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The Spiritual Experiences of Helen Schucman: Helen’s Magic Phase

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

After Helen and Bill had their moment of joining in June of 1965, Helen began having a series of inner visions. Not long after those began, she also started having a series of psychic experiences. She termed this her “magic phase.” And it is really what led directly into her scribing of the Course. In this class, we’ll look at her magic phase, see what it meant for her, and try to apply that meaning to our own lives.

The beginning of the magic phase: Joe needs help

The new phase started one day when Bill and I were working on a research report and I was concentrating on the statistical treatment of the data. Suddenly and very unexpectedly I laid the papers down and said, with great urgency, “Quick, Bill! Joe, your friend from Chicago, is thinking about suicide. We must send him a message right away.” Bill sat down next to me as I “sent” an earnest mental message to Joe. The words I used were: “The answer is life, not death.” Afterwards, I said to Bill, “I bet there was nothing to it,” but I was wrong. Bill called his friend that evening to ask him if he was all right. Joe was glad he had called; he had been very depressed, and had actually picked up a gun that afternoon, but something held him back. He put the gun down. (Absence from Felicity, p. 118)

This is a remarkable story. It carries the very real possibility that Helen saved Joe’s life, simply by sitting down at a distance and sending him a prayer for a few minutes. Strikingly, this experience is closely mirrored in the Psychotherapy supplement. There it says:

Your patients need not be physically present for you to serve them in the Name of God. This may be hard to remember, but God will not have His gifts to you limited to the few you actually see. You can see others as well, for seeing is not limited to the body’s eyes. Some do not need your physical presence. They need you as much, and perhaps even more, at the instant they are sent. You will recognize them in whatever way can be most helpful to both of you. It does not matter how they come. They will be sent in whatever form is most helpful; a name, a thought, a picture, an idea, or perhaps just a feeling of reaching out to someone somewhere. The joining is in the hands of the Holy Spirit. It cannot fail to be accomplished. (P-3.I. 3:1-10)

Notice the commonalities between this passage and Helen’s experience:

  • You can help people who are not physically present
  • Even though they don’t need your physical proximity, they need you to help them at their time of need-they need your proximity in time (Helen said, “Quick, Bill!…We must send him a message right away.” Psychotherapy says, “They need you…at the instant they are sent.”)
  • They will be sent to you through psychic means
  • You are to respond by sending healing at that moment

This also reminds one of Helen’s priestess vision:

She was hidden from the world in a small white marble temple, set in a broad and very green valley….I saw…an outline of a small, slender woman dressed in white, who never came further into the world than the doorway of a little room containing a plain wooden altar against the far wall….The priestess stayed close to the altar, sitting on a low wooden stool, praying with closed eyes for those who came to her for help.

I was not sure of the exact role the priestess had in their happiness, but I knew her prayers somehow made a vital contribution. I was also sure that people came to her for help from all over; some, in fact, from very far away. They did not, however, speak to the priestess directly. They knelt one by one at the ledge that ran around a low wall separating the inner and outer parts of the temple, stating their needs to a man who seemed like a sort of intermediary between the priestess and the world….The man conveyed their needs to her.

Again, notice the commonalities with the passage from Psychotherapy and the experience involving Joe:

  • Someone not physically present needs Helen’s help (Joe, Psychotherapy)
  • Her prayers play a vital role in this person’s journey (Joe, Psychotherapy)
  • This person’s needs are conveyed to her through an intermediary (Joe? Psychotherapy)

The overall message I get from these three different pieces is this: Helping someone via prayer from a distance is for real. It should not be taken lightly. We probably think, “How much good can praying for this person really do?” We believe in the power of physical interaction, but much less in the power of the mind and the Spirit. Yet, like Helen, we could perhaps save someone’s life through what amounts physically to sitting down and closing our eyes.

