[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
The Circle’s Vision
I. To faithfully discern the author’s vision of A Course in Miracles
- Our vision of A Course in Miracles
- The teaching
- The program
- The Text = study
- The Workbook = practice
- The Manual for Teachers = extension
- This way of doing the Course has not gotten started in the world
II. To be an instrument in Jesus’ plan to manifest his vision of the Course in the lives of his students and in the world
- How can we possibly do the Course according to instruction?
III. To help spark an enduring spiritual tradition based entirely on students joining together in doing the Course as the author envisioned
- A vision of the future
- How to get this started?
IV. To become an embodiment, a birthplace of what we want to see happen in the world
Our Vision for the Circle of Atonement
We at the Circle of Atonement feel that the time has come to let our readers know more about our vision, and to invite those who feel a connection with that vision into a fuller relationship with us. Some of you who find value in our materials will not identify completely with this vision. We do not expect everyone to agree with everything we say, nor is such agreement necessary for anyone to continue their current association with us. If this article does nothing else for you, it will hopefully give you valuable food for thought. But for those who do feel a kinship with this vision, this article will provide a way to better understand our vision and so, potentially, enable you to more fully join with us in realizing it.
On the surface, of course, our purpose is to serve students of A Course in Miracles; to help them derive spiritual benefit from it. Through our publications, events and personal interactions we attempt to help students get the most out of the Course through supporting them in its study, its practice and its extension. Yet behind that more obvious purpose, there is a deeper vision, until now mostly unspoken. That deeper vision is what we would now like to explain.
Our vision for the Circle has been in the process of formation for ten years now. Originally, that vision was primarily about what kind of Course in Miracles center this would be, what kind of services we would offer, and so on. Many of you might remember our description of a center with three wings from our October, 1992 newsletter.
As time has passed we realized that there are much larger matters at stake than just our own organization. A great thing has happened in the history of the earth, and that history will never be the same again. A path to God has appeared that many of us believe to be a true spiritual breakthrough, a unique contribution to humanity’s collective spiritual journey. A book has come that many of us believe is another appearance on the plane of human history of the Teacher of teachers: Jesus. What are we going to do with it? Will we, its first generation, get it started on the right foot, or will we send it stumbling off in some other direction? Will we repeat the mistakes of the past and do with his light what we did 2,000 years ago? Or will we take his gift in humble hands and do with it what he intended?
As these questions grew in our minds, without our noticing, the question of what our one little center would be began to fade into the background. The real question slowly emerged: What are the needs of the Course here at the beginning of its life in the world, and are we at the Circle willing to be there for those needs? Another way of saying this is that the question is no longer about what our vision is for the Circle, but what Jesus’ vision is for the Course.
This question has consumed me in particular for years. How exactly did the author see us doing the Course? What did he envision his students doing with the Text, the Workbook, the Manual? When he thought of students actually living the Course, what kind of images did he see? How did he see us making the Course practical? Were we supposed to do it in combination with other spiritual paths or by itself? How were we supposed to familiarize new students with this Course? Did he want students to get together or did he intend that doing the Course would be a totally private thing? And if he saw us getting together, in what ways? Did he envision something like the current scene of study groups and centers, or was he imagining something else? How did he see the Course fulfilling the purpose for which he wrote it? In short, what did he want us to do with his book?
At the beginning I simply assumed that such questions would have to be answered from outside the Course, from personal guidance or by personal temperament and inclination. So it seemed natural to me that there would be a kaleidoscopic array of different answers. Yet over the years I, and the rest of us, slowly realized a single, quite surprising, all-determining thing: The answers are in the Course itself. The author set forth in the Course’s own pages an extremely consistent and highly specific vision of the Course. He told us what he wanted us to do with the books. He had minutely specific provisions for how to make it practical. He told us what to do with new students. He literally gave us the nucleus of a comprehensive vision of the Course’s life in the world. It’s all there in the Course itself, if we will truly pay attention to its words, reflect on them, take them inside of us and not explain them away.
The first aspect of our vision for the Circle, then (expanded below), is to do just that: to pay attention to the words of the Course, and from them, to truly and faithfully discern Jesus’ vision of A Course in Miracles. Everything we do with the Course, as individuals and as an organization, rests on our understanding of what it is saying. It is absolutely imperative, then, that we make sure that our understanding reflects his.
The Circle’s Vision
I. To faithfully discern the author’s vision of A Course in Miracles
* In our interpreting of the Course to strive for total fidelity to its words and their intended meaning, regardless of what we want those words to mean or not to mean, regardless of whether they differ with what we believe or have been taught, regardless even of whether we end up agreeing with them.
* To thereby discover the Course as the author saw it, to uncover the thought system he placed in it and the program he designed for realizing that thought system.
Our vision of A Course in Miracles
Through many years of attempting to follow the above two points, a vision has very slowly emerged. Though I have been the main one developing this vision, it has also developed within a spirit of open dialogue, especially between Allen and myself. No one’s opinions here—mine included—are sacred or unquestioned. Everything is tested against the Course. Views stand or fall not by whose lips they come from, but by whether they are firmly founded on the words of the Course. We are known for, and deeply believe in, pursuing a scholarly approach. Our experience is that this approach enhances the practical dimension rather than compromises it. The more close scrutiny we give the Course’s words, the more we notice how the author instructed us to make those words practical. And the more we have applied those instructions, the more benefits we have received—benefits which in turn further illuminate the meanings he placed in those words.
