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The Spiritual Experiences of Helen Schucman: Helen’s Scroll Cave Vision

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

One of Helen’s most important experiences was her scroll cave vision. This ended what she called her “magic phase” and represented her acceptance of her role as scribe of A Course in Miracles. Her magic phase (as we saw in an earlier class) was one in which she discovered she had psychic abilities. As a result, she found herself frightened by the idea of having powers that didn’t fit into her worldview, yet she also found herself inflated with pride over the idea.

The phase came to an initial conclusion in the Mayo Clinic experience. She and Bill were set to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota on business. Helen had a vision and based on it predicted that they would see a particular Lutheran church while their plane landed. They didn’t see the church, and spent the entire evening in a taxi looking at some 24 churches in the city, none of which fit her vision. Finally, the next day, while at the airport waiting to board their return flight, Bill found a photo of Helen’s church in a guidebook. It had occupied the site of the Mayo Clinic itself, and had been razed when the clinic was built.

Things didn’t stop there, however. On a layover in Chicago, Helen saw a young women sitting against the wall, and sensed waves and waves of misery going through her, though Bill could detect nothing of the kind. Clearly, Helen was using the same abilities that had shown her the church. Against Bill’s reservations, she and Bill befriended this woman, who said that she was leaving home to fly to New York City and start a new life. Her only plans for when she reached New York was to find a Lutheran church:

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.”

The Mayo Clinic experience was really a lesson in two very different uses of her psychic powers. 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?

The scroll cave vision

Not long after the Mayo Clinic, Helen had an experience in which her magic phase came to a sudden and permanent end:

My own “magic” phase ended abruptly with a particularly clear picture episode in which I knew I had made an irrevocable choice. I saw myself entering a cave in a rock formation on a bleak, wind-swept seacoast. The entrance to the cave was low, and the cave was quite deep. All I found in it was a very old and large parchment scroll. Its ends were rolled around heavy, gold-tipped poles, the two sides touching at the scroll’s center and tied together by a strip of parchment that fell away as my fingers touched it. I untied the ends and opened the scroll just enough to expose the center panel, on which only two words were written; “God is,” and nothing else. Then I slowly unrolled the scroll further, and tiny black letters began to appear on both side panels. The Voice explained the situation to me:

“If you look at the left panel you will be able to read about everything that happened in the past. And if you look at the right panel you will be able to read everything that will happen in the future.”

Let me pause at this place in her vision and ask, what would you be feeling at this point? In the middle panel is what could easily be seen as a boring spiritual platitude. But on the left panel you could read everything that happened in the past: your own past, your past lives, and the world’s past-world history. And on the right panel you could find out everything that will happen: when you will meet the man or woman of your dreams, who will win the next election, when humanity will make contact with an alien race—whatever you wanted to know. Let’s see how Helen reacted:

The little letters on the sides of the panel were becoming clearer, and for several minutes I was tempted to look at them. Then I made a decision. I rolled up the scroll to conceal everything except the center panel.

“I’m not interested in the past or the future,” I said, with finality. “I’ll just stop with this.”

The Voice sounded both reassured and reassuring. I was astonished at the depth of gratitude that it somehow conveyed. “Thank you,” it said, “You made it that time. Thank you.”

And that, it seemed, was that. (first sentence drawn from Journey Without Distance, p. 51, rest is from Absence from Felicity, p. 124-125)

Helen knew this choice was not insignificant. She said she knew it was “an irrevocable choice.” There was no going back. In this private vision, she had set the path before her. This, in fact, as most Course students know, was her acceptance of her role as scribe of the Course. It was much like her Mayo Clinic experience, in which she was faced with two uses of her psychic abilities. However, in this case, she had to make a firm choice between them. And in this case, the one alternative was not just using her abilities for a helpful purpose, it was using her abilities for God. In fact, you might see the panels on the scroll as symbolizing what she would produce with her abilities—some form of writing that was the expression of her abilities. If she had chosen differently, perhaps she would have become a famous psychic, writing books that revealed the secrets of the past and future, which of course is not uncommon for psychics. Instead, she wrote a book that was all about God. After this vision, it was not long before that book began coming through her. Jesus seemed to refer to this choice later when he said,

Note that you do not need his [Bill’s] help as a scribe, because you developed this ability by your own efforts, and finally placed them at my disposal. (Urtext)

I think this is how it works with our abilities. We develop them by our own efforts, and for our own reasons. We develop them to get what we want. But then, finally, when our use of them doesn’t get us what we want and just gets us into trouble, we place them at the disposal of a higher authority. Helen’s scroll cave vision was where she did that.

