We often think of living the Course’s ideas in very abstract terms, such as accepting the Atonement for ourselves or realizing “I am as God created me.” Yet the Course itself often sees things in extremely concrete terms. One example is in the importance it places on ordinary human encounters. The Course material contains a number of scenes of human encounters, both ordinary and sublime, and in the end weaves an entire philosophy around these encounters.
The Course teaches that all encounters are potential holy encounters. That is what they are meant to be. That, in fact, is the real reason behind the encounter. In these notes (Part II to follow next week) I will explore what the Course teaches about the holy encounter, how the Holy Spirit is trying to get holy encounters to happen, and how we can help Him—how we can turn ordinary encounters into holy encounters.
There is enormous potential in human encounters
A logical starting point in this topic is to point out that the Course sees huge potential in every encounter. “Potential” is not a word the Course uses often (only 14 times), but it uses it in three places to speak of the immense potential that exists whenever two people get together. Here is one of those places:
There is no one from whom a teacher of God cannot learn, so there is no one whom he cannot teach. However, from a practical point of view he cannot meet everyone, nor can everyone find him. Therefore, the plan includes very specific contacts to be made for each teacher of God. There are no accidents in salvation. Those who are to meet will meet, because together they have the potential for a holy relationship. They are ready for each other. (M-3.1:3-8)
“Together they have the potential for a holy relationship.” There you get a sense for the massive potential contained in every meeting. You also see it in this quote:
Each brother whom you meet today provides another chance to let Christ’s vision shine on you, and offer you the peace of God. (W-pI.158.10:5)
Obviously, most of the time that potential goes unfulfilled. In the following passage we see just how far apart the potential can be from the actual. The actual is a really sick situation between a patient and a therapist, where both think that healing amounts to the patient worshipping the therapist. Yet even here, the silent presence of the Holy Spirit represents the unseen potential that lies within their meeting.
Some utilize the relationship merely to collect bodies to worship at their shrine, and this they regard as healing. Many patients, too, consider this strange procedure as salvation. Yet at each meeting there is One Who says, “My brother, choose again.” (P-3.II.9:8-10)
The Holy Spirit actually arranges our encounters based on this potential
This is a mind-boggling teaching, but the Course, I believe, is very clear that the Holy Spirit actually arranges all human encounters. Everyone you encounter has been sent to you, and you have been sent to that person. This is very clear in the following passage from the Psychotherapy supplement:
One rule should always be observed: No one should be turned away because he cannot pay. No one is sent by accident to anyone. Relationships are always purposeful. Whatever their purpose may have been before the Holy Spirit entered them, they are always His potential temple; the resting place of Christ and home of God Himself. Whoever comes has been sent. Perhaps he was sent to give his brother the money he needed. Both will be blessed thereby. Perhaps he was sent to teach the therapist how much he needs forgiveness, and how valueless is money in comparison. Again will both be blessed. (P-3.III.6:1-9)
This is a remarkable passage, in which the idea that “whoever comes has been sent” ends up dictating a fairly radical financial policy. The passage amounts to this: If you are a therapist and someone comes to your office, that person has been sent by the Holy Spirit, because your relationship with him has the potential (there’s that word again) to be the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place on earth. Maybe he was sent because you need money and he has the ability to pay you.
Maybe he was sent because he doesn’t have the ability to pay, and you need to learn through your holy encounters with him “how valueless is money in comparison.” Either way, the reason he’s been sent will bless you both. And because of that, you shouldn’t turn him away, even if he can’t pay you a penny. Because he has been sent by God.
Here’s a related passage:
And He will send His Answer through the therapist who best can serve His Son in all his present needs. Perhaps the answer does not seem to be a gift from Heaven. It may even seem to be a worsening and not a help. Yet let the outcome not be judged by us. (P-2.V.6:7-10)
In other words, if you need therapy, God will answer your need by sending you the therapist that can best serve you in all your present needs. This will be the therapist you get. True, his therapy may “seem to be a worsening and not a help,” but this does not discount the fact that God sent him. As the passage ends by saying, “Yet let the outcome not be judged by us.”
The following passage makes this principle—that the Holy Spirit arranges our ordinary human encounters—absolutely clear:
The simplest level of teaching appears to be quite superficial. It consists of what seem to be very casual encounters; a “chance” meeting of two apparent strangers in an elevator, a child who is not looking where he is going running into an adult “by chance,” two students “happening” to walk home together. These are not chance encounters. Each of them has the potential for becoming a teaching-learning situation. (M-3.2:1-4)
This is a remarkable passage. You really get a sense of the huge contrast between the appearance of the encounter—which is a casual, superficial, chance encounter of two strangers—and the reality behind it—that it has been purposefully arranged by the Holy Spirit because it contains the potential (there’s the third usage of that word) for a holy encounter between two Sons of God who have known each other since they were created. The everyday nature of the encounters in this passage makes clear that, from the Course’s standpoint, all of our encounters have been arranged.
