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The Spiritual Experiences of Helen Schucman: Helen’s Priestess Visions

After Helen and Bill’s joining in a better way in June of 1965, Helen began, as most Course students know, to have a series of heightened mental imagery, both in dreams and in her waking state. She had always seen very clear mental pictures, even during the day while her eyes were open. She observed that they seem to “represent the word or thoughts [she was having at the time] as corresponding symbols at a different but related level of consciousness” (Absence from Felicity, p. 96). Suddenly, however, these pictures, which had always been black-and-white stills, turned into moving pictures in full color with complex story lines. She separated them into three series:

Series I: ancient priestess

Series II: past life sequences with Bill

Series III: boat vision

Between these three were three priestess visions, in which a priestess appeared who was apparently a past life persona of Helen. The first was Series I, the second two were in Series II. We are going to look at the first and third of these priestess visions. (The second is not particularly edifying. In it, Helen showed up as a kind of evil priestess who controlled her people with the power of a magical gemstone.)

The Priestess in Chains

The first of the series began with a picture of an unrecognized female figure, heavily draped and kneeling with bowed head. Thick chains were twisted around her wrists and ankles. A fire rose high above her head from a large metal brazier standing near her on a low tripod. She seemed to be some sort of priestess, and the fire appeared to be associated with an ancient religious rite. This figure came to me almost daily for several weeks, each time with a noticeable change. The chains began to drop away and she started to raise her head. At last she stood up very slowly, with only a short, unconnected length of chain still tied to her left wrist. The fire blazed with unaccustomed brightness as she rose.

I was quite unprepared for the intensity of my emotional reaction to her. When she first raised her eyes and looked at me I was terribly afraid. I was sure she would be angry and expected that her eyes would be filled with condemnation and disdain. I kept my head turned away the first few times I saw her after she stood up, but finally made up my mind to look straight at her face. When I did, I burst into tears. Her face was gentle and full of compassion, and her eyes were beyond description. The best word I could find in describing them to Bill was “innocent.” She had never seen what I was afraid she would find in me. She knew nothing about me that warranted condemnation. Yet she did know many things I had never known, or at least had entirely forgotten. I loved her so much that I literally fell on my knees in front of her. Then I tried unsuccessfully to unite with her as she stood facing me, either by slipping over to her side or drawing her to mine. I noticed that she still had a few links of chain around her wrists. That, I felt, was probably the problem.

My next reactions were even stranger. I was suddenly swept away by a sense of joy so intense I could hardly breathe. Aloud I asked, “Does this mean I can have my function back?” The answer, silent but perfectly clear, was, “Of course!” At that I began to dance around the room in an intense surge of happiness I had never felt before. I would not have believed it was possible to experience such happiness as that answer brought with it, and for a little while I kept repeating, “How wonderful! Oh, how wonderful!” There seemed to be no doubt that there was a part of me I did not know, but which understood exactly what all this meant. It was a strangely split awareness, of a kind which was to become increasingly familiar.

Notice the quality of innocence in the priestess. This is not a conventional innocence. I’m struck by how Helen said her eyes were “beyond description,” and that the closest description was “innocent.” We don’t usually think of innocence as something that is literally beyond words. This innocence is really a spiritual power, a power associated with knowing—”she did know many things I had never known”—and a power associated with seeing—it allows her to see so far past all of Helen’s flaws that she doesn’t even see those flaws at all.

I’m also struck by how Helen sees this priestess just as we are supposed to see our brother—as an exalted spiritual figure, whose loving gaze can save us, and at whose feet we are tempted to kneel (see W‑161.9). In the same way that Helen saw the priestess in herself, we are supposed to see the Christ in our brother.

The priestess is obviously symbolic of the Christ in Helen, or maybe the right mind in Helen. Perhaps it draws on imagery from a past life in which the Christ in her was more manifest. Yet there is a question that immediately arises: why is this figure bowed down and chained? How can the Christ in us be chained? I can easily imagine Helen being in chains and unable to reach the Christ in her, but how can the Christ in her be chained?

