If the title of this article strikes you as incongruous, I'm sure you are not alone. People familiar with A Course in Miracles don't usually think in terms of its social vision. Doesn't the Course urge us to "seek not to change the world" (T-21.In.1:7)? Isn't our sole responsibility to accept the Atonement for ourselves (T-2.V.5:1)? Isn't the Course strictly about how we perceive the world in our own minds?
We at the Circle have been arguing for years that the Course is deeply concerned with our role in uplifting the world, and that it even sees us carrying out this role through a great deal of "busy doing" (T-18.VII.8:3). Recently, I realized a new dimension of this. There are a number of images in the Course of what one might call ideal social situations. They are generally highly symbolic—they depict temples, havens, gardens, and treasure houses. They are obviously not meant to be taken literally, yet they do depict collective situations. They do depict us in relationship with the broader society. And that element, I'm convinced, is meant to be taken literally.
One thing I find fascinating about these images is that they seem to be different snapshots of a single template. A particular image from the Course—for instance, the image of the circle of Atonement (T-14.V.6:11)—will generally capture only certain aspects of this template. But once you start placing these various images side-by-side, you see themes repeat again and again. Then you see that these themes naturally fall into a logical order. And this collection of themes arranged in their logical order is the template I am talking about. Here are the elements of that template, in order:
1. The desert: The world as a place devoid of love.
2. The miracle: Someone's mind shifts and real love enters.
3. The oasis is established: This love establishes a different kind of place.
4. The Guests come: God and Christ enter with healing and holiness.
5. Everyone is invited in: All the lonely wanderers are invited in to find healing.
6. Those who come bring gifts: Those who are healed by the oasis bring blessings to it.
7. The oasis spreads out and encompasses the world
Once you recognize and understand this template, you realize that the author was designing each image as a variation on this same overall picture, a picture that can fairly be called utopian. Let us now look at each aspect of this picture in more detail:
1. The Desert
This template begins with a picture of the world as it is. A favorite image in the Course for this is a desert (see T-18.VIII.8-10, T-20.III.9:3, T-20.VI.11:3-5, T-26.IX.3, W-pII.13:5), a place devoid of life, where isolated individuals wander in the dust, lost and lonely, strangers to each other, homeless, weary, starving, searching in vain for a water they cannot find, and finally dying all alone. It is a picture characterized by emptiness: emptiness of life, of joy, of vitality, of hope, of sustenance, of direction, and of companionship.
We can readily understand this image on a literal level. Indeed, we occasionally hear about people who get lost in the desert and die searching for water and help. Yet the Course intends this as a symbolic image that describes the entire world, not outwardly, but inwardly. On a mental/emotional level, this world is a desert. It is dry of the love and joy which nourish and sustain us within. On the outside, we run here and there with great purposefulness, linking up with others in joint projects of home and business. Yet on the inside we are wanderers, searching aimlessly for that living water which lies we know not where, and feeling, in our heart of hearts, deeply alone. In other words, just as a desert is desolate on the physical level, so the entire world is desolate on the inner and interpersonal level.
The following passage speaks more literally about the condition that is symbolized by the desert image. In fact, it contains the very idea I am talking about: that, while having home and companionship on the outside, we feel lonely and homeless on the inside:
And so they wander through a world of strangers, unlike themselves, living with their bodies perhaps under a common roof that shelters neither; in the same room and yet a world apart. (T-22.In.2:8)
2. The Miracle
The desert of the world is produced by a crucial element I haven't yet mentioned: hate. This is made explicit in the section "For They Have Come" (T-26.IX), which speaks of an "ancient hate" (T-26.IX.2:3, 3:8) that has lain between you and your brother since time immemorial. This hate places a shadow, a space, a gap (even "a flaming sword of death"— T-24.III.4:7) between the two of you. Figuratively speaking, it is like a merciless sun that turns the land into a desert; we hear of "the barren ground that hate had scorched and rendered desolate" (T-26.IX.3:5).
