension, or of its unchanging nature. Reestablishing this awareness is what A Course in Miracles refers to as the atonement.

We are all joined in the Atonement here, and nothing else can unite us in this world. So will the world of separation slip away, and full communication be restored between the Father and the Son (T-14.V.5:1-2).

For convenience, we can think of the atonement as having two practical aspects.

First, we are giving attention to what we call the self, which is what A Course in Miracles calls the ego – that concatenation of goals, ideas, stories and memories that seems to process the world of the senses, organize it through thought, and direct all subsequent action accordingly.

To give attention to that self is to learn that it does not exist. It is a kind of self-replicating virus to which over the years we have learned to pay inordinate attention. The workbook lessons of A Course in Miracles are as good a spiritual practice as any other for undoing this self: which is simply to perceive its unreality and on the basis of that perception allow a new awareness – which is only the old awareness returning – to enter.

Atonement is another word for remembering the fullness of communication that is inherent in Creation. Truth is never absent and it is never not offering itself up. We are never separated from God.

The second aspect of an atonement practice is a commitment to serving our brothers and sisters. One of the clearest and most lovely aspects of A Course in Miracles is its insistence that we are united in our quest to remember God, and can really only remember God for each other. If we’re bent on a personal private experience of awakening, we’re going to be disappointed. But if we are set on loving one another in real and practical ways, then it will be given us to know the peace that surpasses understanding.

From everyone whom you accord release from guilt you will inevitably learn your innocence. The circle of Atonement has no end. And you will find ever-increasing confidence in your safe inclusion in the circle with everyone you bring within its safety and its perfect peace (T-14.V.7:5-7).

This is not a mysterious or mystical practice but a deeply practical one. When we are quietly attentive, and bent on undoing the false self, our capacity to hear others and to know what is needed, expands exponentially. In this light, service can run the gamut from starting a local soup kitchen to giving someone a hug to giving someone a spiritual and psychological space they only dimly know they need.

Service is not about us, but is rather a natural extension of our emerging willingness to no longer pretend that we are the center of Life. The form service assumes always responds to whatever form the need for it requires. We don’t judge in advance; we just give attention and allow energy to be directed as it wills.

Atonement is another word for remembering the fullness of communication that is inherent in Creation. Truth is never absent and it is never not offering itself up. We are never separated from God. Attention and service – in time and in specific forms – reestablish our presence in the reality we denied but never left. There is nothing to do but what lies before us. When we forget the self and its problems, the self and its problems are gone.

God Dwells In Us

Just a reminder: I have a small book about A Course in Miracles here if you are interested . . .

It is important to remember that the present moment is always sufficient unto our learning. Nothing needs to be added and nothing needs to be subtracted: we are always given all that we need to remember that God dwells in us as we dwell in God. That memory is the end of conflict and the beginning of the peace that surpasses understanding.

This memory is a gift, which means that we do not bring it to the table. It is given to us unconditionally. Our role is simply to be present and to accept it.

How do we do this in practice? We give attention to the present moment as it arises – no more and no less. If we are stuck in traffic on our way to the beach, then okay. God is with us if we will simply give attention to God. If we are trembling with joy beholding sun rise with our beloved, then okay. God is with us if we will simply give attention to God.

The external circumstances are not what matters: our attention to them is.

When we do this – when we make it our practice – we begin to see how attention moves quickly away from the sunset or the traffic jam and to something that is more abstract and always internal. It might be fear or happiness. It might be guilt or longing. We begin to perceive the inward condition from the which the external draws its force.

But that is not the end, either. For beyond the welter of feelings and ideas and beliefs and images there is yet a deeper and quieter stillness. If we choose to sift downward through the chaotic rumbling of thought, we will come to the slow peace of God that flows silently through all Life, inspiring us – filling us – and simultaneously drawing us back into its rhythmic and merciful pulse.

This is for us: this is us. And when we accept it, we do not accept it for ourselves alone but for all our brothers and sisters, whatever form – mineral, vegetable, animal – that they take. We are all in this together and when one of us remembers it, we all remember it. We are all lifted.

That is the knowledge inherent in the present moment: that is the certainty that rests in what is and asks only that we open ourselves to it, as it opens for us.

In a sense, these are just words, and words are never what we are after. But in another sense, you know what I am saying – some recollection, however dim, is sparked hereby – and so the words become a fragile step upon which we take one another’s hand and slip into the stream that is Life, that is God, that is outside words and to which all our being offers itself.

