The context one places the Course in has a great deal to do with how one sees it. I got into the Course because I was attracted to channeled material. For many years, then, I saw the Course through that lens: as part of the recent spate of channeled material. This tremendously shaped my perception of the Course itself. I saw it primarily as a kind of grab-bag of wonderful ideas which could contribute to my journey. In my eyes, I was on a kind of self-guided tour to my ultimate destination in God, surrounded and aided by many teachings, which were all roughly saying the same thing. If I needed fuel for my journey, I could as easily pick up Emmanuel or Edgar Cayce as A Course in Miracles. All of these provided certain pieces of the puzzle. Yet in the end, only I myself could put all of those pieces together into the final, unique puzzle which was my personal journey to God.
Slowly, however, I began to see the Course in a different context. It started to look less like a New Age channeled teaching and more like a traditional spiritual path, of the kind which aims for total enlightenment. I saw that like so many traditional paths, East and West, the Course asks you to set yourself within a pre-given structure, to which you eventually give everything, all of yourself. I finally boiled this insight down into the following phrase: traditional monastic pursuit in the context of contemporary society.
This is obviously a paradoxical phrase, since monasticism inherently involves being removed from society. Yet first let us ask, what is monasticism? It is a way of life, secluded from the ordinary affairs of life, which is totally dedicated to the pursuit of God, of spiritual awakening. Though people often think of monasticism applying only to Christian monastic orders, the term actually has a far broader application. It applies to those who live in a formal community as well as to solitary hermits and wandering itinerants. It also applies cross-culturally. There are Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi and Jain monastics (I will use the term "monastic" to denote both monks and nuns). In terms of the East, one thinks not only of the great Buddhist orders, but also of the solitary forest dweller, the Tibetan cave dweller, and the Hindu samnyasin (renunciate).
Monastics are defined in part by their withdrawal from ordinary society as well as by such outer things as special patterns of living, distinctive clothing, specific daily schedules, special diet and other symbolic accoutrements such as staff and begging bowl. Yet for the sake of my point, let us for the moment set aside these outer forms of monasticism and look at features that have more in common with the Course.
As I see it, the driving force behind monasticism is that it shoots for the highest spiritual attainment possible. People who choose that life are usually aiming for the final realization, the end of the road. They are going for it all. Further, it recognizes that the spiritual life requires everything we have to give; that what we find at the spiritual summit is so valuable, so precious, that the climb deserves all of us—-heart, mind, body and soul.
Additionally, monasticism generally recognizes the need for some kind of pre-given structure. Monasticism realizes that the goal of God is so antithetical to our habitual way of being that, left to our own devices, we would never make it, or would progress incredibly slowly. We need some kind of structure that can guide us beyond these egos that seem so unbelievably tenacious.
A "pre-given structure" probably sounds very vague. Let me get more specific. To begin with, monastics almost always follow a specific set of teachings contained in some kind of scripture. These teachings provide a framework for the aspirant's entire spiritual journey, a framework that shapes his mind and guides his feet. Therefore, great value is placed on learning these teachings, on studying the scriptures. Many monastic orders include daily scriptural study as part of their way of life, often in the form of special techniques of memorization, recitation and mindful reflection. The Benedictines and other Christian orders emphasize a special kind of meditative reading of the scriptures called lectio divina. I was delighted to learn that Tibetan Buddhism even sets aside time each day for friendly scriptural debate. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion:
The path to perfection or religious transformation is often an intellectual path that requires a new understanding of the self and the world. Reading and study in the monastic context is a means of salvation, a technique for the reconstruction of one's worldview (vol. 10, p. 39).
Most kinds of monasticism also include pre-ordained methods of spiritual practice. One of the great themes of monasticism is the recognition of the crucial importance of precise, disciplined practice, and not just any practice; the specific kind that is prescribed in one's particular tradition. Without this practice the goal of the spiritual life will remain out of reach. Not only do monastics emphasize prayer and meditation, but also (depending on the tradition) liturgical ceremonies, communal chanting and dancing rites (as with the Sufis). Additionally, every task that is performed, even the most mundane chore, is turned into a spiritual practice. Again from the Encyclopedia of Religion:
Meditation and prayer, in their various forms, have been the most important activities in most monasteries: meditation may be discursive, ecstatic, yogic; prayer can be spontaneous, formal, communal, solitary. However, all kinds of religious practice are cultivated in monastic situations (vol.10, p. 38).
Many forms of monasticism also emphasize service to the outside world. This can take the form of tending to the sick or nursing, of preaching or providing spiritual counselling or instruction to laypeople, or of teaching. It can also take the form of praying for the world. I remember Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, saying that he felt that the prayers of his and other communities kept the world afloat. Though monastics are often thought of as too caught up in their individual spiritual quest to be of any good to the world, this is a misconception:
Even if monasticism is centered on the self and its transformation, there has rarely been a monastic for whom the Dominican motto has not been true: "Contemplata aliis tradere" ("To give to others the fruits of contemplation") (Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10, p. 40).
Most forms of monasticism also emphasize obedience to a spiritual teacher. Why is a teacher needed? Because here is a path filled with depth and subtlety, a path with a broad and profound teaching and with delicate and specific practices. The teacher is there to impart this system of teaching and practice to the pupil. Further, the pupil will be encountering all kinds of terrain with which he is totally unfamiliar. He will be unearthing various aspects of his ego and encountering unfamiliar spiritual experiences, all of which he may be unprepared to handle properly. For these and other reasons, he needs the guidance of a teacher who has walked this path, who is knowledgeable in the teaching and experienced in the practice, who has faced these same ego obstacles, who has passed this way before. Further, here is a path which aims at the highest realization, a realization that can seem totally out of reach. Thus, the pupil needs to see someone who has reached these high places, someone who can bring the summit of the mountain down to walk beside him on the trail. The teacher not only provides an example of someone who has attained some measure of the goal, in many systems the teacher actually gives the pupil direct inner experiences of the goal.
