Studying and Experiencing the Course as a Great Work of Art
In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the idea that A Course in Miracles is a great work of art. In that article, we saw that the Course uses artistic techniques to accomplish the goals of art: to move us emotionally and give us a new way of seeing. We saw that this vision of the Course as art helps us to penetrate the Course's unique writing style: a symphonic style that combines the intellectual clarity of an educational course and the emotional depth of a work of art.
In Part 2, we will see how this view of the Course can enrich our study and experience of it. For if the Course is a work of art, then applying methods of art study and appreciation to it—methods whose goal is to facilitate a deep experience of art—will facilitate a deep experience of the Course. With that in mind, this article will examine some of the methods developed by artists and art teachers to reveal the hidden treasures of great art, and show the benefits of applying these same methods to the Course.(1)
How does one approach a work of art?
This question has many answers. And yet, these varied answers seem to stand on a common foundation—a foundation of essentials that simply must be a part of any legitimate process of studying and experiencing art. While virtually anything that can be said about art is debatable, this basic foundation is widely accepted by art experts. The quotations used in this article (sources cited in footnotes) are from college textbooks and popular guides to art study and appreciation, sources which represent standard, "mainstream" views on the subject. Let's look at that foundation now, and see how it applies to the Course.
The goal: to gain the deepest possible experience and appreciation of art by becoming an intelligent, informed observer of art
This is the heart of the matter. For when we love art, we love above all the aesthetic experience it gives us. We want to appreciate the art on the deepest possible level. We want the art to touch us, inspire us, or even shock us. We want the exhilaration of discovering a new way of seeing. We want the art to become part of our living experience.
How do we get this experience? We get it, of course, through frequent exposure to art. But to experience art deeply, we must be more than merely passive observers: we must become intelligent, informed observers. Intelligent, informed observers are those who "have spent the time and energy needed to educate themselves so that their exposure to art will be meaningful."(2) The depth and beauty of much great art is not immediately accessible to the untrained observer; intelligent, informed observers have taken the time and done the work needed to learn the unique, specialized language of their particular art. They have gained some understanding of its basic elements, its techniques, its composition, its idiom, and its history. As a result, "they don't just coexist with art. They live with it."(3)
In my mind, the Course is no different in this regard. It, too, is not immediately accessible, as anyone who has struggled with its difficult language and mind-bending ideas can testify. It sometimes seems as if the Course were simply dropped into our laps from outer space; I've heard more than one person express the hope that someday the Course would be translated into English! Becoming intelligent, informed readers of the Course can only enhance and deepen our understanding and appreciation of it, and hopefully will make it more a part of our living experience.
The way to accomplish this goal: exposure and study, with the aid of teachers
How do we become intelligent, informed observers of art? We must 1) have frequent exposure to art so that it becomes a regular part of our daily experience, 2) carefully study that art, using proven tools of observation and analysis, and 3) enlist the aid of teachers, art experts who have themselves become intelligent, informed observers and thus can guide us to the same goal.
Exposure means frequent, regular contact with our chosen art. Great art simply doesn't reveal its treasures at first glance; that first glance may be instantly appealing, but deep understanding will only be revealed by long and frequent contemplation. Classical music, for instance, "demands repeated hearings before it divulges all the components contributing to the total experience."(4) Paintings must be looked upon again and again; poems must be read and reread.
This has been my experience with the Course. Daily Course reading is an essential part of my Course work. Upon repeated readings of a particular section, I find that things I completely missed on my first reading jump out at me on the second, third, or fourth (or tenth) reading. Sometimes the central point of the section is only revealed after numerous readings. There is simply no shortcut to accessing the depths of the Course: the way to understand a book is to read it. The more one reads, the more one understands.
But simple exposure isn't enough. Even repeated encounters with a work of art will reveal little if we don't know what to look for. And this is where study comes in. Study is simply paying attention to what we are observing through the use of observational and analytical skills. To use the example of classical music again, study is the difference between "someone who is just listening, [and] someone who is listening for something."(5) It is the act of asking questions about what we are observing, and finding answers to those questions.