Into this desert enters something that will eventually change everything: the miracle. The miracle occurs when, in the midst of the ancient hate, someone makes a choice to forgive. If hate is what makes the world a desert, what happens when hate is set aside? The Course answers this question with beautiful images of nature reborn:
The blood of hatred fades to let the grass grow green again, and let the flowers be all white and sparkling in the summer sun. (T-26.IX.3:1)
Miracles fall like drops of healing rain from Heaven on a dry and dusty world, where starved and thirsty creatures come to die. Now they have water. Now the world is green. And everywhere the signs of life spring up. (W-pII.13.5:1-4)
The section "Where Sin Has Left" (T-26.IV) contains a powerful image of hate being replaced by the miracle and the world being reborn. The image begins with two people who are separated by each one's perception that the other is a sinful, evil thing. This perception of sin pushes them apart, like an invisible force that repels them from each other. Then one of them forgives, and this forgiveness is returned by the other. The space between them now becomes the space "where sin has left." Now there is nothing pushing them away from each other, nothing stopping their natural impulse to join. "And in the space that sin left vacant do they join as one" (T-26.IV.2:6).
With this miracle, the world is reborn. "Forgiveness turns the world of sin into a world of glory, wonderful to see. Each flower shines in light, and every bird sings of the joy of Heaven" (T-26.IV.2:1-2). Moreover, the space that sin has left becomes holy ground (T-26.IV.3:1), in which an altar to God appears and rises above the world to reach to God.
This miracle lays the foundation for what I am calling the Course's social vision. The miracle is sometimes portrayed as taking place within a single mind that chooses to forgive and be healed. Other times, it is a healing, a joining, between two people. I'll be talking about both cases as we proceed. Either way, someone has made a choice to let go of hate, the withering heat that scorched the earth and turned it into a wasteland. This single choice sets in motion everything that follows.
3. The Oasis is Established
The miracle, being a reversal of the hate that caused the desert, ends up establishing a special place on the face of the earth, an oasis in which all of the harsh desert conditions have been overturned. "The desert becomes a garden, green and deep and quiet" (T-18.VIII.3). There are many aspects to this overall concept. In a world of wanderers made weary by endless searching, this oasis is a place of rest (rest, in fact, is a major theme in nearly all of the images we will explore). In a world of strangers, this is a place of true joining, where former enemies have become dear friends. In a world where no one seems to experience real belonging, this is a warm and welcoming home (see W-pI.159.7). In a world of people starving within, this place hosts an ongoing feast of plenty, where "the more that anyone receives, the more is left for all the rest to share" (T-28.III.9:2). And in a profane, godless world, this is now holy ground, made holy not by ley lines, vortexes, or old churches, but by the overcoming of hate: "The holiest of all the spots on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love" (T-26.IX.6:1). On this holy ground the Course sees altars arising (see W-pI.183.5:4; T-26.IV.3:4; W-pII.2.3:4) and temples being built: "Your relationship is now a temple of healing; a place where all the weary ones can come and rest" (T-19.III.11:3).
This final quote gives us a clue as to what these images really refer to. Obviously, we are not meant to take them literally and imagine that when we forgive someone, flowers will instantly pop out of the ground around us and stone altars spring up between us. The above quote makes clear that the temple is not a physical building. It is the relationship between two people who have forgiven. Alternately, it can be an individual person. Another passage says that one who frees his mind of that which opposes God "becomes a haven where the weary can remain to rest" (W-pI.137.11:3).
We don't have to think too hard to realize what this means. When one is in the presence of a truly loving, peaceful person, it is easy to feel as if one has stumbled into an oasis in the desert, as if one has come home and can finally rest. Contemporary Jesus scholar Marcus Borg remarks on this same basic phenomenon:
The impression is clear: to be in the presence of Jesus was a joyous experience. This experience of joy in the presence of a remarkable religious figure has parallels in other times and places. Both within and beyond the Christian tradition, people speak of a "presence" or "zone" around a holy one which is virtually palpable, which can be "felt." Simply to be in the presence of such a person mediates the reality of which he or she speaks….To be in the presence of Jesus was experienced as being in the presence of the Spirit which flowed through him. (Jesus: A New Vision. New York: HarperCollins, 1987, p. 129)
Borg adds the following remark in an endnote:
Within the Buddhist tradition, people speak of a "Buddha field" which could be felt not only around Buddha, but also around other enlightened figures who came after him. Within the Christian tradition, a similar "zone" was felt around St. Francis, as well as around other figures. (p. 144)
In talking about gardens in the desert and havens of rest, the Course, I am sure, is symbolically speaking of this exact same phenomenon. The only difference is that it is also emphasizing this phenomenon in relation to two people who have reached outside of their egos to achieve an authentic joining. To be in the presence of two such people would be to enter the same "zone" that one experiences around an individual holy person.
