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What Is a Holy Instant?; Part I

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

This article was written by Allen Watson

The Course uses the phrase “holy instant” 147 times. In an early discussion it identifies the holy instant as “the lesson God gives you” through the Holy Spirit (T-15.II.2:3); it says that the holy instant is sufficient to “re-establish perfect sanity, perfect peace, and perfect love,” “exchange hell for Heaven,” and “transcend all of the ego’s making” (T-15.I.14:2,4,5). What then is this incredibly powerful thing? What is a holy instant? Is it something within our reach now, or something that lies at the end of our spiritual journey? Is it only a distant inspiration, or is there some practical application we can make of it today?

In this article we’re going to look at several passages from the Course in an attempt to answer these questions. There are too many passages to quote them all, so you will need to look up and read the passages in your Course book, in order to understand the remarks that refer to them.

Most of the time when the Course refers to the holy instant, the phrase describes a window in time through which we look upon eternity. It is a moment that becomes a frame in which we see, not merely a picture of eternity, but eternity itself (which is why the window metaphor is so apt). Eventually, the window fades, the frame disappears, and all that’s left is eternity.

However, there are a few passages in the Course (for instance, T-15.I.15:4-11 and T-16.VII.7:5) that seem to use the phrase “holy instant” to refer to eternity itself, and in a sense that is accurate, since what we see in the holy instant, through the window, is eternity. When the frame is gone, the limitations of time are gone as well. The frame, the instant in time, disappears, and all that is left is eternity: “In exchange for this instant He stands ready to give you the remembrance of eternity”(T-15.I.11:4).

The holy instant, then, has a double sense:

1.There is the holy instant, which represents the window on eternity available in every present moment. Whenever we experience it we are always in the same holy instant, so in that sense there is only one holy instant.

2.Then, there are holy instants, plural. At various times in our lives, we enter a moment and, in it, we have a tiny glimpse of eternity. Our experiences of having a holy instant seem to be multiple, but, although the instants may look truly different, the content is really one thing. We are tapping into the eternal now of Heaven.

The Larger Sense

Let’s look first at the larger sense of the term, the window on eternity. The holy instant enables us to see eternity, even though we remain in time (T-17.IV.11:4-5). The content of the holy instant is eternal; it is all that is unchanging and unchangeable (T-15.VI.6:1-3). No matter how many different times we look through that window, we are always looking onto the same landscape, the landscape of eternity.

There Is Only One

In Chapter 20 of the Text the Course states quite clearly that only one holy instant exists (T-20.V.5-6).There, the holy instant is called “the little breath of eternity that runs through time”(T-20.V.5:8). Let’s look at the fifth paragraph, beginning with the sixth sentence.

The subject in this section is the holy relationship. Jesus says that we believe that we need many holy instants to reach the point where we know for certain that our partner is not a body and that bodies are not needed to communicate, but we are mistaken in our belief: all it takes is one holy instant. Indeed, “there is but one” (T-20.V.5:7). It is all there is, with “nothing before it, nothing afterwards” (T-20.V.5:8).

The holy instant runs through time like a thread of golden light. Every time we experience a particular holy instant we are experiencing the same thing. It is “all the same.” We are simply re-experiencing the eternal and changeless state of reality, now in this moment of time, now in another. To us they seem like separate instants. But it is all the same instant of reality, the same eternity tasted in discrete moments of time. The entire content of the holy instant is accessible in every discrete experience of it. It literally holds everything (T-20.V.6:5). It holds the entirety of our spiritual experience. Call it total enlightenment, if you will. It is always here, always now.

One of the wonderful things about the truth is that it always is. In a full experience of the holy instant we become aware that nothing has ever been wrong, nor ever will be wrong. What you are is “unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable” (W-pI.190.6:5). All experience to the contrary is illusion. There is no way to describe the peace that comes in such a holy instant, the joy of knowing the utter invulnerability of what you are. The eternal nature of the holy instant is what imbues our experiences of it with such power.

The Holy and Unholy Instants

Most of us probably think of our lives as normal or neutral, punctuated from time to time by holy instants. In reality, any moment that is not a holy instant is a moment of insanity.

One way of thinking of our life in time and space is that every instant we spend here is the re-enactment of one of two “instants,” either the unholy instant or the holy instant. The Course tells us frequently that our ego experience is nothing more than a constant reliving of one unholy instant. We go through time choosing, moment by moment, which of these two instants to tune in to and to manifest.

For instance, the section in Chapter 20 that follows the one we were just looking at describes this choice between the two instants quite clearly (T-20.VI.8-9). Start reading in the eighth paragraph, sixth sentence, and read until the end of the paragraph.

Here, the unholy instant is described. It was the birth of the mad idea of separation. Time and bodies house this mad idea, and every moment in time is meant by the ego to be an expression of this single idea, that single instant of madness.

In paragraph nine, our choice between the two instants is clearly highlighted. Even though we are in time, in each moment we can enter the holy instant. We can look through the frame of this present moment and gaze on eternity. That choice is available to us, but instead we have replaced it with the unholy instant. In every moment we are choosing between the two—the unholy mad-ness of separation or the holy joy of union with God. We have trained ourselves to consistently choose the unholy instant, almost without exception. The exceptions are what we think of as holy instants, which we categorize as spiritual peak experiences, when in fact they are simply moments when we drop our hold on the illusion and let the ever-present reality shine through.

Turn to Chapter 26, the fifth section, for another passage in which the Course speaks of the unholy instant (T-26.V.3:3-7, T-26.V.5:1-7, and T-26.V.13:1,3-4).

