Spiritual Poverty and the Mystery of Subjectivity

The wind blows where it will,
and thou hearest its sound
but dost not know where it comes from
or where it goes.
~ John 3:8

Yet the utterly subjective nature of our experience as human observers must be entered as into a mystery, its apparent infinities and eternities robustly explored. The interior is all there is, and yet it cannot be all there is, for one can never reach its end and thus say, “there is nothing beyond this.”

Barred from conclusion – from perfect knowledge, from the end of inquiry – we are given instead to wandering, forever hungry and thirsty, without even the comfort of divine guidance or instruction. There is only this: this this, and it is not enough.

window sill above the kitchen sink . . .

Our experience as human observers is forever bounded by – and bonded to – this mystery. It is as if we are forever entering the temple where the Beloved waits on her dais, and when we reach out to her she disappears, leaving only a note and a map leading us to the next temple. On and on we go, never quite vanishing into our desire, and never quite satiating it either.

Shall we worship then our going? The apparent cycle of discovering-only-to-lose-in-order-to-begin-yet-again?

We can, if we want. But it does not satisfy, not in the final sense. Worship never does; idols never do. That, too, is the mystery – this innate sense that we are called to fall to our knees and yet once on them perceive only the One who would never ask us to kneel.

The old Christians called this conundrum, this mystery, our “poverty of spirit,” being in the mode of Jesus who called on his followers to be “poor in spirit” and to “take up their cross.” If we interpret this in terms of our bodily existence, it devolves quickly into negotiating cultural mores. “I’ll recycle more and grow my own tomatoes,” “I’ll watch less television and read more books,” et cetera.

There is nothing wrong with executing our living according to terms and conditions which resonate for us according to circumstance, preference, et cetera. But this is a giving of meaning to our living that is secondary to the interior journey we undertake, the radical (as in rooted, not extreme) exploration of the subjectivity that underlies our living. How deeply can you go into yourself and what do you find there?

We are talking here about a movement – a journey, a dance, a descent-and-ascension – from which our teachers and lovers and allies are naturally excluded. The texts that point out the next step cannot actually take the next step. We go empty-handed, without provision. We go without a plan for going back. It is like Jesus said, the one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the reign of God. Harsh words but true and thus – in the end – kind.

We have to let go of platitudes about the interior, the easily memorized sentences and lines handed down by our idols and fellow worshipers. Bumper stickers are for tourists. We are not visitors who will go home to boast about our vacation. We are migrants, mendicants, apostles, beggars. The grace that inheres in our traveling cannot be possessed, recounted, valorized, or sold. It does not extend itself in the form of personal accomplishment.

To “bring forth Love,” which is what it means to be fully human, is to go into this mystery – this whole-that-is-not-whole, this God-forever-just-out-of-reach – without any image of what will happen next, without any plan for response, without any investment in investment in outcome. Those “withouts” are our poverty and only thus desiccated do we become a prism unto the One so that Her pure love might radiate through us in vivid scintillation. Truly we go into the darkness without lantern or fire in order to discover that we are the light and the darkness was but a dream.

Johannes Baptist Metz once wrote that “A human being is the ecstatic appearance of Being, and becoming fully human is an ever growing appropriation of this ecstasis of Being.”

Ever-growing means not ending. You see? There is no home. There is no one. No lover, no God, no shelter. No high table, no secret altar. There is only this, which can only be encountered in spiritual poverty – that is, in the utter open-hearted and empty-handed nature of Being meeting being meeting Being.

The Experience of Inner Peace

“There is no answer; only an experience” (C-In.4:4).

That lovely line – all of seven words – is found in the introduction to the Clarification of Terms in A Course in Miracles. Its simplicity underscores an important tenet of the course: it is a deeply practical curriculum that aims at an experience of inner peace that is not contingent on intellectual understanding. Words only get us so far.

flowers-foundationSaint Paul pointed this out a long time ago in his letter to the Philippians (4:6-7).

