The Spiritual Experiences of Helen Schucman: Helen’s Boat Vision

What I am calling Helen’s boat vision is what she called Series III, the final in her series of inner visions. This one is much longer than the others and has a clear plot-line.

[The story began] as I was wandering along the shore of a lake, and coming upon a large deserted boat lying on its side, with a door to its cabin swung open. It was held down by thick ropes attached to a heavy metal anchor sunk deep into the mud that covered much of the boat as well, apparently preventing rescue. It had obviously been abandoned years ago. I somehow knew I was supposed to get it started again, although salvage seemed all but impossible.

I knew I could not possibly release the boat without help but I nevertheless felt impelled to try. I tugged futilely at the ropes, which were so heavy I could hardly lift them. Besides, the mud was so slippery that I kept falling. I called out for help, although I knew that no one was likely to hear me in such a deserted spot. It crossed my mind that I might perhaps telephone for help, but this did not seem likely either as there were no houses anywhere nearby. It was a frustrating situation. I realized the importance of freeing the boat but I was also aware of my complete inability to do so. And then the answer came to me. I had been going about it wrong.

“Inside the boat is a very powerful receiving and sending set,” said the internal Voice. “It hasn’t been used for a very long time but it still works. And that’s the only way you’ll ever get the boat started again.”

The first episode ended there.

Getting the boat freed and going clearly represents Helen resuming the spiritual journey she was on, apparently long ago. There is a passage in the Course that alludes to this same idea:

Be not afraid. We only start again an ancient journey long ago begun that but seems new. We have begun again upon a road we travelled on before and lost our way a little while. And now we try again. Our new beginning has the certainty the journey lacked till now. (C-E.3:1-5)

Maybe our boat isn’t stuck right now, like hers was. Maybe it was stuck some time ago, when we began the spiritual journey, or maybe it never was. But this image does suggest that our spiritual journey is something very old, something that can be abandoned for long stretches of time, and then, when it seems impossibly stuck, can be resumed (though not without some difficulty, perhaps). This, of course, would make sense from the Course’s point of view, for it implies that we have been in the separated condition since before the dawn of time, which occurred 13 billion years ago. One can easily imagine that we haven’t been actively pursuing God that whole time, that we have put the spiritual journey aside for long periods, maybe centuries, or longer, only to inevitably drag it out of the mud and get it sailing once again.

Exercise: Please close your eyes and try to picture your spiritual journey as a boat journey. Your boat might be stuck in the mud, anchored at sea, sailing smoothly, sailing with difficulty, sailing fast or slowly, sailing through rough seas or among dangerous rocks, etc. What do you picture?

Several rather unclear things happened next. A Man turned up from somewhere, and together we managed to drag the anchor out of the mud, set the boat straight and finally get it into the water. Then it began to move, although the anchor dragged a little at first. The boat gained momentum, however, and seemed to embark on a very definite course, almost on its own power. I had no idea where it was going but apparently I did not need to know. The Man did know. That was sufficient.

After the boat had gone on for a time the water began to get rough and I was beginning to feel afraid. Fortunately, the Man was in the boat, dressed for trouble in a yellow slicker, helmet and boots. This time I did identify him as Jesus. I was steering uncertainly when he arrived, and he took the wheel from my hand.

“You go over there and sit down,” he said firmly but not unkindly. “It’s going to be heavy weather for a while. I’ll get you through this and then you can steer again.”

I was neither surprised nor particularly impressed. I even seemed to have expected him. I sat down uneasily on a bench along the side of the boat.

“If you think there’s going to be trouble,” I said timidly, “maybe we should use that receiving and sending set that’s inside the boat and ask for more help.”

“We’ll just keep away from that,” said the Man, quickly and still more firmly. “You’re not ready yet. You’d merely get into trouble. When you’re ready to use it, I’ll tell you. Meanwhile, don’t worry. We’ll make it all right.”

I watched as the Man adroitly steered the boat through a very narrow passage in which the current was surprisingly strong. A violent storm raged all around us. Rain poured down from a black sky, and enormous waves rose above the sides of the boat and splashed across the deck. Oddly enough, I did not even get wet. Gradually, the storm subsided and the boat emerged into quiet waters, and I found the steering wheel again in my own hands. “You can take over, now,” he said. “I’ll watch.”

The boat has been stuck in the mud for so long that Helen simply could not get it going without help. In fact, her inability to manage this voyage on her own is a major theme here. She can’t get the boat unstuck on her own. She can’t chart a destination. She can’t use the receiving and sending set. She can’t steer through the storm.

This, of course, raises the possibility that the same is true of our own journey, that we are not up to being the captain of the ship. We appear to be in charge, but are we? How much of the time are we being invisibly carried along, even though we feel completely alone? This reminds me of that famous story “Footprints,” where in a dream the man discovers that during the most difficult parts of his life he was not walking alone but was being carried by Jesus.

