The Song of Prayer is a supplement to the Course scribed by Helen Schucman in 1977 (and now published with Psychotherapy, another supplement, by Viking in Supplements to A Course in Miracles). Its first chapter presents a model of the spiritual journey as a “ladder of prayer,” in which our desire is our prayer and what we pray for ascends as we rise up the ladder to God. This model is filled with fascinating insights, yet how all the pieces get put together is not always easy to discern. This table, therefore, is my attempt to present the whole picture of the ladder. It may be of use if you haven’t read The Song of Prayer, but I am hoping it will prove especially useful to those who have studied the supplement and have wondered how it all fits together.
Basic to my understanding of the ladder is that there are two sides to it. I have called these the ladder of desire (in which our desire slowly transfers from idols—things of the world—to God) and the ladder of relationship (in which we gradually move from a stance of separation from others—based on enmity—to one of joining with others). I have therefore laid these two sides of the ladder out as separate columns. You will notice that the two columns do not have exactly the same categories at each level. This is simply because I am trying to capture the supplement says about each one, and it does not describe them with a strict point-by-point parallelism.
Ladder of desire : idols or God
Ladder of relationship : separation or joining
Level IA: Asking-out-of-need
|Perception of self: incomplete, needy; unaware of true wholeness within.
God: don’t necessarily believe there is a God.
Prayer: not necessarily formal; just the sheer desire for the things of the world.
Goal of desire/prayer: getting things of this world.
|Perception of others: see lots of enemies.
God: believe in a god of vengeance (perhaps just an abstract principle that vengeance is justice).
Goal of desire/prayer: that one’s enemies be given the hell they deserve.
Actual outcome: By wanting another to be sent to hell, you are really praying that you yourself be sent there (due to your attachment to your guilt). And your prayer will be answered.
Level 1B: Higher form of asking-out-of-need
|God: may now believe in God and feel a connection with Him, but this connection is vastly limited by buried feelings of guilt.
Prayer: may now pray to God, yet do not really understand Him.
Goal of prayer: external things; positive character traits such as goodness and honesty; for God to forgive our sins, and thus relieve the guilt that generates our sense of lack.
|Perception of others: still see enemies.
Prayer: pray for enemies.
Goal of prayer: for one’s enemies to see the light, change their ways, experience positive outcomes, or be reconciled with God. This prayer, even though it may embody some kindness toward the enemy, does not really question that he is the enemy.
Learning goal of first level: to realize that your prayer for another is your underlying prayer for yourself, and that this underlying prayer will be answered. When you perceive an enemy you are really seeing your own guilt in another, and re info rcing that guilt. The true prayer for others, then, is to forgive them, which means to remove the guilt and blame you projected onto them. You release them from your condemnation and thus free yourself from your own guilt. You now realize that every prayer is really for your own benefit. Thus, you pray for release from guilt for your brother, because release from guilt is your prayer for yourself.
Level 2: Enmity replaced by friendship
Beginning realization: “What I have asked for for my brother is not what I would have. Thus have I made of him my enemy” (S-1.III.3:5-6). In other words, you asked for hell for your brother so you could have Heaven. This—and not his behavior—is what made him seem like your enemy. Now you get that.
|Goal of desire: still, at least in part, various external things: possessions, romance, status.
Prayer: You may not formally pray for the above things, but you are praying for them simply by wanting them.
Learning goal: to realize that praying for anything external has the purpose of making enemies, setting up jailers. By placing your happiness “out there,” you put yourself in a position to blame someone else when it doesn’t work (when you find unhappiness), and thus unload your guilt onto him. To set up the future enemy is part of your reason for asking for external “gifts.”
|Problem: You have tried to solve your guilt by concealing it in your mind and projecting it onto others, making them the “evil” ones. This made them your evil jailers and you their innocent prisoner.
Lesson: You reached this level by realizing, at least briefly, why you made enemies, and considering that you may have done so needlessly. Now you must take this further and realize that setting them free is the way to set yourself free; that you and they truly walk home side-by-side.
Difficulty: You fear setting another free of the guilt you laid on him, because then it seems that all of the guilt comes back to rest on your head and you’ll have to face the enormity of it. This process, then, will always entail some pain, and after first entering Level 2 you may go back into fear for a long time.
Level 3: Joining in prayer
Beginning realization: “We go together, you and I” (S-1.IV.1:8). By placing your guilt on your brother, you had tried to damn him to save yourself. You had sought for him the goal of hell, so that you could achieve the opposite goal. You reached Level 2 by realizing that whatever you ask for him you ask for yourself. Thus, by asking for hell for him, you chose hell for yourself. To reach Level 3, you carried this realization further and now understand its positive side: that you and your brother share the same goal, that you go to Heaven together. From now on, your progress up the ladder will be faster.
|Prayer: able to join with others in prayer, as well as help others in prayer (this began at Level 2).
Goal of prayer: Even though you are joined in prayer, the two of you may still pray for specifics. This would include specific answers as well as physical things and other external “gifts.”
Problem: Asking for specifics means wanting to have the outer effects without their inner cause—the echoes without the song. You do not realize it is God’s Love you really want, not some specific thing. You don’t realize that you are simply asking for the repetition of past pleasures, rather than to be freed from the past.
