A Course in Miracles Lesson 2

I have given everything I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] all the meaning that it has for me.

A Course in Miracles Daily Lesson Two is an extension of Lesson One. The first teaches us that nothing we perceive means anything; this, the second, allows that while what we perceive might appear to have meaning, that apparent meaning is simply what we gave it.

You might think of this lesson as a response to an objection posed to the first lesson: that dog (or friend or book or painting) sure does seem to mean something. That is, it’s one thing to say a window or a pencil is meaningless. It’s another altogether to say that of a beloved pet or person.

Okay, okay, allows the course. There’s meaning but it’s not inherent. It’s what you project. You put it there; not God.

Thus, this lesson introduces us to the critical ACIM idea that projection makes perception (T-21.In.1:1). We look inside, determine what kind of world we want, and then project that world outside. In that sense, we truly are authors – albeit confused and ineffective ones.

As the lessons progress, we begin to redefine this authorship. We expand our capacity to accept God’s vision in place of our skewed and crazy own. But at this early juncture in the process, the course is simply asking us to consider that the “meaning” we see anywhere is our own doing. We don’t have to fix it or judge it. We don’t have to stop doing it. We just have to recognize it.

I think this lesson allows us to think creatively about two principles that will become increasingly important over the course of our study of A Course in Miracles.

First, it allows us to give attention to the fact that the world that we bring forth is simply “a” world – one that is particular to us and to our structure, but not true in any absolute sense.

Reflect on this for a moment. Imagine sitting in a field. Your dog is beside you. Butterflies float over the goldenrod. In the back of your mind you’re worried about ticks. They love fields like this.

The field that you perceive – and the world that contains it – is emphatically not the field or world that your dog perceives. Your dog sees, hears and smells and thus brings forth an altogether different space. It’s mostly gray; it’s way more aromatic than yours. It’s unaware of ticks. Or butterflies. It doesn’t even have a word for tick. Or butterfly.

And the butterflies bring forth yet another world – one that is differently colored than yours; with more and varied surfaces. And the ticks bring forth a different world too – one that is dark and soundless and comprised of basically a single odor – butyric acid. Blood doesn’t even have a taste to them.

It’s tempting to say that the various animals are just perceiving variations on your world – which is the real world. Of course it’s a field; of course those are butterflies. But it is far more accurate to say that you and those animals bring forth different worlds altogether, and that other animals and beings – sunflowers, earthworms, crickets and streams – bring forth radically different worlds, some of which don’t even contain humans. Do you really think a neutrino is aware of people?

Given this, the ground for arguing that our world is the world – or even an approximation of the world – is thin indeed.

Indeed, even to use language like “in this room, [on this street, from this window, in this place]” (W-pI.2), admits to the underlying chauvinism. No tick would say that. Nor would any dog. Nor would a spider from Mars.

The body’s senses and intelligence bring something forth – “a” world – but it’s relatively to see that this is a far cry from reality or truth. It’s more like a dream that fits the character (who is also a dream, by the way).

How sure are you there is a world – let alone one that means anything?

If you let it, if you give it the space and attention, Lesson Two – in conjunction with Lesson One – will provoke a full-on existential crisis for you.

The second aspect of this lesson that bears reflection is asking where the meaning we give comes from? Who or what gave it to us? We say our dog is special, and that we’d die to protect our daughter, and that car’s political bumper sticker is offensive, and the weather sucks, and . . .

On and on we go, right? How does that happen? How do simple perceptions end up being so significant? If that butterfly is just a pattern of colors in awareness, why does it have a name? Why do I love its yellow so? Why did Emily Dickinson put it in a poem?

That is to say, how do we end up being capable of projecting in the first place? What are we exactly that we should be capable of doing this? What purpose does it serve?

This lesson does not sketch an answer (though taken together the Text and Workbook do more than just sketch an answer), but I’d like to offer some thoughts. Projection is basically misapplied creation. That is, we have the ability to bring forth (extend) creative and life-giving love and – because we are confused about what we are – instead bring forth a sterile and twisted form of love, which might better be called guilt and fear. Or hate even.