Alienation is not God’s Will

It is worth remembering that God’s will is not hidden, but that we have interposed our will before it, and thus are confused about what we are. A Course in Miracles is clear: alienation from awareness of God is not of God. It is simply the reflection of our decision to think apart from God.

God’s Will is your salvation. Would He not have given you the means to find it? If He wills you to have it, He must have made it possible and easy to obtain it (T-9.VII.1:1-3).

The confidence in those sentences is infectious, which it has to be because left to my own inclinations, I will make God into a stern taskmaster who not only hides God’s Will but also makes it conditional. Failure, not success, becomes the salient characteristic of the relationship. But A Course in Miracles insists that what God is is not up to me and – more than that – that my ideas about God are wrong.

When I am attentive to the course’s clarity in this regard, and when I allows its confidence a place in my mind, there is great joy and gentle peace.

Slow down, give attention, be grateful and love will extend itself through you, reminding you of what you are in truth.

The course’s insistence that God is here and that opportunities to remember God’s will abound hinges on the simple truth that our brothers and sisters are everywhere around us (T-9.VII.1:4-6). Even when we are physically alone, they are with us. You are my salvation, as I am  yours, and the realization of this truth is what saves us (M-1.1:2).

Accept your brother in this world and accept nothing else, for in him you will find your creations because he created them with you. You will never know that you are co-creator with God until you learn that your brother is co-creator with you (T-9.VI.7:8-9).

I write often about service. Service is a form of attention to our brothers and sisters, and all it sees is our mutual need to remember Christ. The form this attention takes in the world will vary – hugs, monetary donations, careful listening, leaving alone, baking cookies, building a house. The content never varies. It is always love respond to the call for love.

How do we know what form this love or attention should take? In a sense, we don’t. The ego can never know it, because the ego doesn’t do love, and it doesn’t hear any calls for love. This is why we need to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit, which does know, and will teach us, so long as we are humble and open.

The Holy Spirit – which is inherent in us – remembers God’s Will and will naturally extend it, so long as we can get out of its way.

With the grandeur of God in you, you have chosen to be little and to lament your littleness. Within the system that dictated this choice the lament is inevitable (T-9.VII.6:5-6).

The ego cannot help us out of this mess, because it made this mess, and needs this mess for its survival (T-9.VII.5:3).

We need, then, that sense of quiet and attentiveness in which the Holy Spirit comes gently forward to remind us of what we are in truth. In that reminder, we also remember God’s Will, which is love – but not love on the world’s terms, which is always premised on getting something, but rather love on Heaven’s terms, which is premised on eternally giving.

It’s okay that this sound confusing or idealistic or naive. If we are being honest, it cannot really sound otherwise. It is only when we make space for the Holy Spirit, that the clear and constructive wisdom of A Course in Miracles is revealed.

There is nothing complicated about awakening. It is unfamiliar at first, and even frightening, but it’s not complicated. It’s natural and sure because it has already happened. It already is. Slow down, give attention, be grateful and love will extend itself through you, reminding you of what you are in truth, and giving much-needed welcome to the lost and forsaken whose own salvational remembrance can only be lit by yours.

Transformed Perception is what Transforms the World

A Course in Miracles does not offer a way “out” of the world. There is no way “out.” Rather, the course transforms our mode of perception, sharpening the distinction between what is real and what is false, so that we can choose – moment by moment – to be united with God.

In that divine union, there is no world. There is no subject and object that is the necessary precedent to separation. It is relatively to easy to learn about this: through the course, through its teachers, through other non-dual paths and instructors. But it is another thing to experience it, to make it the fact of one’s life.

This was why Tara Singh insisted that the serious student of A Course in Miracles accept as premise that the time for learning had reached its end.

We must first begin to see that we know nothing other than ideas. We are probably not interested in going any further, nor do we even think that there is anything further. We just say, ‘well, I wish a miracle would happen.’ A person can have ten PhD’s, but what difference would that make. The lesson is still of relative knowledge and the main function of relative knowledge is to keep the separation intact (Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 210).

Taraji understood the wisdom inherent in Thoreau’s observation that “[n]atural ignorance has its place, but educated ignorance is a very dangerous thing.”

Discover that what is external is without effect and unreal and you discover the will of God within. There is no separation; there is the only idea of it.

Often, it is our yearning for escape – which so frequently translates into mere distraction – that impedes our natural ability to perceive the truth as
God created it.