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This passage was in Helen Schucman’s mind when she was writing A Course in Miracles. We find it early in Chapter Two.

If you are afraid, you are valuing wrongly. Your understanding will then inevitably value wrongly, and by endowing all thoughts with equal power will inevitably destroy peace. That is why the Bible speaks of “the peace of God which passeth understanding.” This peace is totally incapable of being shaken by errors of any kind. It denies the ability of anything not of God to affect you (T-2.II.1:7-11).

And then again in Chapter Thirteen.

The peace of God passeth your understanding only in the past. Yet here it is, and you can understand it now (T-13.VII.8:1-2).

A Course in Miracles is clear: this peace is a gift already given, yet its presence and effects are obscured by fear. This is why we need a course; this is why we need a teacher.

So if we look again at the first sentence from the Clarification of Terms, what do we see?

In context, that sentence is a gentle but specific rebuke to our attempts to reduce the course to a matter of theological or philosophical debate and speculation. The egoic mind likes to take sides. It likes to ask questions that cannot be answered. Told that our separation from God is impossible and illusory it asks: Just how did what is impossible happen? To whom or what did it happen? And so forth.

Those questions – and questions like them that dog our study of the course – cannot really be answered. They have no answer. Asking them – which is to invest int hem – is only a form of delay and resistance. The course urges us to let those questions go and turn instead towards experience. It reminds us that its only concern is “Atonement, or the correction of perception” and that “[t]he means of the Atonement is forgiveness” (C-In.1:2, 3).

A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary. It is this experience towards which the course is directed (C-In.2:5-6).

The point is not that understanding what the course teaches is irrelevant or unhelpful. It is a question of context. For example, forgiveness in course parlance means overlooking error, not confirming its existence by negotiating an agreement to overlook it (e.g. T-2.III.4:1). It is helpful for us to understand this.

The fruits of A Course in Miracles are inner peace – a deep and abiding interior peace that transcends the intellect because it is a gift from God made real in our capacity to give it away.

But if we stay at that level of understanding – if we get very skilled at using words to talk and write about it only – then we are going to miss the actual lived experience of forgiveness. We are going to miss what it is like to actually not perceive error in another, and we are going to miss those moments when others see us absent our errors.

That is a mystifying and glorious and transforming experience! Logic and study can lead us to the door of it, but cannot by themselves create or otherwise substitute for it.

We have to actually forgive, and we have to actually allow ourselves to be forgiven, all as A Course in Miracles envisions.

Perhaps it is like riding a horse. A good teacher will talk to you about horses – how to be safe around them, how to communicate with them, how to be sensitive while on them and so forth. But that lesson is not very helpful if you do not sooner or later mount the horse and ride.

We want to be sensitive to this. The course was written and edited by academics and intellectuals. It is easy to slip into and set up camp in that mode. But that mode exists specifically to facilitate the direct experience of inner peace, and it is to this aspect of practice that we are called to turn. If we neglect it, it’s like ordering a hot fudge sundae and getting only an empty bowl. We need the bowl – but we really really want the ice cream.

It is often easier to study the course, and talk about the course, and have peak experiences of joy and camaraderie with other students of the course, then it is to simply turn our attention to the day-to-day experience of being. Just being in all its up-and-downness, all its this-and-thatness. But it is there – in mortgage payments, breakfast dishes, meetings at work, parenting at home, funerals and baptisms, headlines and sitcoms, sex and romance, vacation and coming home from vacation and so forth – that the course finally and fully becomes us.

Day to day – moment to moment – where is our practice? How is it functioning?

The answer to the latter question – how our practice of A Course in Miracles is functioning – can be answered simply: are we experiencing peace or are we experiencing an absence of peace?

The fruits of A Course in Miracles are inner peace – a deep and abiding interior peace that transcends the intellect because it is a gift from God made real in our capacity to give it away.

