[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Helen Schucman’s subway experience was one of the pivotal experiences in her life. Though it occurred over 25 years before she began scribing A Course in Miracles, it was an extremely powerful example of what the Course would later call a miracle. In this experience, Helen’s perception of disgust and revulsion in a subway train gave way to an experience of a blazing light in which she “loved everyone on the train with…incredible intensity.”
What has drawn my attention recently is the specific images she experienced in that blazing light. Here is her telling of the story, quoted from Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, p. 54.
I was finding the whole situation increasingly disgusting, and closed my eyes to shut it out, feeling sick to my stomach. And then a stunning thing happened. It was very brief….An accurate account of what happened is impossible. As an approximation, however, I can say that it was as though a blinding light blazed up behind my closed eyes and filled my mind entirely. Without opening my eyes, I seemed to be watching a figure of myself as a child, walking directly into the light. The child seemed to know exactly what she was doing. It was as if the situation were completely familiar to her. For a moment she paused and knelt down, touching the shining ground with elbows, wrists, and forehead in what looked like an Eastern gesture of deep reverence. Then she got up, walked to the right side and knelt again, this time resting her head as if leaning against a gigantic knee. The feeling of a great arm reached around her and she disappeared. The light grew even brighter, and I felt the most indescribably intense love streaming from the light to me.It was so powerful that I literally gasped and opened my eyes.
What I see in Helen’s experience is a beautiful symbol of our relationship with God, presented in three different aspects.
The Creator and the created
Helen’s vision begins as she watches herself as a child walking directly into a blazing light, then kneeling down and “touching the shining ground with elbows, wrists, and forehead in what looked like an Eastern gesture of deep reverence.” I love this image. It speaks to a deep need within us, a primordial need that lies at the timeless roots of our being. There is some deep urge in us to have a God, to stand in His Presence and to acknowledge Him.
Love is a self-giving. This self-giving is our only need, for it is through this that we receive. We are meant, of course, to give ourselves in love to all living things. Yet there is a way in which we can give ourselves to our Creator that we cannot to our equals. Look at this passage from the Text:
Awe should be reserved for revelation [the direct experience of union with God], to which it is perfectly and correctly applicable. It is not appropriate for miracles [in which healed perception extends from one person to another] because a state of awe is worshipful, implying that one of a lesser order stands before his Creator….Equals should not be in awe of one another because awe implies inequality (Text, p. 5; T-1.II.3:1,2,5).
This says that there are certain feelings that are not appropriate in relation to our equals, but that are appropriate in relation to God. It says specifically that awe and worshipfulness only make sense when there is inequality. Awe is when our whole self is drawn out of our open eyes as we look on that which is truly greater than us. Worship is when our whole heart goes out to that which stands qualitatively above us. In both instances, the object of our awe and worship deserves all of us because it is more than us. To hold anything back would imply that there was something in us greater than it.
It is not just that God is greater, it is that He created us. We can give all of our selves to Him because He gave all of ourselves to us. To hold anything back from Him would imply that some part of us came from somewhere else. Note your reactions to the following line: “Your creations love you as you love your Father for the gift of creation” (Text, p. 138; T-8.VI.5:7). That line has such impact, I believe, because somewhere inside we innately recognize the profound and total nature of the love the created gives to its Creator. That such a love could be directed at us is therefore a breathtaking idea.
There is thus a kind of love, a kind of self-giving that only happens in relation to God, that only makes sense with God. We are to experience awe and worshipfulness only when we stand as the lesser before the greater, as the created before its Creator. And who would want to do without such feelings? Who would want to be deprived of the joy of prostrating oneself in loving adoration before one’s Creator? This total giving of ourselves is true ecstasy, for ecstasy literally means to go out of oneself.
Yet for many of us this is a repugnant idea. It can feel belittling, humiliating. We are tired of the dependency and submission implied by such an image. In fact, to my reading, a great deal of today’s alternative spirituality is there as an alternative to this kind of relationship to God. Many of us have sought refuge from the Western celestial hierarchy in the formless void of Eastern mysticism. The New Age movement is another such refuge, in which we try to shed these primitive notions from humanity’s childhood and realize instead that we are God.
We have some pretty valid reasons for fleeing the God that we inherited from Western religion. He looked more like a stern, quick-tempered (a friend of mine would add “alcoholic”) human father than a divine Being of love. Yet, I believe, there is a deeper, more fundamental reason for our desire to level the heavenly playing field. The real reason is: this is why we left Heaven in the first place. The Son left “because he would not accept the fact that, although he was a creator, he had been created” (Text, p. 176; T-10.V.4:3).
