Mother Teresa garnered the respect of the world by reaching out to the most underprivileged, marginalized members of society. No matter what one's formal beliefs, or what one does with one's life, such behavior compels admiration. We innately sense something noble and true about it, something of God.
At this stage in the history of A Course in Miracles, students of its teaching do not seem to have a reputation for this kind of selfless extension. In fact, I would say our reputation is at the other end of the spectrum. In A Better Way we have quoted more than once the comments of an unnamed expert on California religious movements. This expert told Time magazine that the Course is "the perfect disconnected religion," which "allows driven, self-absorbed, narcissistic people to continue in their ways."
It is, for sure, an uncharitable remark. But it is not entirely without truth. In my experience, we Course students, as a population, do not seem to place great emphasis on reaching out in service, especially to others who are not—like most of us—middle-class and white. Even when we do, we often don't see it as something the Course asks us to do, but as something separate from the Course. Rather than talking about how we could help more, I often hear us talk about how trying to help others makes the error real. After all, we say, if the world is only an illusion, why try to fix it?
We at the Circle have encountered this ambivalence toward service in response to our plans to devote this year to service. Our intention of going out of our way to serve people in need, people who might happen to be beneath us on the social ladder, has struck many students as forced and unnecessary, even misguided. Their feedback seems to be saying that it is good to be kind to the people we encounter naturally, which, of course, usually amounts to those who are already part of our lives. But to actually seek out complete strangers just for the purpose of helping them seems unnatural, even un-Course-like.
I personally believe that our Course community has a major issue to face in this area. Here we believe that the author of our path is a man renowned for crossing social boundaries, associating with outcasts, healing the blind and the lame. This is how German scholar Gunther Bornkamm put it in his landmark Jesus of Nazareth:
The people who receive help from Jesus are therefore throughout, as the Gospels show, people on the fringe of society, men who because of fate, guilt or prevailing prejudice are looked upon as marked men, as outcasts: sick people…; demoniacs…; those attacked by leprosy…; Gentiles, who have no share in the privileges of Israel; women and children who do not count for anything in the community; and really bad people, the guilty, whom the good man assiduously holds at a distance. (p. 79)
This is one of the most certain things we know about Jesus historically. Yet now, we seem to believe that he has changed his tune, rejecting this compassionate focus on others in favor of a self-absorbed focus on our own minds.
Here we study a book filled with images of reaching out to the homeless (W-pI.166.4-6, 12-15), opening our home to suffering strangers (W-pI.159.7), offering refuge to thirsty wanderers (T-18.VIII.9), holding feasts to which we invite everyone as an honored guest (T-19.IV(A).16), establishing temples of healing for "all the weary ones" (T-19.III.11:3), and hosting feasts of plenty for our starving brothers (T-28.III.7-9)—images which look very much like how Jesus lived his own life. Yet we have managed to ignore these images, or dismiss them as pure metaphor.
In an earlier article ("The Social Vision of A Course in Miracles," A Better Way, September, 2000), I examined passages from the Course that portrayed a whole different way for people to live in society. This way consists of establishing oases of love and forgiveness in a love-thirsty world, and then inviting "all the weary ones" into these oases. I don't want to repeat the points I made in that article. Rather, I want to make sure that Jesus meant us to serve others in the very concrete ways that I discussed. When the Course, for instance, speaks about hosting feasts of plenty for our starving brothers (T-28.III.7-9), what does that actually look like? After all, even in that particular passage, the brothers are starving not physically, but inwardly, and the feast is composed not of food, but of miracles.
What does the author of the Course really mean when he speaks of us feeding the starving or giving refuge to the homeless? Does he mean it literally? To be honest, it is hard to be sure. Therefore, in this article I want to consult one place where we can be sure. This is where the author of the Course spoke to his scribes, Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford, about concrete situations in the world. There, what he was trying to say is as unambiguous as you can get. That is where I would like to turn now, to Jesus's personal guidance to Helen and Bill (which, as you may know, is recorded in Ken Wapnick's Absence from Felicity). In looking at this guidance, I will be trying to answer this one question: Did the author of the Course direct his scribes to serve other people in concrete ways, including serving strangers and the socially marginalized?