It is okay if we are not feeling peace. It’s not a crisis. That is why we have been given such a clear and direct course with such a present and effective teacher. If we are not feeling peace, then we simply give attention to the experience of not knowing peace. We simply look into it, without rushing to solve it or understand it. This is what it means to turn something over to the Holy Spirit: to hold it in awareness in a quiet, gentle and nonjudgmental way.

What happens when we are attentive this way to what is happening in our lives?

To be in the Kingdom is merely to focus your full attention on it . . . Reality is yours because you are reality (T-7.III.4:1, 3).

trail-openingThe peace of God dawns. Slowly perhaps, but ray by ray – in the structure of time to the embodied self that persists in belief – peace comes, and passes through us, and what remains is not a body or a self but peace itself. What remains is the gift, perennially giving itself to itself.

Thus, our intellectual study of the course – rigorous, thorough, and devoted – finds its fullness in application. It finds its fullness when we commit whole-heartedly to make it the cornerstone of this apparent human experience. Over and over we look closely at what happens and arises – the good moments, the bad moment, and the many moments in between – and wait patiently on God’s gift to clarify and reveal itself.

Rest in the Holy Spirit, and allow His gentle dreams to take the place of those you dreamed in terror and fear of death. He brings forgiving dreams, in which the choice is not who is the murderer and who shall be the victim. In the dreams He brings there is no murder and there is no death (T-27.VII.14:3-5).

It is not necessary that we understand how this will happen. Its happening is not contingent on understanding. Rather, it is contingent on willingness. The best our thinking can do is demonstrate the need for an alternative to it. Perceiving the need, we begin to give attention that it might be met. We give attention that peace might reach us from beyond the limits of understanding, and it does. It does.

The Gift of Undivided Love

attention is the gift of undivided love,
effortlessly giving as it was given

attention yields discernment
which is to see clearly
what is
and on that basis
to separate the true from the false

discernment yields detachment –
detachment from outcomes and goals,
from having and not having –
detachment from the false –

detachment in turn
yields right action
which has as its essence
order and compassion
which are only possible
when one relinquishes
fear of reprisal
and hope of reward

consider the front yard maple –
in summer it accepts all the light
the moon offers,
and in winter all the snow
that will settle on its limbs

it asks for nothing,
takes only what is given,
and clings to nothing which passes

in this way
the truth reveals itself,
reestablishing as whole
what so long believed it was broken

Loving in a Loveless Place

Fail not in your function of loving in a loveless place (T-14.IV.4:10).

This is a powerful sentence from A Course in Miracles, neatly summarizing the curriculum’s emphasis on the miracle as a shift from fear towards love, and our ongoing responsibility to bring forth love with our brothers and sisters.

We think we know what to do – what grace is, how it is given, to whom it belongs, where it is received, the best way for us to respond to it, engage with it.

Yet our emptiness and grief – in a word, our suffering – is ongoing, like a great tide against which we forever struggle in fear that we will be swept away. Our insistence that we know – what love is, what God is, what we are, what truth is – is precisely what threatens us. Our pretense unto knowledge is the emptiness that forever intimates our destruction. “We” cannot push back on this intimation because “we” are “it.”

The self that we imagine is real – and that knows what is what and what to do – is the very source of our suffering. In this sense, Heaven can be understood as no longer mistaking a confused idea for the truth. We don’t know. Accept this simple fact and joy and inner peace abound.

Before you make any decisions for yourself, remember that you have decided against your function in Heaven, and then consider carefully whether you want to make decisions here. Your function here is only to decide against deciding what you want, in recognition that you do not know (T-14.IV.5:1-2).

Walking in forests and fields, alongside rivers and up and down mountains, reflecting on my study of A Course in Miracles, I learned that Life goes on without my intervention or participation and that this is okay. It is more than okay. I did not create life; God created life. But I did make ideas about life, and then fall in love with those ideas, and give them all my attention.

