Parenting and A Course in Miracles

Marriage and children have had roughly the same effect on my life as I once imagined life in a monastery would. That’s an odd statement, suggesting that these two extremes can serve complimentary ends. Perhaps what I mean to say is that parenting – in particular, parenting with Chrisoula under the rubric of A Course in Miracles – has inspired the very contact with God it once seemed was the sole province of the formally religious.

Whatever calling I felt to leave the world and enter a Catholic monastery was wrapped up in a fantasy of solitude. For me, the longing for God is intimately connected to being alone. But what does this mean?

In my twenties – fighting booze and drugs, writing poetry that alternately channeled Jack Gilbert and Sylvia Plath, occasionally homeless, always drifting from one place and one relationship to another – solitude seemed peaceful but impossible. I was alone sure, but in a way that grated. It was very hard for me to manage the world in those days. But in all that pain and loneliness, there was some respite. I loved the priests I knew! Their tidy rooms filled with sacred books, their quiet chapels, the safety of daily, weekly and yearly routine. I felt Jesus in the presence of those nonjudgmental men. And I wanted what they had.

Yet I felt Jesus elsewhere, too. I met him in the men with whom I sometimes shared park benches. I felt him in some of the poems I wrote, page after page of impossible-to-read script, the writing of which was unmistakably salvational, like being picked up by powerful winds and slung across the sky. I felt Jesus in the zendo at the Vermont Zen Center, in the guitar I carried everywhere. I felt him in the arms of those friends who stole into my life like beneficent thieves.

And somewhere in all that – hanging out with priests and monks, putting aside the booze, getting an apartment, publishing poems – the call to join a monastery just sort of . . . faded. It wasn’t like I made a decision to let it go. It was more like one day I woke up and the woman I would marry was sleeping beside me. We were lawyers who spent our free time hiking and biking and baking bread and reading the thousands of books we hauled out of used book stores. And one morning we decided to have kids. Sometimes a thousand lifetimes pass in just a couple of years.

When I met Chrisoula, I began to write a series of poems called “In the Country of Turtles.” Turtles are my totem animal, even though I appear to have very little in common with them. Those poems are still some of my favorite writing. But like every writing project, they eventually faded. Somewhere between the wedding and the first time I sat second chair at trial, those poems fell away.

Then, one night, a few weeks after my daughter Sophia was born, I couldn’t sleep and went outside with the dog. I wrote this poem on the back of a gas receipt:

The turtle asks:
is this any way to live
now that you have a daughter?
And so I go climb a low hill
in the rain to pray.

And my life changed again.

In a confused way – I am nothing if not a stumbler – Jesus began to speak clearly to me again. Something in my daughter – the unbelievable reality of her toes, her voice, her eyes, the way she fell asleep cradled in my arms – called me back to an intensity that had once been nearly fatal. The poems came back, and the prayers came back, and the longing to be alone and know God came back.

That was a hard year! Chrisoula and I struggled in our marriage and we struggled learning how to be parents. A lot of things fell apart. We made some decisions around work and where we lived, the consequences of which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But the hard times passed. And we experienced their passing as a family. When it was over, we were new. We weren’t afraid. We were ready to be alive.

In the ACIM Manual for Teachers there is a note about the three levels of teaching/learning relationships (M-3.5:1). Of particular relevance is the third level which reflects those lifelong relationships in which “each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning” (M-3.5:6).

In those lines, I recognize instantly what is holy about my experience of being both husband and father. It is not a hierarchical thing – it is not about authority. It is about being fully aware of gift of being both student and teacher. There is never a moment when my children are not teaching me. If you and I sat down for tea and scones and there were three scones, I would steal the third while you looked the other way. But with my children I wouldn’t dream of stealing that scone – it would be theirs, without question or condition. And you know what? They would take the scones and break off pieces for me! We would all be fed. And I would remember then that we are always being cared for, that we don’t have to worry about a thing because we are always being cared for Jesus. We are never not with God.

I wrote earlier that my longing for God is connected to my love of solitude. How is this possible with a family to which one is happily willingly committed? In part, it is about carving out spaces – both temporal and physical – in which one can rest knowing that no other body will intrude (even though yes, sometimes they do creep in). But in a larger and more productive way, it is about finding the ability to be alone with God no matter what is going on outside of you, no matter how busy or crazy or loud things get.

Thomas Merton once wrote (I believe in the introduction to Contemplative Prayer) that as the world evolved more and more Christians would be called to live contemplative lives outside the monastery walls. I am not saying that I am a monk. I don’t think about my life in those terms any longer. But I do think in terms of spiritual community, one that supports my prayer life, deepens my love and expands and inspires my capacity for service. Together, this community makes God possible.

And wasn’t that always what I wanted? Only it turns out this community is not – for me – a bunch of Catholic men. Instead, it’s one woman, two daughters and a son. To the world we look like a pretty normal New England family, given to gardens, horses, homeschooling and reading a lot. And we are that. But we are more than that, too. We are home together and together we lead each other home.