4. The Guests Come
This notion of a field of holiness is echoed by one of the main features of these images in the Course. This feature might be called the coming of the Guests. The Guests are God and His Son, the Christ, the true Self of all people and all living things.
This feature perhaps logically belongs earlier, for the miracle which transforms the desert and establishes the temple is this very coming of the Guests. The miracle is called forth by our own choice to give up hate, but this choice is not the miracle. It is simply an invitation to the Guests to come and dwell with us. Their coming is what turns the ground on which we stand into holy ground. Their coming is what turns the desert into a garden. They are the Ones Who supply the endless abundance of the feast of plenty. And They come as soon as They have been made welcome, which is whenever we choose to forgive our brother instead of hate him. To get a sense of the importance ascribed to Their coming, you might want to read "For They Have Come" (T-26.IX), which features this theme and is one of the most poetic and moving sections in the entire Course.
Their Presence, in other words, is the "zone" which the Course describes as a garden, a temple, a haven, a home, in which weary sojourners can finally find rest and be healed of all those years of wandering under the blazing glare of hate.
5. Everyone is Invited in
All of us want to find a place that is different from the rest of the world, a place from which the usual insanity and cruelty and scarcity are absent. All of us are looking for shelter from the storm. Yet when we find the oasis we seek, what do we instantly do? We draw up a list of those who are welcome and a list of those who aren't. These two lists are actually several lists. First, there are those who live there. Then there are those who don't but are so welcome they don't have to knock on the front door. Then there are those who can show up whenever they want, but should still knock. Then there are those who should make an appointment first; and then those who shouldn't even try to make an appointment without an extraordinary reason—all the way to down to those on whom we'll call the police if they set foot in the yard.
This is fundamental to the nature of our homes, clubs, societies, and associations. We congregate with those who are like us and who serve our interests, and we exclude the rest. Human groupings are defined by whom they exclude. After all, if we let anyone and everyone in, then our enclave's essential purpose will be destroyed. How can it be a shelter from the storm if we let in the storm? The very nature of a safe haven is that it shuts out the dangerous world.
Yet excluding our brothers is an act of hate, and so by excluding them, rather than shutting out the storm, we take its essence into our minds. The very walls which we built to keep out the storm are made of its dark clouds. The oasis we think we have created is just a mirage, which allows us to retreat into fantasies and dreamily forget that we are still lost in the desert, slowly dying under its merciless sun.
The oasis the Course is talking about is a completely different kind of place, for once this place is established, it invites in literally everyone. There is no hierarchy of welcome. There is no caste system of the elite and the untouchable. Again and again we are told that everyone is welcome, for that is the nature of love, and it is of love that this oasis is made.
5a. Specific images
"Everyone is welcome" is easy to say, but very difficult to really take in. It falls so completely outside our cultural programming that, when we hear it, it almost does not compute. It can all too easily sound like empty words. To help us appreciate this feature, let me go through the various "social vision" images in the Course and summarize them, while highlighting this aspect of welcoming everyone.
The little garden
"The Little Garden" (T-18.VIII) is one of the most beloved images in the Course (and in fact the only one of the images I'll explore that contains the entire template). It begins by picturing us as the bitter ruler of a tiny kingdom, a patch of worthless desert. Seeing how little we have, the Course says, should we not call on love to enter and transform our little kingdom (T-18.VIII.8:4-5)? Once love enters, "The desert becomes a garden, green and deep and quiet, offering rest to those who lost their way and wander in the dust" (T-18.VIII.9:3). We are not content to simply open our garden to these lost ones; we actually go out and comb the desert for them, and, once we find them, lead them lovingly back to our garden (T-18.VIII.10:1-2).