The receiving and sending set is interesting. We can only assume that the set is Helen’s psychic abilities, which would mean that the use of the set would be her special function. The receiving must obviously be her ability to hear Jesus’ voice. The sending is a little more puzzling, but some time later she has an experience in which she appears to save a friend of Bill’s from suicide by “sending” a mental message (“The answer is life, not death”). The sending also reminds one of her priestess in the temple vision, in which she constantly sent prayers to those who came for her help. The sending never seemed to take on much significance in her life after this experience, but one can imagine that it was still an important ability, with the potential for being of great use.

What does it mean that she is not ready to use this receiving and sending set yet? It must mean that she is not ready to use this ability without the involvement of her ego—which is why using it will only get her “into trouble.” In the months after this vision, she was to go through a process of first becoming aware of her ego’s use of her abilities, and then turn those abilities over to God for His use. Only then was it safe for the Course to start coming through.

It does make one wonder if there are abilities we have that we are unaware of, because we are not yet ready to use them again. One wonders what those abilities might be.

The other thing that interests me about this part is the storm. I think it is all-too common to start out on our spiritual journey, or on some very significant leg of it, and get hit immediately with a storm. Sometimes the storm is so fierce, that all we can do is ride it out and hope something will steer us through it successfully. Have you ever been in that kind of storm? When I asked the class this question, everyone started chuckling. The answer, it seems, was obvious.

The Man, still Jesus, had taken off his slicker, and was lounging comfortably in shorts and an open-necked summer shirt. The weather had turned warm and sunny, the water smooth and the boat was easy to steer. We were standing together at the wheel and chatting. I noticed that he wore a gold chain around his neck, with a small unfamiliar gold symbol hanging from it. I thought perhaps it might be a Hebrew letter. Then I remembered something.

“I have one like that,” I said, looking at the symbol. “In fact, I’m wearing it right now.”

“I know that,” replied the Man, smiling.

“The only thing is,” I added, “Mine goes the other way.”

“I know that, too,” said the Man, still smiling. “As a matter of fact, this one is yours as well as the one you’re wearing. I’ll keep it for you a while longer, though, but I promise to give it to you when you can use it and it will be helpful.”

The two symbols, mirror images of each other, were so clear in my mind that I copied them down afterwards. One went from left to right and the other from right to left. Otherwise, they were the same. Some time later I ran across a friend who had been a Hebrew scholar, and asked if he recognized them. He was uncertain at first, but finally recognized the symbols. “Of course!” he said, “the symbol of the miracle of the reversal.” He had to explain to me that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai where God had given him the ten commandments, the words could be read correctly from either the front or the back of the tablets, even though this was not possible by ordinary means.

My reactions to this information were curiously mixed. On the one hand I was delighted and also deeply impressed. On the other hand, however, I was irritated and even angry. It might be more accurate to say I was afraid. I still found it hard to believe that my pictures were more than unrealistic attempts at wish-fulfillment, and I had somehow managed to dismiss much of what I had already seen and heard on that basis. I did not like this sort of thing, and found it very difficult to credit. This, however, was harder to explain away so easily.

What could these two symbols mean? What do we know about them?

  • Helen’s went the opposite way that Jesus’ did
  • She wasn’t ready to use Jesus’ yet
  • It was really hers; he was just keeping it for her for now

We had a long discussion about this in class. I don’t know if we ever came to real clarity about the medallion that Helen was currently wearing. But we seemed to all agree on the idea that the one that Jesus was wearing for her was her function, her role as scribe of the Course. This would fit with Jesus’ words that he would keep it for her until she “can use it and it will be helpful.” That would make it sound a great deal like the sending and receiving set, which she was also not ready to use, and which also was symbolic of her function. It would also fit the reference to the tablets of the ten commandments, which could easily be seen as symbolic of the Course. It would also fit the conclusion of the vision, which we are coming up to.

One has to wonder: Is there something, some role, that Jesus is holding in trust for us, some role uniquely suited to us, yet which we are not currently ready for?

Exercise: Please take about five minutes and ask Jesus in your mind, “Is there some role that you are holding in trust for me, until I am ready? If so, what is it?

Perhaps it was my discomfort that held up the rest of the series for some time, and when the next episode did come it took the form of a dream. In characteristic dream fashion, the boat had turned into a car. I was driving across a bridge in very heavy traffic. I wanted to make a right turn, but I was in the wrong lane and another car was blocking my way. Both of us were crowded in, with cars in front and behind. The situation was one large traffic jam. Apparently, there was no possible way I could safely make the turn, even though it was essential that I do so.

“If I try to turn I’ll crash into that car next to me,” I thought, “and if he turns right I won’t have the time to follow before the gap will close and I’ll be jammed in again.”

I was much distressed about this, and kept trying to think up ways to make the turn. But all of them were inadequate, most of them were disastrous, and one or two would probably turn out to be fatal. And then the solution came to me.