Learning goal: The two of you must learn to not confine your prayer to the things of time. You must learn instead to desire only God’s Will, pray only for that, and trust It to take care of the appropriate specifics. You must ask for the song and let it take care of the echoes.
|Perception of others: able to see others as friends who share a common goal, not enemies who are at odds.
Relationship with others: able to have holy relationships, in which you and another join in a common goal.
Level 4: True humility
Realization: “I cannot go without you, for you are a part of me” (S-1.V.3:9). What is the essence of this true humility? Arrogance was the stance of a self that stood alone and tried to be ruler of the universe and judge of reality. Asserting itself against others, it saw enemies wherever it looked. This “sinful” self had to hide in shame and defend itself against God. Instead of yielding to God, it raised up its own substitutes for Him, the idols of this world. Humility is the reversal of all this. Rather than taking the stance of a defiant self aggressively asserting yourself against what is, you humbly accept and receive what is. This stance of acceptance rather than opposition, makes it impossible to have enemies. You now see the arrogance of believing you can sin, and instead accept your holiness. You do not hide from God, for your shame is gone and you are at peace with yourself, knowing that you are God’s glorious creation. You have discarded your false self and have accepted the Self God gave you. You have discarded the false gods you made and have accepted the real God.
|Goal of prayer/desire: Your goal is God, not the false gods you made. You have realized that your heart’s real desire is for God, not for the things of this world.||Perception of others: You have no enemies. You see your Self and Its holiness in everyone. You realize fully that you necessarily go to your goal with others, not alone, for they are a part of you.|
Putting these two sides together: You join in prayer with others and pray only for the goal that you and they share: the goal of God. Your ascent up the ladder is complete. Now you wait before the gate of Heaven to step into eternity.
Beyond all levels: The Song of Prayer
|Prayer no longer involves asking of any kind, for all needs have been met. It is now a song of love and gratitude sung to God without words or thoughts, a song that God returns to us so that our voice and His harmonize and join as a single voice. More plainly speaking, it is formless communion with God.||Relationship with others is total. We do not sing to God as separate minds, but as one Son of God. We sing with a single voice, for we have realized that we share a single Self.|
A way to visualize Atonement (February 23, 2012)
“Atonement” is everywhere in the Course, and some form of “accept the Atonement” is in there 39 times. But in my experience, almost no one has any real feeling for the word as it functions in the Course. As a result, this key term, all the passages in which it occurs, and all the injunctions to accept it, end up being hollow for us. They become blank spots on the page, with no power to produce the change they were meant to produce.
I’ve been in basically the same place. But the other day I thought of a simple visual picture to connect with the meaning of Atonement and make it more practical. Let me walk you through it.
First, picture yourself on the left side and God on the right, with a good-sized space in the middle. Keep it simple—you might picture you as a little circle and God as a big one. So you’re on the left and God’s on the right.
Second, picture a tall block in between you and God, keeping you apart. The top half of this block is labeled “My Errors” and the bottom half is labeled “My Sense of Sinfulness.” These two things obviously go together, since your errors cause your sense of sinfulness. Both of these become a single block that stands between you and God, making it appear that you are alone and that He is remote and inaccessible.
To make this more practical, you might think of some of your errors—loveless things you have done, loveless perceptions you have held of other people. And then think of your sense of sinfulness, your sense that you and God don’t really fit because He is holy and you are not.
Third, picture a big eraser coming down and wiping away the block, wiping away both your errors and your sense of sinfulness. That is what Atonement does. It wipes your sins away, opening the way for reconciliation with God. In Christianity, it does this by Jesus paying for your sins. In the Course, it does this because your sins were never real in the first place. The Course says the Atonement:
- “enables you to realize that your errors never really occurred” (T-2.I.4:4)
- “undoes all errors” (T-1.III.5:7)
- “undoes your past errors” (T-2.II.6:5)
- “means the undoing of errors” (M-18.4:6)
- “teaches him that, never having sinned, he has no need of salvation” (T-13.In.4:6)
- “is the means by which the world is saved from sin, for sin does not exist” (C-4.3:8)
So picture that big eraser coming down and wiping away your errors and sense of sinfulness, leaving a clean and empty space between you and God. While it comes down, you may even say to yourself, “My errors never really occurred.”
Now, with nothing keeping you apart, you and God can unite. More technically, you can recognize the oneness with God that was there all along but was obscured by that illusory block, which the Atonement has now wiped away. See the little circle on the left unite with the big circle on the right.
Whenever you hear “Atonement” or “accept the Atonement,” just bring to mind that image of you and God separated by that block. Then see the big eraser of Atonement come down and wipe that block away, leaving you free to unite with God. Hopefully, all those question marks that appear in your head whenever you encounter the word, can now turn into lightbulbs.
(Greg Mackie adds an excellent point: “To get in touch with the term ‘Atonement’ even more, I think it might also be helpful to think of times when you reconciled with another person. I can think of such times myself, and in those reconciliations, there was a real sense of ‘All that stuff that stood between us is wiped away.’ The wall of our past loveless acts and resentments just wasn’t there any more. That, of course, is exactly what we’re supposed to experience with God via the Atonement.