As our vision of the Course has come into view, we noticed that it had many differences with other visions of the Course currently available. These differences have prompted a great deal of dialogue, with other students and teachers, between us here at the Circle, and between Allen and I. They have also prompted us to continually re-examine, check and refine our conclusions. Along the way we have discarded many widespread assumptions, even some of our own. Yet our checking and refining has also given us ever-increasing confidence in the overall vision that has emerged. Here is a brief sketch of some of its main points:
* The Course was written for a purpose: to guide its students into total spiritual awakening through training their minds in forgiveness.
* Jesus is the author of A Course in Miracles and its central teacher. Though we can receive great benefit from the Course without having a personal relationship with him, such a relationship allows us to benefit even more.
* The Course is the authority on itself, as opposed to any teacher, interpreter, channel or student. Its own words contain all necessary information on what it teaches and what it asks of its students.
* The Course is a unique, sufficient and complete spiritual path. Mixing the Course with other teachings and methods generally clouds it and waters it down. It asks its students to practice its methods, rather than the methods of other paths. Yet it also asks them to honor those paths as other forms of the universal course.
* The Course teaches a unique thought system. Some of its central ideas are ones the world has not seen before. This uniqueness must be honored, no matter how difficult or challenging are certain of those ideas.
* Forgiveness is the Course’s central and summary idea and is (as far as we know) an original approach to total spiritual awakening.
* There is no darker vision of life as we know it than that found in the Course. Squarely facing that darkness—in the Course’s teaching and in ourselves—is central to doing the Course.
* Yet there is also no brighter vision of ultimate reality and salvation. Focusing on and dwelling on that brightness is also central to doing the Course. The light of love, seen behind the obstacles, is what draws us past them and shines them away.
* The Course claims that reality is a formless, transcendental realm utterly alien to our current experience, and that this world is totally unreal, a dream projection of our own insane attack on God.
* Yet the Course has profound implications for our life in the world. It addresses our most practical concerns, says that the Holy Spirit will guide and arrange all aspects of our lives, and says that we have a function to actively carry out in relation to others.
* The Course says we are responsible for our own experience and that our sole responsibility is to accept the transformation of our own perception.
* Yet it also says that we will only arrive home through joining with others in holy relationships in which the two partners mutually experience their oneness and extend God’s light.
* The Course says that we have never left home, are already back, and can fully and freely accept total liberation any moment we truly choose to do so.
* Yet it also characterizes the common spiritual journey as a slowly evolving training program, one which calls for the relinquishment of all that we know of as this world and as ourselves, and which will result in our acquiring an overall state of being that we cannot currently conceive of.
* The Course is a literal course in miracles, an educational program in spiritual awakening.
* The Course’s program is contained in its three volumes, each volume representing a different part of the program.
* Together the three volumes comprise a single process of progressively internalizing the Course’s thought system, a process that ascends as one progresses through the volumes.
The Text = study
* The Text presents the thought system and is the foundation of the Course. The rest of the Course is based on and assumes the Text.
* The Text is meant to be studied. Careful, unabashedly intellectual study is the foundation for our whole journey with the Course.
* Study is therefore practical. It is the foundation of practice, and, approached in the proper spirit, is a practice.
* The Text is written in a unique style which makes for a singularly transformative reading experience if read in a way that harmonizes with that style. For a Course student, there is no substitute for direct contact with the words of the Course.
* The author values understanding of the thought system in its entirety, in which we see how all parts fit together in the whole, and how that whole is in every part.
* Through study of the Text, the ideas that will eventually become our new thought system enter our awareness and are considered for the first time.
The Workbook = practice
* The Workbook is a training manual in the Course’s method of spiritual practice, the exact same method of practice as recommended in the Text. This practice is an act of repeating, dwelling on and applying meaning, primarily in the form of concentrated, psychologically impactful sentences.
* Workbook practice is the practical application of the Course’s thought system. The Workbook relieves us of the burden of having to find ways to make the Course practical.
* The Workbook is meant to be done as it says. Its instructions need not be followed perfectly, but are meant to be followed as faithfully as possible.
* Practice is not meant to end with the Workbook, but instead to begin. The Workbook is meant to ground a life-long habit of frequent and deep Course practice.
* Through practicing them, the concepts that entered our awareness through study sink into our minds more deeply and become more fully our own.
The Manual for Teachers = extension
* The Manual for Teachers represents the final aspect of the Course’s program: extension to others. We extend to others through communicating—by thought, word and deed—the healed perceptions we have allowed into our minds.
* Extension is necessary to complete the learning process. Extension reinforces the perceptions that we extend. The thought system that entered through study and became reinforced through practice is, through extension, finally recognized as fully our own.
* Though the Manual can be of benefit to any student, it is primarily intended as a manual for experienced students who have gone through the Text and Workbook and are now ready to take up their function of extension to others.