“We’ll make it together,” I thought, happily. “It won’t be any trouble at all.” And so our two cars made the right turn together. It was very easy. “It’s funny I never thought of that before,” I said to myself as the picture faded.

I think this is clearly a reference to Helen’s joining with Bill. Since the car is really the same as the boat, it meant that her spiritual journey and Bill’s needed to turn in tandem, if she was going to get where she was going.

Is there someone in your life that, in your eyes, this is true of? Is there someone who needs to turn in tandem with you if your journey is going to go in the right direction? Do you think that person will turn with you?

Next time I found myself back in the boat alone, still aware of having taken the right turn. The boat was moving easily and slowly along a narrow pretty canal. The landscape was quite beautiful and very peaceful. The canal was lined with lovely old trees and green lawns edged with banks of flowers, and there was just enough breeze to help the boat along.

“I wonder if there’s buried treasure here,” I thought to myself, dreamily. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is. It’s just the place for it.” Then I noticed a long pole with a large hook at the end, lying on the bottom of the boat. “Just the thing,” I thought, dropping the hook into the quiet water and reaching the pole down as far as I could. The hook caught something heavy and I raised it with difficulty. It was an ancient treasure chest, the wood worn from the water, but the metal edges and lock still intact. The bottom was covered with seaweed. I managed to get the chest into the boat and opened it excitedly.

I was bitterly disappointed. I had expected buried treasure, probably jewels or coins, but there was nothing in the chest except a large black book. The binding was like the “spring binders” used for temporarily holding large manuscripts or papers together. On the spine, printed in gold, was the single word “Aesculapius.” When I looked it up I found it was the name of the Greek god of healing. I saw the book again a few nights later. This time there was a string of pearls around it. Neither Bill nor I had any idea what the book stood for until one day, long afterwards, we suddenly realized that the binding looked like the black thesis binders in which we had put the original manuscript of the course for safekeeping.

Asklepios (Greek spelling) was a divine healer in ancient Greece. The most popular deity of the ancient Hellenistic world, there were over two hundred shrines devoted to his cult. He was supposedly the offspring of a divine father and a human mother. He was gentle (the possible source of his name), willing to aid suffering people, able to effect mysterious cures, and even able to raise the dead. Given all this, it is not surprising that, as Christianity arose, he was competition for Christ, and so Christian bishops, of course, tried to destroy all his temples.

Given the interesting parallels between Asklepios and Jesus, and given Asklepios’ function as miraculous healer, it is not hard to see this book in the vision as a symbol for the Course.

Here is the peaceful end of the long journey, in which Helen hopes to find buried treasure, but instead, to her disappointment, finds a treasure even greater. This treasure has been foreshadowed throughout the vision. After all, she has been guided throughout by a figure that is like Asklepios. She has been told that she would eventually use that receiving and sending set. She has been shown a symbol of role that is being held in trust for her, which was also a symbol of the tablets of the ten commandments. The whole journey has led to this, the discovery of her destiny, her function. This is the climax, what it all has been leading up to.

This raises the question: Is this how we view our function? Do we see it as some magnificent treasure that lies waiting for us after a long and eventful journey, a treasure foreshadowed in many ways throughout that journey? The supreme significance accorded her function in this vision her reminds me of her initial priestess vision, in which she asked aloud, “Does this mean that I can have my function back?” When the answer was “of course,” she literally danced around the room “in an intense surge of happiness that I had never felt before.”

For many of us, the notion of our special function is very vague and fuzzy. Perhaps, we think, it is just the function of forgiving people in our lives, or accepting the Atonement for ourselves. I think there is so much disagreement, unclarity, and confusion around this topic, that it tends to cancel out our emotional response to it. Our muted response stands in stark contrast to Helen’s overwhelming response at learning that she could have her function back. Perhaps we need to look at this topic of special function in a new way.

For those of us who believe that we have already found our function, we too probably find it a little difficult to relate to Helen’s happiness. For, if we are doing our function, there is probably a great deal of daily grind, uncertainty, sweat, along with wondering if the whole thing is viable, if anybody really cares. Yet, if you look at Helen actually doing her function—scribing the Course—she experienced all that, too. She felt resistant, saw it as a duty inappropriately thrust on her, and only occasionally felt transported while she wrote. Yet the reality, I think, lies in these visions. They are the true guide to what her emotional experience of her function ideally should have been.

I think the challenge is to realize that while we are doing our function, we are generally not in touch with the real nature of what we are doing. We are not in touch with the glory and shining significance of it. If we were, then we, like Helen, would find ourselves dancing around the room in an intense surge of happiness. So we—those of us who are doing our function—too, need to look at the topic of special function in a new way.

Perhaps the challenge of Helen’s boat vision for all of us is to see our role in God’s plan in terms of this vision—to see it as something we probably dropped a long time ago and need to pick back up again, something that we must go on a long voyage to find, something that may require us to navigate some stormy seas before we reach it, and something that, once we find, we will see that it is more precious than any earthly treasure could ever be.


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]