Personal guidance to Helen Schucman
In looking through this personal guidance in Absence from Felicity, I am, as always, struck by just how much Jesus directed Helen to do things for others. For example, she is instructed by Jesus to visit a dying friend in the hospital (p. 242), and to visit her mother in-law on a certain evening instead of doing what she wanted, which was washing her hair (p. 243).
These acts of service answer the first part of my question, about whether or not Jesus directed his scribes to serve others in concrete ways. Yet, since these acts were directed at people already within Helen's social circles, they do not answer the second part of my question: Did Jesus direct Helen and Bill to reach out to strangers, especially to those who were socially beneath them?
This question begins to be answered by another story of Helen's, one that has become somewhat famous among Course students: the story of Helen buying the fur coat. Helen wanted to get a winter coat and Jesus told her to go to a certain bargain store, which she regarded as not respectable enough for her. There, she not only found the exact coat she wanted, she was also able to be extremely helpful to the salesman, who had a retarded child (an area of specialty for Helen professionally). Afterwards, Jesus said that he sent her to this particular store, both because there she could find just the coat she wanted and "because the furrier needed you" (p. 236). Here, then, Jesus is claiming that he sent Helen on an unsuspecting mission to help a complete stranger with his disabled child.
The Mayo Clinic story
We find a similar theme—that of helping a complete stranger—in the elaborate and fascinating Mayo Clinic story. This occurred in September of 1965, shortly before the scribing of the Course began. That spring, Helen and Bill had joined together in search of "a better way." This, as most Course students know, triggered a series of inner visions in Helen, as well as a series of psychic experiences. Helen was now in the midst of this latter series, which she called her "magic phase." The psychic powers she was discovering made her very anxious, yet also caused feelings of pride and self-inflation. Without knowing it, she was approaching a crucial decision about the purpose for which she would use her newfound gifts.
At this time, she and Bill were sent by their hospital on a research visit to the Mayo Clinic. The night before they left, Helen received in her mind a clear and detailed picture of a Lutheran church, which she felt sure they would see the next day when they landed in Rochester, Minnesota. Yet they didn't, and after a grueling search in which they took a taxi past twenty-four of the city's twenty-seven or so churches, they still didn't find it. Finally, while at the airport the next day waiting to return home, Bill found a guidebook with a picture of the very church Helen had "seen." Ironically, it had occupied the site of the current Mayo Clinic, having been torn down in order to build the hospital.
On the way home, they had a layover in Chicago. In the airport, Helen saw a young woman, clearly traveling by herself, sitting against a wall. Helen, apparently by virtue of the same abilities by which she had seen the church, "could feel waves and waves of misery going through her" (p. 122). Although Bill didn't want Helen getting them involved with this stranger, and saw no signs of the misery Helen was sensing, Helen simply had to go over and talk to her.
The young woman's name was Charlotte. She was terrified of flying and so Helen and Bill offered to sit on either side of her on the plane, while Helen held her hand. She had felt like her life was "closing in" on her, and so, without any planning, she had left her husband and three children and, with nothing but a small suitcase and a few hundred dollars, was heading off to New York City to make a new life, with no specific plans of where to stay.
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." (Journey Without Distance, p. 50)
Helen and Bill were extremely helpful to Charlotte during her brief stay in New York City. They even found her a Lutheran church to stay at. And after she returned to her family, Helen kept in touch with her for many years.
I find this to be a fascinating story, with more to it than meets the eye. Let's take a closer look. Helen begins by going on a search for a particular church. But it is really the search to confirm her psychic powers. This search is frustrated, and one gets the impression that it ought to be frustrated. There is something amiss about her zeal to confirm her psychic visions. Thus, even when she finds her church, she discovers that it is a dead thing from the past. It has been replaced by something else, just as her fascination with her powers should be replaced.