Proper study of a work of art requires at least a couple of elements. First, it requires time. Contemplating a work of art simply can't be rushed. Richard Nilsen, art critic for the Arizona Republic newspaper, tells us that "art slowly releases its value to those who can wait."(6) Nilsen also writes about how he spent five hours one day looking at and studying one painting, plus another hour or two reading about it and the artist who painted it. In contemplating art, patience is indeed a virtue.
Second, it requires tools of analysis. Now, some may balk at the whole idea of analyzing art—isn't art, after all, about experience? Yes, it is, but studying art is not antithetical to experience; quite the contrary, study leads to experience. This is the prevalent view of those who have devoted their lives to contemplating art(7)—and this holds true for various kinds of art, including music, visual art, and literature:
The intellectual approach [to music] presupposes a perceptive listener, one who consciously strives to use his innate faculties to extract meaning from what he hears, to achieve a responsive experience through mental awareness and inquisitiveness.(8)
[Visual] art requires intellectual as well as sensory involvement. Your appreciation of art can be greatly improved by knowing how a work of art was made, why it was made, what went before and after.(9)
To discover the insights that literature reveals requires careful reading and sensitivity. One of the purposes of a college introduction to literature is to cultivate the analytic skills necessary for reading well….
The more sensitively a work is read and understood by thinking, talking, or writing about it the more pleasurable the experience of it is.(10)
My wife's encounter with a piece of chamber music illustrates how study leads to experience. The last selection on the program of a concert we attended was "Trio No. 2 in E Minor," written by the Russian composer Dimitry Shostakovich. Before the piece began, my wife and I studied the program notes about the composer and this particular piece, a piece neither of us had heard before. We learned that this mournful, lamenting composition (completed in 1944) was inspired in part by the recently revealed atrocities of the Nazi death camps. One of its musical motifs is a "Jewish" theme, meant to represent the Jews and their plight. The chamber group played this theme for us before beginning the piece, so that we would recognize it when it came up.
When the piece concluded, my wife, who is of Eastern European Jewish descent, was in tears. She was deeply moved. What brought about this experience? Certainly the music itself, played with passion and brilliance, contributed to the experience independently of any "meaning" ascribed to that music. But as she shared with me later, knowing the circumstances of the piece's composition and being able to recognize the "Jewish" theme made a real difference. It brought about deep associations and connections for her that would not have arisen otherwise. Her brief study of the piece brought about a deeper experience.
I find this emphasis on study as a means to experience very instructive for those of us wanting a deeper experience of the Course. Many Course students believe that study is an egoic way of avoiding experience, and that an emphasis on intellectual analysis is a block to really living the Course. Yet in the realm of art, a realm in which (as with the Course) experience is the goal, study is not considered a block at all—indeed, it is the foundation of experience. If this is true of art, would it not be true as well for the work of art called A Course in Miracles?
Needless to say, I think it is. Study is foundational to the experience of new vision that the Course promises us. The very first sentence of the Workbook tells us that "a theoretical foundation…is necessary as a framework to make the exercises in this workbook meaningful" (W-In.1:1)—in other words, we need to study the theory in order to get the experience the Workbook exercises promise us. And since the Course is an educational course as well as a work of art, the need for study becomes even more apparent. The two elements of study mentioned above—time and analysis—are best exemplified in the instructions in Part II of the Workbook for reading the "What is…" sections that are part of each day's practice: "They should be slowly read and thought about a little while" (W-pII.In.11:4). In short, we are to read slowly and think about what we read. Only in this way will "each idea…give you the gift that [God] has laid in it for you to have of Him" (W-pI.rIV.In.7:5).
I have found in my own life that deeper study of the Course has led to a deeper experience of it. In the past two years I have really intensified my Course study, and in my mind it is no coincidence that in these same two years my Course practice has really taken off. I have seen a very direct causal relationship: the more I study, the richer and more transformative my Course practice becomes. To me, the message is clear: just as study is necessary to get the most out of a great work of art, study is necessary to get the most out of the Course.
