When I first read A Course In Miracles, I felt I were home after a long and meandering trip that most of the time seemed to be going nowhere. Here at last was a spiritual practice at once mystical, intellectual and deeply practical. I sensed in it an off-ramp to my confusion, a chance to bring order to the chaos and uncertainty that otherwise characterized my life.
That was the door in. And, for quite a while, it was the long hallway, too. I followed it diligently, striving always to be sincere and disciplined. I knew, even if I was not quite sure how to articulate it, that I had stumbled upon my practice. I began to write publicly about both A Course in Miracles and what seemed like my spiritual insights. I was more ambitious than I was able to admit, and fixated on spirituality as a personal accomplishment to wield in the power dynamics of certain personal relationships.
I regret that; also, it’s important to be honest about that.
Each morning I read the text and did a single daily lesson. I made small notes next to key passages. Then, on the inside flap, I wrote the page numbers where I’d made notes.
It wasn’t long though before I realized that there were simply too many key passages. So I abandoned the process of checking in favor of underlining. If a sentence seemed to hold even a hint of wisdom, any jewel or nugget without which one would miss the whole, then I underlined it.
And so I went my study the way one does when they are convinced that they’re the smartest kid in the class. I was vigilant but not humble; and I talked and wrote a lot.
Until one day, exhausted from what I couldn’t precisely say, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing.
For me, hardest of all the ACIM lessons is perhaps this: it is about undoing, not doing. It is not about acquiring new ideas or sprucing up old ones. It is not about gaining some masterful understanding of obscure spiritual principles and laws. It is not about improving ourselves so that others will admire and even envy us.
Rather, the course aims to retrain our minds in order to remove the many blocks to love, which our natural inheritance (T-in.1:7).
I realized that my practice had been almost exclusively intellectual and even arrogant. On the one hand, this was understandable given my educational background and professional callings. After all, I am a writer and a teacher.
But on the other hand, my aggressive and expositive approach to the course material – as if it were a text to be deciphered, translated and then re-composed – was clearly an obstacle to its effective application. I certainly had a lot of new ideas. I found myself talking a lot more about A Course in Miracles and other spiritual paths. I was delighted with how articulate I was, how far-ranging my theology had become.
But – and this is where the true gift of the course becomes evident – I had to admit that I was no closer to God. No meaningful practice of forgiveness or lovingkindness had appeared in my life. I was the same old well-intentioned blowhard I had always been – talking the walk while making a big show of studying the maps.
And so I did what all devoted ACIM students must do from time to time: I renewed my commitment to learning from A Course in Miracles. I put the pen down and simply read. I tried to apply the lessons in a new way. When my brain wanted to analyze and create pithy ACIM-related quotes I could use to wow other students, I let the inclination pass.
Instead I asked: what is going on in this lesson? What am I being asked to learn? What am I being asked to forget? I wanted answers to those questions to become my new bellwether. I wanted to hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not the ego.
Because it was so hard – and because I seemed to be making precious little progress – I eventually broke down and in a very literal way asked the Holy Spirit to help me. If it wasn’t too much trouble, could I be led to a place of quiet and stillness? Could I be given a sign that I was doing something useful or helpful?
About a week later, sitting in the kitchen by the stove while water boiled for tea, I had a vision. The kitchen was empty so far as my physical eyes could see, but another pair of eyes clearly beheld Jesus sitting on the floor across from me, head on his knees, arms wrapped around himself, quietly sobbing.
I had no idea how to respond to that vision. It scared me, in part because I knew that I had somehow created it, or called it into being. I felt like somebody else had taken hold of my imagination and made something with it that I did not want to see, let alone engage with.
If it had been possible to leave that image of Jesus behind, I would have. But it stayed with me. It followed me through the day like a sad, hungry dog. It was there the next day, too. Nothing change in it: Jesus cried while I watched. I hated it and hated that I hated it, and wished that it would go away.
But it didn’t. And so at last, as I sat each morning in what continued to feel like half-assed efforts at prayer and meditation, I began to imagine trying to comfort Jesus. I imagined myself crossing the kitchen floor, sitting beside him, perhaps putting an arm over his shoulders.
It was a nice idea, but the thing was, in my imagination, I could never get more than halfway across the floor. Fear stopped me. And there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery as to why. I was afraid that when I offered consolation, Jesus would look up at and his eyes would be filled with accusation. Tears of sorrow and grief, yes, but also unstinting blame. It was a look that would say, You did this to me.
And I knew perfectly well what would follow from that. God was out there somewhere, close nearby, thinking, You’re going to pay. I’m going to make you pay for what you did to my son.
Even now I hate writing that! Hate seeing the words, hate the sad old story they represent. It is difficult to express how much disappointment and anguish that series of visions caused me. I did not want to accept that I lived in fear of Jesus and God. It was an abhorrent idea. It could not be mine – it had to belong to somebody else. Somebody who was weak, uneducated, uninformed, unsophisticated, living in denial . . .
And yet the truth could not – would not – be denied. That was me – that was where I stood in relation to God and to Jesus. Guilty and condemned and too scared to do anything about it.
And that became the beginning of my practice of A Course in Miracles, which continues to this day.
I gaze into the void of the belief that I am estranged from God and Jesus, that reconciliation is impossible, and even my death will not bring peace or closure. That’s a grim belief system and a gruesome interior horror show but facing it, however weakly, however hesitantly, became the cornerstone. It became, in its way, a good start.
This is what means to undo: to come to the realization that all we have taught ourselves and all that the world has taught us is not helpful. It is useless. It cannot bring us closer to God or to our brothers and sisters. It cannot foster the Happy Dream that precedes our union with Heaven.
The journey to love – the ascent to Grace, the ending of the separation – begins with letting go of all that we have accumulated. The mental baggage and psychological detritus must be abandoned, left by the side of the road, so that we might go on increasingly unencumbered, arms free to welcome our brothers and sisters, including Jesus.