The Circle of Atonement
"The Circle of Atonement" (T-14.V) presents a similar image. The circle is a place in which everyone is joined in the goal of releasing the world from guilt, and united in the experience of God's power, which enfolds everyone in "its safe embrace of love and union" (T-14.V.8:5). This circle is not a physical place but a mental place, inhabited by people who, physically, are scattered across the world. The members of this circle are all those who are reconciled with God, all of God's messengers in this world. Given that this circle includes the spiritual giants of this world, one might expect it to be a very elite circle, one which normal people such as ourselves are not worthy to set foot in. Yet, in point of fact, everyone is already inside the circle; everyone is reconciled with God. Those who feel outside falsely believe that they are unworthy to come in. It is thus the job of those who realize they are inside to reach out to all who believe they are "left outside to suffer guilt alone" (T-18.VIII.8:4), and draw them in. It is the job of God's messengers to call to everyone, no matter how sinful that person may seem, and give him the message: "You are guiltless. Come into the circle, where you belong."
The communion feast
In "The Obstacles to Peace" there is a beautiful image of a feast (T-19.IV(A).16). This feast is prepared for us by love in order to honor our holy relationship with another person. It takes place "in a quiet garden where no sound but singing and a softly joyous whispering is ever heard" (T-19.IV(A).16:1). It is set upon a table which is simultaneously an altar—"the table of communion" (T-19.IV(A).16:3). This feast is in such a sacred garden at such a holy table, that one might imagine that only the most special guests would be invited. We are surprised, then, when we read that "everyone is welcomed as an honored guest" (T-19.IV(A).16:2)—not only welcomed, but as a guest of honor. Everyone. Finally, in keeping with the theme of the coming of the Guests, Jesus says, "And I will join you there, as long ago I promised and promise still" (T-19.IV(A)16.4). Why will he join us? Because in our new relationship exclusion has ceased (T-19.IV(A).16:5). By stopping our exclusion of a brother we extend an invitation to Jesus that he has been waiting to receive for two thousand years.
The center of redemption
Lesson 159 contains a remarkable image of a new kind of home. "What was to be the home of sin becomes the center of redemption and the hearth of mercy, where the suffering are healed and welcome" (W-pI.159.7:3). All those who suffer are asked to come because it is here that they will find (W-pI.159.7:4). When they arrive, they find that no one is a stranger (W-pI.159.7:5), and that the only gift asked of them is that they accept their welcome (W-pI.159.7:6). This so goes against our concept of a home (the very notion of which is that certain people belong there and others don't) that I want to spend some time trying to draw this out.
Imagine walking up to the door of the most gorgeous, spacious mansion you have ever seen. When you knock on the door, the master of the house himself answers and asks you one question: "Are you suffering?" When you answer "yes," he says, "Then please come in, for in here you will find what you are looking for. You have probably never met any of the people inside, but you will soon realize that there are no strangers here. To enter, we ask only one gift of you: That you do us the honor of accepting our welcome of you."
The temple of healing
A deep relationship between two people is generally a very private thing. Like a home, it is something the two of them share, something into which others are not really invited. In the Course's vision, however, if a joining between two people is to be genuine, its foundation must be the principle of joining itself. And if anyone is excluded, its founding principle obviously cannot be joining. A fully realized holy relationship, then, would necessarily become "a temple of healing; a place where all the weary ones can come and rest" (T-19.III.11:3). Notice again that it is "all the weary ones." The two of you have found such joy in not excluding each other, that you want to increase this joy by including everyone. Your only desire is to draw everyone into the "zone" of your union, so that they too can experience the blissful completion and the sense of home that you have felt with each other. And just as with the little garden, the two of you not only throw open the gates to every brother who needs healing; instead of waiting for him to come to your temple, you go out and call to him (T-19.IV.1:8). "And you will draw him in and give him rest, as it was given you" (T-19.IV.1:9).
Interestingly, there is a similar temple image elsewhere in the Course. This one says, "Open the temple doors and let them come from far across the world, and near as well; your distant brothers and your closest friends; bid them all enter here and rest with you" (W-pI.109.8:3). This image captures what the Course is saying about our lives: Our lives are meant to be temples, whose doors are thrown open to our most "distant brothers" just as much as our "closest friends."
The feast of plenty
One of the more complex of these images is what I'll call "the feast of plenty" (T-28.III.7-9). This image is based on the notion of a treasure house or storehouse, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines simply as "a building where treasure is kept." A treasure house, of course, is a place where you put your most valuable objects and where you want a solid door with a strong lock. The whole point of it is to store your treasures where they can't be stolen.