As I said above, much great art is simply not immediately accessible to the untrained observer. How does one get the necessary training? By turning to teachers. The need for teachers as a bridge between great works of art and the public is simply a given in the art world. The wide variety of textbooks, classes, seminars, and workshops on art; the very existence of university art departments; the preponderance of art scholars, historians, critics and commentators; the educational efforts undertaken by artists themselves—all testify to this need. Teachers are especially vital in order for more "difficult," less popular forms of art to remain accessible to present and future generations. The very survival of less popular art forms (like classical music) often rests on the shoulders of such teachers—genuine experts who, as a result of their intensive training and extensive experience in their chosen art, are in a position to share their knowledge and experience with others.
The Course needs teachers every bit as much—so much that, in my opinion, the author of the Course made Course teachers an integral part of his program. Robert Perry has presented evidence for this controversial idea elsewhere, so I won't argue for it here. But suffice to say that Course students, whatever their views may be on whether the Course's author sanctioned teachers, have responded to this need in the same way art lovers have: by creating an entire community of teachers, teaching centers, commentators, books, newsletters, and websites. The very existence of this community is evidence of the great need for a bridge between the Course and its students. In the art world, teachers have provided that bridge; in the Course world, I believe that well-trained teachers—genuine experts in Course theory, practice, and demonstration—can do the same. As with less popular, more "difficult" art forms, the future of the Course may well rest on the shoulders of its teachers.
Questions to ask in studying and appreciating a work of art
We have seen that the keys to bringing about a deeper experience of a work of art (including the Course) are frequent exposure, and careful study with the aid of teachers. But how does one study art? What are the observational and analytical skills we need to develop? We saw above that the act of study is basically the act of paying attention —asking questions about what we are observing, and finding answers to those questions. Specifically, there are three basic questions that can guide us through a fruitful study of a work of art: 1) What am I observing? 2) What does it mean? and 3) What does it mean to me?
While these questions represent a linear sequence—we first observe the work, then interpret its meaning, and as a result have a personal experience of it—in practice they often occur concurrently, and we will find ourselves bouncing back and forth between them throughout our process of study. Let us now look at these three questions one at a time. To give you a taste of this process, I will briefly apply each of them to the following sentence from the Workbook11:
We are the holy messengers of God who speak for Him, and carrying His Word to everyone whom He has sent to us, we learn that it is written on our hearts. (W-pII.14.5:1)
What am I observing?
In essence, this question asks us to pay close attention to form: the basic formal elements that make up a work of art. We observe the brush strokes, colors, lines, and composition of a painting; the melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure of a piece of music; the meter, line breaks, rhyme scheme, and images of a poem. The basic idea is simply to make sure we notice everything that is going on in our work of art. We ask ourselves: What exactly am I observing here? What are the formal elements that constitute this work? How are they arranged?
In applying this observation step to the Course, I carefully read a passage and try to notice as much as I can. Since the Course is a work of art, this certainly includes being on the lookout for artistic techniques (for a description of some of these techniques, see my accompanying article, Artistic Techniques Used in the Course). So in the above sentence, I notice that it is in iambic pentameter (this is especially apparent when one reads the sentence slowly aloud, a practice I recommend). I notice the Biblical language and imagery: "holy messengers of God" carrying "His Word" to others. I recognize the image of the Word "written on our hearts" as a Biblical allusion (Jer. 31:33 et al.) that is also a vivid metaphor.
Since the Course is also an educational course, observation also involves examining the basic verbal and grammatical elements which, when put together, give us the Course's teaching. So I notice that the subject of our sentence is "we," and that "we" are "the messengers of God." I notice the verbs indicating our actions: we "speak," we are "carrying," and we "learn." I notice that the recipient of our speaking and carrying is "everyone whom He has sent to us," and what we learn is "that it is written on our hearts." I note the main pronouns whose referents will have to be clarified: "we," "Him," "His," "He," and "it." I see the reference to "His Word," and note that this term will need to be defined. The idea in this observation step is to collect the puzzle pieces that will be assembled to form a meaningful picture in the next step.
What does it mean?
In this step, we ask ourselves: what is this art trying to communicate? What is its message? This is a process of interpretation. Finding meaning in art is a sticky subject because, as I said in Part 1 of this series, meaning in art is an elusive thing. Different art theorists place differing emphases on where the real meaning of art can be found: in the artwork itself, in the artist's intent, in the observer, in the sociocultural context of the art, or in any combination of these things. But as elusive as it is, finding the meaning of a work of art, to the extent we are able, is important. As my wife's musical experience demonstrated, our understanding of a work's meaning will go a long way toward determining our experience of it.