* The Manual assumes that many experienced students of the Course will become personal teachers to newer Course students, shepherding them in the study and practice of A Course in Miracles. It also appears to assume that becoming the pupil of such a teacher will be the characteristic way to begin the Course. This means that the Course is not expressly a self-study course.
* The Manual also assumes that many experienced students of the Course will become healers who go to people with healing needs (including physical illness) and extend miracles.
* The Manual assumes that by fulfilling one’s function of extension and by following the Holy Spirit in all matters, large and small, students of the Course will reach true spiritual heights and ultimately become liberated from the human condition.
All of these separate points may not create a very clear and whole picture for you. In order to paint such a picture, I have written a separate, short article entitled, ” Traditional Monastic Pursuit in the Context of Contemporary Society.” Its main point is that the Course’s program for spiritual growth closely resembles the monastic traditions in most of the world’s major religions, though with one huge difference: It is carried out in the context of contemporary human society rather than cloistered away from that society.
The vision of the Course given in the points above closely parallels many features of traditional monasticism. The Course presents a demanding spiritual discipline, a complete, pre-given program which includes the study of sacred writings, the practice of mental discipline, and beneficent extension to others. It aims for the highest goal possible: total enlightenment. And from those who truly aspire to this goal, it asks for total dedication. It even provides for experienced teachers to help neophytes along the way. All of these elements are common to monastic traditions. Yet the Course presents its program as something that can be, indeed is designed to be, carried out in the midst of our ordinary, day-to-day affairs.
Even to the most dedicated and zealous among us, such a vision may feel like nothing short of a multi-layered straight-jacket, or like so many fingers closing around our throats. Certainly, we assume, Jesus would have been more flowing. Surely he would have left how we did the Course up to our individual preferences and intuitions. Let us ask ourselves, however: Is that likely? Is it likely that a being with the wisdom of Jesus, who characterizes his pupils (us) as predominantly insane, caught in the mazes of our ego’s false logic, and literally terrified of the God to Whom he would lead us, would leave the implementation of his program for spiritual enlightenment up to those crazed, blinded and terrified pupils? Would he not rather provide those students with a carefully designed curriculum that takes into account the fact that, left to their own devices, his students will always make the wrong choice?
This way of doing the Course has not gotten started in the world
I must confess that as the above picture came more and more into focus, I became—well—shocked. For this picture did not look very much at all like what students, myself included, have done with the Course in the last twenty years. Though it is difficult to generalize, it seems to me that the Course is being approached less in the way I have outlined above and more as a collection of ideas to be read and discussed (and perhaps augmented with experiential and practical techniques from other places), as part of an eclectic, self-guided spiritual journey. For instance, if you look back over the earlier bullet points, almost every single point in our vision falls into one of two categories: Either it is, a) an idea that a significant percentage of Course students would not agree with, or, b) an idea that very few have heard of or considered. Even among that very small minority of Course students that sees the Course as a literal program aimed at total spiritual awakening, few of those are actually carrying out the daily study, practice and extension which constitute the program.
All in all, I think we can safely say that if the above vision truly reflects what Jesus intended for his Course, then what he intended has not really gotten started in the world.
This can be a very startling and sobering idea. Could it be that we are doing it again? The last time Jesus appeared, whatever he intended to leave behind him was (from the perspective of the Course and of most biblical scholars) seriously distorted by his followers. What an irony it would be if he appeared again, this time in the form of a book which recorded his exact words and spelled everything out, and we still unthinkingly galloped off with it and did whatever we pleased. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
This possibility raises a great many questions. The first might be: If this is true, would it not be a horrible tragedy? I don’t think so. Rather than “tragic,” I would say “expected” and “forgivable” and, I hope, “temporary.” What could be more predictable than that it would take us a while to piece together what to do with A Course in Miracles? A large book with thick language, strange terminology and unfamiliar concepts merely falls out of the sky into our laps. Its author is not in a body and so cannot gather to himself a group of disciples whom he minutely instructs in how to use this thing. It lands in twentieth century America, a time and place full of ignorance about higher spiritual development and biases against what it takes to attain that development. And it comes to a world that its own words claim is completely insane. What else would we do with it but spend a lot of time dancing around it, hooting and hollering like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to figure out what to do with the thing? (Please don’t take offense at this image; I have spent quite a few years “dancing around” it myself.)
Another question is, what if the world has actually done with the Course what he wanted and, instead, it is the vision I just presented that is flawed? This is certainly possible. The Course is simply a train of words; words need interpreting; we could have misinterpreted. The author could have had another specific vision for the Course. Or he could have had no specific vision; perhaps he meant for everyone to simply follow their individual inclinations in doing it.
Obviously, whenever you take a stand you run the risk of standing on the wrong ground. All I can say, and I say this in deepest sincerity, is that our most sacred value in the Circle is discerning what Jesus really meant by his words. What matters is not what I think, or what Allen thinks, but what he said; what he said. We simply assume that there is a gap between our understanding and what he said; that we can always understand his words better. This means that our vision of the Course is a work in progress; it has evolved over time and continues to do so. Should we discover that any aspect of it does not reflect what the author said, we will, I promise you, change our minds and tell you. Yet it also means that once we really do settle on something, we have great confidence that we are seeing something beyond our own biases.