Thus, the meaning we give reflects a poor and dysfunctional imitation of the meaning God gives, which extends through us by including us as God’s meaning. If you love your spouse dearly, you are not called on to reject that love or judge yourself a spiritual failure for experiencing it.

Rather, you are invited to see it as a dim and poor beginning on an infinitely vaster love that will exclude no body and no thing, a love that will encompass you by teaching you that it is you.

Thus, don’t get hung up on the meaning you’re putting on the world. Don’t even get hung up on the world. Let it be. Notice it being what and how and the way it is, and notice your noticing. As always, it is our showing up in a willing posture – ready to learn, ready to be taught – that matters.

Finally, Lesson Two of A Course in Miracles is an invitation to take responsibility for our perception. This is hard! We might not mind being responsible for moonlight glistening on new-fallen snow. Or chickadees preening in lilac bushes. But suffering children in war-torn Syria? Homeless folks freezing to death?

That’s a lot harder. I’d rather not face that.

A Course in Miracles recognizes our reluctance in this regard. The lesson acknowledges that we will be tempted to discriminate (to welcome the snowy field but look away from the homeless man) but specifically asks us to “not concentrate on anything in particular and do not attempt to include everything you see in a given area” (W-pI.2.1:6).

Don’t be stressed. Do what you can. You aren’t doing it alone.

Whatever we encounter today – apparently good and apparently bad – is meaningless but for the meaning that we give it. With the first lesson, our inclination is to keep our special loves at bay – we exclude our kids or spouses, say, from meaninglessness. With this lesson, our inclination is to do the opposite. We don’t want to be responsible for what’s ugly, broken, cruel, dysfunctional, et cetera. We want to exclude that material.

And over and over – here and in the text – the course reminds us that the external only looks different. In fact, it’s all the same. The apparent competing values and the range of preferences are not the point. The abiding equality – the sameness – is.

All Lesson Two asks is that we take notice of what’s going on. We aren’t supposed to explain anything, fix anything, or render judgment for or against anything. We don’t even have to understand anything. We simply have to allow for the possibility that all meaning – all meaning – is of our own making. Undoing is the work of future lessons.

For now we notice. And we take heart. We always take heart. We are not going anywhere but home, and we are not going alone but together, which is our home.

← Lesson 1
Lesson 3 →

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A Course in Miracles Lesson 1

Nothing I see in this room (on this street, from this window, in this place) means anything.

Although it is not possible to make a mistake, it is also possible to make a more or less helpful beginning, and so the first lesson of A Course in Miracles deserves our attention. We can choose to see ACIM Lesson one in this way, and we can see what happens when we do.

You and I have the structure of meaning-making beings. We communicate through language and order our experience in ways that we find helpful. This is a house, this is a dog, this is a walking trail . . .

As we name our world, we take possession of it. It is not just a house but my house. It is not a dog, but my dog, or my neighbor’s dog. It is a good walking trail that I walked as a child with my father as we hunted . . . And so forth.

It is helpful to see the way in which this meaning-making happens. It arises on its own, as a function of our structure, and most of the time we are not even aware of it. As you give attention to the sentences I write, you are probably not reflecting on the history of furniture-making even though that is informing your present experience just as this sentence is.

This is the space in which ACIM daily lesson 1 meets us: as meaning-making beings who are largely unaware of meaning-making. We take it for granted; we don’t question either the process or the result. Of course that’s a house and of course it is my house. Intention, choice, decision, alternative . . . none of that enters.

And A Course in Miracles comes along and says that none of what we see means anything.

I want to point out two aspects of that teaching that strike me as radical and necessary, and thus helpful (and thus loving).

First is the lesson’s broad applicability (a function of its specificity).

Second is its unqualified insistence not that we are getting meaning wrong but rather that there is no meaning to be gotten. Right and wrong don’t enter into it.

The first aspect is a bit easier to take, at least initially. The lesson invites us to exclude nothing from its application – thus, a bedpost is as useful for teaching purposes as our spouse is. Or our child.

But if we are being honest, that is a dramatic and possibly even offensive statement. Is the course really and truly implying that our beloved is tantamount to a piece of furniture?