In my opinion, the central place to find meaning in the Course is in the work itself, specifically in the author's intent as expressed in that work. Since the Course is written (I believe) by a fully enlightened, omniscient author who very much wants to convey a specific message to us, finding his meaning through careful examination of his words is the meat and potatoes of Course study. In my mind, getting his message is the singular goal of Course interpretation.
With this goal in mind as I continue with our sample sentence, I put together the puzzle pieces gathered in the first step, and see what they reveal. First I plug in the meaning of the pronouns. I determine (based on earlier paragraphs) that "we" refers specifically to Jesus, myself, and (by implication) anyone who accepts the function of saving the world. "Him," "His," and "He" refer to God, since they are capitalized; in the Course capitalized pronouns refer to the divine, and "God" is the nearest divine referent. "It" logically refers to "His Word."
Next, I notice an implied logical connection between "carrying His Word to everyone whom He has sent to us" and learning "that it is written on our hearts": we learn that His Word is written on our hearts as a result of carrying His Word to others. Putting all I have learned so far together, I now have a good idea of the basic gist of the sentence: We are messengers of God who carry His Word to others, and as a result of doing this, we learn that His Word is written on our hearts.
But this is still rather vague. What exactly is God's Word, and what does it mean to find that word written on our hearts? To clarify this, I first plug in the meaning of the term "His Word." From consulting other Course references and Robert Perry's A Course Glossary (a helpful study aid), I find that "His Word," the Word of God, is basically a non-verbal symbol for God's message of salvation, His promise of redemption. Workbook Lesson 276 says that this Word was spoken by God in our creation—it is the very Word which gave birth to His Son. This lesson also gives us a verbal equivalent for it: "My Son is pure and holy as Myself" (W-pII.276.1:2). In summary, then, the Word of God is the source of our being, the source of our innate purity and holiness which cannot be altered by our seeming sins, a Word which promises salvation from our false belief that we have corrupted ourselves by separating from God.
Now I have some idea of what it means to have that Word "written on our hearts." Drawing on the meaning I have found in the term "God's Word," I see that God's Word is our heart—the deepest part of us, the core of our being, the very source of our life. To have God's Word "written on our hearts" essentially means that God's purity and holiness is the heart of who we are, the core of our true Self.
But there is yet more to this idea of God's Word written on our hearts. When the Course's author uses Biblical allusions, he is often drawing on the meaning of the Biblical passage alluded to; therefore, consulting the Biblical passage can often shed light on the Course passage. I believe that our Course sentence is alluding specifically to Jeremiah 31:33. In this chapter of Jeremiah, God refers to the old covenant, the law of Moses, an external law which the Israelites had constantly chafed against and broken. He then promises that the day will come when a new covenant will be made, a law written not on the stone tablets of Moses, but engraved on the very hearts of His people:
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33, NRSV)
In this verse, God announces a shift from an external law which must be obeyed to an internal law in harmony with our inmost being. This same shift is suggested, I believe, in our Course sentence. Normally, when we consider the idea of being God's messengers, the whole enterprise carries overtones of sacrifice. We may feel that we have to do it simply in order to obey God's command, as the Israelites did in the old covenant. But this obedience seems to go against our self-interest—we are serving God and serving others, but what's in it for us? Serving God and others seems to chafe against us as it did the Israelites. It seems to run contrary to our nature. There is an implied critique of this attitude in our sentence: it says that serving God and serving others doesn't run contrary to our nature; rather, it is the way we discover our true nature. By extending God's love to others, we learn that we are love.
Putting all of this together, I then summarize the message of our sentence as follows:
We—Jesus, myself, and all who have accepted their function as saviors of the world—are the holy messengers of God who have the function of extending God's message of salvation to everyone whom God has sent to us. As a result of doing this, we learn that serving God and others is no sacrifice—in fact, it is the way that we discover God's promise of salvation is for us. By extending God's Word to others, we learn that the purity and holiness of God abides in our hearts, and extending His Word to others is the natural expression of our true Self.