This is the authority problem, which the Course says is our only problem, “the only source of conflict” (Text, p. 179; T-11.In.2:3). We just couldn’t handle the fact that God was God and we were His creation. We not only had to swallow Him being our Creator, we had to accept that He had created us the same as everything else. There was no way to be special, unique or even just a little bit different. What’s more, we had to swallow His Kingdom—our home—as is. There was nothing we could add on, no furniture we could change or rearrange. There was no way to leave our own personal mark, our own unique signature. All we could do was extend more of the same stuff that He had already created.
Apparently, this all proved too much for us. We decided to strike out on our own. We swore never to bow our knee again. The world we see is the testimony to this rejection of divine Authority. For in this world we get to not only change things around, we get to make our “self.” We get to play our own creator. And that is how we spend just about all of our time here. We shape, improve, refine, protect and maintain our personal identity. This is a deeply cherished privilege, our most sacred right. If someone else has the audacity to think that they have the right to dictate who we are, we become “justifiably” incensed. Yet we only think they possess this power because we have projected onto them our belief that we have this power.
When you have an authority problem [with an authority in this world], it is always because you believe you are the author of yourself and project your delusion onto others [thinking now that they can author you]. You then perceive the situation as one in which others are literally fighting you for your authorship (Text, p. 43; T-3.VI.8:2-3).
As frightening as the thought is that others hold this power, our real fear comes from our belief that we hold it. This belief is quite literally the scariest thing in the world. For it is the belief that we have the power to permanently and irrevocably screw ourselves up. Imagine a mind in a greedy and near-sighted state believing it had the power to alter absolute reality, including its own fundamental nature; power, if used wrongly, to stain its soul and turn its Father’s Love into hate. Just imagine the fear that this would invoke. It would be like giving a 10 year-old responsibility for the fate of the world while it hung precariously in the balance. Yet this is the condition we all think we are in. Underneath our confident exterior we are horrified with what we have done with our power. And we are terrified of what we still might do. Quite simply, we believe that we “have made a devil of God’s Son”(Workbook, p. 179; W-pI.101.5:3).
This is where God’s role as Creator is a true saving grace. This role means that, on the level of changing anything real, we are impotent. We are unable to alter our real identity in any way. We are incapable of leaving home or corrupting our innocence. We can never turn ourselves into a devil. We simply don’t have that kind of power. If we did, Jesus tells us, “you would have destroyed yourself” (Text, p. 138; T-8.VI.2:5). But, thankfully, we do not. We are not God. We therefore remain exactly as God created us. This realization, says the Course, is salvation:
Its truth would mean that you have made no changes in yourself that have reality, nor changed the universe [the Kingdom] so that what God created was replaced by fear and evil, misery and death (Workbook, p. 195; W-pI.110.1:3)
This is cause for relief and gratitude so deep that it can only be expressed as the figure in Helen’s vision did, by bowing before God in wordless reverence. This is what bowing to God is really about. It is about acknowledging His gift to us of a Self so pure, so perfect, so sublime, that we can only pour that Self out to Him in eternal gratitude. It is about acknowledging a Power so lovingly omnipotent that It would never allow us to mar the perfect Self It gave us. It is about admitting that though we share all power with God, apart from Him we have absolutely no power, no ability to change a thing. It is about gratefully conceding that reality is, was and always will be exactly as He created it. It is about thanking God for being our God.
The Father/child relationship
Helen’s vision continues as the child got up from the ground, “walked to the right side and knelt again, this time resting her head as if leaning against a gigantic knee. The feeling of a great arm reached around her….”
There is a profound love conveyed by these simple images. How many people do you know whom you would approach and, instead of greeting them or saying even a word, walk over to, kneel next to and lay your head on their knee? To me the child’s action speaks of a love so assumed that it is instinctively regarded as an unquestioned fact of life; a love counted on as one counts on the ground being there; a love that one moves in as naturally as one breathes the air. It is clear that the child is right about this love, for in response to her gesture she feels a great arm reach around her—I am sure without her slightest surprise.