Bill’s hunt for the bathroom and Helen’s gold pin

It was hard not to be impressed, particularly as surprising events continued to happen for a while. Bill had gone to an out-of-town meeting, and on his return I described the place where he had stayed in great detail even though I had never seen it. I also told him a number of things that had happened there before he had a chance to tell me about them, apparently with extraordinary accuracy. I had seen a clear picture of him at the top of a staircase, standing there hesitantly, turning, and then return downstairs. Bill told me that he had in fact done that. He had not noticed where the bathroom was, and thought it might be upstairs. As he reached the top of the stairway, however, he saw there were only unmarked and closed doors on the second floor, and suspecting that he must have missed the door downstairs, he hesitated to make sure, and then turned to go back. Later I gave him a very detailed description of a friend’s house in the country where he stayed for a weekend, even to the colors of the walls and furniture. Still later, when he was away on vacation in the Virgin Islands I sent him a “mental message” in which I described a pin I would like him to bring me, a gold pin with a Florentine finish. I happened to notice that it was almost ten o’clock in the morning when the thought occurred to me. Bill handed me the pin on his return. He had been walking down a shopping street around ten o’clock after his arrival with a friend who also knew me. They were passing a jewelry store. Bill did not want to go in, but his friend practically insisted. The friend also picked out a Florentine gold pin, urging Bill to buy it for me and tell him it was just what I wanted. (Absence from Felicity, p. 118-119)

Helen here is discovering an ability she was not previously aware of. The nature of the ability is, of course, very striking, because it is so rare. But the issues around her use of the ability are fundamentally the same as the issues around how we use our abilities. We may have abilities in music, art, math, science, business, etc., and however mundane those seem, we face the same choices with them that we will see her facing with her psychic ability.

Question: Do you have any abilities that are unusual, surprising, striking? They can be unusual in kind (few others have the ability) or in degree (few have the ability to the degree that you do). If there is more than one, name the one that has the most significance (or potential significance) in your life. A trivial ability (someone told a story about a man who could put a grain of rice up his nose and have it come out his tear duct) is probably not best. Also, try to pick an ability you have regular access to.

As you might imagine, discovering these psychic gifts had quite an effect on Helen. If this were happening to us, we would probably find ourselves wondering exactly what we could do, or get, with these powers. Could we read the upcoming lottery numbers? Ken Wapnick comments about Helen’s feelings about these newfound abilities:

Helen had ambivalent reactions to these experiences. One part of her mind was proud of these abilities, even finding herself enjoying fantasies of power and prestige that this psychic ability might bring her. But another part of Helen’s mind felt considerable fear, and desperately tried to explain away the episodes, going to “great and even preposterous lengths” to do so. This ambivalence of attraction and fear became stronger for a while, leading to nightmares she could not remember. Although Helen could not recall the dreams’ content, she found it difficult to put associations of “witchcraft and evil” out of her mind.

Yet pride kept pace with anxiety [Helen comments], and though I felt an increasing sense of danger I also experienced a concomitant feeling of self-inflation. (Absence, p. 119)

Question: In relation to the ability you wrote down previously, what have your feelings about it been? Have you felt inflated about it? Have you felt anxious about it? Have you feared its use? Have you relied on its use to make you a special or high-status person? Be as honest as you can, especially about the pride and specialness.

In a sentence-according to your secret thoughts and feelings-what do you see this ability as saying about you? Complete this sentence: “In light of this ability, I am…”

Discussion: Do you notice a difference between the Joe experience and the rest of the experiences? They are of a very different nature. Can you zero in on what that difference is?

The Mayo Clinic story

In the midst of this magic phase, something happened that, according to Helen, involved a

…strange mixture of fact and fantasy but which also pointed to a definite future direction. The episode began with evident magical overtones, continuing on a more religious note and ending with a simple, real-life situation. (Absence, p. 119)

This was Helen and Bill’s Mayo Clinic story. It occurred in September of 1965, shortly before the scribing of the Course began. As we saw, the psychic powers she was discovering made her very anxious, yet also caused feelings of pride and self-inflation. Without knowing it, she was approaching a crucial decision about the purpose for which she would use her newfound gifts.

At this time, she and Bill were sent by their hospital on a research visit to the Mayo Clinic. The night before they left, Helen received in her mind a clear and detailed picture of a Lutheran church, which she felt sure they would see the next day when they landed in Rochester, Minnesota. Yet they didn’t, and after a grueling search in which they took a taxi past twenty-four of the city’s twenty-seven or so churches, they still didn’t find it. Finally, while at the airport the next day waiting to return home, Bill found a guidebook with a picture of the very church Helen had “seen.” Ironically, it had occupied the site of the current Mayo Clinic, having been torn down in order to build the hospital.