I have to question – to look at, to inquire into – the problems that I believe shape my life. The people who are not doing what I think they should do, the economy that is not performing the way I want it to, the memories of past injustices and the anticipation of even greater wrongs ahead. A Course in Miracles is clear that “[q]uestioning illusions is the first step in undoing them” (T-3.III.2:6).

This looking or questioning is not in the nature of analysis anymore. There is a place for that but then one can move beyond it to something that is less wordy, less educated. I cannot just read about swimming in the brook, nor watch others swim in the brook. In the end, if I am serious about swimming in the brook, then I am going to have to wade in. In that action, something new happens that  learning can at best only hint at.

This is true of all experience whether we are talking about archery, baking bread, writing poetry or becoming a priest.

To focus on the external as the cause of my peace or lack thereof is nothing more than an evasion of my responsibility to be as God created me. This fact merits close and sustained attention. If it is true that “I am as God created me” (W-pI.162), then what else could possibly matter but coming to that knowledge now? What else could possibly heal the world and bring all conflict to its end?

Holy indeed is he who makes these words his own; arising with them in his  mind, recalling them throughout the day, at night bringing them with him as he goes to sleep. His dreams are happy and his rest secure, his safety certain and his body healed, because he sleeps and wakens with the truth before him always. He will save the world, because he gives the world hat he receives each time he practices the words of truth (W-pI.162.3:1-3).

Thus, when I sense that things are amiss in my life, I do not dwell on them but rather give attention to the mode of perception – of thought, of the movement of mind – out of which they arise. This is the real problem, and so there is no solution apart from it. Discover that what is external is without effect and unreal and you discover the will of God within. There is no separation; there is the only idea of it.

Secrets Hide the Gifts of God

I wonder if I am alone in choosing bluets as my teachers of A Course in Miracles?

I wait all year for the bluets, and when they come I sit by them the way one sits beside their teacher, and because I am willing to be taught, they teach me.

They teach me that it is time to look at – in order to let go of – my secrets.

Love wishes to be known, completely understood and shared. It has no secrets, nothing that it would keep apart and hide. It walks in sunlight, open-eyed and calm, in smiling welcome and in sincerity so simple and so obvious it cannot be misunderstood (T-20.VI.2:5-7).

Bluets have no secrets. They cherish no mystery. Bluets are always expressing the fullness of being, always giving everything away. These are not just words – poetic fancy, symbolic gestures. I mean this literally. If you go to the bluets – or a birch tree or a piece of quartz or a hill – they hide nothing from you. What they are is given to you, wholly and without condition. They don’t know anything else.

You might say to me, okay Sean. That’s fine as far as bluets go. But human beings are more complex. They are deeper and more vast than a flower or even a hill. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, biologically . . .

You can say that – of course you can say it. We all believe it at one time or another. But I will ask you to question it – to see the assumptions behind the opinion. The bluet simply gives – it bluets, if you will. Are we really saying that a human being is different? That it is possible somehow to be more than human? If we say that, aren’t we saying that we can somehow add on to what God created whole and wholly perfect?

When we bring our secrets to light, we begin to enter into relationship with love. That is what happens. It is not imperative to “solve” the problem of secrecy; it is imperative only to look clearly and without judgment at secrecy.

We already have everything, because we already are everything and all a secret can do is obscure that truth. All secrets do is impede the expression of love, which is what we are. So long as we insist on holding onto secrets – on cherishing mystery at any level – then we will not remember what we are in truth and we will suffer accordingly.

To be secretive is to be unloving because it is to clutch some part of the whole to oneself – to hide it, to hide even the fact that one has it. Secrecy always fragments! Secrecy is not about sharing but about refusing to share, however much we try to persuade ourselves otherwise.

When I look at it that way – when I see how miserly secrecy is, and what an impediment to clarity it is, then what about it would I want to keep? The bluets are right. They know better than I do that “God has no secrets” (T-22.I.3:10).

Am I ready to live that way? Am I ready to bring that order to my life? That simplicity?

To have a secret is to worship an idol. Secrets tease out some element of Creation and cherish it more than the remaining whole. To worship an idol is to believe that there is something better than God, which is also separate from God. When we project this belief onto something external – a person, a place, a thing, an idea, et cetera – then that object becomes the idol.

When we hide our idol worship – when we make our idol secret – we are turning our back on God. This is not just separation. It is separation with a vengeance.