There is actually a surprising pattern in the Course that reflects this very concept. Take a look at these passages:

Yet there is a Child in you Who seeks His Father’s house and knows that He is alien here….He desires to go home so deeply, so unceasingly, His voice cries unto you to let Him rest a while. He does not ask for more than just a few instants of respite; just an interval in which He can return to breathe again the holy air that fills His Father’s house. (W-182.4:3, 5:3-4)

The joy your Self experiences [in your meditation] It will save for you, and it will yet be yours in full awareness. (W-96.12:4)

These passages suggest that there is some aspect of our true Self, the Christ, that gets, in a sense, dragged down from Heaven when we go to earth. A crude analogy would be a helium balloon. When you hold the string to that helium balloon, you keep it earth-bound. It’s not as far down as you, but it is being kept down by you; left to its own devices, it would float to the heavens. And that’s what happens when you meditate. You may consciously experience nothing. But what you do is momentarily release the balloon, and it gets a chance, for that brief time, to fly home.

The next passages revisit this same theme. They speak of a buried spiritual element in us, which somehow is chained by our sleep and unchained by our choices to awaken. These two passages, however, have another point of significance: They specifically speak of this element being liberated by Helen and Bill’s joining, which of course is exactly the same as with the priestess:

When brothers join in purpose in the world of fear, they stand already at the edge of the real world. Perhaps they still look back and think they see an idol that they want. Yet [because of their joining] has their path been surely set away from idols toward reality, for when they joined their hands, it was Christ’s hand they took. And they will look on Him Whose hand they hold.

…For He Whose hand you hold was waiting but for you to join Him [the passage switches now to directly addressing Helen and Bill and their act of joining each other and thus taking Christ’s hand]….His gratitude to you is past your understanding, for you have enabled Him to rise from chains and go with you together to His Father’s house. (T‑30.VI.6:1-4, 7:2,5)

Helen and Bill’s joining has “enabled Him [Christ] to rise from chains.” That is exactly what happened with the priestess—their joining enable her to rise from chains.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose was accepted by the part of your mind the ego knows not of [this reference to accepting the Holy Spirit’s purpose is a reference to Helen and Bill’s joining]. No more did you. And yet this part, with which you now identify, is not afraid to look upon itself. It knows that it is sinless….This part has seen your brother and recognized him perfectly since time began. And it desired nothing but to join with him and to be free again, as once it was [obviously implying that it hasn’t been free in the meantime]. It has been waiting for the birth of freedom; the acceptance of release to come to you [Helen and Bill’s acceptance of release is obviously what frees this “other part”]….

And now the ego is afraid. But what it hears in terror, the other part hears as the sweetest music; the song it longed to hear since first the ego came into your mind [it clearly hasn’t been hearing this music since the ego came into being]. The ego’s weakness is its strength. The song of freedom, which sings the praises of another world, brings to it hope of peace. For it remembers Heaven [and has longed to know it again], and now it sees that Heaven has come to earth at last, from which the ego’s rule has kept it out so long. Heaven has come because it found a home in your relationship on earth. And earth can hold no longer what has been given Heaven as its own. (T-21.IV.4, 6)

So here we have some unnamed spiritual element in Helen and Bill. This “part of your mind” has two aspects. First, it retains its innocence. “It knows that it is sinless.” It sees our brother perfectly. “It remembers Heaven.” Second, it has felt imprisoned outside of Heaven, “waiting for the birth of freedom,” waiting for “the song of freedom,” waiting for Heaven to “come to earth at last” and set it free.

So this “other part,” then, has the same two characteristics as the priestess. It is innocent yet chained. And, just like the priestess, it has been freed by Helen and Bill’s joining, by their acceptance of release, by their allowing Heaven a home in their relationship.

So the Course really does see that some aspect of the Christ has been dragged down, halfway to earth, by our sleep. This part has kept its innocence (which is why the Christ Child is such an apt symbol for it), but it feels imprisoned and far from home. While we are down here feeling fine, it is choking in the smog of earth’s atmosphere. Yet, when we make a choice for God, when we meditate, when we join a brother, it feels liberated. It feels the sweet music return that it has longed to hear for time beyond measure. Its chains begin to drop off. It can stand up straight again. It can breathe again.