Another question is, doesn’t saying that Jesus imparted a specific vision of the Course cast aspersions on all of those other approaches to the Course? For the sake of acceptance and inclusivity, shouldn’t we affirm and include all approaches as valid? To me, this is really two separate questions. First, should we condemn those who don’t do the Course the way I am saying? The answer, of course, is a clear and unambiguous “no.” There is always the temptation (even, I understand, in great spiritual masters) to judge those who approach God differently. And so we must constantly watch out for such judgment and practice giving it over to the Holy Spirit for healing.
Second, should we agree with those other approaches? For the Circle this question takes a very immediate form: Should we include other approaches to the Course in our center? Several years ago I thought we should, and said so in the vision statement I alluded to earlier: “[The Circle] will be primarily based on my interpretation of the Course, but my hope is that in future years it will include other teachers [and their other interpretations].” Clearly, we no longer plan to include a multiplicity of approaches. Now, we are attempting to represent only what we can find in the Course itself. We feel that the Circle has a particular calling: to present, to the best of our ability and understanding, Jesus’ own approach to the Course. Mixing that with other approaches can only dilute that effort and blur the clarity of the message. If you find this stance to be too narrow, then you will most likely not choose to join with us. I regret any feeling of distance or difference that may engender, and I fervently hope it will not hinder our recognition that, despite surface differences, we are working towards the same goal. But for us, Jesus’ approach to his own book is not one among many; it is the only one that counts.
This does not mean that we will not work with other people in the Course world and count them as our dear friends. We believe that a great many people have been given a role in the Course’s history in the world—roles that differ from our own. We honor them, respect them, and love them for what they are doing. Thus, even when we don’t see the Course exactly the same, we can still happily share in a common cause. Many of the people in that cause do share with us many similarities in perspective. So we will continue to cooperate with others, but we will also lend our particular voice to the vision of the Course that we see.
A final question that arises when we say that Jesus’ vision for the Course has not really gotten started is, what about all the good the Course has done? How can I say that the author’s intentions have not yet been carried out when the Course has brought so much light into the world? It has changed countless lives. Its message has, in different forms, reached millions of people. It has become the spiritual path of thousands of seekers. It has spawned hundreds and hundreds of study groups, dozens of centers and has inspired scores of books. Doesn’t all this mean that the Course is accomplishing the purpose for which it came to this earth? I believe the answer is both “yes” and “no.” Yes, the Course has done great good and that is cause for celebration. What else would we expect? When Jesus speaks people are healed. Yet just because the Course has reached a great many people doesn’t mean we are doing with it what he wanted. After all, does the immense size of the Christian religion mean that it is what Jesus originally had in mind?
There is another way to look at the above question: What about all the good the Course hasn’t done in the world? If you are a long-time Course student, certainly you have noticed the vast discrepancy between what the Course promises its students and what its students actually seem to experience and attain. Where are the Course in Miracles adepts, the advanced teachers of God referred to in the Manual for Teachers? You have probably also noticed that most people who begin the Course eventually move on to other things, often things that seem decidedly less profound. The Course is simply not producing the lofty results it seemed to anticipate for its students. If in fact we are doing what the author intended, then let’s face it: A Course in Miracles is a dud. It may do some good, but it doesn’t live up to its promises. If, on the other hand, we haven’t really noticed the instructions and haven’t started carrying them out yet, then there is still hope. Perhaps we can yet realize all of those wonderful promises we read about in those pages.
Though the above questions come readily to mind, the question for us at the Circle is much more direct: If what Jesus intended us to do with his book has not yet been manifested in the world, what are we going to do about it? What else can we do? What can we do but dedicate ourselves, our minds, our hearts, our lives, our organization, to trying to manifest his vision?
So our vision for the Circle is, fundamentally, to play our part in Jesus’ plan for the Course. We believe that his work with the Course continues, that he has a plan to manifest his vision of the Course. And we want to fulfill our function in that plan. This idea captures the second part of our vision for the Circle.
II. To be an instrument in Jesus’ plan to manifest his vision of the Course in the lives of his students and in the world
* To see Jesus as the teacher and guide of the Circle; to see ourselves as instruments in his plan and to follow his guidance in all that we do.
* To do what we can to help the Course get started on the right foot here at the beginning of its history.
* To do our best to communicate to students and ground in the world the understanding of the Course’s thought system that Jesus intended.
* To do our best to ground in the world and in the lives of students the intended use of the Course as a literal program in true spiritual awakening.
How can we possibly do the Course according to instruction?
A question that has probably been nagging most readers up until this point is, how are we ever going to do the Course in this way? If we had the dedication of a monk, we would probably be a monk. For most of us, it is all we can do to attend a weekly study group, perhaps read our Workbook lesson in the morning, and remember it once or twice during the day. It simply does not seem to be in our power to do more than that.