The love of [idols] has made love meaningless. They live in secrecy, hating the sunlight and happy in the body’s darkness, where they can hide and keep their secrets hidden along with them (T-20.VI.3:5-6).

So we have to look at our secrets. We have to ask what we are hiding and who we are hiding it from. This is the hard work of A Course in Miracles and there is no getting around it. Nobody can do it for us. Our secrets are a blatant rejection of God. Who wants to look at that? Who wants to face it?

Yet the course is clear that there is reason for hope, that our work in this regard will not be unfruitful. Why? Because our willingness to look at our decision to be separate from God is the undoing of the ego. It is what restores to our mind the capacity to choose again, and to choose rightly, in favor of love. This reflects an openness that is the opposite of secrecy.

Love has no darkened temples where mysteries are kept obscure and hidden from the sun. It does not seek for power, but for relationships (T-20.VI.4:1-2).

When we bring our secrets to light, we begin to enter into relationship with love. That is what happens. It is not imperative to “solve” the problem of secrecy; it is imperative only to look clearly and without judgment at secrecy. We will be gently led beyond them.

Again, this is not just elegant wordiness – I mean it literally. To let go of secrets is to learn what  matters, and to give attention to it accordingly. There is no hardship in it, and no sacrifice. For what we hide is merely what separates us from the Love which we are, and from the relationship that would remind us of that fact.

The bluets remind us there is nothing to do, and that nobody else but us can do it. They express perfectly the Love inherent in Creation. We are given now the light that we – like the bluets, like the hills, like the stars, like life – may express only the Love of which we are eternally composed.

A Natural Serious Happiness

Often when I am tired there is some slipping, as if the the energy necessary to sustain my fear and guilt and anxiety – that mode of thinking A Course in Miracles calls the ego – cannot be borne, and so is set aside, and in its place appears a quiet awareness, a natural and serious happiness.

And so I sit by the window as the sun is eclipsed by the horizon, books scattered around me, and stare not at the poems and prose but rather outside to where laundry strung along the clothesline fills with fading sunlight and wind, the sleeves of our shirts reaching for the sky, while beneath them, in flailing shadows, chickadees and mourning doves scavenge for seeds.

Does the mind clear a little? Or soften? Something happens.

The ego is trying to teach you how to gain the whole world and lose your own soul. The Holy Spirit teaches that you cannot lose your soul and there is no gain in the world, for of itself it profits nothing (T-12.VI.1:1-2).

There is such a patient and reassuring loveliness in those clear simple sentences. We cannot lose our souls. Two thousand years we’ve been fighting to save them, enmeshed in a fierce battle with eternal stakes, lashed on by Cotton Mather’s stern prose and Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and it was all for naught. There was always another way.

A Course in Miracles comes along and says our spiritual warfare was an error. More, it was an illusion, altogether without effect. A wisp of cloud trailing off to nowhere. That which is does not set conditions. Therefore there are no consequences.

Can you imagine it? No consequences? If we believed it, we would instantly be at peace, our concepts of right and wrong not even a dim memory.

But we don’t believe it: we play at believing it. We say it – or write it – but it remains an idea, an ideal, a goal. We’ll get to it someday.

Mallow-colored contrails float through the deepening sky. Pine trees darken and mourning doves leave the shadowed limbs for day’s last meal. I think of Jesus faint with hunger in the desert, refusing the devil’s challenge to turn stones into loaves of bread, a way of saying he would not deviate, would only accept that which God offered.

When we say that’s what we want too, do we know what we are saying? Are we ready?

We are in the nature of love itself but in a state of forgetfulness, a self-induced trance, a misremembering of identity. We lose love in a moment of fear and then compound the error a thousand ways a thousand times. And all that is called for is a simple return to stillness – not even the return, really, but the willingness to return. How little would suffice to restore our minds to their natural grace.

And yet . . . Sometimes I forget even that much, gratefully charmed into dreary exile. A handful of violets in the shadow of wild rhubarb, vivid rainbows sparkling on garden quartz, chipmunks lecturing from the fallen gutter where they stow seed and hide from neighborhood cats . . .

Over and over I fall for the world – its images and narratives – and the self it reinforces by gathering all the loveliness in. I fall for it and my forgetfulness deepens.

Emily Dickinson warned me. Remember, she said, God’s table is

spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
the eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.