Actually, the course isn’t saying that. In this lesson, it’s simply saying that we can’t exclude anything from our experience of meaning-making. Whatever we notice is utterly equal in terms of its meaninglessness. It’s not that our spouse is as insignificant as a scratched up bed post; it’s that neither spouse nor bed post has any meaning in the first place.

Value judgments rest on meaning. “Spouse” means something that “bed post” does not; thus we value it differently. Given meaning, that value judgment makes sense. But the course is asking us here to look into meaning itself, not the judgments that arise from them.

Thus, we include everything that appears, without exception.

As I pointed out, our difficulty with applying the lesson to everything we see rests on our belief that somethings are more valuable than others, which in turn rests on the meaning we give them. Most of us can conceive of a shift in meaning: with respect to spouses, divorce rates attest to this! But meaninglessness is another leap, one that we actively resist.

Thus, A Course in Miracles is not inviting or preparing us to simply shift the meanings we’ve assigned to our various perceptions. We’re not swapping out “good” for “bad.” Rather, the course is brushing them all aside; they have no meaning. Not a single of them has any meaning.

And for beings whose living is predicated on meaning that is . . . disconcerting at best. For most of us it’s a full-on existential crisis.

That is why I think a lot of us go too quickly with this lesson. A lot of us overlook its subtle but utterly unconditional dressing down of how we live. If everything is meaningless . . . what then? How do we live? What are we to do? We don’t want to consider that possibility, much less find out what it actually feels like in our day-to-day living. It’s easier to intellectualize it. Or only apply it to things we don’t care about, like spiders and bed posts and fallen leaves.

Lifetimes pass in such fear-based study, in such half-hearted measures.

Each lesson of A Course in Miracles has the potential to undo the entirety of our belief system and reveal the love that is our actual inheritance and essence. Depending on our willingness and vigilance, any one lesson can show us the face of God which – with all due respect to the authors of Exodus – is life, is how we live.

But of course, I am getting ahead of myself here, and we are getting ahead of our learning if we try to do more with a single lesson than what appears to us in a given moment.

My suggestion is to consider and practice the first lesson of A Course in Miracles as a radical beginning. It addresses the very heart of our living, the very core of our belief system, and it does so in an unconditional and non-dramatic way, as befits the course.

The opportunity in this lesson is to begin to apply forgiveness in specific ways. The text is given to big ideas – forgiveness, oneness with God, the undoing of separation. But the lessons are given to specificity. They meet us where we are.

Our calling as students of A Course in Miracles is to forgive. We practice forgiveness in specific and meaningful ways. We have to do this – it is literally how the world appears to us. It is not especially difficult to say the whole world is an illusion; that’s just an opinion. But to say that our beloved cat or spouse is an illusion? That’s exponentially harder because it brings us closer to the problem: our propensity to to make meaning and then invest in it.

So lesson one – again, without making a big deal about it – is actually training us for that deep-rooted experience of forgiveness. We’re going to take a big abstract idea – illusion, say – and we’re going to apply to the specific details of our lives, even those that we’d very much prefer to exclude.

Don’t freak out about that! Noticing what we want to exclude from our practice is a gift. It’s a clue pointing out our special relationships, whether they’re with pets, people, objects or ideologies. And those relationships are special forgiveness opportunities. In them lies our apparent separation from God and so in them is our unity with God. The problem and the solution go hand in hand.

The course is always pointing in the direction of healing, even when the experience is unsettling or unclear.

ACIM Lesson one is not taxing in terms of application. A minute at the beginning of the day; a minute at the end. As our experience of being students deepens, it can be brought into application throughout the day. It is a bedrock of A Course in Miracles – this world brought forth by our perception does not mean anything. It is a dream, an illusion drafted by a fragmented mind that cannot bear its proximity and likeness to God.

We don’t have to get this lesson all at once. Indeed, for most of us, we can’t. Rather, we take it as far as we can. We give attention to as much of the darkness as we can bear. Our little willingness is what matters. We just have to heft the lamp a little – the light will do the rest. Lesson one is the beginning of the end of fear.