What we see in all these passages is the same basic theme: our encounters are arranged by the Holy Spirit, and He arranges them based on a single consideration: the potential they contain. In other words, He gets two people together because they have the potential for a holy encounter. In each one He sees a readiness for the other. A great analogy is when a person plays matchmaker. That person knows two people who don’t yet know each other, but the matchmaker sees in these two a readiness for each other, a potential that just may be actualized if they get together. So the matchmaker arranges for them to meet, and hopes for the best. In a way, all of our encounters are a series of “blind dates” arranged by the Holy Spirit, not for the sake of romance, but for the exchange of holiness.
To take it one step further, the Holy Spirit even has a specific intention for these encounters, which is something we saw in the passage on paying for therapy, and something we can also see in M-16.1:6-7, where people are sent to the teacher of God each day with a specific “learning goal already set, and one which can be learned that very day.”
Images of the holy encounter
So what does it look like when we actualize this potential and have a holy encounter? We do not have to guess. The Course provides some very concrete images. The first one we’ll look at is the remainder of the last passage we examined above:
These are not chance encounters. Each of them has the potential for becoming a teaching-learning situation. Perhaps the seeming strangers in the elevator will smile to one another, perhaps the adult will not scold the child for bumping into him; perhaps the students will become friends. Even at the level of the most casual encounter, it is possible for two people to lose sight of separate interests, if only for a moment. That moment will be enough. Salvation has come. (M-3.2:3-8)
I love these three images of the actualized potential in the encounter. The two people on the elevator simply smile to one another. The adult doesn’t scold the child for bumping into him. The students who walked home together become friends. It’s as simple as that. Although it isn’t just doing that behavior that makes it a holy encounter. It is those two people losing sight of separate interests. For a moment they both feel “my needs are not separate from yours.” That, apparently, is the source of the kindness that passes between them.
Here is a beautiful image of holy encounters from Lesson 315:
A brother smiles upon another, and my heart is gladdened. Someone speaks a word of gratitude or mercy, and my mind receives this gift and takes it as its own. (W-pII.315.1:3-4)
What do the holy encounters consist of here? Someone smiles upon another. Someone else speaks a word of gratitude (“thanks so much for what you said the other day”) or mercy (“don’t trouble yourself about it; it’s really OK”). These are things that happen all the time. As an aside, there almost seems to be a three-way holy encounter in the above two vignettes: there are the two people having the encounter, and there is a third person who, while observing it, has also lost sight of separate interests. Rather than feeling jealous, envious or left out, he takes the gift that has passed between them to be his own.
What strikes me in both of the above two passages is that the holy encounter takes the form of what you could call “ordinary kindness.” There are no shafts of light coming down from the heavens, no angelic choirs. Two people have simply exchanged genuine kindness because, for a moment, they forgot about their separate interests. It may not look like a big deal, but something of immense significance has happened. “Salvation has come.”
The next one perhaps does not count as a holy encounter, but I suspect it does. It is a very touching image:
The unhealed healer may be arrogant, selfish, unconcerned, and actually dishonest. He may be uninterested in healing as his major goal. Yet something happened to him, however slight it may have been, when he chose to be a healer, however misguided the direction he may have chosen. That “something” is enough. Sooner or later that something will rise and grow; a patient will touch his heart, and the therapist will silently ask him for help. He has himself found a therapist. He has asked the Holy Spirit to enter the relationship and heal it. He has accepted the Atonement for himself. (P-3.II.3:2-9)
Here we have the world’s most uncaring therapist. Yet in the midst of doing his callous therapy, the seed planted in him by his choice to be a healer suddenly sprouts. A patient touches his heart. He sees in the patient something pure, something that reminds him of what he wants to be. He realizes how debased he is, how in need of healing, how unfit to be a healer. In that moment, in a poignant reversal of roles, he, the therapist, silently asks his patient to rescue him. In that moment, he has made good on his choice to be a healer. For he has asked that he himself be healed.
It is a beautiful image, and in it we see a lot of the elements we’ve already seen. It is a realistic human situation; no one is being idealized here. The therapist is actually a real cad. But in the midst of this ordinary situation, something beautiful passes from one to the other, something which doesn’t look spiritual at all, but which carries great spiritual significance nonetheless. Again, salvation has come.
The final example of a holy encounter is my favorite. Here, we do not see what happens on the outside—one person smiling on another—rather, we are shown the way the two people experience it on the inside:
Think what the joining of two brothers really means. And then forget the world and all its little triumphs and its dreams of death. The same are one, and nothing now can be remembered of the world of guilt. The room becomes a temple, and the street a stream of stars that brushes lightly past all sickly dreams. Healing is done, for what is perfect needs no healing, and what remains to be forgiven where there is no sin? (P-2.VII.8:1-5)
This passage is also about therapy. Elsewhere in the Psychotherapy supplement it says, “Ideally, psychotherapy is a series of holy encounters in which brothers meet to bless each other and to receive the peace of God” (P-2.I.4:1). This passage tells us what that can be like. For some reason, for perhaps a brief time, the therapist and patient forget their little ego struggles and triumphs, all the petty striving that constitutes the world they know. All of that is “the world of guilt” and all of that is forgotten as they are caught up in a sublime moment. Instead of being in an office filled by the contest of wills and surrounded by the battleground, they find themselves in a holy temple, and the street outside is a stream of stars. The sick dreams that have loomed so large in their sessions now seem like nothing, for all they can see is perfection. Nothing to be healed, nothing to be forgiven, just perfection.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]