What God or Gods would ask you to struggle for spiritual sustenance? Would offer it up so sparingly, so meanly? What God would force us to beg for crumbs so near to – and yet so far from – the bounty of Heaven?

And yet – somehow – the robins find their sweet cherries, the eagles their chickens and hares. What would strangle one suffices to fill the other. Perhaps it is not so bad . . .

Two thousand years ago, Jesus said that even though two sparrows are sold for a penny – valued so cheaply by the world – “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

True enough, said Dickinson. But:

God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

What have we taught ourselves in our long separation? What hunger have we named our own? What Gods have we created to cast a blessing on such a dubious enterprise?

The same year (1861) that Dickinson was telling us it was time to rethink God, she also modeled what such rethinking might resemble. She pronounced herself “Inebriate of air,” drinking “a liquor never brewed,” a veritable”little Tippler/Leaning against the – sun,” astounding saints and angels with her casual proximity to Heaven, her confidence that she owned a place there, as we all do, without qualification or equivocation.

Indeed – still within that close sequence of poems (195, 207, 213 – 1999 Belknap Press Reading Edition) – musing on the open secrets of the skies passed to hills, from hills to orchards and from apple trees to daffodils, she told God he could keep those secrets because “it’s finer – not to know.”

She might have also said  that we already know and merely need to remember it. Certainly, she remembered it. Her poems and letters are a map that we might remember too.

A Course in Miracles says that our remembrance is not far off.

A little while and you will see me, for I am not hidden because you are hiding. I will awaken you as surely as I awakened myself, for I awoke for you . . . Trust in my help, for I did not walk alone, and I will walk with you as our Father walked with me (T-12. II.7:1-2, 5).

This is not the Christ of crucifixion and sorrow – whose fatherly God builds such exclusive tables – but rather the Christ with whom we share a mission to “escape from crucifixion, not from redemption” (T-12.II.7:4).

So I close the books; I turn from the north-facing window and walk to the south. A quarter moon, softened by a faint bower of mist, hangs a little above the treeline. For a moment you could convince yourself it was trying to decide: should I fall or should I stay?

It falls; its light fades. Mourning doves and chickadees retreat to hidden nests, the laundry is collected. Wordiness is a pale approximation of the Love I am bent on recollecting but for now it has to do. Dickinson knew. We are “trudging to Eden, looking backward,” she said. We are making do with crumbs, for now. We are seeing our hunger anew, going where it takes us.

A Stranger to Inner Peace

Part of seeing special hate relationships clearly is making contact with my impulse to be in competition with various brothers and sisters. My perception that I am locked in a struggle for survival, and that there are only a few winners, is why I am a stranger to inner peace.

Because God’s equal Sons have everything, they cannot compete. Yet if they perceive any of their brothers as anything other than their perfect equals, the idea of competition has entered their minds. Do not underestimate your need to be vigilant against this idea, because all your conflicts come from it (T-7.III.3:3-5).

What does it mean that we have everything, you and I, equally? Not at the level of cheap philosophy, not at the shallow level of feel-good spirituality, but in reality?

Earlier today I flipped through Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God (30).

I recognize this: the sentiment as well as the experience. It is why I am in the forest so often, so intimate with the wee hours, and rendering it all through the lens of wordiness. All that is truly the only church I know.

Yet the dogwood tree – or the wood ducks on the pond or the deer bounding away or the prismatic raindrops clinging to pine needles – are not in and of themselves God. Nor are they expressions of God.

They are reflections of inscape where one is either accepting or resisting God, that nameless and immeasurable isness that both infuses and contains perception.

This is why A Course in Miracles can say that “[T]o be in the Kingdom is merely to focus your full attention on it” (T-7.III.4:1).

This attention is not external – to blossoms, birds, dogs, trails. It is internal – to God or, when we are ready and willing, to our resistance to God. To look closely at one’s resistance to God is to remember God.

God has lit your mind Himself, and keeps your mind lit by His light because His light is what your mind is. This is totally beyond question, and when you question it you are answered (T-7.III.5:1-2).

Our perception of external beauty and holiness merely reflects the beginning of our identification with truth as God created it where God created it.

As this identification grows stronger and less fragmented and interrupted, our need for external reminders of God will diminish. There is no need to rush. Our exile becomes more and more lovely the nearer we get to its end.

It is not necessary to worry the metaphysical questions of what is real and what is illusion: that is what is given to us according to our readiness. What is necessary is simply to turn our attention in the direction of Love. No more is asked because no more could be asked.