Good Deeds vs. Forgiveness

A few days ago I spent an hour or so reading the New Testament. I was especially struck by the similes of salt and light. As always, reading and reflecting on apostolic callings prompted me to look more closely at my desire to live in community and to hew to a high moral standard and a disciplined spiritual practice. Something rises up in when I look for Jesus and listen for his voice. What is it?

Of course there is nothing inherent in monastic life or intentional communities that ensures “high moral standards” or a “disciplined spiritual practice.” But that has never swayed my yearning. The Catholic Worker, new Monasticism, agape communities . . . even the Shakers captivate my imagination.

I went back and looked at the Sermon on the Mount. I have heard a lot of preaching on that scripture and I have done a lot of reading! And in general I have always understood it to be a code for right behavior – good deeds. Indeed, Jesus explicitly says this in the text.

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

A Course in Miracles is less clear about this. The sequence of lessons in which the reference to the similes of salt and light appear does not talk about our function in terms of activity undertaken in the world. Our function is to practice forgiveness. This is the only function God has given us. And when we do it, we’ll know we’re doing it right by the measure of our happiness.

That is not language that resonates with the part of me that remembers traditional Christianity. It is something different. It points in another direction – not outward, where men and women take stock of my Christian behavior, but inward, where I remember God in silence and prayer.

Let me make two observations here. First, there is a long Christian tradition – particularly in writers and theologians prone to the contemplative life and model – of an interior experience of God. I know that and I am not trying to argue against it. I am speaking more of my personal religious experience.

Second, while ACIM does not explicitly advocate this or that behavior, it is not right to say that it is silent on the subject. Especially in the earlier, less-edited versions of the text, there is a clear understanding that to practice forgiveness is, in some way, to be active in the world.

Again, I’m not out to deny that. It seems to me that this activity – this being an active worker for Christ – is an outflowing of our acceptance of the atonement. We forgive and can thus undertake authentic action that will be truly helpful. But so long as the ego and not the Holy Spirit is our guide, that action is not possible.

I am working out what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the ACIM tradition. And one thing that is clear to me is that even considering an institutional model in this regard is to stray dangerously close to focusing on the exterior at the expense of the interior.

I remember a conversation in a study group once. I was pretty new to the Course at the time and only listened as one student argued that you had to “leave the world” in order to really practice the Course. My recollection is that his position met with general agreement. I didn’t mind that, though it was not clear how that all fit in with a wife and three kids (and a horse and dogs and teaching responsibilities et cetera) that I loved dearly.

Yet the longer I practice, the more I realize that what is going on outside is little more than a forgiveness opportunity – because it’s really just a projection, a reflection of the ideas and thoughts swirling within me. To become invested in any of it – literally, any of it – is to turn from the only source where real peace and joy can be found.

I was excited when I read that we shouldn’t hide our light under a basket. At long last I was ready to take my rightful place as the wise elder of the Course community! But I think that misses the evolution of thought from the New Testament to A Course in Miracles. What we do in the world – for work, for play, for love, whatever – is merely a reflection of what is happening inside. We have to turn inward and we have to do it with courage, regularity and a calm certainty that it will yield fruit. To the very extent that we expect a result in our exterior circumstances, to that extent are we depriving ourselves of real joy and real peace. This is a difficult lesson to learn and an even harder one to bring into application. But there is no alternative. I believe that. We are in whole hog or we aren’t in at all.

It’s not that there can’t be meaningful or helpful Course communities. There can be. There are. But it does mean that their usefulness is a reflection of what is happening inside us. Someone wrote to me recently to say that they weren’t reading me anymore because my ideas were interfering with their own thinking. I get that – I fully support that. I do it myself. But I also pointed out that we see in others – be it love or conflict in their myriad forms – is only there because we put it there. There’s no escape until we get down to the source, which is in our minds.

I remain committed to Jesus. I remain committed to waking up. And I remain committed to being a witness to whatever path this is. It gets harder to define the further I go, even as the path itself seems to become clearer and easier to walk. Words don’t work the way they way they once did. I leave them for what they are – little lights with no basket to hide them that perhaps serve to keep others moving, to keep looking at the interior landscape which is where salvation is and has always been.

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