When Does Doing Our Workbook Lesson Become an Empty Ritual?

Commentary on Commentary on the Introduction to Review III

by Robert Perry

It is conventional wisdom among Course students that we shouldn't try too hard to follow the practice instructions in the Workbook, because that just turns Workbook practice into a ritual. But what is the Workbook's own attitude about this? In the introduction to Review III of the Workbook, Jesus talks about turning our practice into a ritual, but he also talks about the importance of following the instructions. And he subtly points out the real rituals that we have to watch out for. I'll comment on the first four paragraphs of the introduction.

Paragraph 1: Our next review begins today. We will review two recent lessons every day for ten successive days of practicing. We will observe a special format for these practice periods, that you are urged to follow just as closely as you can.

This first paragraph announces that we are beginning a review. But what is a review? Why do you review something? The answer, of course, is that by going over it again, you are trying to learn it better. So the very fact of giving us a review suggests that Jesus wants us to really learn these ideas. He wants us to really internalize them at a deep level.

And that is why we practice them, of course. The final line of the paragraph talks about our practice instructions for this review, saying that "we will observe a special format." Notice that "you are urged to follow [this format] just as closely as you can." That is a pretty emphatic line: "urged to follow just as closely as you can." If we are going to really internalize these ideas, we have to follow the practice instructions in a faithful, disciplined way. We, of course, resist faithful, disciplined practice, and it is our right to do so. Yet the result is unfortunate: We do not really learn these ideas.

Paragraph 2: We understand, of course, that it may be impossible for you to undertake what is suggested here as optimal each day and every hour of the day. Learning will not be hampered when you miss a practice period because it is impossible at the appointed time. Nor is it necessary that you make excessive efforts to be sure that you catch up in terms of numbers. Rituals are not our aim, and would defeat our goal.

We secretly suspect that Jesus' practice instructions are just not realistic, at least not for our lives. I believe we actually would like to think so, because then we could just label those instructions "not applicable to me." It would be a great way out, wouldn't it? But here he let's us know that this is not the case. "We understand," he says, "that it may be impossible for you to" fulfill all the practice instructions, due to the circumstances of your day. He fully understands how busy our lives are and has designed his program to flex for that.

Indeed, he says, your learning, your spiritual progress, "will not be hampered when you miss a practice period because it was impossible at the appointed time." This has always struck me as a great comfort. If I really couldn't do the practice period, then my progress hasn't been delayed by that. Put differently, my life circumstances can't hurt my spiritual progress. What a comfort!

As a result, I shouldn't make "excessive efforts" to "catch up in terms of numbers." After all, I have no need to do that, given that my learning wasn't hampered. Greg Mackie, however, likes to point out that Jesus says "excessive efforts." He's not against some catching up, just excessive catching up. However, when I have had two or three hours in which I literally couldn't sit down and do a practice period, I really do need to take a few minutes and get myself back in touch with my practice. I need to get myself back in a state from which I can practice well from then on. But that is not a catching up "in terms of numbers." It is about the quality of my state of mind, not the quantity of my practice periods.

Then Jesus makes an important remark. He calls excessive efforts to catch up in terms of numbers a "ritual": "Rituals are not our aim, and would defeat our goal." A ritual, of course, is where you believe that simply by engaging in some prescribed form, salvation is magically brought to you. Our aim is not to obsessively engage in the form of practice in the belief that the form itself will save us. Our aim is to engage in the form purely as a gateway to its content. The whole point is getting at the content, internalizing the content. If we think that just by going through certain prescribed motions we will be saved, we have overlooked the content in our obsessive focus on the form. And this truly would "defeat our goal."

The overall message here is that our salvation is not a matter of form. If outer forms of your life keep you from practicing, you've lost nothing. If you force yourself to adhere to some prescribed form, just for the sake of the form, you've not gained anything. Salvation comes from an inner decision to unite with the content.

Paragraph 3: But learning will be hampered when you skip a practice period because you are unwilling to devote the time to it that you are asked to give. Do not deceive yourself in this. Unwillingness can be most carefully concealed behind a cloak of situations you cannot control. Learn to distinguish situations that are poorly suited to your practicing from those that you establish to uphold a camouflage for your unwillingness.

The previous paragraph was such a comfort. It let us off the hook. It gave us grace. But now we are given the other side. As I said above, salvation is not subject to forms, but it is subject to your inner decision. If you miss a practice period because it was your inner decision not to do it, then "learning will be hampered." The phrase he uses is so accurate: "when you are unwilling to devote the time to it that you are asked to give." How often is that the case?

Now we have two very different situations. One is missing "a practice period because it is impossible at the appointed time." The other is skipping "a practice period because you are unwilling to devote the time to it that you are asked to give." They are not just different; their results are opposite. In the first, "learning will not be hampered." In the second, "learning will be hampered." Because of their opposite results, it is critical that we tell them apart. Yet they can look indistinguishable. How do we find the line between them?