The starets in Russian Orthodox Christian tradition, the shaykh or murshid in Sufism, and the Zen Buddhist master are prominent examples….In all examples this type of association is much more intense and personal than that normally experienced between teacher and pupil [in a secular setting]. The master embodies the lesson and mediates transcendent power….(Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10, p. 37).
In summary, the seeker places himself within a prescribed path, a pre-ordained system of study, practice and extension, which has its foundation in a scripture, and in which he is guided and overseen by an experienced teacher. Thus, in a very real sense, the monastic's path is laid out for him. He does not mix and match spiritual paths. He does not pick and choose from a spiritual smorgasbord. Instead, he places himself firmly and fully within a particular path. He allows this path, in essence, to map out his journey for him, to be his way of ascent up the mountain of God. For this path is designed to guide him, to draw him out of the ego he is clutching so tightly and into the boundless joy of the Divine. Without the scripture, the practice, the teacher, his efforts at ascent would only reproduce his own ego and lead him around in circles.
To this path, then, the monastic gives his all. Every day is a total immersion in the pursuit of God. Each day he studies the scriptures, engages in deep meditation, recites prayers, practices mindfulness while at his outer chores, serves the surrounding community and the world, interacts with his teacher, or with his pupils. To this structure he not only gives every day, and every hour of the day, he may give the rest of his life. And as he does, his devotion pays off. He may reach heights of spiritual ecstasy that the less devoted seeker only dreams of. He slowly penetrates into the subtle, inner reaches of his path, which seem to lie at the tiny center of an impossibly difficult maze, but which finally, perhaps suddenly, open out into the formless vastness of God.
In other words, the monastic model works, in the sense that it has given the world a vast multitude of advanced spiritual beings: saints, mystics, rishis, gurus, arhats, bodhisattvas, and more. No wonder its basic model has been adopted in a variety of forms all over the world for thousands of years. It works.
Now imagine a path with all of the things I have just recounted, one which is grounded in a kind of scripture, an authoritative body of writings; which values deep study of the teachings; which trains us in its particular method of spiritual practice; which asks us to extend, to give ourselves to the service of others; and which values the guidance and help of an experienced personal teacher. In short, this path asks us to center ourselves on it, to place ourselves within its pre-given structure. And then, using that structure as our guide, it wants us to eventually give the journey to God everything we have to give. In the end it wants every day, every hour, and even each minute and second, to be immersed in this pursuit, all for the sake of reaching the final goal of total spiritual awakening.
Yet imagine that on the outside this path is entirely devoid of the external forms of monasticism. It urges no withdrawal from society. There are no monastery walls, no special regimens, no distinctive clothing, no begging bowls, no sexual abstinence and no harsh austerities. This path, in fact, can be done in the middle of normal, everyday life in the world. One does not have to leave society. It assumes that its students will often find that "the business of the world will close on [them]" (W-pI.153.16:4), making them unable to withdraw and do their spiritual practice in private. Yet this path accounts for that. It designs itself so that it can be done even by those who are immersed in the business of the world.
In fact, life in the world is not simply allowed; it is a direct reflection of the very heart and soul of this path. For, unlike its traditional cousins, this path is all about relationships. It is about forgiving those who have seemingly done us wrong, about changing our basic perception of people from sinful attackers to holy saviors, about healing our own unconscious darkness through seeing and releasing its projection onto others. On this path our relationships are ultimately transformed from lonely quests for specialness into mutual journeys to God.
So what better place to be on such a path than in the world, where we are in relationship, rubbing up against people, perceiving attack, having our buried darkness flushed to the surface; yet where we also can take their hand and join in a common goal? On this path, being in the world is not a negative, nor even a neutral; it is a plus. In fact, even when we are in the advanced stages of this path, we will still look like everyone else in our culture—on purpose:
You walk this path as others walk, nor do you seem to be distinct from them, although you are indeed. Thus can you serve them while you serve yourself, and set their footsteps on the way that God has opened up to you, and them through you (W-pI.155.5:3-4).
Of course, this path I am speaking about is A Course in Miracles. The Course has done something that I suspect both monastics and laypeople alike have secretly longed for. It has creatively joined the traditional monastic search and life in contemporary society (though I am sure the Course is not the only path to do so). The Course carries the material of everyday life right into the quest for total enlightenment. This gives it power to carry that ancient, hallowed quest into the lives of masses of people in the everyday world. What a beautiful thought: thousands, maybe millions, of people living a normal life in the world, in relationship, and yet inwardly pursuing a path of total realization, as seriously as any monk.
In case you are wondering if the Course would really agree with the idea I am setting forth, the Course describes itself in almost exactly the same way. It specifically claims to be a road in between two paths, free of the painful extremes of either one. The two paths are the path of those who "renounce the world" (monastics) and the path of those who choose "nothing but the world" (people living a normal life in society):
Many have chosen to renounce the world while still believing its reality. And they have suffered from a sense of loss, and have not been released accordingly. Others have chosen nothing but the world, and they have suffered from a sense of loss still deeper, which they did not understand. Between these paths there is another road that leads away from loss of every kind, for sacrifice [renouncing the world while still believing its reality] and deprivation [choosing nothing but the world] both are quickly left behind. This is the way appointed for you now (W-pI.155.4:2-5:2).
Traditional monastic pursuit in the context of contemporary society: I believe this is the way appointed for us now.