Charlotte, too, is looking for a church. She wants a place of help and refuge in this difficult time in her life. Unexpectedly, she finds that place with Helen and Bill. Her real church was not a building in New York City, but two people she met along the way. And, ironically, in Charlotte finding her church, Helen found hers. Helen may have been seeking a particular church in Minnesota, but, in helping Charlotte, what she found was a very different kind of church. She found the true nature of church itself.
In the process, she also discovered the real purpose for her psychic abilities, for she was led to both churches by those abilities. 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?
This experience left its mark on Helen. It led directly to the end of her magic phase and, more specifically, to her scroll cave vision a short time later, in which she chose to use her psychic powers as a channel for God, not as a flashy way of reading the past and future. This choice signified her full acceptance of her role as scribe of the Course, which began only weeks later. Helen comments:
I am very grateful to [Charlotte]. I have an idea that I might never have found that scroll without her help. It might well be that magic had to end in the plain fact of Charlotte before I could make the final decision to abandon magic in exchange for something much more desirable. (p. 124)
In this experience, then, Helen and Charlotte are clearly parallels. Both are women traveling to a distant city, hoping to find a Lutheran church. Underneath that search, however, is a deeper one. Both are really processing a major life issue, one which amounts to finding their rightful place in life. Charlotte wants out of her constricting situation and is wondering if she should be with her husband and kids. Helen is processing what to do with her psychic powers, a question which will determine whether or not she can fulfill her function of scribing the Course.
Both find their church, but that, it turns out, is not their real destination. Their search only really concludes when their paths cross and they find each other. Through their association, each one is helped to resolve the issue facing her and to find her place in life. Charlotte returns to her family (though eventually leaves her husband and is the happier for it), and Helen abandons magic and embarks on her true function as scribe of A Course in Miracles. Both of them, in effect, discover that the true church is not the buildings they were seeking, but the profound help they receive from each other.
Ken Wapnick says that this "was one of the most significant experiences that [Helen] and Bill shared together." It seems to be a carefully orchestrated interweaving of many elements—psychic visions, inner guidance, physical circumstances, and major life issues—all woven together to make a point. And what was this point? You could say it was this: Real spirituality does not consist of attending church or of exercising supernatural powers, but of helping a brother in need. The whole point of the experience was for Helen and Bill to reach out to this total stranger; and not just any stranger, but someone we might well wish to avoid, someone in the process of leaving her husband and three children without warning.
Bill is not exactly the hero in this story, but we can surely relate to his attitude. Imagine that you are flying home at night, dead tired because you were up half the previous night looking for some church you never found. All you want is some peace while you return home. Then, while enduring an hour layover in a cold, empty airport, your traveling companion (the one who dragged you around looking for that church) spots some stranger and insists, first, that you talk to her, and then, that she sit between the two of you on the plane. How would you have greeted this situation?
I must admit that I would be severely tempted to react just like Bill did, and see helping Charlotte as merely an intrusion. Why are her problems mine? Why should I be the one to help? Further, I wonder how many of us would seek to justify this stance with ammunition from the Course. We all know the justifications: Her problems are her creation; her circumstances are not real; her suffering is only my projection; I should try to change my mind, not the world; my sole responsibility is to accept the Atonement for myself; etc.
Yet there is no justification for this stance in the Course. The fact is that Helen's choice to help Charlotte, by her own admission, may well have been what allowed the Course to come through her. Think about it: If Helen had not helped Charlotte, the Course may have never come into your life. The next time you feel the tug to reach out to someone in need, and are pondering whether or not to respond, you might think about what great thing may come out of this act of helpfulness.
