A nontrivial aspect of A Course in Miracles is that as its students we are given a specific (and specialized) language. For example, “forgiveness” in A Course in Miracles means something different than when used in other settings. Use of this shared specific language allows us to be present to one another in ways that expand our shared experience of love. When we forgive, the healing is not linear but radial. It affects us all – self, other, community, world in healthy, wholesome ways.
To say this about forgiveness in the ACIM tradition is not to assert a special spiritual or mystical experience. The specialized language is intended to facilitate a natural experience of living lovingly from which we are presently estranged. The language undoes the estrangement so that we can function as the truly loving beings that we are. It’s aim is to be helpful, to deepen our collective nature rather than separate us into those who “get it” and those who don’t.
Sometimes there is a temptation – I speak from experience – to double down on the apparent complication and specialization. We want to be experts; we want to be the student who knows that the teacher means as opposed to students who are confused. This invariably begets behavior which – while arguably well-intentioned – basically adds to the chaos in our lives. A Course in Miracles has already complicating things by changing the definition of forgiveness; something in us wants to carry that complication forward in a new way – lay claim to the supernatural or indulge poorly formed expositions of metaphysics.
But this is not necessary and – again, I speak from experience – it can hinder the effectiveness of the course’s teaching. It turns out that understanding – comforting as it can be – is not necessary for healing to take place. Forgiveness neither begins nor ends in intellectual comprehension. It’s something else altogether – it’s a way of being in our bodies and the world that transcends the familiar ways that bodies and the world appear to us.
Forgiveness is natural. If we will defer to the Holy Spirit (another phrase the course wrestles from its traditional context), then we will experience forgiveness not as a personal accomplishment but as a gift which we receive and which automatically extends itself to the world.
What is forgiveness in A Course in Miracles
In A Course in Miracles, to “forgive” is to overlook a) the other’s identity as being irretrievably yoked to a body and b) the many errors that arise from that mis-identification.
How can the Holy Spirit bring His interpretation of the body as a means of communication into relationships whose only purpose is separation from reality? What forgiveness is enables Him to do so (T- 17.III.5:1-2).
It is important to understand that to see another as a body is to see oneself as a body, too. The mis-identification of self with body is always mutual. It is never that “I” am not a body but “you” are a body. It is that bodies appear as the special home of selves. Once that appearance happens, it happens for all bodies – our own and others, here and in the past and in the future. It’s all-or-nothing.
It is also important to understand that bodies, as such, are not the problem. The problem is the identification of self with body, as irretrievably contained in a body, and thus bound to endure the body’s fate of suffering, sacrifice and death. Forgiveness is not about the body at all but about healing the entrenched thought that self and body are entangled in an unsolvable, unredeemable knot.
Finally, as dedicated course students, it is is also important to set aside our expectations with respect to what it feels like to forgive and be forgiven, and how the world will appear when it is forgiven. Our expectations are premised on the very illusion (self = body) that forgiveness undoes, and so they subtly reinforce that illusion. We want ascended masters to bless us or light shows to dazzle us or endless ecstasy to eternally sate us.
Enchanting as all that may be, they are merely extreme descriptions of possible bodily experiences. We have to let them go, along with whatever other expectations we carry. We don’t have to reject or deny or amend our expectations – they are simply part of the body’s experience of the world. We just have to let them go, which is effectively to let them appear and disappear, reappear and disappear again. Treat expectation the way you treat needing to sneeze – they are both just aspects of bodily experience, neither good nor bad.
In essence, the suggestion is that forgiveness is not specific but general. It is not an action that “I” take towards “you” because of an action “you” took against “me.” It is not me saying I won’t be angry or vindictive because you stepped on my toe. Rather, it is a way of looking at the self that realizes it is not in a body. When that realization occurs, it naturally generalizes. If “I” am not a body, then “you” are not a body. And if “we” are not bodies then what our bodies do is neither good nor bad, worthy neither of praise nor condemnation.
On that view, stepping on my toe and, say, baking me a pie are equal. Certainly the body judges them – one causes pain and the other causes pleasure. And so just as certainly the body prefers one to the other in the form of judging what it perceives as the cause of its pain/pleasure. But the self does not judge those actions. It sees them as appearances in the domain of bodies, which is not the domain of the self.
If this appears difficult to do or nonsensical, then we are looking at it from the perspective of a body. This is not a crime! It is not an offense against God or nature. We aren’t bad ACIM students. We are simply experiencing the very problem that the course is given to correct. It’s good to notice this so that it can be corrected.
Let’s say that this description of forgiveness seems difficult or impossible. If you step on my toe or bake me a pie, those are obviously different actions. Obviously I am going to treat them differently!