What did Jesus mean by saying, “You made it that time”? A few things seem to indicate that Jesus was referring to past lives, that those were the times in which she didn’t make it. The nature of the scene in her vision seems to suggest this. The whole scene suggests Helen revisiting an ancient situation. The remark I quoted above also implies this, for Helen did not develop these abilities by efforts in this life. She had never made any effort in her life as Helen to develop psychic abilities. Then when he says “and finally placed them at my disposal,” that suggests a long period of time between her developing the abilites and her giving them to him.

This line of thought is supported by another comment from Jesus:

Your earlier acute problem in writing things down came from a much earlier misuse of very great scribal abilities. These were turned to secret rather than shared advantage, depriving it (?) of its miraculous potential. (Urtext)

Helen may have thought that she just had writer’s block. But in fact when she sat down to write, she was coming up against an old, old fear. In some past life (or lives) she had “very great scribal abilities,” which seems to refer to the use of her psychic abilities in the form of writing. Unfortunately, she had misused these, using them for private gain (secret advantage) rather than the common good. This deeply frightened her, causing her to want to cut off the expression of those abilities. If we use some ability for harm, something in us figures that the solution is to block the expression of that ability (like the murderer who wants to be caught and therefore stopped), rather than relinquish the impulse to harm. So now, in this life, when Helen sat down to write, something deep in her mind said, “If you don’t write, you can’t do what you did before,” and this stopped her from writing. This left her in the position of wanting to be a writer, yet having terrible difficulty writing anything.

The point for us here is that in making the choice Helen made in her vision, she was reversing a very old pattern, one that probably went back thousands of years.

The Qumran cave

After Helen was done taking down the Course, in the fall of 1972, she and Bill met Ken Wapnick. Ken at that time was planning on spending the rest of his life in a monastery in Israel. When Helen and Bill showed him the Course, however, he knew very quickly that they were his spiritual family and that he was to devote his life to the Course. He then planned to return to Israel for a time to tell the monks there that his plans had changed. However, he mentioned to Helen in passing about a cave there at this monastery that he and others had spent time digging out so that it could be used as the community’s chapel. Helen immediately tuned into this cave psychically, began describing it in detail, and said that there was something of great value in the lower-left corner. She thought it might be the Holy Grail, the chalice used at the Last Supper. Bill, who seemed generally skeptical about the matter, thought there might perhaps be an important scroll there, buried in a cylinder. A young X-ray technician named Freddie who worked at the hospital where Helen and Bill worked, and who had psychic abilities of his own, thought that the bones of Mary Magdalene might be there, something which Helen had already seemed to have thought independently.

This led to a fascinating and somewhat bizarre episode in the Course’s history, in the summer of 1973. Ken returned to Israel, to be followed in several weeks by Helen and Bill, who in part because of the cave had decided to visit the Holy Land with their partners (Louis and Chip). The abbot of the monastery was planning on sealing up the area inside the cave where this important object was supposed to be, but Ken persuaded him to wait so that he could conduct a four-day dig.

As you might imagine, Ken didn’t find the important object they all hoped for. He found some coins and pieces of pottery, not a surprise in that region. On the last day of the dig, he found an ancient ring, which was eventually dated to before the time of Christ. The ring had great spiritual significance for him, but it was obviously not the fulfillment of what they were expecting.

A couple of weeks after Ken’s dig, Helen and Bill and Louis and Chip came over. At one point, Bill began insisting that they visit the ruins of the Qumran community, where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been penned. They did so, and when they did, the strange events of that summer became understandable.