But what should we store? The Course depicts us as foolish people who have stored the wrong treasure: "who mistook for gold the shining of a pebble, and who stored a heap of snow that shone like silver" (T-28.III.7:2). We think we are rich men with piles of gold and silver in our storehouse, yet all we really have are some wet pebbles. This is a metaphor for all worldly treasures (including gold and silver), which look so valuable but end up being worthless, since they don't deliver real happiness.
What, then, should we value? "Count, then, the silver miracles and golden dreams of happiness as all the treasures you would keep within the storehouse of the world" (T-28.III.7:1). These are the only kinds of silver and gold worth valuing, these shifts in perception in which an ancient hate becomes a present love. When we let go of hatred, the space that kept us apart is replaced by joining. "And where the little gap was seen to stand between you and your brother, join him there" (T-28.III.8:2). This miracle of joining then invites God and Christ to come to our treasure house as our Guests, and bring unlimited bounty with Them.
Once we find that we are the only ones who have actual treasure in our storehouse (the treasure of miracles), what do we do? We do something that defies all normal thinking about treasure houses: We throw open the door and invite all of our starving brothers (the ones who are destitute because they stored the pebbles and snow) in for an unforgettable feast (see T-28.III.7:2 and 8:7). Once they enter, they find that "Love has set its table in the space" (T-28.III.9:8) that used to be occupied by our hate. At this table, our brothers share with us and with our invited Guests a miraculous feast, in which (as I quoted earlier) "the more that anyone receives, the more is left for all the rest to share" (T-28.III.9:2). Rather than running out, the fullness of this feast simply grows greater and greater, as the feast keeps going, year after year. "Here can the lean years enter not, for time waits not upon this feast, which has no end" (T-28.III.9:7).
This, of course, is a highly stylized image, but on a more literal level its meaning is probably clear by now: Something extraordinary happens around a person who has realized the miraculous power of love (or around two such people). People are drawn to such a person, like starving people are drawn to a feast. Yet here the "food" is simply his love, which does not run out, but only grows in fullness as it is shared. In this person's presence, unconventional things can happen. People will feel healed of the emptiness that has gnawed at them for their whole lives. People will be lovingly welcomed who, in more respectable social circles, would have been excluded. And the person hosting this feast will behave in radically unconventional ways, defying the normal rules around wealth and possessions, as his love lavishly expresses itself in tangible form.
5b. Open doors and no strangers
Now that we have gone through these various images of all-inclusive welcome, I'd like to expand just a little more on this aspect. The Course says that in this oasis no one is regarded as a stranger. This reflects the running theme in the Course that we should look past the appearance that someone is a stranger, for in truth there is no such thing. Think of treating no one who comes to your door as a stranger, but instead welcoming everyone as your dearest and oldest friend (see T-20.II.5:5). Imagine further that those who come and receive your welcome are not just well-groomed postmen and Girl Scouts, but social "undesirables" in serious need. After all, what good is an oasis if it is only available to those who please our egos? Shouldn't its whole purpose be to reach out to those who are in need? When the Course lists those to whom we should reach out, those on the list are always those in need. Here are a few such lists:
The frantic…the sad and the distressed, the lonely and afraid…the dying and the dead. (W-pI.124.5:2-3)
The desolate and lonely and afraid…those who suffer pain, or grieve for loss, or think they are bereft of hope and happiness. (W-pII.245.1:4-5)
The sick, the weak, the needy and afraid, and those who mourn a seeming loss or feel apparent pain, who suffer cold or hunger, or who walk the way of hatred and the path of death. (W-pI.195.5:2)
These are the people we are supposed to invite into our healing sanctuary. If we take those characteristics that are mentioned twice or more in the above passages, we have: the lonely, the afraid, those who suffer pain and those who mourn (or grieve for) a loss. If we boil it down even further, we have simply: those in need. To appreciate this idea, imagine laboring for years to build a beautiful sanctuary, or to grow an exquisite garden in the desert, or to store up treasure in an impregnable vault, and then, once you are finally done, posting this sign: "Welcome, all who are lonely, afraid, grieving, and in pain. Enter here and find rest."