What really strikes me is the familiarity conveyed. It is communicated not only by the scene we just discussed, but by the child’s whole attitude. Helen says, “The child seemed to know exactly what she was doing. It was as if the situation were completely familiar to her.” In other words, this circumstance is not foreign or alien. The child is not a stranger or guest in someone else’s home. Rather, she is at home. This is her natural environment, the place that was made for her, and she for it, the place she knows better than any other. This is where she belongs; where she is from and where she will always remain.
This is all the more remarkable when one remembers that the gigantic Being she is resting against is the same One she prostrated herself before just a moment ago. It is God she is acting so familiar with. It is His home that she is treating like her own. How wonderful a state of mind hers is: knowing that this is the omnipotent Creator of all that is, knowing that she owes Him her very existence, yet knowing that she is His daughter, that she belongs in His home, and that all that He has is hers, without question, without even asking.
How glorious it would be to have this state of mind. This feeling of love, this sense of being home, is the state we all long for. It is the feeling we have been looking for since time began.
What can I seek for, Father, but Your Love? Perhaps I think I seek for something else; a something I have called by many names. Yet is Your Love the only thing I seek, or ever sought. For there is nothing else that I could ever really want to find (Workbook, p. 398; W-pII.231.1:1-4).
How strange it is, therefore, that something in us shies away from this love. You would think we would leap into it with all our being. Yet something in us is actually afraid to be in the presence of such all-encompassing love. The Course has a penetrating explanation for this fear: “Being unable to love, the ego would be totally inadequate in love’s presence, for it could not respond at all” (Text, p. 208; T-12.IV.3:2). That is the fear, isn’t it? We are afraid that all this love will be pouring at us, and we will not know what to do. We will not know how to respond. We will be impotent on our honeymoon.
Thus, underneath our shyness about receiving love is a deeper fear of our inability to give love. In a cold, loveless world this crippling deficiency seems well hidden. We maintain that we would love if we were just loved. Yet all the while we avoid being loved, for fear that it would blow our cover and reveal just how tragically inadequate we are at loving. Even those of us who feel good at giving love sense that what we give is limited and conditional, not the real McCoy.
This inability to give love is what causes our belief that we are unworthy—perhaps our most obvious reason for recoiling from love. Our reasoning here is quite natural. If we cannot give love, how can we be worthy to receive it? Being unloving causes us to feel unlovable. This belief in unworthiness takes two distinct but highly related forms.
The first form is guilt. We have observed ourselves being unloving. We have seen our attacks, our bitterness, our judgment and resentment. We then interpret this lack of love as a sin, and conclude that we must be guilty. Being guilty, we simply do not deserve to be loved; we deserve to be punished. This guilt accounts for a great deal of our conventional image of God. For our image of a guilty self naturally projects a companion image of a stern God, scowling down at us in disapproval, sending us harsh tests, demanding sacrifice and penance before we can stand in His favor.
This also leads to our internal experience of distance from God. The Song of Prayer talks about a stage of prayer in which a “vague and usually unstable sense of identification [with God] has generally been reached, but tends to be blurred by a deep-rooted sense of sin” (Song of Prayer, p. 3;S-1.II.3:3). In other words, our sense that we are sinful directly competes with our sense of identification with God. Hence, if we did not feel sinful and unworthy of God, we would look within and immediately locate and unite with His loving Presence. If we did not feel guilty, we would instantly become an accomplished mystic.
The second form of unworthiness comes from feeling separate. By choosing separateness we have distanced ourselves from everything, God included. We observe how isolated we are, how much we look out for number one, how little sense of identity we really feel with others. As a result of this distancing of ourselves, we assume God has distanced Himself from us. Since we have become islands, we figure the mainland has retreated from us too. Just as with guilt, then, this image of a separate self produces a companion image of God. In this case it is a distant God, a cold Father, who stands aloof from us, barely noticing that we exist, as thoughtless of us “as is the weather or the time of day” (Text, p. 541; T-27.VII.8:5).
Thus, due to our own lovelessness—in the form of attack and in the form of isolation—we assume that we are not welcome in our Father’s house. For we “know” that we would be greeted with either harsh retribution or cold indifference; with eons of God’s pent-up anger or with the calm news that our name cannot be located on the guest list. The Course characterizes these two attitudes as the martyr and the atheist. “The atheist believes he is alone, and the martyr believes that God is crucifying Him” (Text, p. 150; T-9.I.8:4). This is a penetrating commentary, for the Course is implying that their professed beliefs are a cover for their true sentiments. The atheist boldly affirms that God does not exist, yet deep-down feels that God has abandoned him. The martyr says He loves God, but in his heart thinks that God is executing him.