And as its chains come off, it becomes free to function again. And that is where our function comes from. Look at Helen. In a sense, she was the one taking down the Course, doing the scribing—doing her function. But in another sense, it was the priestess in her moving through her. The priestess was the real scribe, the one who had no conflict or ambivalence about her role. The priestess was absolutely dedicated, and was able to move through the debris field of Helen’s constant ambivalence and resistance, and get the job done. This is what it had longed to do. Helen’s reaction of indescribable happiness was, in a sense, the reaction of the priestess, whose joy at being able to resume her function was overwhelming.

The Priestess in the temple

This comes from Series II, which was a collection of past-life memories with Bill.

The next scene, in order of appearance, was so ancient that it seemed to be taking place at the very beginning of time. I was a priestess again….This priestess was, in fact, much like the one with the innocent eyes whom I had watched emerging from the heavy chains into freedom…..She was hidden from the world in a small white marble temple, set in a broad and very green valley. I was not sure that her body was entirely solid. Actually what I saw was little more than 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. A small flame burned on it, sending up a small, steady column of white smoke. 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.

There were a number of episodes in this series. Sometimes I saw only the green valley outside the white temple. Sometimes there seemed to be no one there, but at other times the valley was filled with a huge column of people marching joyously together in rows that seemed to extend endlessly in both directions. I could feel a deep sense of freedom and unity in each one as he marched ahead to certain victory.

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. He stayed in the enclosed space between the priestess and those who came for help. The man conveyed their needs to her.

He played a crucial role in enabling the priestess to fulfill her function, and I insisted for a long time that he was not Bill, although at length I came to concede that he probably was. He was tall and thin, but I could not see his face clearly. When people told him what they needed, he went to the door of her room and said: “Priestess, a brother has come to your shrine. Heal him for me.” She never asked anyone’s name, nor for the details of their request. She merely prayed for him, sitting very quietly beside the flame on the altar. It never occurred to her that help would not be granted. She prayed for everyone in the same way, and never really left God’s side, remaining peacefully certain of His presence there in the room with her. She never really stepped into the world, and was very quiet and very happy. She was so close to God that she was always aware of Him. I was sure she was myself, and yet I was not sure. What was certain was that I watched her with great love.

I find this to be a very powerful image. You have a woman who, on the outside, seems to have no life. All she does, all day every day, is sit on a wooden stool in front of a plain wooden altar with a flame on it, and pray. That’s all she ever does. She never leaves her little room. She has no human contact to speak of, just Bill peeking in and saying his one line. Even here there is no variety—he says the same line over and over. All these people are coming from far away to obtain her help, and she never meets them, never even finds out their names or the details of their problems. On the outside, her life seems incredibly boring, unbelievably empty.

This, however, stands in stark contrast to her happiness. She is “very happy.” Why? Because she is always with God, “peacefully certain of His presence there in the room with her.” This contrast between the emptiness of her outer life and the fullness of her inner life makes a powerful statement: God is sufficient for her. She doesn’t need a life full of action and variety and interaction. She doesn’t need to go outdoors. She doesn’t need to go on vacations. She doesn’t need all the things that we need. Something that is largely theoretical for us sustains her completely, constantly, more than all the hundreds of things in our lives ever sustain us.

Then there are the people. Her outer life and their outer life are complete opposites. She is alone, they are with each other. She is indoors, they are outdoors. She in inactive, they are active. She goes nowhere, they are traveling. They come to her, but she never sees them. There is this gulf between her and them in so many ways. Yet she and they are invisibly united. Her prayers make “a vital contribution” to their happiness. It is as if waves of happiness are invisibly radiating out from her and filling all these people, animating them, sustaining them, holding them up.

She and the people are physically separate, but inwardly united. Even though she never sees them, she and they share this close relationship. This happens in part through Bill. He is her intermediary with the world. “He played a crucial role in enabling the priestess to fulfill her function.” Somehow, without him, the circuit would not be complete. He is, in part, what allows the priestess and the people, who are so physically separate, to be so spiritually connected.