Another aspect of this all-inclusive welcome is the image of open doors. This symbol recurs throughout the Course (36 times, by my count). We have seen it, for instance, in the feast of plenty (T-28.III.7-9), which depicted our treasure house with its doors thrown open to welcome our starving brothers. Interestingly, the image of the treasure house recurs many times in the Course, and it is often described as having open doors. For instance, "Here the door is never locked, and no one is denied his least request or his most urgent need" (W-pI.159.6:4). Just think how incongruous it is to have a treasure house which has its doors always open! This becomes stranger still when those doors are open for the express purpose of meeting everyone's "least request or…most urgent need." But whether in relation to a storehouse, a home, or a temple, the image of open doors is a powerful statement whose meaning is universally understood.
Yet another aspect of this impartial welcome is captured in Lesson 155, which says that outwardly we should endeavor to look like everyone else (W-pI.155.5:3). In other words, we should not be renunciates (W-pI.155.4:2-3) who have special clothing and lifestyles that set us apart from the rest of the culture. Why? Because the more that others perceive that we are like them, the more they will see the relevance for them of what we have learned (W-pI.155.5:4-6:1). If we look just like them, and we have found peace in forgiveness, then they will probably suspect that they can, too.
This, in my mind, is yet another form of the open door concept we just discussed. To state this more plainly, which temple would you feel more welcome in: one filled with a special group of people who wore different clothing and had lifestyles of extreme ritual purity, or one filled with people who were, to all outward appearances, just like you? In this sense, the rules that govern a strict religious lifestyle build a fence that not only keeps out various "sins," but also keeps out the very people that could be helped. The strong boundary between "us" and "them" in many religious communities is meant to protect "us" from the diluting and corrupting influence of "them." Yet what if the very act of inviting them in is how we realize our purity, how we protect ourselves from corruption? That is the topic of our next category.
6. Those Who Come Bring Gifts
One can easily get the impression of a subtle inequality between those who establish the oasis and those who are invited into it. If, for instance, it was you who established the oasis, you might well be tempted to look on your visitors and think, "I don't need you but you definitely need me." The Course takes pains to correct this assumption. Let's see this correction at work in three of the images.
Lesson 344 contains yet another portrait of the treasure house. It begins by saying that, if I am storing up treasure only for myself, when I go to check inside my storehouse, I will find an empty room (W-pII.344.1:2-3). Then it says this:
Yet he whom I forgive will give me gifts beyond the worth of anything on earth. Let my forgiven brothers fill my store with Heaven's treasures, which alone are real. (W-pII.344.1:6-7)
So, the starving brothers I invite into my storehouse are portrayed as carrying treasures in with them. Yet how exactly do my poverty-stricken brothers bring treasures? How can those who have nothing bring a gift? The next image will help clarify this.
The circle of Atonement (T-14.V), if you recall, was the mental circle dwelt in by all who are joined in the goal of salvation, from whatever spiritual tradition. Everyone within the circle is united in feeling pure and innocent. Free of all guilt, they stand in the Presence of the Holy One Himself. From this place they reach out to all those who seem to be outside the circle with the message, "You are guiltless. Come into the circle." They do this just as much for themselves as for those they welcome. For it is only through the act of bringing others in that those within the circle become truly convinced that they are in (T-14.V.2-7). Why? Realizing you are inside the circle means realizing your innate innocence. And how can you feel truly innocent while you point a condemning finger at others? How can you feel guiltless while you refuse to help your brothers in need? How can you feel holy when, as soon as you get in, you shut the gates of Heaven on those left outside? On the other hand, how can you fail to feel innocent when you reach out your hand in unrestrained welcome to all your brothers?
Your forgiven brothers, then, becoming living symbols of your innocence. They become the statement that you belong within the circle. This, in fact, is the treasure they carry into your storehouse. For they see your holiness more clearly and gratefully than you do. When you draw someone into the circle, rescuing him from a slow death outside, he is the one who knows the true value of your helpfulness, the true power of your holiness, much more than you. The look on his face tells you that he sees in you more than you see. Thus, he becomes your savior in the exact same way that you were his: He convinces you of your holiness by believing in it more fully than you do. In a very real sense, then, you need him just as much as he needs you.