Perhaps as Course students we are in a similar situation. Perhaps our professed beliefs conflict with our true sentiments. We say that God is Love, that God does not forgive because He never condemned. Yet I am sure that most of us look within and envision a God that regards us with vague disapproval or that does not regard us much at all, that is aloof and uncaring. What can we do to remedy this? There are many answers to this question, since the whole Course is aimed at healing our fear of God by undoing our guilt.
Yet one specific suggestion is to realize that our belief that God does not love us is not doing anyone any favors. It is not courtesy, since it is a rejection of God’s Love, and His only need is to give His Love. It is not virtue; to reject love has never been a virtue. We are not scoring any humility points. Quite the opposite—we are arrogantly deciding that we know better than our Creator how worthy we are. And it is not natural, for we are simply stalling the inevitable. God will always love us. We can’t change that. And we will always yearn for His Love. We can’t change that either, for His Love is the stuff of our being. Thus, we can truly say that “God’s Will and ours are really the same in this” (Workbook, p. 118; W-pI.70.5:1). His single need is the exact same as our single need: the need for His Love to be received by us.
Therefore, the only loving, humble and natural thing to do is exactly what the girl in Helen’s vision did: walk confidently through the doors of God’s temple, without asking permission, without even knocking. There we will find that all the things we feared God would see in us never even crossed His Mind. All the responses we dreaded from Him are simply not part of His Nature. He has not been waiting in anger, leather belt in hand. He has not forgotten us. He has been waiting in Love, Arms open wide in welcome, wanting only the return of His children, His treasure, wanting only to make us happy.
In the temple, holiness waits quietly for the return of them that love it. The Presence knows they will return to purity and to grace. The graciousness of God will take them gently in, and cover all their sense of pain and loss with the immortal assurance of their Father’s Love. There, fear of death will be replaced with joy of life. For God is Life, and they abide in Life (Text, p.271; T-14.IX.3-4).
Just the One
Helen’s imagery reaches a briefly stated but dramatic conclusion. After the girl knelt before God and walked over and laid her head against His knee, a great arm reached around her “and she disappeared.”
This disappearance is a beloved image in the Course, one that is repeated many times:
And as he sees the gate of Heaven stand open before him, he will enter in and disappear into the Heart of God (Workbook, p. 469; W-pII.14.5:5).
Together we will disappear into the Presence beyond the veil, not to be lost but found; not to be seen but known (Text, p. 395; T-19.IV(D).19:1).
The Son of God has merely disappeared into his Father, as his Father has in him (Workbook, p. 315; W-pI.169.6:5).
The significance of this image is clear. Disappearing in God means the cessation of all separate identity, all sense of me and mine, self and other. It means transcending all trace of distance between ourselves and God. It means attaining a oneness so pure and complete that “nowhere does the Father end, the Son begin as something separate from Him” (Workbook, p. 237-238; W-pI.132.12:4)). Now there is no longer God and us, there is only the One.
A sleeping mind must waken, as it sees its own perfection mirroring the Lord of Life so perfectly it fades into what it reflected there. And now it is no more a mere reflection. It becomes the thing reflected… (Workbook, p.312; W-pI.167.12:3-5).
This is the experience the mystics have sought since time immemorial, calling it by many names. This is the experience the Course calls revelation: God’s intensely personal revealing of Himself to us. This is the goal of the spiritual journey, the goal of life itself, the purpose of all our eons of effort and striving.
The peace of God is my one goal; the aim of all my living here, the end I seek, my purpose and my function and my life, while I abide where I am not at home (Workbook, p. 380; W-pI.rVI.205.1:3).
And yet this, too, is greeted by us with fear, a fear which takes at least two forms. First, we are afraid that this condition is going to be boring. And given that it is for eternity, it will get really boring. As I have remarked before, it can sound like a million years of watching snow on the TV set.
Second, and more to the point, we are afraid that losing our boundaries will mean losing our very existence. We are afraid of being annihilated in God. In this light, the prospect of our silver dewdrop slipping into the shining sea is not exactly a thrilling one. To us, it looks more like this: “the ocean terrifies the little ripple and wants to swallow it” (Text, p. 364; T-18.VIII.3:6).