Ask yourself: What exactly is the usefulness of finding the church? Its only use is to confirm Helen’s powers, to prove that she really did have this ability. And wasn’t that also the usefulness of those other experiences I quoted above, after the Joe experience? When she described Bill looking for the bathroom, what was the usefulness of that? Again, it was just to confirm the existence and validity of Helen’s powers. This is the difference between those subsequent experiences and the initial one with Joe (the question I asked above). With Joe, she quite possibly saved his life. With Bill looking for the bathroom, as well as with the church, she helped no one. All she did was prove that she in fact had the power. It may seem as if I am making too much of this distinction, but it will prove to be the crucial distinction in Helen’s magic phase.

Question: Regarding the ability you’ve been writing about (or you can pick a new one if you like), have you ever used it in ways whose only value was to prove that you in fact have this ability? What ways? Again, be as honest as you possibly can. This is the sort of thing we don’t like to admit.

On the way home, Helen and Bill had a layover in Chicago. In the airport, Helen saw a young woman, clearly traveling by herself, sitting against a wall. Here’s how Helen described it:

Huddled against a wall was a solitary young woman. I could feel waves and waves of misery going through her. I pointed her out to Bill, who was against my talking to her. We were both exhausted, it was very late, and he was not up to getting involved with strangers at that point. Besides, I might just be imagining her distress. She did not give any outward signs of anything but sleepiness. I could not, however, escape the feelings of pain I was receiving from her. Finally, I told Bill I could not help myself, and went to talk to her. (Absence, p. 122)

It’s easy to miss the significance of this, but understanding the experience hinges on seeing what happened here. To all outward appearances, the young woman was just sleepy. How did Helen know she was feeling misery and pain? Obviously, by virtue of the same abilities Helen had used to see the church. Here was another use of her psychic powers, but this time a very different use, a use very much like the Joe experience. Just as she had sensed that Joe was on the brink of suicide, so now she sensed that this woman was in serious pain.

The young woman’s name was Charlotte. She was terrified of flying and so Helen and Bill offered to sit on either side of her on the plane, while Helen held her hand. She had felt like her life was “closing in” on her, and so, without any planning, she had left her husband and three children and, with nothing but a small suitcase and a few hundred dollars, was heading off to New York City to make a new life, with no specific plans of where to stay.

She was a Lutheran, and she was sure all she had to do was find a Lutheran church in New York and they would take care of her there. Bill and I exchanged glances. The message was not hard to grasp. “And this,” I seemed to hear, “is my true church…helping another; not the edifice you saw before.” (Journey Without Distance, p. 50)

Helen and Bill were extremely helpful to Charlotte during her brief stay in New York City, in a number of ways. They even found her a Lutheran church to stay at (after first finding her a hotel). And after she returned to her family, Helen kept in touch with her for many years.

I find this to be a fascinating story, with more to it than meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look. Helen begins by going on a search for a particular church. But it is really the search to confirm her psychic powers. This search is frustrated, and one gets the impression that it ought to be frustrated. There is something amiss about her zeal to confirm her psychic visions. Thus, even when she finds her church, she discovers that it is a dead thing from the past. It has been replaced by something else, just as her fascination with her powers should be replaced.

Charlotte, too, is looking for a church. She wants a place of help and refuge in this difficult time in her life. Unexpectedly, she finds that place with Helen and Bill. Her real church was not a building in New York City, but two people she met along the way. And, ironically, in Charlotte finding her church, Helen found hers. Helen may have been seeking a particular church in Minnesota, but, in helping Charlotte, what she found was a very different kind of church. She found the kind of holy ground the Course talks about when it says, “The holiest of all the spots on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love”-or where two strangers have joined in love.

In the process, she also discovered the real purpose for her psychic abilities, for she was led to both churches by those abilities. The same power that revealed to her the Lutheran church also revealed to her Charlotte’s need. What was the better use for this power-to see buildings from the past, or to feel someone’s need in the present? To impress others or to help others?