The Princeton conference
The final story I want to share is the clearest example of all of the point I am trying to make. In January of 1966, Bill was asked to attend a conference on rehabilitation at Princeton, New Jersey. Jesus had a great deal to say about this conference. He said that he actually arranged for Bill to go. Why? Because Bill needed rehabilitation, and he would only receive this by rehabilitating others. Yet, as we saw in the Mayo Clinic story, he was reluctant to help. In fact, he had a fear of those who needed rehabilitation. He feared the sight of broken bodies, because they reminded him how vulnerable his own body was. He feared damaged brains for the same reason. And he feared those with weak egos, which rendered them dependent on others, because they reminded him of his own weakness. As a result, according to Jesus,
You withdraw to allow your ego to recover, and to regain enough strength to be helpful again on a basis limited enough not to threaten your ego, but also too limited to give you joy. (p. 300)
Can't we all identify with this? The sight of those with broken bodies, damaged brains and weak egos is something almost all of us find threatening. "That could be me," we realize. We feel our inner stability undermined. And so we withdraw, to recover our strength, so we can come back and help the little bit that we can handle. Yet by not helping more fully we are denying not only the other, but ourselves as well. We are depriving ourselves of joy.
This is why Jesus sent Bill to this conference—not to listen to the enlightened views there on rehabilitation. Jesus didn't seem to expect that there would be any enlightened views. He sent Bill there to face his own fear of those who need help, to go from seeing them as weakened and damaged to seeing them as worthy of God's praise.
To serve this purpose, he sent Bill armed with the "truly helpful" prayer that is so popular among Course students. Most of us have prayed this prayer many times, maybe hundreds of times. What we may not realize is that it was given for a specific situation, one designed to help Bill overcome his fear of helping the very sorts of people that, chances are, we ourselves are afraid to help. In this case, there was no positive spin put on Bill's withdrawal from helping others. It was not seen as holy, as a profound extension of the Course's teaching on the unreality of the world. Rather, it was seen for what it was: Bill's ego reacting in fear and keeping Bill from the joy that should be his. That was the point of the last line of the prayer: "I will be healed as I let Him teach me to heal" (T-2.V.18:6). Bill would only find his own healing, his own rehabilitation, when he learned how to be truly helpful to others—specifically, to a population his ego wished to avoid.
I began by asking, "Did the author of the Course direct his scribes to serve other people in concrete ways, including serving strangers and the socially marginalized?" At this point I think the answer is clear and incontrovertible. Jesus asked his scribes to not only visit friends and relatives in need, but to reach out to complete strangers, strangers who definitely fall into the category of the socially marginalized: the developmentally disabled, mothers who leave their children, invalids and the physically disabled, the dependent and the brain-damaged. This includes helping strangers we meet spontaneously (as in the stories of the fur coat and the Mayo Clinic) and going to people in institutions for the express purpose of helping them (one would, of course, be doing just this in rehabilitation work, and Bill was meant to lose his fear of this work). And always, doing this service was tied to receiving blessing for oneself. Helping another might be tied merely to finding the winter coat you need, or perhaps to weightier blessings, like finding your own rehabilitation, or becoming a joyous person, or assuming your role in the salvation of the world.
The message is clear: When Jesus speaks in the Course of opening our home to suffering strangers, giving refuge to weary wanderers, or throwing feasts for our starving brothers, he is not speaking entirely metaphorically. Rather, he is providing little snapshots of the kinds of behaviors he expects from his followers. It is so striking to me that these images from the Course are almost indistinguishable from the kinds of service he asked his scribes to perform. And both look almost exactly like the kinds of service that Jesus himself performed when he walked the earth. Are we really surprised?
To me this all adds up to one startling idea: Selflessly extending to strangers and to the socially marginalized is part of the Course's way. It is part of the way of life the Course is leading us into. As Jesus told Helen, helping others is his true church. If our study and practice of the Course does not result in us reaching out to our brothers and sisters in need, then we haven't yet entered his church. We haven't made it through the front door.
And that, I fear, is more or less where our Course community currently is: standing outside the church, talking about lofty ideas, and not going inside. Somehow, we as a community have managed to overlook what it means to go inside. To be really honest—and here I speak for myself as well—we probably should admit that we have not just overlooked, but purposefully looked the other way. For the handwriting has been on the wall all along. We knew that the author of the Course claimed to be Jesus, and most of us have believed that claim. Just what did we think that Jesus would ask of us?