Lesson 2→

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Resistance and A Course in Miracles

What do we do when we find ourselves resisting A Course in Miracles? Maybe refusing to do the lessons or not paying attention when we read the text? Coming to situations that call for forgiveness and brushing them off. I’ll get to it next week . . . What is this resistance?

All resistance is ego-based. Faced with its undoing – which is really the translation of hate into love – it puts up a fight. And it uses any means necessary. It lies, cajoles, rages and schemes. Whatever works. It counsels that our head cold is justification for not practicing forgiveness. It reminds us that reading and study haven’t worked very well so far. And if it can’t rip us at the personal level, then it points to war and famine. See? It’s futile.

Resistance works for the ego primarily because it engages us with the ego. We resist the resistance, in other words. We try to double down and study harder, forgive more lovingly. We cancel the subscription to the newspaper, read only the New Testament and Joel Goldsmith. We not only read the ACIM text, we start underlining key passages. See how serious we are? How committed to spiritual growth and wellness? But it backfires. It doesn’t work because when we resist the ego – when we fight the ego – we acknowledge the ego’s power. By fighting it, we make it real.

We can never be at peace so long as we are fighting. We have to give up the conflict altogether. But how do we do that?

When resistance arises, just let it be. There is a great line in Rules for Decision where Jesus counsels us not to fight ourselves (T-30.I.1:7). Sage advice. We cannot “win” against attack with another attack.

So we step back from the egoic activity. We practice awareness of our resistance. It’s no big deal. In fact, when we stand away from it and just see it, its power to influence us will diminish tremendously. Awareness is a powerful healing tool. When we don’t buy into the ego’s thought system of hate and guilt and resistance, then we automatically weaken it.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

One last thought. Forgiveness is the means by which we make the atonement real. It is the way to Heaven. But it is not – contrary to everything the ego would teach us – an action. Consider what Jesus says in the introduction to the forgiveness lessons in Part II of the Workbook.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is still, and quietly does nothing. If offends no aspect of reality, nor seeks to twist it to appearances it likes. It merely looks, and waits, and judges not (W-pII.1.4:1-3).

Resistance is undone by awareness. And awareness is simply observing what is – be it a problem in the world or a problem in our mind – without judgment. When we do that, we recall – however faintly – our oneness with God. And then peace and love are not just possible but inevitable.

Reading A Course in Miracles Introduction

Yesterday I took A Course in Miracles to work with me. I had a dozen meetings with students lined up which means – adjusting for the absent-mindedness of college students – that I was going to have five or six meetings with students and a lot of free time. I found myself reading the Introduction mainly. I tend to gloss over intros because I’m in a hurry to get to what really matters, yet I think – in this case at least – that’s a mistake.

I remember the first time that I felt as if I understood the Intro. My son was trying to fall asleep and I was reading ACIM in a rocker beside his bed. Now, for me, reading the text of A Course in Miracles often goes like this: I read a few paragraphs and then I stop and say, “okay Jesus. What did I just read?” I’m a smart guy, but it’s fascinating how much of the Course just rolls right over my head. If it wasn’t for that inner teacher . . .

Yet at the same time, it is an incredibly simple Course. Basically, it’s saying the same thing over and over with slight variations: Only God is real, everything else is a dream.

And that day – asking Jesus to help me better appreciate those introductory sentences – I saw that the Introduction was really the Course in miniature, especially these cornerstone lines:

Nothing real can be threatened.

Nothing unreal exists.

For a long time I read that without grasping it. It felt like a fortune cookie saying – deliberately obtuse sentences masquerading as wisdom. But more and more I realize that the secret to reading A Course in Miracles is to take it at face value. It means just what it says.

If I perceive that something can be threatened, then it’s not real. That evening, I tried to think of something that couldn’t be threatened – and it was hard. My body? No, that feels threatened all the time. My son’s body? Nope, I worry about my kids’ safety and health every day. Okay, what about the book I’m holding? No, fire would threaten it. I kept going and I kept coming up with blanks: everything I could see in the world was capable of destruction or decay. And the course was saying to me: okay, then all that’s not real.

And yet . . . nothing unreal exists. This is the same statement somewhat tweaked. It reaffirms the first line but clarifies it. It is saying, but don’t worry that nothing real can be threatened because nothing unreal exists. That worry you feel? That fear? That sense of lack? It’s all founded on illusion and is thus an illusion itself. Let it go!