According to the Course, this is our core fear, the one that keeps us stuck in our patterns, the one that gives rise to all the fears we have mentioned above. The Course maintains that you would instantly leap into God’s Arms, “were you not afraid to find a loss of self in finding God” (Text, p. 565; T-29.I.9:5). Everything the ego does day-in and day-out is for one purpose: to keep itself alive, to maintain our sense of separate identity, to keep itself from dissolving in God. I suspect that our fear of being bored to death is really a cover for this deeper fear of nothingness.
Yet the Course has at least two very cogent responses to this fear. First, this condition is not the death of self. It is our Self. It is what we are. In response to the above line about fearing the loss of self the Course says: “Yet can your self be lost by being found?” (Text, p. 565; T-29.I.9:5) Second, the Course characterizes this condition as an expansion, not an extinguishment. By shedding the ego we merely remove the limits from our joy. A perfect illustration is in lesson 107. There, the Course asks us to remember our happiest, most peaceful and secure moment; and then to imagine that moment becoming a permanent, even eternal, experience; and then to imagine that moment multiplied in strength 10,000 times. This, it tells us, will give us only the tiniest hint of what Heaven will be like.
To put this another way: Have you ever loved someone so much that you wanted to dissolve all separateness between you? Have you ever wanted to join with someone so intensely that you wanted to just dispense with bodies and faces and unite directly, mind to mind, heart to heart? This is what the girl in Helen’s vision is doing. The love that she and her Father share is so great that it can only be satisfied by total union, by fusing into oneness, by vanishing into the same light. Her disappearance is thus the fulfillment of her love. It is not its extinction but its natural extension.
I see Helen’s vision as a sublime summary of some of humanity’s primary images of relationship with God. Throughout the centuries these three images have flowed through the world’s spiritual traditions. We have prostrated ourselves in reverence and awe before our Creator. We have affectionately drawn close to Him as a child would rest against its loving and beloved father. And we have sought to disappear into Him as the silver dewdrop slips into the shining sea. Because Helen’s vision so beautifully captures all three of these images, I have found it very helpful to use it as a focus for meditation and prayer.
Of course, these three images have often been seen as conflicting and competing. To those who want to kneel in awe, the other two images can appear blasphemous. To those who long to disappear in mystic union, the other images can seem crudely dualistic.
Yet in Helen’s vision, as in the Course, there is a sense of complete harmony between all three images. I see two ways in which these images are harmonized. The first is that they represent a process of progressively drawing nearer to God. In Helen’s vision, she starts with kneeling before God, then comes closer and rests against Him, then comes even closer and disappears in Him. She begins in a more distant, worshipful relationship and ends by joining with Him completely.
Yet by itself this suggests that in each stage we leave the prior, preparatory stages behind, implying that in perfect mystic union we leave behind all trace of reverent worship and loving adoration. Yet this is certainly not accurate according to the Course. This brings us to the second way to harmonize all three images: Each image contains the previous ones. In other words, inside that state of total oneness there still exists the loving parent/child relationship and the worshipful prostration before the Creator. The oneness contains the earlier images because it is their natural extension. It completes what they prefigured. Thus, in our union with Him we are more totally surrendered to His Power, more completely absorbed in His Love.
This idea of all three images being synthesized into one is very paradoxical and difficult to comprehend. Yet this is precisely how the Course describes Heaven. Even though Heaven is the “awareness of perfect oneness” (Text, p. 359; T-18.VI.1:6), in which “nowhere does the Father end, the Son begin as something separate from Him” (Workbook, p. 237-238; W-pI.132.12:4), it somehow still contains a relationship with God, Whom we adore as our Father and stand in awe of as our Creator. “What is Heaven but a song of gratitude and love and praise by everything created to the Source of its creation?” (Text, p. 510; T-26.IV.3:5). Even in the state of perfect oneness God does not stop being our God.
Can we understand this? “No; it is meaningless to anyone here” (Manual, p. 35; M-14.3:9). Yet this does not mean it is not true. In fact, if we could understand it there would be a problem, for there is nothing about Heaven that we can understand. We can safely say, however, that if Heaven did not contain all three kinds of relationship with God, something would be missing. Heaven would not be absolute perfection. It would not be the supreme goal of life. For the need for all three is rooted too deeply within our being. It is simply part of our nature to want to give all of ourselves to our Creator, and to desire to live in the unconditional Love of our Father, and to long to unite completely with our Beloved. Of course Heaven fulfills all of these needs. That is why it is Heaven.