The author of the Course was not naive; he knew that people would have a hard time doing the kind of study, practice and extension he was advocating. That is why he tries to pull us in gently and gradually. For instance, for the first nineteen lessons of the Workbook he asks extremely little of us. Then in Lesson 20 he begins to lead us into what becomes an ever more demanding structure, with these gently persuasive words:
This is our first attempt to introduce structure. Do not misconstrue it as an effort to exert force or pressure. You want salvation. You want to be happy. You want peace. You do not have them now, because your mind is totally undisciplined…. (W-pI.20.2:1-6).
With the Course we do not need some major commitment up front. It expects to prove itself to us gradually, with the result that we are slowly drawn into total commitment.
Even with his gentle approach, the author knew that only a minority would do the Course as it says. Section 3 in the Manual talks about three different levels of relationship between a teacher and his pupil: the casual encounter, the intense but temporary relationship, and the lifelong relationship. I have long thought that we can apply this same schema to the relationship between the Course and its pupils. This would mean that many students will simply have a casual, fleeting encounter with the Course; while others will have an intense relationship with it for a time, and then move on. Finally, there will be those who are with the Course for life. Yet the Manual says two very pertinent things about these lifelong relationships. One, they “are generally few” (5:3). Two, most of them “generally do not” (5:4) recognize how perfect the situation is and learn the perfect lesson it offers them. Most “seem to fail” (5:7). To summarize, then, a minority will be with the Course for life, and a minority of that minority will really take hold of it and learn its perfect lesson.
What, then, do we do if we are not part of that small minority? What does it mean when we are not doing the program as it is set up? It certainly does not mean that we cannot get back to God. For thousands of years people have reached great spiritual heights without doing A Course in Miracles. It also does not mean that we cannot derive great benefit from the Course. As I said earlier, people are already having their lives changed by the Course without doing it in the way I have outlined. It most definitely does not mean we are sinners, or less worthy in the eyes of God. It simply means that we are not getting as much benefit out of A Course in Miracles as we could. We are not becoming as happy and peaceful as we could. That is all. Failure to follow the program perfectly is not cause for guilt—there is no cause for guilt.
Yet the main issue is not how to console ourselves when we are not doing the Course according to instruction. It is how to enable ourselves to actually follow the instructions, since following the instructions is the way our minds become trained. After all, as the quotation above said, we want salvation, we want happiness, we want peace. We do not have them now because our minds are untrained, not because we have not sufficiently consoled ourselves over not doing the training.
For some years now at the Circle we have been reflecting on how we can lift Course students, including ourselves, up to what the Course asks of them. Much of the energy of writers and teachers since the Course’s publication has gone into stepping the Course down to people, through more simplified or shortened versions, spin-offs, changing the language, or synthesizing it with other things. Yet if the author deliberately set the Course up in a certain way and asked us to do certain things, and then promised us that if we did those things we would experience miracles, then why don’t we find a way to do them? The benefit—miracles—certainly sounds worth it. Rather than spending all of our energy trying to step the Course down to us, why don’t we use the same effort to lift ourselves up to it?
How can we do this? Before diving into speculating, perhaps we should see if the author himself had any suggestions. I believe he did. As mentioned in the above vision, we believe that the Manual for Teachers clearly speaks of experienced Course students playing the role of spiritual teacher for newer students of the Course, functioning as a kind of Course mentor. Further, the only times the Course mentions beginning students of A Course in Miracles (M-24.3, M-24.5), M-29.1-2), it mentions them as pupils of a more experienced teacher. To me this implies that the author seemed to expect that this is how beginners would start the Course.
According to the Manual, the teacher fulfills many needs for the pupil. He guides the pupil in the use of the Course’s volumes, answers the pupil’s questions about the Course, clarifies the Course’s central aims and values, clarifies the relationship between the Course and various outside issues, speaks to the pupil’s personal problems, prays for the pupil, responds without anger when the pupil seeks for salvation from illusions. In all of this the teacher adapts his teaching to the pupil’s particular needs and level of development, always turning to the Holy Spirit for guidance in how to do this. The teacher does far more than simply provide information. He presents a living demonstration of Course principles, living proof that this path really works. And he gives the pupil someone to unite with in common purpose, thus offering the pupil a way out of the illusion of separateness. The end result is that the pupil becomes a teacher of God himself.
Now let me ask you this: If you had a situation such as this, do you think you would find it any easier to put the time and effort into doing the Course? The question is almost rhetorical; of course you would. To me the teacher-pupil relationship looks like the author’s own prescription for lifting students up to the Course, enabling them to do it according to instruction. This should hardly surprise us. After all, this is the same function that spiritual teachers and masters have fulfilled in paths around the world for thousands of years.
I think the author had another prescription. Think of how the Course came into the world. Two people joined in the common goal of finding and demonstrating a better way. Through this the Course came to them as this better way. Therefore, it came to both together and spoke to both together. Not only did they take it down together, but it was meant to be done by them together. The Text is full of admonitions for the two of them to apply Course-based forgiveness to each other. Here is one:
And so you and your brother stand, here in this holy place, before the veil of sin that hangs between you and the face of Christ [a reference to standing before the final obstacle to peace, the fear of God]. Let it be lifted! Raise it together, for it is but a veil that stands between you. Either alone will see it as a solid block, nor realize how thin the drapery that separates you now (T-22.IV.3:1-4).