Truly, if we can accept that, then we will experience the peace of God.

And yet, as I have been writing lately, our intellectual understanding of the course does not always translate to its application. Accepting the world of our bodily experience as an illusion is a pretty high hill. How are we supposed to deal with that?

Well, I take it step by step – one act of forgiveness at a time. And the thing is – that’s enough. Our willingness to accept the course even though it’s confusing and seemingly complicated – and the willingness to forgive the world one chunk at a time – is all that’s needed. There is a true peace in that process, and there is a growing faith that our forgiveness is not in vain but is lighting the way to Heaven.

A Course In Miracles: How Simple The Solution

I think it is natural that at some point in their practice, most students of A Course in Miracles have to step back and ask themselves what they’re doing. You read the text, you work through all the lessons in the workbook, you throw in a couple dozen books by both well-known and less well-known Course teachers and . . . you’re still having an experience of separation from God. Have we screwed up? Are we forsaken by Jesus? What gives?

The course frequently reminds us that it is easy (see, for example, T-23.III.4:1). Yet clearly this is a conditional statement. It may indeed be easy but something in us – call it resistance – seems infinitely capable of complicating it and keep separation alive and well. This may be especially noticeable when our knowledge of the course is quite extensive and our motivation sincere.

We burnish our reputation as healed people – noteworthy ACIM students – in the world, while not experiencing the end of the separation. It is as if we substitute the world’s standards for God’s. I think a lot of us have that experience. We’re the most knowledgeable member of the study group. People turn to us with questions. We must be awakened. But being admired in the world and being one with God are two different – indeed, irreconcilable – things.

Lessons 79 and 80 seem pertinent. The former is “Let me recognize the problem so it can be solved.” The problem, of course, is separation. One lesson later – lesson 80 – we are asked to learn that “my problems have been solved.” Where the problem is, there the solution will be as well. Indeed, the clear implication is that once we realize that our only problem is our perceived separation from God, then the problem is gone.

Yet what are we to do when it clearly is not gone? That is, all our knowing and our good intentions have not enabled us to recognize the separation – obviously this is so because we are still living a separation-influenced life. We are holding on to something. Despite our apparent progress – and I am happy to testify that there can be much progress shy of awakening – we are still “not there.”

I think this is a fructive state, one that we should not be in a hurry to get through. Recognizing that after so much hard work and study we are still in the ego’s grasp can be very enlightening. For one thing, it can help us to reconsider the value of our own efforts. The implication is that they may not be particularly essential. As the course says,

Put yourself not in charge . . . for you cannot distinguish between advance and retreat. Some of your greatest advances you have judged as failures, and some of your deepest retreats you have evaluated as success (T-18.V.1:5-6).

There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to that – what’s up is down, what’s down is up – that is usefully cautionary. It is not our job to evaluate salvation or the methods used to attain it because we cannot. Thus, progress in the world – the self-congratulatory pride after being especially humble and gentle and knowledgeable at a study group – may well be failure. We don’t know.

Letting go of the power of judgment is very hard. But it appears not to be negotiable.

The other thing that lessons 79 and 80 can do for us is point to a beginning, or a need for a new beginning. Gary Renard points out (in The Disappearance of the Universe, I think) that the last words of the epilogue to the workbook are very frustrating: “This course is a beginning, not an end.” We are apt to forget that. We pass through this big text and all these lessons only to learn that all that we’ve done is inch up to the starting line. Finishing it is not an accomplishment, except in the dubious way of the world.

Leaving the Catholic Church

I was writing this morning – reflecting on the evolution of my relationship with Jesus – and it occurred to me that I had never formally written about my decision to leave the Catholic church. In truth, leaving the Catholic church can seem painful and challenging – not to mention spiritually dangerous and impractical – but for me, it led to a rich revitalization of my spiritual life. I do not think I am alone in this.

Let me say first that if you’re a happy Catholic, at relative peace with its practices and traditions, then I’m happy for you. I have many friends and family members whose identity as Catholics is inspiring to others and relieving and succoring to them. This isn’t a post about shaking anybody’s cage who doesn’t want it shook.