7. The Oasis Spreads Out and Encompasses the World
The garden is not meant to remain an oasis. An oasis, by definition, is a fertile area within a larger arid region. This garden is meant to expand until it replaces the desert entirely:
They enter one by one into this holy place, but they will not depart as they had come, alone. The love they brought with them will stay with them, as it will stay with you. And under its beneficence your little garden will expand, and reach out to everyone who thirsts for living water, but has grown too weary to go on alone….So will it grow and stretch across the desert, leaving no lonely little kingdoms locked away from love, and leaving you inside. And you will recognize yourself, and see your little garden gently transformed into the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the love of its Creator shining upon it. (T-18.VIII.9:6-8, 10:3-4)
The above passage completes the process begun by the initial miracle, which transformed a patch of desert into a garden and led you to invite everyone into it. When the lonely wanderers come into the garden, they are no longer alone. They meet and join with others who are taking refuge there. And when these newfound friends leave the garden, they leave together, hand-in-hand. We even get the impression that they leave the garden as its emissaries, carrying its seeds to new places.
With each new person who enters the garden to find rejuvenation, the love there grows. And since love is what produced the garden in the first place, the more love it takes in, the more it grows and expands. As it spreads out, it turns each tiny desert kingdom it encounters into a verdant garden, until finally it has liberated all lonely kingdoms, rescued all thirsty wanderers, and blanketed the entire desert with lush greenery. The world that used to be a barren wasteland is now a pure reflection of God's Love and becomes "transformed into the Kingdom of Heaven." Thus, what started as a miracle in the mind of one or two people, has uplifted the entire world and carried it right to the gates of Heaven.
I hope you can see now why I call this a social vision. It depicts an ideal way for people to live together in the world, a way which reverses the ills of this world, and which the Course says will ultimately transform human society. True, it is not a program that could be instituted on a mass level by, for instance, the government. It could never be legislated, for it rests entirely on a profound inner shift. It has to start with one or two people who have had this inner shift, and then spread out from there. How else could it work? Conventional society is produced by a mass mind-set of hate. (Few of us would use the word "hate" to describe our mind-set, but what else would one call something which leads us to shut the door on most of our brothers?) What could introduce genuine change into a hate-based society but the coming of real love? And how could such a coming be legislated?
We have seen many symbolic images of this social vision, but let me now summarize this vision in everyday terms so that we can get a better sense of it.
It begins in a hate-filled world where people feel deprived of the love that sustains them, and where they wander ceaselessly about, not knowing where they can quench their inner thirst. We ourselves start out like everyone else, but one day, we make a crucial decision to renounce our hate. We choose to forgive someone against whom we have nursed a grudge for many years.
This single choice sets in motion a process which we could not have anticipated. Our former enemy returns our forgiveness, and now the hate that kept us apart is gone, and so nothing stands in the way of our innate desire to join. Over time the relationship develops. The old hate becomes a distant memory and we move increasingly into the experience of oneness with each other. Our relationship slowly becomes a different sort of place, in which the harsh climate that pervades the outside world has gone. It becomes a kind of holy ground in which different principles reign, in which the miraculous becomes possible, even natural.
At this point we could stay secluded in our little haven, enjoying each other in privacy. Yet we realize that the joy of our relationship is the joy of union, and that limiting our union to just this one person also limits our joy. And so we do the unconventional: We throw open the doors of our lives and invite others in to share our oneness. We don't just welcome the people who can meet our needs or enhance our status. We invite all who are in need, and who in this world is not in need? We invite the lonely and afraid, those who grieve and those who are in pain. We even invite "those who walk the way of hatred and the path of death" (W-pI.195.5:2). Thus, there is no hierarchy of welcome, no inner circle and outer circle. In our home, "everyone is welcomed as an honored guest" (T-19.IV(A).16:2).
When people come into our home, the interior looks quite ordinary, as do the people they see. Yet they feel as if they have walked into a temple, or have crawled out of the desert into an oasis. In these ordinary surroundings they feel the presence of something extraordinary. They feel the presence of love. They feel a completeness inside where before there was only emptiness. They feel as if, after years of starving, they have stumbled into an ongoing feast. They feel that, after decades of clawing for every little scrap, they have entered a field of divine grace, in which they can rest. They feel that they have finally come home. This has nothing really to do with the physical trappings they see and everything to do with the "zone" of selfless love around the two of us.