Question: Again regarding the same ability, have you used it purely to help others? In what ways?

What were the benefits to you of using it this way?

This experience left its mark on Helen. It led directly to the end of her magic phase and, more specifically, to her scroll cave vision a short time later, in which she chose to use her psychic powers as a channel for God, not as a flashy way of reading the past and future. This was the choice to accept her role as scribe of the Course, a process which began only weeks later. Helen comments:

I am very grateful to [Charlotte]. I have an idea that I might never have found that scroll without her help [the vision of the scroll in which she chose to use her powers only for God]. It might well be that magic had to end in the plain fact of Charlotte before I could make the final decision to abandon magic in exchange for something much more desirable. (Absence, p. 124)

Helen’s experience is obviously guided. Indeed, it fits exactly a model I’ve been working with for some years now. In this model, two or more events just happen to occur together closely in time and are strikingly similar-they share a number of parallels between them. In the case of Helen and Charlotte, what you have is two parallel stories that just happen to run into each other on the same night. Let me sketch the parallels as I see them:

Parallels Helen Charlotte
A woman traveling to a distant city To Rochester, Minnesota To New York City
She is hoping to find a Lutheran church there. …to confirm her psychic abilities …to find refuge in a new city, after leaving her family
This church symbolizes a deeper search. She is really trying to process an issue which will determine her place in life. She is processing what to do with her psychic powers, a question which will determine whether or not she can fulfill her function of scribing the Course. She wants out of her constricting situation and is wondering if she should be with her husband and kids.
She finds the church, but it’s not the thing she was really looking for. The church is long gone, a thing of the past. The experience of finding it was overshadowed by finding Charlotte. She stays at the church, but her experience in NYC is really centered on her connection with Helen and Bill. She usually ends up at Helen’s place for dinner.
She finds what she was looking for in her connection with the other woman. This connection ends up overshadowing the church issue. She finds out what do with her powers through her connection with Charlotte. She ends up sorting out her life through her connection with Helen.
She ends up abandoning the specific impetus behind her initial search for the church. She stops trying to use her psychic powers to show off. She leaves NYC and returns home to her family.
She sorts out the deeper search to find her place in life. She decides to use her psychic gifts for scribing the Course. She eventually decides to leave her husband. She tells Helen she was happy and peaceful. Helen said, “She seems to have gotten herself fairly well straightened out now.”

 

I find it remarkable that two such parallel stories would converge on one night by two strangers meeting each other.

There is another dimension of meaning here as well. If you look at Helen’s side of the story, there are really two events within it, both occurring that night. The first is Bill finding Helen’s church in the guidebook. The second is Helen running across Charlotte, sensing her need, and responding to it. In this case, the two events share both strong parallels and sharp contrasts. I’ll list both below:

Helen seeking and finding her church Helen sensing and responding to Charlotte’s need
Helen picked up on something psychically-the church. Helen picked up on something psychically-Charlotte’s misery.
What she picked up on was confirmed-the church had in fact existed. What she picked up on was confirmed-Charlotte really was miserable and in tremendous need.
In a way, however, it was disconfirmed, in that what she thought would be there was not there. The church had long ago been destroyed. Rather than being something in the distant past, something that was no longer there, the misery that Helen sensed was very much in the present.
There was no usefulness in her psychic vision of the church, except to show off her powers. There was great usefulness in her psychic impression, because it led to pivotal gain for both Charlotte and Helen, and to a longstanding connection between them.

So we have two uses of her abilities, both of them accurate, in a sense. But there the similarities stop, and we stumble on contrasts so striking that one suspects the experience was designed to communicate a lesson. The first use had only the purpose of proving Helen’s ability. The second use changed two people’s lives forever. And more than just those two lives. Helen herself said that she might never have scribed the Course if it wasn’t for Charlotte. Thus, Helen’s choice to use her ability to help a stranger in need that night changed all of our lives.

