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The Totality of the Kingdom

Earlier less-edited versions of the Course entitled this section “The Total Commitment.” I like that. It feels on point – more practical and less abstract. Talk about Heaven is often complicated by metaphysics of a sort we’re often not ready to navigate. But we can grasp the idea of commitment. And the atonement is a total commitment on our part, which is to say that salvation is not accomplished by degrees – even though it very much feels like a process. The decision to be saved is itself salvation.

There are really two ideas at work here – both related (probably identical to someone who really gets it). The first is that we don’t make it to Heaven alone – we need one another. To conceive of a Kingdom of Heaven experience as a solo adventure is to misunderstand what Heaven is and how its laws operate.

The second – seemingly unrelated – is that we are called to work on ourselves, to effectively change our minds about who we are, where we are, and to what laws we are subject.

I like the second idea a lot, which is another way of saying that the ego – my ego anyway – is not particularly threatened by self-analysis because it can so easily turn that process to its own ends. The first idea – that you and I are in this salvation thing together – is quite intimidating and I tend to resist it.

When resistance shows up in our lives – when we see it clearly enough to name it – then we need to look at it. We need to ask what it’s about and what our problem with it is. We can ask for help – we should ask for help – from the Holy Spirit and Jesus in this. It is their guidance and centeredness that will keep our questioning focused and healthy.

Resistance to my brothers and sisters always takes the form of their opposition – if they weren’t so nagging or critical or indifferent or selfish or passive aggressive or whatever, then I’d be happy. It is always a question – sometimes quite a subtle one – of setting them up as enemies. My peace is always subject to their attack. They have the power to hurt me and I have to defend myself.

Sometimes those brothers are sisters are physically present – my wife, my students, my parents, my children, my neighbors. Sometimes – perhaps more often – they are simply figures in my mental activity, arguing with me, laughing at me, blocking me. I can’t rent an office in which to teach privately because my wife is always complaining about money. I can’t write a book about A Course in Miracles because serious students like X or Y or Z will make fun of it and me. Et cetera.

Under the ego’s rule I am very good – very inventive – at finding reasons to keep the blame for my unhappiness and fear and guilt on somebody else.

Yet a time comes when we see that this is not an altogether workable plan. It’s full of holes. It doesn’t really give us peace or happiness – in fact, it tends to exacerbate our so-called problems.

And so we have to question it. We have to ask what is really going on, and whether it is working, and then we have to decide – we have to make a judgment – if there is a better way.

It is impossible for me to see anything in you – good or bad – that I do not first perceive in me. This is the essence of projection. I want to disown it in myself and so I project it outward. You carry it for me. And I carry some of it for you. We have to begin to see the truth of this in our lives. We have to be able to look at someone we really dislike and appreciate that what we hate in them is in fact in us. This is awkward at best and quite painful at the worst. But we have to do it in order to experience freedom.

While this is very much an interior process – inside work – it is quite obviously dependent on others. I used to long for a monastic vocation, dreaming of a hermitage high on a New England hill in which I might read and pray and study and never have to talk to anyone. What bliss! And while I still experience that yearning from time to time I can also say with considerable sincerity, thank God it never came to pass. I can’t imagine a worse way for this disciple to remember God.

My life in the world is very much a workshop in forgiveness. The external details shift and shimmer – sometimes they’re amazing, sometimes not so much. They are consistent mostly in their inconsistency, as is always the case with the world of form. But they provide ample opportunities for me to forgive – to see the fear and guilt out there, trace it back inside, and then forgive it. This is engaging with content, and it is always instructive.

The other day I was teaching and a student – let’s call him Billy – approached me. Billy was critical of an exchange I’d had with another student. Billy explained to me that his son had some of the same behavioral issues as that other student – was actually about to enter a treatment facility to work on them – and he wanted to propose that I think differently about the interaction. Although I was courteous, I was also dismissive because – in all honestly – I was offended. It was an egocentric moment for me, albeit modulated in terms of behavior. I told Billy that it was inappropriate to discuss other students and that he should focus on his own learning, thank you very much.

Later, driving home, I asked the Holy Spirit to help me let it go because I kept replaying the exchange in my mind. I’d get angry at Billy. I’d lecture him more. I’d be less polite and more dismissive. I knew that Billy was mistaken about some aspects of my exchange with the first student, largely because he didn’t know – and couldn’t legally know – a lot of relevant details. The exchange was the result of a lot of out-of-class meetings with the student in question, her advisers and counselors and even family members.

But what struck me as I prayed wasn’t really so much that – it was something Billy had said that I’d completely ignored. He was relating the event in the classroom to his own child. And I saw in that simple moment that he wasn’t really getting in my face so much as acting – rightly or wrongly – out of love for his son. He was a good father struggling with a big issue in his family and he was trying to work it out. And I could appreciate that. That I could admire. That made total sense to me. In fact, it made me want to give Billy a big hug.

It wasn’t that Billy was right – in fact, in the laws of the world, he was actually wrong. But in the eyes of love, he was being strong and true. And when I saw that, I felt lifted by his love for his son. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was just about love. I felt very grateful that I could see that. And I’m still grateful because I can remember it: it reminds me to slow down and listen when I am with my brothers and sisters. It reminds me to notice when I am being defensive and judgmental and to ask for help in translating those feelings to love.

It reminds me that it is never a mistake to ask the Holy Spirit for help.

That’s how forgiveness works – and how we can work with one another. Everything is either love or a call for love, and the response to both is the same: love. We don’t know that – but the Holy Spirit does. That’s its job.

There are plenty of times in my life when forgiveness is not that smooth, or when I forget it altogether. That’s okay. What matters is our continuing effort to totally and completely accept the atonement. This is a question of willingness and application. It gets easier with time and its effects – which we measure in feelings of peace and happiness and gratitude – expand accordingly. We heal ourselves by remembering – and then by embracing – the fact that we are not alone.

It reminds me of something Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”

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