When I first read A Course In Miracles, I felt I had come home after a long and meandering trip. Here at last was a spirituality that was both mystical and intellectual. It was as if I had found the perfect blend of St. Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Aquinas. I could slip at will into the cloud of unknowing and come out like a herald calling other lost ones home.
Well, that was the door in anyway. And, for quite a while, it was the long hallway, too. I followed it diligently, striving always to be sincere and humble. I knew, even if I was not quite sure how to articulate it, that I had stumbled upon my practice. Had I been more aware, I might have taken that inability to say precisely what was happening as a sign that I was perhaps not quite ready to sound any trumpets, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Instead, each morning I read the text and one daily lesson with a pen in hand, making small checks next to key passages. Then, on the inside flap, I would write the number of each page on which I had made a check. That way I could come back to each critical section, the better to memorize and absorb it for later restatement.
It wasn’t long though before I realized that there were simply too many key passages. So I abandoned the process of checking in favor of underlining. That felt good! This was a favored technique of my many long years in education – undergraduate degree in English, a law degree, a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. If a sentence beheld even a hint of wisdom, any jewel or nugget without which one would miss the whole, then you underlined it. That bold gesture memorialized the words and – though I would have denied this at the time – made me feel pretty special. This was what serious students did. They underlined.
And so I went at it the way you do when nothing less than the head of the class will do. Pretty soon, the text was awash with purple and blue and black ink, the lines running right to left like chalk marks on a football field. It got so that half of every page was underlined. Then two thirds. Then the task wasn’t deciding what to underline, but what not to underline.
Then I stopped and asked myself what I was doing.
For me, hardest of all the Course lessons is perhaps this: it is about undoing, not doing. It is not about acquiring new ideas or sprucing up old ones. It is not about gaining some masterful understanding of obscure spiritual principles and laws. It is not about improving ourselves so that friends and family can say, Boy, Sean really is a lot wiser than he was last Saturday . . .
Rather, it is about removing the obstacles to love, which the Course assures us is our natural inheritance.
I realized that my practice had been almost exclusively intellectual. This was understandable given my educational background and my professional callings. After all, I am a writer and a teacher. The point is to understand so that we might better communicate and share that understanding with our students and fellow writers.
But my aggressive and highly detailed approach to the Course – as if it were a text to be deciphered, translated and then re-composed – was pretty clearly an obstacle to its application. I certainly had a lot of new ideas. I found myself talking a lot more about the Course and other spiritual paths. I was delighted with how articulate I was, how far-ranging my theology had become.
But – and this is where the true gift of the Course becomes evident – I had to admit that I was no closer to God. No meaningful practice of forgiveness or lovingkindness was evolving in my life. I was the same old well-intentioned blowhard I had always been – talking the walk while making a big show of studying the maps.
And so I did what all devoted Course students must do from time to time. I renewed my commitment to the Course. I put the pen down and simply read. I tried to apply the lessons in a new way. When my brain wanted to analyze and create pithy Course-related quotes that I could sell to other students, I tried to shrug it off. What was going on in each lesson? What was I supposed to learn? I wanted that to be the bellwether. I wanted to hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not the ego.
Because it was so hard – and because I seemed to be making precious little progress – I asked the Holy Spirit to help me. If it wasn’t too much trouble, could he lead me to a place of quiet and stillness? Maybe shed a little insight? Give me a sign that I wasn’t still walking in circles with my eyes closed?
I felt silly doing this – how mundane a prayer it was! – but I did it anyway.
And one morning, a funny thing happened. I was sitting by the stove while the water boiled for tea and I happened to glance up. The kitchen was empty so far as my physical eyes could see, but another pair of eyes clearly beheld Jesus sitting on the floor, head on his knees, arms wrapped around himself, quietly sobbing.
I had no idea how to respond to that vision. It scared me, in part because I knew that I had somehow created it, or called it into being. I felt like somebody else had taken hold of my imagination and made something to which I could not put my name.
If it had been possible to leave that picture of Jesus behind, I would have. But it stayed with me. I held it carefully, the way one might hold a cup of steaming tea lest it spill on uncovered fingers. I didn’t want to get hurt. As I sat each morning in what continued to feel like half-assed efforts at prayer and meditation, I began to imagine myself trying to comfort Jesus. Maybe that would get rid of the image. I tried to picture myself crossing the kitchen floor, sitting beside him, perhaps putting an arm over his shoulders.
“There, there,” I would say.
It was a nice idea, but I could never get more than halfway across the floor. Fear stopped me cold. And there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery as to why. I was afraid that when I offered consolation, Jesus would look up at and his eyes would be filled with accusation. Tears of sorrow and grief, yes, but also unstinting blame. It was a look that would say, You did this to me.
And I knew perfectly well what would follow from that. God was out there somewhere, close nearby, thinking, You’re going to pay. I’m going to make you pay for this.
Even now I hate writing that! Hate seeing the words, hate the sad story they represent. It is difficult to express how much disappointment and anguish that series of visions caused me. I did not want to accept that I lived in fear of Jesus and God. As an idea, it was abhorrent to me. It could not be mine – it had to belong to somebody else. Somebody who was weak, uneducated, uninformed, unsophisticated, living in denial . . .
And yet the truth could not – would not – be denied. That was me – that was where I stood in relation to God and to Jesus.
There was nothing left to do then but begin right there, in full recognition of the fact that I was estranged from God and Jesus, and that I believed that any reconciliation meant only death – my death. Despite decades of prayer and church and meditation and devoted reading – and I assure you I considered myself quite the expert in this field – I had nothing to show for it but fear and hesitancy and self-deceit.
And you know what? That can make for a pretty good start.
This is what means to undo: to come to the realization that all we have taught ourselves and all that the world has taught us is nothing but an illusion. It is useless to us. It cannot bring us closer to God or our brothers and sisters. It cannot foster the Happy Dream that precedes our union with Heaven. The journey to love – the ascent to Grace, the ending of the separation – begins with letting go of all that we have accumulated. The mental baggage must be abandoned, left by the side of the road, so that we might go on increasingly unencumbered.
Ahead, in the distance, a familiar light burns. It is my hope to arrive with empty hands held open to the one has missed me for so long, whose yearning for our union is so strong that its absence can lead to nothing but tears.