What does it mean to me?
Once we have some idea of the artwork's meaning, this final step asks us to pay attention to our personal response to that meaning. How does this work impact me? What feelings does it bring up? How does this work make me see things differently? This step is where art delivers its payoff: the aesthetic experience, the goal of art.
With the Course as with other works of art, this step involves becoming aware of our own response to what we are reading. This is a kind of observation, like the first step, only this time we are observing ourselves. So now, let's allow the message of our sample sentence to really sink in. One way to do this is to apply the message of the sentence to ourselves. So, right now, imagine yourself extending God's Word to others. See yourself giving everyone who comes to you this message: "You, God's Son, are pure and holy as Himself." As you do this, notice how you feel. Now, prepare to look within, to the core of your own being. Consider for a moment all of the vile things you think are there: all of your secret sins, the black stains of your past, God's condemning judgment of your corrupted heart. Now look within, and see instead a radiant light: the purity and holiness of God's Word, extending from the core of your being outward to all the world. Bask in the feeling of joy this brings. Rejoice in the happy recognition that by extending God's Word to others, you have found that Word, that promise of salvation, that font of God's holiness, at the center of your own being.
This is the heart of Course practice: taking the fruits of study (the meaning we have discovered) and personally experiencing those fruits by applying that meaning to our own lives, making the Course's message truly our own. In this final step, we take into our hearts the picture we revealed in the previous step, and it becomes our new way of seeing. In this final step, the ultimate goal of Course study comes to fruition: the experience of new vision.
Who has the time or the skill for all of this?
At this point, you may be wondering, "How can I possibly find the time and develop the skills necessary to do all of this?" Indeed, this looks very overwhelming at first. It may look as if, just as Richard Nilsen spent six hours or so with one painting, we are now expected to spend six hours with each Course paragraph. I have several answers to these concerns:
First, obviously each person has a different life situation, and some will be able to put more time and effort into studying the Course than others. Whatever your situation, simply remember that, as with anything else, you get out of Course study what you put into it. Whatever time you can spend on it and whatever skill you can develop will yield great benefits.
Second, learning a new skill is always difficult and time-consuming at first. But in time, with practice, your study skills will improve to the point that they become second nature—you will begin to apply them automatically, habitually, and thus the process will not only be easier, but faster. The process described above sounds clumsy and long in the telling, but with experience it can become smooth and relatively quick.
Third, the Course teachers mentioned above, once there are more of them available, can make your Course study easier. They can teach you how to study, just as I'm doing in this article. In addition, teachers can do the kind of in-depth study that those with less time, skill, and inclination cannot, and share the results of that study with others.
Finally, the Course itself promises that we will be given all that we need to learn it, if we really want to learn it. The real question is not whether we can find the time and develop the skills, but whether we believe that the effort required will really be worth it:
What gives you happiness you want to learn and not forget….Your question is whether the means by which this course is learned will bring to you the joy it promises. If you believed it would, the learning of it would be no problem (T-21.I.3:3,5-6).
Those who love art find the time and develop the skills required to interpret it. They do so because the goal of a deeper experience of their beloved art is worth it to them—they believe it will bring them joy. It is worth noting that as a result of his long session with that painting, Richard Nilsen's experience of it transformed. Originally he didn't like the painting, but now he "cannot get enough of it."(12) Reflecting on the time he spent with the painting, he concludes: "It was an enormous expense of time and energy, but it paid me back many times over."(13) In the same way, putting time and energy into Course study will pay us back many times over. Since the Course promises the joy of salvation, is it not worth the effort to do everything we can to deepen our experience of it?
A community of Course appreciation
If enough people really start doing this kind of study, where could it lead? One possibility is suggested to me by the community that has grown up around one great work of art: Richard Wagner's opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. The Ring is a series of four long operas, about fifteen hours total, performed over the course of a week. It is a difficult work, largely inaccessible to the untrained observer, yet it has attracted a hugely devoted following—one person in attendance at the cycle I went to had seen the Ring over one hundred times. Since it is such a difficult work, an entire network of teachers and scholars exists to bridge the gap between the work and its public. The week of the cycle I attended was full of classes and seminars given by teachers and performers, the theater lobby was full of books by Wagner scholars—there was even an interactive Ring CD-ROM. All of these study aids served the singular goal of a deeper experience and appreciation of the Ring performance—to make this initially difficult work come alive and divulge its marvelous treasures.