Notice that he not only tells them to lift the veil together, he also quite clearly tells them (as he did in many other places) that they wouldn’t make it alone. They would do the Course together or not really do it at all. I assume that they could derive great benefit from the Course on their own. But to really lift the final veil…for that they needed each other. Now perhaps all of us are simply more advanced than Helen and Bill were. Perhaps we can make it by ourselves. But Jesus was quite clear that they could not.
So the Course’s first students were meant to do it together, and their decision to walk a path together is what brought the Course into the world. If the idea of practicing the Course together was so central to its birth, you might surmise that this idea did not only apply to Helen and Bill. And you would be correct. Lesson 183 in the Workbook ascribes great significance to the act of two people practicing this lesson together:
And should you join a brother as you sit with him in silence, and repeat God’s Name along with him within your quiet mind, you have established there an altar which reaches to God Himself and to His Son (W-pI.183.5:4).
I see this idea as subtly different than the teacher-pupil relationship. As I understand it, Helen and Bill were more like peers in this than teacher and pupil. The people practicing together in lesson 183 are simply brothers, not necessarily teacher and pupil. So I would characterize this idea as two peers joining in doing the Course, rather than a teacher guiding a pupil. Yet if you step back, the two ideas are really quite similar. Both are examples of people joining in the common goal of awakening through doing the Course together. As the Manual says, “Those who would learn the same course share one interest and one goal” (M-2.5:7).
So I consider this idea—that of joining together in doing A Course in Miracles — to be an idea instituted quite clearly by the author. There is every reason to believe that this is his prescription for how students can be raised up to the Course; that this is his solution for our seeming inability to follow his challenging instructions. Yes, I know, the Course is universally and “officially” described as a “self-study” course. But the Course does not describe itself this way, nor do I know of any private guidance from Jesus that said this. I recently asked Judith Skutch-Whitson, President of the Foundation for Inner Peace, where or who this phrase came from and she could not remember.
If this is Jesus’ prescription for us really doing the Course, why not take this idea and carry it all the way? Must we imagine isolated teacher-pupil relationships and peer relationships, ones having no contact with each other? After all, one could say that “isolated relationship” is an oxymoron. Why not imagine those relationships being connected with each other, in relationship with each other, so that all together they formed a large, loosely-knit network? Why not imagine an entire support system centered on joining together in doing the Course as a literal and sufficient program in spiritual awakening? It is perfectly true that Jesus never mentioned such a system, yet it is really a very small and logical step from what he did mention.
As many of you know, this is how we at the Circle have pictured the future. We envision a kind of Course sub-culture, having nodes in population centers around the country and eventually around the world (see my article in the March 1994 issue of A Better Way). We have seen it as reminiscent of the 12-step sub-culture, in that it would be defined simply by common dedication to a particular spiritual path, and not by any outer forms (such as clothing, appearance, lifestyle, etc.). In other words, nothing about your appearance, occupation, diet, etc., would say that you were part of this.
This sub-culture or support system (which I will describe shortly) would have at least two major advantages over the concept of isolated joinings. First, a support system generally has a better chance to guide, reinforce and uplift an individual than does a single relationship. It can usually communicate its shared beliefs and values to someone more powerfully than a single individual can.
Second, this sub-culture would pass its beliefs and values on, not only to the individual, but to subsequent generations. Thus, it would not be left to each generation to figure out and implement the Course anew. Instead, the understanding, dedication, light and power of one generation would flow directly to the next, causing this Course culture to grow richer, deeper and brighter over the centuries. At this point, the Course would have become the basis for an ongoing spiritual tradition, a tradition based solely on the collective effort to unearth its spiritual treasures and carry them into the lives of its students.
We see this support system idea as the true hope for the Course to accomplish its purpose in this world. Therefore, it forms another part of our vision for the Circle.
III. To help spark an enduring tradition based entirely on students joining together in doing the Course as the author envisioned
* To help spark a global support system phenomenon, by first cultivating one in Sedona and then by helping others establish support systems in other areas.
* To help the Course become an ongoing spiritual tradition, a tradition totally based on understanding and using the Course as the author intended.
A vision of the future
What happens now when someone gets a hold of the Course? As was probably true of you when you first began, beginning Course students are more or less adrift on the open ocean. They don’t know what to do with it. They might eventually gravitate to a study group, many of which are characterized by their own members as “the blind leading the blind.” They might get a hold of some Course-based material, most of which is very loosely inspired by the Course and mixes it with other thought systems. The vast majority of these people will hang around with the Course for a period of time, while their initial excitement cools and turns to a vague despair, and then move on. For these the Course will be one of many stations along the way, perhaps even their initial gateway into the fascinating and exotic world of alternative spirituality.
Let us envision a very different future, in, say, the year 2026 (an arbitrary 50 years from the Course’s publication date). Now, I cannot say that it will or even should look exactly like this. The point is not the specifics but the general idea. In this hypothetical future, someone starts hearing about the Course and feels drawn to begin it. She asks around and is told that most people just do the Course however, but that the ones who seem to get the results take part in a Course support system. This she discovers is a loose network of various Course teachers, meetings, healers and students who all share a roughly common approach to the Course.