But life is not what we think it is, even as it contains – or, better, holds loosely – our ideas about it. God is indifferent to our confusion, because what we actually are cannot be confused. Indeed, if we could accept this – that God does not agree that we are suffering – then our suffering would dissolve on the spot.

Decide that God is right and you are wrong about yourself. He created you out of Himself, but still within Him. He knows what you are. Remember there is no second to Him (T-14.IV.4:5-8).

If we remember that God is Life (e.g., T-14.IX.4:5), then the full passage quoted above need not be mysterious or complicated. Life surrounds us – holds us within it not as separate beings but as life itself – and in that understanding, we see at last there is nothing to do or learn, and that even consequences are illusory. Tara Singh  spoke of this insight as the grace that lends itself to our fruitful practice of A Course in Miracles.

There are no consequences – hence, in reality, no reaction. What an astonishing discovery: truth unfolds like a flower within the mind emptied of itself! The duality of punishment and reward, on which society is based, begins to crumble before your very eyes. Even the vanity of the loveless “I know and you don’t” slowly starts to fall away. A new vitality, the inner conviction of your own reality emerges – a clarity that begins to dispel thousands of years of misbelief (Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 12).

Thus, to “love in a loveless place” means only to recognize and remember that we who were given Love in Creation have forgotten Love and so must be taught to remember it. We must receive it again: we must yield to Creation which is forever and always offering itself to us.

And all this means is to give attention to what is appearing at this very moment. It is to be intentionally aware of life in this moment which excludes nothing and neither sets nor accepts any conditions. In this moment, everything is perfect – even our resistance to perfection is perfect.

When we decide not to decide we have made the choice that restores to our awareness the reality of God’s love. And then, by virtue of that love, the “loveless place” is transformed to Heaven.

Attention is a Form of Acceptance

Attention is a kind of questioning, but not questioning as the brain and the egoic self understand it. The egoic self wants answers that do not exist and so cannot be found because its maxim is seek but do not find (e.g. T-12.IV.4:1-5). But attention is content to let what is be. It no longer projects its wants and uncertainties. Attention is a form of acceptance in which need itself ends and so seeking, too, ends.

But attention is not exclusive. This is a condition of its capacity to heal through undoing: nothing is left out. Nothing is forbidden. Whatever arises belongs. Whatever arises is welcome.

Attention includes even itself – that is, it gives attention to attention and to the gift of attention. Has it been made conditional – offered only to those people, places and things that the ego deems favorable? Has it excluded what causes pain and discomfort and fear? So long as it is conditional or exclusive it is not attention, but projection – another attempt, however veiled or nuanced, to make an ideal self against which the world stands in ruinous opposition. You and I are not that.

When we are attentive, we are merciful: unto that which we perceive, which is our brothers and sisters, and so by extension unto ourselves. Mercy is the willingness to offer love and succor in the face of grief, injustice and conflict. The merciful love because they know that love is all, and this knowledge is not of the brain. It is not subject to change. It is not intellectual. Language does not make it – rather, it consents to be temporarily contained by words in the interest of a greater and more fullsome release for all.

You who perceive yourself as weak and frail, with futile hopes and devastated dreams, born but to die, to weep and suffer pain, hear this: All power is given unto you in earth and Heaven. There is nothing that you cannot do. You play the game of death, of being helpless, pitifully tied to dissolution in a world which shows no mercy to you. Yet when you accord it mercy, will its mercy shine on you (W-pI. 191.9:1-4).

Do not hide from what appears before you: do not reject what appears before you: do not even judge what appears before you. Analysis is not our task any more: love is. And since we do not know what love is, then we must become willing learners: and the salient quality of all devoted students is their attentiveness. Only that!

Life offers itself to us that we might offer it to our brothers and sisters, to chickadees and bears, seascapes and landscapes, to starlight and space. It is given that we might give it – that is its law, that is what ensures Creation. Through attention we learn what is already done because it is always being done. This is the end of learning: this is the beginning of joy.