The course is not challenging the underlying logic of this argument. It’s simply observing that where we place “I” in the equation, we should simply say “body.” That is, given a toe-stomp and a pie, “obviously the body is going to treat them differently.”
This is a subtle but nontrivial distinction upon which so much peace rests.
If you can notice that distinction, then you can notice that which notices the distinction. And if you notice “that which notices the distinction,” then you can also notice that it does not resist the distinction. You will notice that it welcomes attention and will cheerfully come forward at your call, taking over as much of your living as you are able to give it.
This “it” is the Holy Spirit, working in concert with Jesus, to reestablish your self in God.
The second objection you might pose is that forgiveness as the course describes it is nonsensical. It’s easy to talk about when it comes to a toe-stomp. How abut war? How about holocausts?
Again, those arguments are very persuasive to bodies. A toe-stomp does not threaten its existence, only its comfort. War and holocausts actually threaten a body’s very existence – either because the war-makers want to kill the body dead or because the body has to be put on the line to stop the war-makers. From a body’s perspective, it is perfectly logical to take war and holocausts with utmost seriousness.
But here’s the thing. Either the self is the body or it’s not. If it’s not, then the apparent gravity of what appears to the body doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. This is where the radical nature of ACIM forgiveness shows itself. A holocaust and a toe-stomp are the same problem – mis-identification of self with body. And just like the with toe-stomp, if we can notice the distinction between body and self, then we can notice the one in us who distinguishes.
And from there it’s a short hop to realizing the Holy Spirit and Jesus are guiding us home to God.
People often raise ethical concerns at this juncture. They say, “hey Sean – if you really believe all of this, are you going to let somebody shoot your child? Are you going to stand by while government officials put kids in cages? Are you okay with Nazis?”
I understand the attractiveness of these questions. Indeed, because of their abstract nature, they are quite effective at obscuring the distinction between self and body. Ethical dilemmas have two answers; the one we select depends on where we are in the process of reestablishing our identity in God.
First, to the extent that we believe the self and the body are yoked (and we all do believe it to one degree or another), then we follow the Golden Rule (T-1.III.6:4). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a sensible and effective rule to guide our behavioral choices.
The Golden Rule doesn’t solve all our problems, or all the world’s problems, but it does allow us to not get bogged down in unsolvable ethical and metaphysical conundrums.
However, as we relinquish more and more of our living to the Holy Spirit and Jesus, we will find that what appears does not appear so much as a problem to be solved but more like a lost child in need of comfort. And the Holy Spirit and Jesus always know how to comfort that lost child. You don’t need the Golden Rule when the Holy Spirit and Jesus are deciding for you.
. . . the Holy Spirit teaches you that truth was created by God, and your decision cannot change it. As you begin to realize the quiet power of the Holy Spirit’s Voice, and Its perfect consistency, it must dawn on your mind that you are trying to undo a decision that was irrevocably made for you. That is why I suggested before that you remind yourself to allow the Holy Spirit to decide for God for you (T-6.V.B.6:3-5).
There is no situation you can encounter – from the most mild of toe-stomps to the most horrific of war crimes – that will baffle or intimidate or otherwise stymie the Holy Spirit and Jesus. As their creation, you will always know what to do.
Forgiveness is a practice, the same way that meditation or contemplative prayer is a practice. We have to do it. In the very bodies in the very worlds that constitute our living, we have to practice forgiveness. If we are serious about being students of A Course in Miracles, then that is our homework. Read the text, do the lesson, then get up and go about our day practicing forgiveness.
Forgiveness in the course teaches it is unfamiliar, which is why we have to come back to it over and over. We have to turn to those teachers who help us understand in practical ways what the course is saying about forgiveness. We have to persevere through doubt and frustration and other setbacks. We have to throw up our hands and quit and then begin again.
What perhaps saves us a little is that forgiveness in the ACIM mode feels good. It actually does. It is a basically loving act; when we don’t insist that others are bodies – which is to look past what bodies are doing – then a feeling of peace rests on us, however briefly. And it is impossible not to notice that it does not rest on us alone.
This sense of peace and contentment is like sugar from the Holy Spirit and Jesus, a little reward to keep us going. Our goal is not a personal experience of inner peace and divine love, but a shared one that transcends the boundaries imposed by self, other and world. But to get there, we start small.
We begin by seeking the still small voice within that knows. It is the opposite of the tumultuous braggart – alternately charming and vicious, childish and persuasive – that tends to dominate our living. That voice – in ACIM parlance, the ego – does not know anything and compensates with volume, drama and excess. At our behest – which is simply the seeking itself – the voice of the Holy Spirit will gently open and expand our mind so that it is unified and clear and untroubled by that which appears before it.
Forgiveness asks no more than this, and from this humble beginning, bestows on us the certainty of the Holy Spirit, the peace of Christ and the unconditional love of God.