So she finds a list of meetings of her local support system and goes to a general support meeting. What she finds there leaves a deep impression on her. She sees people who simply assume that the pages of this book contain a complete and consistent program for their journey to ultimate happiness. They have a quality of joy, freedom and caring that she finds deeply attractive. They are joined in a common vision of life and are joined in supporting each other in that vision. In short, she sees a loosely-knit culture with its own values, perspectives and practices, its own way of life.
So she goes to more meetings, and as she is exposed to this culture, she learns what doing the Course is about. She looks around and sees what to her seems like some kind of neo-Buddhist tradition. She sees people treating the Text as a world-class scripture, worthy of years of minute study. She sees students treating the Workbook as a literal handbook in serious spiritual practice. She sees people happily and selflessly extending to others, as if giving really were receiving. She sees students unashamedly working under the guidance of their personal teachers. She sees accomplished Course healers going to sick people and obtaining miraculous results. She sees people who have devoted decades of their lives to the Course as their sole spiritual path. And she sees some of them truly reaching spiritual heights, becoming beings whose advancement would be recognized by people of any spiritual tradition.
She learns that if she really wants to walk this path in earnest, then she herself needs to find a teacher, a more experienced student who can answer her questions, provide an example, help her apply the Course to her personal issues, and generally help guide her in this new and foreign terrain. At one of the support meetings she approaches a person to whom she feels drawn in this way and they commence a teacher-pupil relationship.
She begins to go to some of the other meetings in the support system. She attends a study meeting, which is run by her teacher, who helps those present mine the treasure in every sentence. She also learns how to study, as a focused, attentive exercise of her whole mind and emotions. And so she begins to study on her own, not understanding everything she reads but, in addition to gaining tremendous insights, she feels something deep inside of her being fed—and transformed.
Eventually and after prayerful consideration she decides to begin the Workbook, and attends a Workbook support meeting. With the support of others in the group, and with the experienced advice and guidance of her teacher, she finds herself practicing with a regularity and intensity that would have been impossible on her own. She feels deep, unquestioned beliefs being overturned; she starts to feel her whole perspective on the world shifting as the lessons progress.
Years pass and she takes part in other aspects of the support system. She attends occasional prayer and meditation meetings, as well as takes part in small groups formed for special study, practice or support purposes. She spends time on the phone supporting fellow students in their Workbook practice. Her anchor remains her relationship with her teacher, which continues to deepen over time.
When she has a special healing need, either a physical problem or a deep emotional upset, she calls one of the many effective Course-based healers in the support system. Sometimes she receives Course-based counselling; other times, from other healers, she receives prayer healing. Along the way she experiences many instances of immediate liberation from a problem, a kind of deliverance that people outside the support system would find hard to believe.
These years pay off, and she slowly finds herself a very different person, without the cares she had before, relatively impervious to the insults, attacks and worries that buffeted her before, unburdened of the past and hopeful for the future. Others find it healing just to be around her.
One day, someone at one of the support meetings walks up to her and remarks at her serenity, lightness and lack of pretense, and then asks her if she is open to taking on a pupil. After looking within for guidance, she accepts, and this begins a pattern. Increasingly she gives time to her pupils, helping them very personally with every aspect of their work with the Course. She leads an occasional support meeting and takes on other responsibilities in the support system. As she does, her own realization of the Course deepens immeasurably. Occasionally, in her meditations she slips through into another realm and experiences joy and peace beyond human description.
She starts to realize that the journeys of far more students than just her few pupils rest on her. She looks around at the other teachers and healers in the system and sees their constant efforts. She realizes that together she and they are like tent poles, holding the entire system up. Their daily personal study and practice and their daily service to their fellow students are supporting the journeys of hundreds of students, as well as making it possible for new students to come in and find a home. They are the inspiration that keeps the whole thing going, the living proof that pouring oneself into the Course is not a useless enterprise, but pays off in happiness undreamed of in the everyday world.
And then she reflects on the fact that this is not just going on in her city. This very thing is happening in major population centers all over the world, involving countless thousands of people just like herself. All over the world people are helping each other use the Course to find real forgiveness and to find God. It dawns on her that she is part of a new spiritual tradition in the world, a tradition without worldly government or property, without men wielding power over others because they had been granted it by other men in power. The sole focus of this tradition is the Course, the sole purpose is providing a fruitful context in which people can “take” this Course as the author intended it, until it “takes” them and they achieve the goal that he laid out. The sole power is granted by unofficial collective acknowledgment, as the system instinctively recognizes those who have really given themselves to this path and become freer through it.
With deep satisfaction she realizes that the Course truly is fulfilling the reason for which it came to earth; that we really are reversing two thousand years of taking Jesus’ beautiful truth and not manifesting it as he had planned; that the earth truly is experiencing the birth of a new light; that for the first time masses of people are consciously, intentionally and passionately pursuing the realization of genuine forgiveness; and that the world will never be the same.
How to get this started?
This is our dream here at the Circle, that through people joining together in doing the Course as the author intended, the Course will fulfill the purpose for which it came to this earth. But what a lofty goal this is! What can we do as only one organization to truly help bring this about in any significant way?