Now let’s add the two above tables together in order to find the overall message: Helen is trying to sort out this crucial issue of what to do with her newfound abilities. She starts out by going in the wrong direction. She sees her powers as a kind of end in themselves, and so her search is to simply confirm that they do in fact exist. Then, however, she is turned around. She uses her abilities to sense the deep need of another person. She then responds to that need, making a huge difference in the life of a total stranger. Through this, she discovers the true use of her newfound powers. And through resolving this issue, she resolves a larger, unspoken issue. By deciding to devote her paranormal abilities to helping others, she finds her true place in life-as the scribe of A Course in Miracles.

This overall message was compressed into the brief statement that Jesus told her that night: “And this is my true church…helping another; not the edifice you saw before.” The church she really wanted to find was not the nonexistent one which symbolized Helen’s quest to prove her abilities to herself. It was the church she entered into by using her abilities to help and join with Charlotte.

As you can see, the dichotomy between the two uses of Helen’s powers is the whole message here. On the one side we have seeing the church, seeing Bill look for the bathroom, seeing the house where Bill had vacationed, sending Bill the request for the gold pin. On the other side we have sensing Joe’s desperate need and responding with life-saving help, and sensing Charlotte’s desperate need and responding with life-altering help. The two uses could not be more different.

This same dichotomy is also found in Section 25 of the Manual, “Are Psychic Powers Desirable?”

Given to the Holy Spirit, and used under His direction, they are valuable teaching aids….Taking them as ends in themselves [which is exactly how Helen was tempted to take them], no matter how this is done, will delay progress.…Here are strengths which the Holy Spirit wants and needs [we can see this with Joe and Charlotte]. Yet the ego sees in these same strengths an opportunity to glorify itself [just as Helen’s ego did].…Any ability that anyone develops has the potentiality for good. To this there is no exception [!]. And the more unusual and unexpected the power, the greater its potential usefulness [simply because the Holy Spirit is in the business of changing minds, and the unusual grabs people’s minds]. Salvation has need of all abilities, for what the world would destroy the Holy Spirit would restore. “Psychic” abilities have been used to call upon the devil, which merely means to strengthen the ego. Yet here is also a great channel of hope and healing in the Holy Spirit’s service. (M-25.3, 4, 6)

We usually get on the spiritual path usually wanting to find relief from our pain. Therefore, we may not see the spiritual relevance of this issue of how we use our abilities-how responsibly we use them. Such things seem far from the task of becoming enlightened. Yet the Course would have us see this issue as totally relevant to our enlightenment. In its view, we become enlightened precisely through using our abilities completely responsibly, as channels of helpfulness to our brothers. That’s how we reveal to ourselves the holiness of our original nature. We will not remember God, the Course says, until we give all of our abilities to the Holy Spirit to use for the healing of the Sonship:

All abilities should therefore be given over to the Holy Spirit, Who understands how to use them properly. He uses them only for healing [others], because He knows you only as whole. By healing you learn of wholeness, and by learning of wholeness you learn to remember God. (T-7.IV.4:1-3)

Therefore, just as Helen’s decision about how to use her newfound abilities was absolutely pivotal for her journey, so our decision about how to use our abilities is pivotal for our journey. We will not find our true place in life, or our true place in God, until we make the right decision about this.

Question: If you used this ability only to be purely helpful, and never to prove merely that you have it, and made that use as much of the focus of your life as is reasonable, what would your life be like?

Visualization

See yourself entering a cave in a rock formation on a wind-swept sea coast.
The entrance to the cave is low, but the cave is quite deep.
You look ahead of you on the floor of the cave and there you see two objects.
These two objects symbolize the two uses of your ability.
The object on the left symbolizes your use of the ability just to prove you have it, to show it off, or perhaps to get your way with it.
Look at it carefully. See what this object looks like. Make note of its exact appearance.
The object on the right symbolizes your use of the ability purely to help others.
See what this object looks like. Make note of its appearance.
If feasible, hold them both before you, one in each hand.
Look back and forth between them, seeing each one exactly as it is, noting the contrast between them.
Now make your choice. You can choose one, or the other, or perhaps even both.
Make the choice that is in line with your deepest need.
Having made your choice, let the Holy Spirit comment on it.
Listen to what He says about your choice.
Then go ahead and write down what you hear.