Almost from the moment we arrived in Qumran, Helen was visibly moved, most uncharacteristic of her. As we stood on the site of the ancient community, we looked across the roped-off area to a series of caves, including the one where the scrolls were found in cylinders not unlike what Bill thought might be in “my” cave. At some point Helen burst into tears, and told us that the cave in front of her was the exact cave she had seen in her vision of the “God Is” scroll. She then exclaimed that she was standing on the holiest place on earth.

Turning around to look at the Dead Sea, not far from Qumran, Helen remarked that the water level was too low, and that it should be considerably higher. Bill consulted his guide book, and sure enough it stated that two thousand years ago the water level had indeed been much higher. [This is correct, by the way. The Dead Sea is currently extremely low.] Helen and I then walked towards some of the ruins, and she told me of her strong impulse to walk over to the area which the Essenes had used as their cemetery. But then she felt an equally strong impulse from Jesus not to do so, hearing him say to her: “Let the dead bury the dead.” And so Helen stayed away from what she almost certainly felt to be her own gravesite, nineteen hundred years ago.

Helen, Bill, and I later were discussing this rather emotional morning, when it occurred to all of us that it was this cave at Qumran, and what it represented for Helen, that was the true object of what had so preoccupied us during the summer. That preoccupation had been displaced to the cave at the monastery. (Absence from Felicity, p. 357)

I have been reflecting on the meaning of this experience. A number of things strike me. First, it was not unlike the Mayo Clinic experience. Just as her psychic impressions about a church were really about a whole other church, so here her psychic impressions about a cave were really about a whole other cave. And that, I think, is part of the message here. Her abilities need to be devoted not to impressive feats designed to prove that they are for real—which the first church and the first cave at least partly symbolized—but to something larger than her—symbolized by the second church and second cave.

To me, the main point of the experience is to reinforce the reality of her earlier cave vision. Think about it: In a vision which seems to be about revisiting a past life, she walks into “a cave in a rock formation on a bleak, wind-swept seacoast.” There, on the floor of the cave, she finds an ancient scroll. The scroll is about God, but it’s also about delving into the past and psychically reading the future. In the vision, she makes a life-changing choice, but was the vision for real? Was it perhaps just a bunch of pictures produced by an over-active imagination?

Now, however, eight years later, on the other side of the world, she finds a cave in a rock formation on a bleak, wind-swept seacoast. She says it looks like the exact same cave. On the floor of this cave were found ancient scrolls, just as in her vision. These scrolls were the writings of the Essene sectarians who lived in the nearby community (at least a majority of scholars believe the scrolls were produced by an Essene community living in the nearby settlement). The scrolls were about God, for the monks there were profoundly devoted to God, but they were also about delving into the past and prophesying the future. For the scribes of this sect used a method of commentary (or pesher) in which they took texts from the Hebrew scriptures and interpreted them as being prophesies about the current and future events in the life of their community (much as modern-day evangelical Christians interpret the book of Revelation as being about happenings in our current society). That community, in other words, was greatly focused on both God and the past and future, and thus produced scrolls that were symbolized very well by the scroll in Helen’s vision.

Imagine the impact this would have on you if you were Helen. It would be hard not to feel that the past life you had revisited in that vision was not an actual life you had lived in a particular time and place. It would be hard not to surmise that you were one of the scribes of this community, and that you had perhaps even produced some of the scrolls that were uncovered. In fact, as part of that earlier comment about Helen’s “much earlier misuse of very great scribal abilities,” Jesus said significantly, “Some of the original material is still in the Temple.” So some of her writings as this scribe were still in their original location.

But the point, it seems to me, is not to get caught up in Helen’s apparent past life as a Qumran scribe. After all, Jesus said very pointedly, “Let the dead bury the dead”—let the spiritually dead become engrossed in the the physically dead. The point, I think, of the whole experience was to underscore the veracity of her scroll cave vision. If the past life she chose to correct was for real, then the correction is given greater importance. If in a past life she really was that scribe who misused her abilities, then it becomes all the more significant that in this life she was a scribe who used her abilities only for God. The point, then, is not to emphasize the past, but to emphasize her correction of that past in the present.

