Reading A Course in Miracles: The Altar of God

When Helen Schucman was scribing and Bill Thetford was transcribing A Course in Miracles, this section was much larger and included a pretty extensive examination of psychological defenses in relation to salvation – regression, detachment, flight etc. Yet, even after considerable editing, it remains a potent reading, though perhaps less because of its study of defenses. In this section, we get particularly graphic language about the body and what it can – and cannot – do.

What it can’t do, of course, is enable us to experience the atonement. Atonement in physical terms is patently impossible (T-2.III.1:4). If we stop and reflect on that for a moment, its capacity for undoing will be apparent. Whatever we are talking about when we talk about the atonement, it cannot be measured in terms of space or matter. Our bodies, in other words, are not going to participate in the atonement. It’s beyond them – beyond their limited mode of perception. That’s a real slap in the face to those of us who like a slice of apple pie, enjoy the comforts and joys of sex, appreciate a good bike ride or walk, love snuggling with dogs, etc.

That line alone can take lifetimes to appreciate or accept. But the Author takes it a step further, in a reference that I find especially pleasing. Grand temples and churches and zendos – and I’ve logged a lot of hours in these buildings, some of them quite famous – don’t represent the glory of God, they represent a fear of God. Their emphasis on physical beauty reflect a complete fear of the altar – that is, of God’s Love. We’d rather build churches – or show up at them on Sunday – then actually approach God, then actually experience Divine Love.

So much for organized religion of all stripes!

And then this language – which I think gets to the very heart of the Course’s belief system.

The real beauty of the temple cannot be seen with the physical eye. Spiritual sight, on the other hand, cannot see the structure at all because it is perfect vision. It can, however, see the altar with perfect clarity (T-2.III.1:10-12).

Note the absence of equivocation. The physical eye can’t occasionally see the real beauty of the temple – i.e., the altar. Spiritual sight doesn’t see the structure and discard it. They simply don’t belong to the same level. Thus the importance of choosing – and maintaining our choice – for salvation. Seek God above all else! Remember the admonition earlier from The Atonement as Defense: “The atonement is a total commitment” (T-2.II.7:1). Although it can take us a long time to get this – lifetimes and perhaps many of them – it is important to see how seriously the Course takes this call to commit to waking up. It cannot be made half-heartedly. We cannot retain a little of the world.

It’s funny because when I read the Course the first few times, this stuff tended to go right past me. I’m sure I read and thought, “sure, that’s cool. Only the spiritual eye can see the temple. Right on.” I made a metaphor out of it, or simply passed it off as New Age fluff. But the closer I get to the Course and to its Author, the more I realize that it means exactly what it says. And that’s disconcerting, largely because it exposes the gap between our present state and the one to which we are called.

Of course, we aren’t supposed to get all worked up about this. The Course isn’t a whip with which to berate ourselves for falling short of this or that spiritual standard. In part, recognizing the distance between our present experience and the joyful abstraction the Course says is our true home leads to pain and discomfort. While not pleasant in and of themselves, these feeling are instructive of the need to change – to find a new teacher, a new belief system. This desire to find another way (the very impulse that joined Schucman and Thetford in the first place) is what awakens our spiritual vision (T-2.III.3:7-8).

Until we are attuned to this new way of seeing – which, remember, takes no notice of the world as we understand it through the sense of the physical body – we are apt to waste ourselves on vain and futile efforts at comfort. Indeed, the text says that we’re apt to employ “inappropriate means” (T-2.III.5:2). Again, in the earlier versions of the text, a great deal of emphasis was placed on understanding sex which Jesus said miracle workers had to understand. The desire to love others physically was always an attempt to relate to our brothers and sisters through the external. While the form of the error didn’t matter, the content mattered a great deal. In other words, there’s no point in feeling guilty over using sex to feel a special sense of closeness, but it was imperative to realize that the closeness we feel – or believe we feel – is not the union with God that we’re after.

Even though that material has been removed (from both the HLC and Foundation for Inner Peace editions), this section retains the important reminder that the real means to achieve spiritual vision and make sustained contact with God’s Love are already available. (T-2.III.5:3). We don’t need to turn to means that are physical. The real means – available for the asking – require absolutely nothing from us. That is, from the us we think we are. There are no lessons to be learned and no hoops to jump through. When we are ready to experience God, we will experience God. There is nothing else to experience – the rest of it is merely the static we place between ourselves and the Divine. This is a hopeful idea, even if we are not ready yet to give up on the static altogether.

Finally, there is one sentence in this section that – somewhat out of context – can be quite confusing. Children of God need to “learn to look upon the world as a means of healing the separation (T-2.III.5:12). When I read that, I often stop short. Wait, I think. If the world isn’t real, then how it can help me heal the separation? Shouldn’t I be resisting it? Or ignoring it? Or something like that?

Well, no.

In some ways, this sentence presages the section to come when we begin to learn how to undo error. Briefly, we are about to read that we can only undo error on the level at which it occurs. In other words, if we’re confused here at the physical level, then it’s right here that we need to correct the error. Indeed, this is one of the principles of miracles.

By recognizing spirit, miracles adjust the levels of perception and show them in proper alignment. This places spirit at the center, where it can communicate directly (T-1.I.30:1-2).

This unreal world – with its lovely Emily Dickinson poems, it’s delectable bacon and potato soup, it’s crisp New England forests, it’s blessed emails from friends and strangers – is both the raw material and the classroom in which we work out the terms of our salvation. Forgiving it – bringing the miracle to it – is what’s going to make the Atonement real for us, step by tiny step.

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