That said, if you feel some distance between you and the church – if your perception of your Catholic faith is that it is insufficiently narrow – if it seems to place obstructions between you and your desire to know and by known by Jesus and by extension God – then I am here to tell you that making a positive change is possible. It may not be easy, but if it is the right transition for you, then you will not be asked to go it alone. You will not be asked to deal with your family or your old faith community without help. You’ll be lifted when – and to the precise degree – that lifting is needed. It’s going to be okay.

Catholic Hypocrisy

My break with the Catholic church came when the Massachusetts bishops so publicly and vociferously opposed gay marriage. It was clear to me that the loving union of two men or two women posed no threat to anyone, and that opposition to those potential unions was in fact causing pain and heartache to many people that I loved and cared about. It hurt my brothers and sisters.

It was also painfully – and sadly – striking that it was this issue that caused the men who led the church to rise up and make demands of the faithful. We weren’t castigated for cultivating riches while at best throwing sops to the poor. There was a ridiculous silence about the injustice of the death penalty. There was only a minimal and strained and intellectually deficient attempt to justify the church’s institutional misogyny.

And this was before the sexual abuse scandals came fully to light.

I had been able to make adjustments to all of this – largely by focusing on the men and women who shared the pews with me. If the church leaders were morally and spiritually bankrupt – and I believed (and still believe) that many of them were – there was always some brother or sister beside me who was authentically and dynamically making Christ real in the world.

But the gay marriage thing was – to coin a phrase – the straw that broke the camel’s back. I remember the priest reading a letter from the bishop aloud from the altar, calling on us to oppose gay marriage as a matter of Catholic doctrine. I took my daughter’s hand and together we stood up and walked out of the church. I have only been back for funerals.

This was the physical separation – the physical break. And in some respects, it was the easier break. Awkward in the moment, to be sure, but there was a rightness to it. I am glad still that I provided my child with that example.

Jesus Knocks . . .

The harder break or separation is the one that is more mental or mindful – a blend of spirituality, psychology, and intellect. It is somewhat simple to walk out of a church. Leaving Catholicism – in the deeper sense – is a more complex and subtle process.

That break takes time and, in fact, is never really accomplished. It is more in the nature of a process, an evolution in which we come closer and closer to God by looking closer and closer at the belief systems that underlay our faith. It is my experience that as those systems are gently undone, our lives begin to resemble the spiritual ideal at which those systems meant to aim. In a way that is probably confusing and even offensive to some people, I feel that I am a better “Catholic” today than I was ten years ago.

On some level, I began leaving the church when I was only a child. I experienced a significant and painful loss when I was nine and there was no way to reconcile it with the kind and loving God my parents and other adults assured me was always in attendance. The disconnect – if not yet subject to articulation – was profound and, importantly, it didn’t go anywhere for decades.

The gap widened when as a teen-ager I began to actively question the whole idea of God. How can a loving God allow for starvation of Ethiopian children? How can he allow Jews to be herded into rail cars for slaughter? If sex before marriage is wrong, then why make it a desirable option?

I began to see God as akin to a poor engineer – you know, creating a speed limit of 65 and allowing cars to be built that went 100. If he was there – in the way I was being taught – then he was either inept or in possession of a strange sense of humor indeed.

It’s not that the Catholic church can’t answer those questions – and in some cases answer them quite effectively – but that by asking them I was inviting – or embarking on – a personal relationship with God that was independent of institutional theology or influence. Because one thing was clear in those days: no matter how much I questioned, no matter how stubbornly I resisted, God – someway, somehow – remained present and open to debate. He never left.

I learned then that God longs for us and that Jesus has nothing we do not have. The mind with which we know these Truths is the mind with which God created them as true. Nothing is that isn’t God.

By the time I was in my early twenties – and a devoted Catholic, largely under the dual tutelage of Thomas Merton (and the Christian mystics who had preceded him) and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker – it was clear that I was no longer trying to understand and appreciate God through the lens of the Catholic church but rather trying to adapt the church’s teachings to my personal living experience of Christ.