  1. Sean,
    I found your blog after doing a search on how the Course has impacted people who have studied it. I wasn’t looking for an esoteric, impossibly cerebral treatise, I was looking for an experience of the heart of it. I found it. This entry made me cry, big fat tears rolling off my cheeks in the acknowledgment of how hungry I am for God, and how close, in every breath I breathe, He has always, always been. I am a parent too, and, like you, my beautiful son has been one of my finest teachers, from the moment I knew he was on his way.
    I am so blessed by your words, your humility, your perseverance to just keep returning and returning. I appreciate your reminders that if I make an effort out of the Course, I am, in essence, doing what I am attempting to undo. It’s good to be reminded that being, with attention and a true desire, is enough.
    Blessings, Wendy

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I’m glad it resonated! And I appreciate the kind words. It is not a path without its challenges but the peace – even in glimpses – is worth it.


  2. Thank you Sean…I am also a student of the Course of Miracles here in Mexico. I have studied in Spanish of course and now am also studying the course for the second time in English. In Spanish I have completed the text, and while this has all taken nearly five years, they have been five very formative years. And now that my own daughter is ten years old, I have never been more thankful that I am on this path. And yes…I recognize that we are on this path together, that she is my teacher as much as I am hers…and while her mother is only periferally involved in her life, we are still all on this path together. Thank you. Reading your words this morning was another shot of love and support that I appreciate very much. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Josef . . . parenting has been such a beautiful site of learning for me . . . they are symbols of the innocence in all of us and opportunities to “choose again” to remember this . . . I’m glad the post resonated, glad to share the way with you, no distance at all in love!

      ~ Sean

  3. Dear Sean,
    I am about halfway through The Disappearance of the Universe and as a new mother, I am struggling to manage “the world is an illusion” with being a good partner and a good parent. To be honest, I’m getting the sense that the book is asking us to leave all worldly things behind, but I also realize that I canNOT do that because I don’t want to neglect my family. And as you say, there might be a way to treat having a family as being in a deeply religious state of being.
    I Googled “A Course in Miracles” and “parenting”, and this was one of the top posts. After years of studying the course, would you be able to shed some “reframing light” on my internal conflict that probably stems from being a new learner?
    Kindest regards,

    1. Hi Becca,

      Sometimes it is helpful to distinguish between hallucination and illusion. When we hallucinate, we see something that is not there. But an illusion is when we see a thing but perceive it as something it is not.

      In Hinduism, especially Advaita Vedanta (to which ACIM is VERY similar) used the example of a rope. When we see it in shadows we perceive it as a snake. So we respond as if it IS a snake. It’s a rope – it’s always a rope – but our perception deceives us and we end up acting like we’re under threat from a viper.

      The Course is making a similar argument, but more in a psychological sense. Sometimes I perceive people as acting against my interest at work, say, when they aren’t thinking about me at all. But I might get defensive, which then drives them to defensiveness. Or I think I’m a person undeserving of affection and care when I am – like ALL of us – very much deserving of affection and care.

      So the suggestion with “illusion” is that the world we perceive, and the self we perceive, and the relationships we perceive are not being seen TRULY. They are being interpreted by ego as something they are not in order to keep us fearful, guilty, defensive, annoyed, aggressive, remote, whatever.

      Does that make sense?

      So the work with the Holy Spirit is to ask that our perception be healed. We want to see what is real and true – what is good and beautiful and innocent – rather than a lie. All the lessons – and the practice that emerges from them – is really given to that end. We awaken to reality, and to truth, and to love.

      This is true of all relationships but parenting is a particularly helpful – and fun and challenging – set of relationsips with which to learn and practice this. The course is suggesting that the way we presently “see” or “know” our children is confused, and that there is a better way.

      And similarly, the way that we see or know ourselves as parents is also confused, and there is a better way.

      In parenting, we catch a glimpse of ourselves at our best – selfless, forgiving, patient. That’s like the faintest light hinting at what we are in truth. But we might also catch a glimpse of ourselves at our weakest – frustrated, anxious, over-protective.

      We begin to see the way that way down deep, fear and love are the engines, and we begin to get curious about bringing forth that better self more and more. Why is it that I am that way with my kids but not my co-workers? Why am I able to condemn the neighbor with their obnoxious snowblower but can let my child play his guitar on 11 for hours on end?

      We start to see the way ego is constricting our capacity for lovingkindness and we can ask for help in learning to extend our truth, beauty and love in new and broader ways. I can ask at work, would I get angry at my daughter for doing this?

      The point really is to just give attention in a gentle but sustained way at the interior directives we are being given. Family for me is holy ground in the sense that I have seen the mountain top and I have also gotten lost in the dark valley. Always I am learning how to ask the Holy Spirit for a new way to see – where “see” means understand (think of it as a psychological, rather than a physical, action).

      Anyway, those are some thoughts. Are you also reading the course itself or just Gary’s book? I think DOTU can be very helpful for beginners (but also distracting with all the ascended master and quasi-supernatural energy), and sometimes it’s good to just go to the well and try the course itself. Maybe you are doing that too!

      Thank you again, Becca, and if you have other questions, just ask.

      ~ Sean

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