Time is really no more than our attempt to hold on to the unholy instant and make it last forever. Our life, apart from the holy instants we experience, is nothing but a repetition of the unholy instant, calling back the ancient memory of the mad idea of separation and trying to make it real again in time. All of it Is a reliving of that time when “terror took the place of love” (T-26.V.13:1). Our minds are constantly choosing, and choosing wrongly. We think of the separation as something that “happened” a long time ago. In reality it is always a present choice, and can be undone in the present (T-26.V.3:3-7, T-26.V.5:1-7, and T-26.V.13:1,3-4). This is why the Course tells us to look for the cause of the ego, not in the ancient past, but in the present moment, in our present thinking (T-4.II.1:1-3, 3:1).

In the Manual for Teachers (M-2.2:6-3:3 and M-2.4:1-2) the identical idea is restated. It says the separation happened long ago in time, but in reality, never. Time is the illusion that what never happened is happening now. We continually relive that ancient instant. We manufacture the appearance of separation by mentally reviewing our impossible wish to separate from God. Our seeming life on earth is the mental projection of that unreal image. All of time is a remembering of that single unholy instant, unless it is made holy in the reality of God’s Answer. We live that one instant, “again and again and still again” (M-2.4:2).

Our choice—or what seems to be our choice—is which instant to accept into our experience right now: Holy or unholy? Joy or pain? Heaven or hell? The choice we make is the measure of what we usually call spiritual growth. Nothing is growing; rather, something is shrinking: our attachment to the unholy illusion, our trust in what the ego wants us to believe.

When we have ceased entirely to listen to the ego, when we have dropped our last defense, and our trust in the Holy Spirit is total, “this life becomes a holy instant” (W-pI.135.19:1): a life that is lived constantly in the present, and constantly shares the Holy Spirit’s perception of the world; a life that is a reflection of eternity in time.

Many Experiences of the One Instant

Let’s look now at the second sense of the term holy instant: a moment in time in which we experience, to a greater or lesser degree, the reality of eternity. Such a holy instant is simply an experience of that changelessness. “It is a picture of timelessness, set in a frame of time” (T-17.IV.11:5). It is what happens when, for a moment, our mind peels away the layers of illusion we have superimposed on reality, and we see the reality that has always been there. In the many different experiences of a holy instant in our lifetimes, we are simply tapping into the one holy instant.

Just as the sun can shine through many different sizes and shapes of windows, so the holy instant appears in this world in many different forms and expressions. The holy instant contains the whole thought system of Heaven, and so it can take on appearance as any aspect of that thought system showing up in our lives (T-17.IV.11:8).

One way of thinking of it is that at times we just touch lightly upon the holy instant, and other times we enter in more fully. Some of the descriptions of the holy instant in the Course sound like a full-fledged mystical experience that totally overwhelms our consciousness; other descriptions sound more like an experience we might not even consider to be spiritual.

One such instant was Helen and Bill’s initial joining, in which Bill said, “There must be another way,” and Helen agreed to help him find it. The Course often refers to it as the holy instant that transformed the purpose of their relationship and thus initiated their holy relationship, although they were not aware of its full significance at the time. They had to be told that it had been a holy instant, and they seemed to need constant reminders. It was hardly a time when the heavens opened up, the body receded from awareness, and time gave way to eternity—at least it was not that consciously. But apparently, in some part of their minds, exactly that really did happen. In their right minds, they responded completely to the presence of God with a joyous “Yes!”

Why is it that the holy instant appears to us in different degrees, aspects, strengths, and intensities? The Course explains that we can bring some of our illusions along with us, and that they weaken the full experience (see T-16.VII.7:1-5). In one place, the Course compares our first brush with a holy instant to “a little flicker of the eyelids, closed so long” in dreaming (T-18.III.3:4). We just let in a flash of light and can barely sort out any images from it. That little flicker, Jesus says, isn’t enough to overcome our reluctance in approaching the light of love.

The shreds of illusion we cling to filter out the pure light of the holy instant and diminish our experience of it. But the pure bliss is always there; only our awareness of it is limited (T-16.VII.7:5). Jesus says that we won’t dilute our experience in this way for long, but he has a different perspective on time than we do; “not long” to him may seem long to us (T-16.VII.7:2). In reality, however long it may take, it does not matter, because “time is but an illusion” (T-13.I.5:5-6).

Eventually we will fully accept the holy instant. The Course also refers to that final, full acceptance as “the holy instant.” To my understanding, that sense of the holy instant is synonymous with attaining the real world. In that sense, the Course declares that the holy instant has not yet happened to us (T-15.II.5:1), although elsewhere it states quite clearly that we have received the holy instant (T-17.V.13:1). This isn’t a contradiction. The Course distinguishes between our receiving a gift and our accepting that gift. God has given us the holy instant; therefore, it does belong to us. We have indeed received it, but we have never unwrapped the gift. We may have had brief tastes of it, but we have not allowed it to happen to us in that final, enduring sense.

The experience of a holy instant is pure bliss. But it is a mistake to sit down with the intent of having an experience of bliss, and then getting up frustrated after fifteen minutes when we don’t get it. The bliss is there whether you experience it or not. Just because we do not see something does not mean that it does not exist. That is what we should be reminding ourselves about. The experience is just an experience; it is just our conscious mind allowing itself to connect to the bliss that is always there. “The holy instant is eternal” (T-16.VII.7:5). It is, always. Our failure to experience it does not diminish it; our right mind is in that bliss right now. “Spirit is in a state of grace forever” (T-1.III.5:4). Or as it says in Chapter 11, “The universe of love does not stop because you do not see it” (T-11.I.5:10).

We are advised to “practice the mechanics of the holy instant” (T-15.II.5:5), which refers to the kind of practices given in the Text and the Workbook. We go through the motions, we repeat the truths to ourselves time after time, until finally the barriers in our minds melt away and the truth dawns unhindered upon our awareness.