I was fortunate to grow up in a house where my mother and father took religion – and by extension, spirituality – seriously. They did not compromise when it came to Catholicism and they were open-minded and fair with respect to other paths and traditions. Of course there are downsides to growing up thinking of yourself as “Catholic” or “Buddhist” or whatever, but on balance, I feel like it was a helpful gift.
We talked a fair amount in our home about the importance of religion not being a matter of just showing up at church on Sunday, let alone only at Easter and Christmas. We celebrated both Lent and Advent, we went to mass on all the holy days of obligation, we fasted on Fridays, and we talked about prayer and God. It mattered. And it was understood – at least for me it was understood – that the goal was to become as holy as Jesus had been, that this was a serious undertaking, and that the work could not in any meaningful way be separated from the rest of one’s life. It wasn’t like getting a haircut or even like going to school. It was something you lived.
This led to some curious – and probably so far as my parents were concerned, undesirable notions in my head. I really liked looking at birds – especially pheasants and wild turkeys and grouse and so forth – and I really really liked to see deer browsing at dusk or poking through the pastures as the sun rose. Those sightings were as religious as anything else was and I treated them that way. After a while, the point of church began to seem extraneous indeed. I talked to God while I fished, prayed while looking up at the stars, and frequently asked what I considered difficult metaphysical questions: “I know it’s a sin to stick my middle finger up but what if I stick it up at the devil?”
I asked my mother that question, thinking I’d found a loophole in the catechism, but she said “just don’t stick it up at anyone.” Good advice, really.
I was about sixteen when I discovered Thoreau and Emerson and Frost and Dickinson and Catholicism was forever ruined. It took a few more decades, but organized religion pretty much collapsed as well. I am still walking the same trails I walked as a little boy, wading through the same streams and rivers, and it’s a safe bet the deer that my children and I see grazing in the distance are offspring of deer I looked at decades earlier. In a way – not just geographically, but spiritually as well – I’m right where I’ve always been.
While I don’t identify as a Catholic anymore – I’ve written at some length about this – I still believe that the spiritual life demands something of us. I say “demand.” In truth, it doesn’t ask for anything we don’t want to give, but it can take a while for us to learn that. It’s a process.
But we are part of that process. Our decisions contribute to it. And so we have to be attentive. We have to be aware. And – this is important – we have to do all of that in a relaxed sort of way. It’s like we have to make our spiritual practice the most important thing we do and – simultaneously – lighten up about our spiritual practice.
The way to do this, I think, is to be forgiving. For example, I’m apt to see “rules” in Rules for Decision and leap into one of two spaces. Either I’m going to be all rigid and Type A and “it’s Jesus’ way or the highway” or I’m going to channel my surly teen and snark at Jesus: “you can’t make me.”
But those extremes miss the point. Rules for Decision isn’t about never making a mistake. And it’s not about hewing to some theological and ideological and psychological ideal of perfection. It’s about being human. It really is.
Throughout the day, at any time you think of it and have a quiet moment for reflection, tell yourself again the kind of day you want; the feelings you would have, the things you want to happen to you, and the things you would experience, and say:
If I make no decisions by myself, this is the day that will be given me (T-29.I.4:1-2).
That is not the regimen of spiritual masters. It is not a code for monks praying ten hours a day in some remote monastery high up in windy mountains. It’s simple. It works if we’re bank tellers, teachers, baristas, stay-at-home parents or truck drivers. It works if we have a PhD or no D. It works.
And it’s relaxed, too. “Any time you think of it . . . ” That is very relaxed language. If we forget for a couple of hours, it’s no big deal. If the whole morning slips by, well, fine. The afternoon is better for talking to Jesus anyway.
It’s important to see this. It is one of the real blessings of the Course. We are not being judged. There are no consequences. If we really reflect on that – if we stay with it – it is so liberating. That is true love – a love that doesn’t judge, that doesn’t impose conditions, that doesn’t have any plans to get something for itself. Sometimes I remind myself of this and try to appreciate it and savor it a few minutes. We can’t be loved this way in the world – it’s just not in the program. It’s Love from that which doesn’t know the world. And it’s all we really want – even if we can’t quite admit that yet.
That said, I do think this section is gently and kindly saying that when and as we’re ready, God would be happy if we would invoke the Holy Spirit’s decision-making capacity in place of our own. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. And the easier it becomes, the more we do it.
In a funny way, the more intense I get about waking up, the more I see how little there is that needs to be taken seriously. It’s mostly done for us. Sometimes I feel like the only guy in the theater who hasn’t figured out that we’re watching a Monty Python comedy, not a Shakespearean tragedy. Everyone around me is laughing until they cry while I’m half an inch from the fainting couch and smelling salts.
Anyway, we’re all walking around with a history. We’re all walking around with a metaphor to try and make sense. What Rules for Decision reminds us – over and over, in every sentence – is that we can leave all that behind. Just let it go, the way the deer in late spring shed their heavy winter coats. We aren’t alone and the One who accompanies us is ready – ever and always – to relieve us of all burdens, leaving nothing but the pure light of joy and peace.
After a lifetime of being chastised, punished, controlled, etc, etc, it’s a great relief to me that ACIM doesn’t resort to any of these methods, but instead gently encourages us to just take off from where we left off. My practice is erratic to say the least and, if I had been made to feel like a failure, I’m sure I would have given up long ago. As it is I keep going, still in my erratic way, but one day I may be more consistent in my practice.
Thank you for reminding me that everything is OK and there is no need to worry.
Thanks for reading & sharing your thoughts. Yes – gentle is the word for ACIM. It’s a lot of work – and it’s not always pretty – but we are never being forced, we are never being demeaned, and we are never being hurried. Jesus will wait as long as it takes for us to be ready. That is one of the blessings of the path for sure.