After years of writing publications and putting on study groups, workshops, intensives and retreats, there is one thing we do know: We could keep doing this forever and never produce what we want to see in the world. We see our publications and events as vital, but they are certainly not enough.
What was once only a noble ideal in our minds is slowly becoming an all-consuming conviction: If we want to see people out there really doing the Course, then we must first do it ourselves. If we want to manifest this vision in the world, then we must embody it ourselves. As the Course says in that well-known line, this is our sole responsibility. “The sole responsibility of the miracle worker [one who extends miracles to the world] is to accept the Atonement for himself” (T-2.V.5:1). Out of his own inner realization will flow anything he has to give to the world.
Of course this is the hardest thing for any person, and especially any spiritual organization, to do; to really live up to one’s own highest ideals. I wish I could tell you that this has been a breeze for us and is something we have already accomplished, but we have a long way to go. If we have any spiritual prodigies among our five board members—myself, Allen Watson, Tom Dunn, Jeanne Cashin and Susan Perry—they have kept their true identity well-hidden. In other words, we are still aspiring to do the Course as we have outlined in this article and none of us yet are (to borrow a phrase from Jeanne) the “forgiveness experts” that we long to be. What we can say is that we have come a long way in this respect and are tremendously heartened. The closer we come to doing the Course as the author intended, the more results we see, both in our own lives and in the lives of students here in Sedona.
For this reason, we have renewed our individual and group commitment to really doing the Course as the author set forth. The fact that fulfilling our purpose depends on this personal embodiment is a very powerful motivator, and one that we are grateful for. We need such motivators. Not only (as the oft-heard cliché says) do you teach what you need to learn, but having to teach it motivates one to really learn it.
As the following bullet points state, we see the accomplishment of our vision somewhat in terms of concentric circles, beginning with us as individual board members, then extending to us as a group, then encompassing our functioning as a center, and then including the local support system we are developing here in Sedona. Our hope is that all of this together can become a germ, a pilot project, of what we want to see happen in the world. It is our prayer that many individuals, groups and centers will catch the vision and work toward implementing it, as some are already working towards aspects of this vision.
This, then, is the final part of our vision:
IV. To become an embodiment, a birthplace of what we want to see happen in the world
* For those of us in the Circle to follow A Course in Miracles as our individual path; to learn forgiveness through its program.
* For those of us in the Circle to join with each other in a group holy relationship based on the common goal of awakening to God through A Course in Miracles.
* To join with other individuals, groups and centers that feel the same calling.
* To have a facility in Sedona that would be the home of our work. This facility will most likely eventually include three general aspects or wings (slightly modified from what we described five years ago):
The Teaching Wing—communicating the thought system and program of the Course.
The Support Wing—supporting students in doing the Course, in the study, practice and extension of the Course.
The Healing Wing—becoming proficient in, extending to others, and training others in the Course’s unique approach to healing.
* To spark a local support system in Sedona which could be a pilot program for support systems elsewhere in the world.
* To, as individuals, as a group, as a center, and as a local Course support culture, become a seed for an ongoing spiritual tradition based on A Course in Miracles.
Now let us bring the above four major aspects of our vision together:
I. To faithfully discern the author’s vision of A Course in Miracles.
II. To be an instrument in Jesus’ plan to manifest his vision of the Course in the lives of his students and in the world.
III. To help spark an enduring tradition based entirely on students joining together in doing the Course as the author envisioned.
IV. To become an embodiment, a birthplace of what we want to see happen in the world.
To distill this even further, here is our mission statement for The Circle of Atonement:
To discover the author’s vision of A Course in Miracles and manifest that in our lives, in the lives of students and in the world.
This is our vision as we currently understand it. As I said at the beginning, you need not feel a strong connection to this vision, or even agree with all of it, to benefit from our various publications and events. Yet on the other hand, if you care deeply about the Course, if you believe in your depths that its appearance has untold significance for our world, and if you think that this vision is more or less on the right track, this is a chance for you to stand up, give your assent, and join with us.
No matter what anyone does I think that the Course will for centuries remain an important book that countless people purchase and find inspiring, thought-provoking and helpful. Yet will it get used in the focused, directed way that the author envisioned, and will it ever produce the advanced teachers he seemed to expect? To obtain the first outcome, we can all kick back and watch. Yet to obtain the second outcome, a lot of people are going to have to do a lot of work.
After the Course had been published, the author told this to Helen Schucman, his scribe:
You think the Child is stillborn….You do not understand what happened, nor the signs that still surround His birth. The star is there, and all attempts to call it something else will slip away in time….We cannot know when truth has come because it would be hard to see the Heaven where a manger stands. But when truth has come, there is a light that finally shines through.
The mother [Helen] waits. The Child has come, and has been born again. He is not dead. He is the sign of life, the gift of God, the Lord of peace, the King of all the world, the Son of man and you (Absence from Felicity, p. 397).
The message here is unmistakable. The same Child that so long ago was born in a manger and heralded by a star “has been born again.” The one who forever changed our world has appeared once more. What will we do with him this time?