With each person who comes bearing gratitude, we ourselves feel more complete, more convinced of our own innocence. With each person who leaves, the elixir of our home is carried out into a thirsty world. With time our home grows. We build on additional wings. Some who visit stay permanently as new hosts for the increasing number of honored guests. The town in which we live becomes affected by our love. Many of the neighbors experience our welcome and as a result become kinder, more welcoming people themselves. Just knowing what we are doing down the street affects how people go about their day and relate to their fellows. As their values invisibly shift, without realizing it they start treating their families differently, conducting their businesses differently, and even voting differently. The entire region becomes subtly influenced; becomes a little more like our home.
People who have stayed with us are inspired to start similar homes in other places. And these too subtly uplift the world around them. In time, what began with one gesture of forgiveness between two people ends up having a permanent affect on the entire world. Because of our forgiveness, the global climate of hate becomes softened. When all is said and done, our efforts, the efforts of those we inspire, and the similar efforts of others, end up covering the entire world with love, making it a pure reflection of Heaven, so pure that finally "it fades into what is reflected there" (W-pI.167.12:3).
This overall pattern, of course, can take innumerable forms. I have simply sketched one form that it might take. I depicted it as occurring on a foundation of two people joining. But, as we saw, it can also be founded on a single person. Rather than it being a home, it could take the form of a temple, a literal garden, a soup kitchen, a spiritual center, or an intentional community—as long as these were done in harmony with the principles I've outlined. It need not even be stationary. It could consist of one or more people traveling around and affecting people wherever they went. In fact, there are images of this very thing in the Course (see, for instance, T-22.IV.4-7).
Now that I have put this vision into plainer language, you can probably see that this is not an entirely unfamiliar pattern. One thinks of Mother Teresa's work, or of Jesus dining with the outcasts of his society. It even reminds me of things Marianne Williamson has done in her Centers for Living. What the Course is talking about here has been demonstrated in the world. But it so cuts against the grain of our society that, when it happens, we all sit up and take notice. Our eyes widen and we find ourselves inspired, disturbed, challenged, relieved, and motivated all at once.
That, in fact, is exactly my reaction to the vision I've just outlined. The concept greatly inspires me and I know there is something deeply right about it. For that reason I have immensely enjoyed writing this article. However, when I think of demonstrating it in my own life, I find it an unsettling, if not outright frightening, idea. A way of life in which I invite everyone into my front door, especially those most in need? I am just not there yet. I still value my privacy (what little I have left). I still value having some ability to pick and choose those with whom I share my life. I still want to invite some people in and keep the majority of humanity out. I just don't think I am ready for a life without walls.
My next reaction, though, is that I know that this is the way of life to which I am called. If the Course says that my calling here is to save the world, and says that I save the world by being this oasis in the desert, then becoming that oasis must be my calling. How could I be a student of the Course and think otherwise? How could I be a follower of Jesus and think otherwise? I have long believed that the Holy Spirit was leading my life according to a plan of which I only see little pieces. Now it appears to me that the vision I've presented here is, in a sense, the big picture. Looking back over my life, it is clear to me that He has been leading me along the early steps of this very vision. I can only surmise that the later steps are waiting for me down the road.
That leaves me with three questions: First, can I accept that this is my calling, and make reaching this place my goal? It helps me to answer "yes" when I trust the Holy Spirit to design a form of this goal that is adapted to my individual abilities and temperament. It also helps when I trust that He will be patient (and forgiving!) in preparing me and will not force me into anything before I am ready.
Second, what is my next step? This vision depicts an unfolding sequence, which begins rather humbly and gradually works its way toward its radical conclusion. Looking at the overall sequence, I can fairly easily locate where I am in it. The question then becomes: What is the step immediately in front of me? Once I can identify that, the third question is obvious: Am I willing to take that step?
I would like to leave you with the same basic questions to ponder. Is it possible that for a long time the Holy Spirit has been trying to lead you through the very progression I've outlined here, all the way to its end? If so, can you make that end your goal? Can you set the goal of becoming a garden in the desert, a garden without walls? If so, can you discern what your next step is in this process? And are you willing to take it?