The key to finding that line is self-honesty: "Do not deceive yourself in this." That is the problem—self-deception. You probably don't usually say, "You know, I am just not willing to do this practie period." Instead, Jesus implies, you "most carefully" conceal your unwillingness "behind a cloak of situations you cannot control." The implication, of course, is that you can control the situation, you are controlling it. You could just step away from it for a moment and do your practice. But you have subtly put the whole edifice in place to make it "impossible" for you to do that. And just as instantly as you put the situation in place, you then forgot that you did it. Now it looks like something forced on you, something that you have no power to pull away from for the sake of your practice period. Yet in fact it is something "you establish to uphold a camouflage for your unwillingness."

So we must be honest enough to learn how to distinguish the situations in which it's really not feasible to do our practice period from the ones we subtly erect as a "cloak" or "camouflage" for hiding our unwillingness to practice.

Paragraph 4: Those practice periods that you have lost because you did not want to do them, for whatever reason, should be done as soon as you have changed your mind about your goal. You are unwilling to cooperate in practicing salvation only if it interferes with goals [originally: gods] you hold more dear. When you withdraw the value given them [the gods you hold more dear], allow your practice periods to be replacements for your litanies to them. They gave you nothing. But your practicing can offer everything to you [originally: But your practice periods offer you everything]. And so accept their offering and be at peace [originally: Accept their offering, and be at peace].

I have included in brackets the way this paragraph was originally dictated because there are important differences in meaning. The changes, I believe, were for two reasons. First, this section was dictated with imperfect iambic pentameter and Helen was trying to make it perfect. Second, the word "gods" was probably simply misread as "goals."

The first sentence of the paragraph says how you should respond to the "practice periods that you have lost because you did not want to do them." As we saw, with the ones you lost because you literally couldn't do them, you don't have to worry about making them up, or at least "catching up in terms of numbers," because your progress was not hampered. But here, with the ones you simply refused to do, you should make those up. For your choice to pursue a goal other than salvation really did impede your progress toward salvation. Going back now and doing the lost practice periods is a way to reverse that hampering of your progress.

The rest of the paragraph, I believe, is extremely significant. It says that you refuse to do your practice periods because you are serving gods you hold more dear than salvation, false gods you hold more dear than the real God. And isn't this the case? When I don't want to sit down and do my practice period, it's because I think that some other activity will deliver me more. Perhaps I am serving the god of entertainment, or physical pleasure, or money, or physical comfort, or status, or obligation. Whatever it is, I believe that serving that god will give me more than the real God.

This paragraph has a very telling word for the activities I undertake in place of my practice periods. That word is "litanies." A litany is defined as "a series of sung or spoken liturgical prayers or requests for the blessing of God." It is also defined as "a repetitive or incantatory recital." So let's say that rather than doing my practice period, I sit down, crack open a beer, and watch the football game. That is my litany, my formal, repetitious prayer to the god of entertainment or the god of escapism. And it is repetitious, because how many times have I done this? (I'm personally not a fan of football or beer; I have my own litanies.)

In fact, my litany of beer and football is also my ritual. We even call such things rituals, don't we? Rituals and litanies obviously have a great deal in common. Both are pre-set religious forms which, once performed, are supposed to put us in a certain favorable relationship with God.

Here, then, are the real rituals that we have to watch out for. Sure, there are some people who are prone to ritualize Workbook practice by obsessively fulfilling their numerical quota regardless of the day's circumstances. But for most of us, the rituals to look out for are not the compulsive performance of our Workbook practice. Rather, they are the rituals we do instead of our practice.

Why should we be looking out for these rituals, these everyday litanies? Because the gods we are praying to have never given us anything. "They gave you nothing," this paragraph flatly asserts. The god of escapism never gave us anything. The god of pleasure never gave us anything. The god of money never gave us anything. The god of obligation never gave us anything. And so on.

"But," this paragraph says in a remarkable line which every Course student should memorize, "your practice periods offer you everything." What a remarkable line! The very happiness and peace we are looking for from our everyday rituals, the peace and happiness they never really give us, we can find in the practice periods that they push out. Indeed, our practice periods can give us even greater happiness and peace. They give us everything. And so, as the last line says, we should "accept their offering, and be at peace"—accept the offering of our practice periods, of the real God, not the offering of the various false gods we pray to all day long.

Thus, "as soon as" you realize that your litanies replaced your practice periods, you should reverse that. "Allow your practice periods to be replacements for your litanies." Then you erase that misstep. You undo that hampering of your progress. What could be more logical?

Notice what is implied here. We may well assume that making up missed practice periods is a bit extreme, as if we have become some austere monk obeying some demanding ritual. But making up skipped practice periods is not a ritual. Rather, it is the escape from rituals. It is allowing the real thing to replace our empty rituals.

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