That is an important distinction and bears repeating, in part because it is the opposite of what Catholicism intends. The church was no longer the mediator of God for me. Heaven was attainable with or without it. Indeed, the notion that a human institution with such a complex and at times troubling history could act as such a mediator was hard to take seriously. I liked the church – I enjoyed the social aspects, I loved (and still love) its contemplative wing, I believed some formal structure was at least helpful if not necessary to practice faith – but I was no longer bound to it.

Let me add that my life at this time was full of kind and intelligent priests (and some nuns), men (and women) who recognized my genuine desire to know God and wanted to help me any way possible. Often, that took the form of shedding their clerical identity and meeting me as a fellow human being struggling with the burden of having fallen and seeking now to regain divine favor. I am grateful for the honesty, integrity and experience of those men and women, and I honor their choice (in most but not all cases) to remain committed to the Catholic church.

But those relationships only strengthened my conviction that we cannot truly know God in a church or through a ritual but only through the rigorous honesty of our experience.

I recalled that Jesus said knock and the door shall be opened. He was unequivocal. He did not say that only doors to the church or temple or rectory would be opened. He did not say that only the penitent or religious would see the door opened.

If the church was helpful, great. If not . . . well, it clearly didn’t rule out a relationship with Jesus.

Catholic Guilt and (Yes) Love

Gradually, my experience of being Catholic became one of quiet resignation. I was what many pejoratively call a cafeteria Catholic. I ignored what didn’t work, took what did and tried to make peace with the resultant division. I don’t think it was clear to me at the time, but I felt that compromise was the only way to retain a relationship with Jesus, and through him with God.

But of course that was a lie, and we cannot live a lie, even if it takes a long long time to see that, and perhaps longer still to act on it.

How did I see the lie and reconcile it with truth?

To answer that, I have to talk a bit about what is abstract and not easily considered in concrete terms: love and guilt.

There is a great emphasis in Catholic theology on our fallen nature. We are sinners and our sin is detestable. There is hope, though. Jesus atoned for those sins through his crucifixion and our acceptance of him activates a grace that is redemptive. That grace is not automatic, however. It requires our active participation. It can be lost. And the stakes are quite high. It is not a religion for the faint of heart!

This is the source of what many people refer to as Catholic guilt. I consider that charge unfair. So far as I can tell, guilt is a human condition regardless of what church or culture we hail from. We humans seem composed, in part, of an ontological guilt that necessitates a spiritual absolution. Catholics hardly have the market cornered on guilt, though I do not dispute its problematical nature in that tradition.

When I look back and ask why it took so long to finally leave the church (I was in my late thirties), there is only one answer, and it is awkward and uncomfortable.

I did not leave because I felt guilty and scared.

The Catholic church had presented itself and its methodology as the Way, the Truth and the Light all my life. Period. Although I was encouraged to be respectful of other religious traditions, it was understood that ours was the One. To be outside its unique fold was to be forsaken – not unloved, necessarily, but deprived of the opportunity to activate my salvation through a sacramental participation in Christ.

If you tell yourself repeatedly the bridge is going to collapse beneath your feet as soon as you step on it – and when everyone around you affirms that belief – then it is quite natural that you will fear the bridge’s demise and avoid putting it to the test.

But what you have been taught is not the bridge and they do not make the bridge. They only make your thoughts about crossing it. The bridge is its own reality.

Does that make sense? I never felt a sadness at leaving the church, the way I feel sadness when people or pets that I love die. I felt only a cold fear that I had turned my back on the one thing that could save my poor and rotten soul. That I knew better – both intellectually and experientially – was put severely to the test in those days.

What made taking those first steps possible – and remember, we are talking now about abstract steps not the actual physical removal of oneself from a church – was love. Love and a story.

When my father was a young teen-ager he was sent to a seminary in Pennsylvania to become a priest. My father is a smart and thoughtful man devoted to living his life in harmony with Jesus Christ and the Catholic church. But he was not meant to be a priest. And he knew this. Several months into his studies, he decided to leave.