I can envision a similar community emerging around the Course. The Course, like the Ring, is a monumental, difficult, initially inaccessible work of art, yet with a devoted following. And so this community would have teachers and scholars whose training and experience allow them to serve as a bridge between the Course and its students. Imagine a network of teachers and scholars as dedicated to the Course as those who are dedicated to the Ring. I can see Course symposiums like the "Jesus at 2000" symposium I attended, in which historical Jesus scholars gathered, gave presentations, engaged each other in panel discussions, and answered questions—all in a public forum. I can see websites devoted to Course scholarship, with on-line scholarly debates, interactive question-and-answer forums, and written material aimed at helping every student become an intelligent, informed reader of the Course. I can see classes and seminars offered to Course students on topics that have heretofore not even been imagined—perhaps "How to Read the Course's Poetry," or "Literal or Metaphor? How to Tell the Difference," or "The Course's Use of Leitmotifs."
But just as with the Ring community, the teachers and scholars of this community would not be engaging in academic study for its own sake. Everything this community does would be devoted to a single purpose: that of bringing the Course to life, revealing its treasures so that every Course student can gain a deeper appreciation of it, and thus experience its transformative power. What began with the simple idea of applying art study techniques to the Course could lead to an entire community of Course appreciation—a community whose work could extend salvation to the world.
Appreciating God's masterpiece
Does seeing the Course as art really matter? I hope this series of articles has provided ample evidence that indeed it does. To conclude, I'd like to quote a passage from a letter to the editor, written by Monty Wiley, which appeared in a recent issue of the Circle's newsletter, A Better Way. Monty's words describing his own experience (an experience which echoes my own) express eloquently the immense benefits that applying the tools of art study and appreciation to the Course can offer us:
What has ultimately made the difference as a student is the way the Course language enchants me as a poem and a song. I was trained as a classical musician; and it was a major turning point when I saw that the sensitivity I had developed over some ten years of music lessons and performances could uncover whole layers of meaning in ACIM that had at first seemed closed to me.
Most of us will never become trained classical musicians; but we can be trained to hear the Course's music. And the experience of that music, a song of salvation which promises to awaken in us the remembrance of the song of Heaven, is worth the effort. Appreciating the masterpiece that is A Course in Miracles promises to lead us ultimately to the appreciation of God's masterpiece: His beloved Son, whose Self we all share. And "how could the Lord of Heaven not be glad if you appreciate His masterpiece?" (T-25.II.9:1).
1. I am indebted to Robert Perry and Allen Watson for the Course study techniques they have developed, many of which are reflected in this article. For an in-depth exploration of these techniques, see Allen's recent eight-part series on study techniques in A Better Way, or see Robert and Allen's book, Bringing the Course to Life: How to Unlock the Meaning of A Course in Miracles for Yourself, available from the Circle of Atonement.
2. Gilbert, Rita. Living with Art, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992, p. 16.
3. Gilbert, p. 16.
4. Gillespie, John. The Musical Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1968, p. 6.
5. Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music, rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1957, p. 23.
6. Nilsen, Richard. "Cultural subtlety eludes us." Arizona Republic, 22 Feb. 1998, p. G9.
7. Of course, there are those in the art world who contend that intellectual study and analysis of art is overemphasized. And it is true that anything can be overdone. But even the majority of these critics would concede that some study is necessary to more deeply experience a work of art. By and large, the debate isn't about whether study is necessary, but how much is necessary, and how important a role it plays.
8. Gillespie, p. 5.
9. Gilbert, p. 19.
10. Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 2nd ed. Boston: St. Martins Press, p. 7.
11. This will be only the briefest taste of the process of studying a Course passage. To learn how to do a more in-depth study, see the works of Robert Perry and Allen Watson cited in Note 1, above.
12. Nilsen, Richard. "The Art of the Matter." Arizona Republic, 22 Feb. 1998, p. G1.
13. Nilsen, "The Art of the Matter," p. G1.