Here, then, appears to be the function that Helen, in her earlier priestess vision, so dearly wanted to have back. And she got it. Only now, instead of sitting there praying, she sat there scribing. And instead of Bill relaying messages from the people, he relayed messages to the people from her, through his typewriter. And the people, of course, are us. It is not hard to imagine Course students poetically described in the very same imagery: “a huge column of people marching joyously…a deep sense of freedom and unity in each one as he marched ahead to certain victory.” That same kind of indirect, yet vital and close relationship that the people shared with the priestess, we share with Helen. It worked—the priestess got her function back. And all of us have been blessed thereby. She sustains us now as she did back then. Indeed, for all we know, we were one of those pilgrims making pilgrimage to her shrine so very long ago.

But the role of priestess wasn’t just Helen’s function. In some sense, it is all of ours. The outer form of our function will be different, but the inner content is meant to be the same. We are all supposed to be “closet priestesses” (though not so literally in the closet as she!). There are two places in the Course that are reminiscent of her vision and apply its content to us, to our function:

The image of holiness that shines in your mind is not obscure, and will not change. Its meaning to those who look upon it is not obscure, for everyone perceives it as the same. They bring their different problems to its healing light, but all their problems are met only with healing there. The response of holiness to any form of error is always the same. There is no contradiction in what holiness calls forth [as its response]. Its one response is healing, without any regard for what is brought to it. (T-14.X.8)

It is hard not to notice the similarity to Helen’s priestess vision here. We have everyone bringing “their different problems” and finding that “the response of holiness…is always the same.” “Its one response is healing, without any regard for what is brought to it.”

This reminds us of the priestess, but, of course, it is really talking to us. When people bring their problems to us, no matter what the problem is, our inward response is meant to be the same. And offered in the same unself-conscious trust which the priestess offered up her prayers. Is that how we respond to problems that are brought to us now? Isn’t it true that our inward response is extremely different, depending on the size of the problem and how close it is to us personally? We need to learn to respond like the priestess—a problem is a problem, and all are healed with equal ease once placed in the Hands of God.

The previous passage may or may not have been an intentional allusion to Helen’s priestess memory. The next passage, however, definitely was.

You rest within the peace of God today, and call upon your brothers from your rest to draw them to their rest along with you. You will be faithful to your trust today, forgetting no one, bringing everyone into the boundless circle of your peace, the holy sanctuary where you rest. Open the temple doors and let them come from far across the world, and near as well—your distant brothers and your closest friends; bid them all enter here and rest with you. (W‑109.9)

Here we have someone resting in God’s peace, within their temple, their sanctuary. This rest on their part draws many people to them, some of whom come from very far away. People come streaming from all over the world to partake of their peace, to enter “into the boundless circle of your peace.” The allusion to the priestess vision is unmistakable.

Yet again, this is about us. This is about our rest in God drawing others to come and partake in our peace. Again, we are meant to be closet priestesses. What does this mean concretely? It means that when we meditate, we are not supposed to just meditate for ourselves. This paragraph is really a set of meditation instructions. It instructs us to forget no one, to actually “bring” them into the holy sanctuary of our mind, so that they can share in our peace. I don’t know about you, but I usually meditate for me. I don’t think of my meditation as having the purpose of drawing everyone into the peace that I am experiencing. But that is how the priestess thought, and that is how we need to think.

The overall message that I take away from these visions, and how they apply to us, is this: We need to take seriously the invisible side of life. We need to trust that it is real, that it has effects, and that it is most of what is going on in any situation. We need to realize, for instance, when we sit down to meditate, that some ancient part of us, filled with holiness and wisdom, throws off some of its chains, and begins to stand upright. We need to realize that, as it becomes freed, it begins to function. It reaches out across the world, sending its prayers out to countless other minds, to draw them into its peace. And they feel lifted out of despair, never having met the source of their sudden blessing. We need to realize that all of this is happening outside our awareness, but that all of it depends on us. Without our choice, the chains stay on, the people stay in despair.