We say “God is” and then we cease to speak

Helen’s vision is clearly echoed in this passage from Workbook Lesson 169:

Oneness is simply the idea God is. And in His Being, He encompasses all things. No mind holds anything but Him. We say “God is,” and then we cease to speak, for in that knowledge words are meaningless. There are no lips to speak them, and no part of mind sufficiently distinct to feel that it is now aware of something not itself. It has united with its Source. And like its Source Itself, it merely is.

We cannot speak nor write nor even think of this at all. It comes to every mind when total recognition that its will is God’s has been completely given and received completely. It returns the mind into the endless present, where the past and future cannot be conceived. It lies beyond salvation; past all thought of time, forgiveness and the holy face of Christ. The Son of God has merely disappeared into his Father, as his Father has in him. The world has never been at all. Eternity remains a constant state. (W-pI.169.5:1-6:7)

This gives the image from Helen’s vision a much deeper meaning. Now the center panel has become God’s Being, God’s Is-ness, which encompasses all being, including our being. And the center panel has also become “the endless present,” thus deepening the implication from the original vision that the center panel is somehow identified with the present, since it lay between past and future.

If the center panel is the greater Being that we are part of, and if it is also the endless present, then the center panel signifies that which is truly immediately present to us, that which we are truly part of. It is the central fact of our existence, a central fact that is right here in front of us, not to the left or the right, staring us in the face, beckoning us to acknowledge it and disappear into it.

We, however, manage to overlook that central panel in our preoccupation with the right and left panels—”the past and future” (also mentioned in this passage), the drama of the world. They are not what is immediately present. They are not what we are truly part of. Yet we manage to get absorbed in them, in the distant, the removed, the external, the illusory, and somehow develop a blind spot when it comes to that which is truly staring us in the face, that which is the central fact of our existence.

Our goal is to acknowledge that central fact, that center panel. When we do, everything reverses. What we were blind to becomes everything, and what was everything vanishes to nothingness. When we say “God is” and mean it, when we truly acknowledge God’s Being, we realize that we are inextricably part of that Being, and therefore that we cannot stand outside and speak about it, or even think about it, for there is no outside it. We have completely disappeared into it. Now, the center panel is not one choice among others. The center panel has become everything. It has become totality, a totality that encompasses us. Now there is no observer choosing between the center panels and side panels. There are no left and right panels. There is no observer. There is only God’s Being.

Exercise

Based on the above, the center panel represents the central fact of our existence which we somehow manage to avoid, as we seek diversions off to the right or to the left. This central fact is God’s Being, and our oneness with that Being. Yet that central fact can take different forms for each person and take different forms at different times in that person’s life. For Helen, that central fact took the form of using her psychic gifts for God. For us, that central fact will probably take another form.

Begin this exercise by getting comfortable, closing your eyes, and imagining that you are entering a cave in a rock formation on a bleak, wind-swept seacoast. Once inside, you spot an ancient scroll on the floor of the cave. Its ends are rolled around heavy, gold-tipped poles, the two sides touching at the scroll’s center. You open the scroll just enough to expose the center panel.

The center panel is blank for the moment, but on it will appear the central fact that you are here to realize, the one great truth that, if you learned it, would make your purpose here complete. You may avoid this truth, you may spend your time focused on other things, and allow great stretches to go by without even thinking about it, yet it remains the central truth, the thing you are here to realize.

Let the words which describe it appear on that center panel. If time passes and nothing comes, ask the Holy Spirit internally what it is.

Once you have some sense of what it is, even if it is an imperfect sense, then open the scroll further, exposing the left and right panels. On these are written all the ways in which you avoid or deny or resist that one central fact, all the escapes from that central fact, all the avoidances, all the diversions, all the substitutes.

Now open your eyes and write down what is in your center panel, and in the left and right ones, on the “scroll” below.

When you are done with that, spend three minutes looking at your scroll, trying to reach a decision. Will you, like Helen, decide to “just stop with this”?

Side panel CENTER PANEL Side panel