You have to take my word that this was not an easy decision for him. His parents wanted very badly for him to become a priest. Many of the priests he knew – both at the seminary and back in his local parish – wanted him to take those vows. Under all this pressure, he talked to the priest who was in charge of the rectory.

And that priest – who I believe was a holy man – told my father that his calling was in the end a private matter between him and Jesus and God. If he was meant to be a priest, he would be. If not, then God would guide him otherwise.

There is great wisdom there. Following God is natural. It might not be easy, but it is right. We can trust that.

God’s love is not conditional.

I knew that if I was meant to be Catholic then nothing I did or said could separate me from that church. Jesus would lead me to where I needed to be. God loved me and his love was not contingent on my participation in one or another human institution. It was going to be okay because it already was okay.

So I took a step.

The bridge did not collapse.

So I took another. Then another.

My life now is a walk into Stillness. It is a walk into Love.

One Step Toward God

We are loved by God because God is love. There is a goodness that fuels our existence, that passes through stones and trees, through laundry on the clothesline, through the wood that forms the chicken shed, and through our bodies and out into the stars and beyond. That is God. You are an expression of God, a thought of God. You were created thus and while you can deny that, or forget that, you cannot make it untrue. You cannot undo what God did perfectly.

We are fallen in the sense that we have forgotten who we are and Who created us. As fallen women and men, we can barely discern the outline of Heaven in the broken troubled world that appears to surround us. Our recognition of our helplessness is, paradoxically, the moment of our greatest strength. It is what makes our knocking on the mystical door real and solid. It is what assures us the door will be opened and real help step into our hearts to assist. This is not a theory. It works.

All institutions – be they governments, churches, countries, corporations, recreation committees or even, yes, families – have only their own survival and benefit in mind. They may start with lofty ideals and goals but those fall apart. History will teach you this if you look at it. There is a reason that Jesus wandered from town to town, not setting up shop in Jerusalem or Capernaum. There is a reason he didn’t set up churches, didn’t create the Jesus code.

Codification is not of God because God’s law – which is one and all – is true and you can neither make Truth nor make it more True. It is and that’s enough. Our permission and participation is not needed! Gravity doesn’t work because Newton persuaded somebody to pass a law. It works because it is. So it is with Christ, and with God, and with you and me.

We meet God in the silence of our hearts, in the deep center of our being where our identity as this person in this time period in this location vanishes and there is nothing but our need and our love. We acknowledge the former and then the latter rushes in, all-consuming. See if it doesn’t work that way for you.

When I stand in my front yard, my little house fills up my vision. When I walk into the fields and look at it from a mile away or so, it is much smaller – a shred of larger fabric. If I floated overhead at five miles, it would not even be visible. It would be a dot, indistinguishable from the landscape that surrounds and merges with it.

So it is with leaving the Catholic church. When we first step away, the church fills our vision and our minds. It is big and daunting! But as we move away from the institution towards the love that is Christ, the institution becomes smaller and smaller until it is merely a single point amongst many. We have mistaken the forest for one of its trees. And it’s the forest we’re after.

There is great peace in knowing this and acting on it. There is a great potential for genuine creativity and lovingkindness. And isn’t that what we wanted all along? Union with Christ instead of membership in an organization?

Recall the New Testament story. Jesus told the disciples to go and invite everyone to dinner – everyone. He didn’t say just the poor, or only Pharisees, or make sure you exclude the Roman soldiers. He said everyone – without exception or qualification. If you think and pray on this – if you wonder how it might play out in your life, in your socio-political framework – you will see how radical – and anti-establishment, anti-institution – it is.

That invitation is the spiritual mandate of all those who profess to follow Jesus all the way to Remembering God. It is a radical equality, a radical familiarity, a radical openness. The Catholic Church surrendered this radicalism long ago. Don’t look for it there. It’s gone. It has become what it was supposed to oppose. Jesus wouldn’t recognize it.

What is left is what was always there in the first place – you and me and our desire to know God. Our personal interior experience of God, our recognition of our Christ mind through the example and model of Jesus. Our efforts to live in harmony with that power, that grace. It is hard work. It can be lonely work. It can be frightening sometimes, too.

But we are sustained in it – as we are transformed through it –  by Love.

And yes, yes. You can go back.