What is a miracle? Obviously, to understand A Course in Miracleswe must understand what a miracle is. By calling itself A Course in Miracles, it implies that its whole purpose is to educate and train us in the bringing forth of miracles. When one first encounters this title, it seems as if the Course is going to show us how to produce supernatural physical occurrences, like raising dead people or making food appear. But sooner or later we realize that a miracle is not an outer reversal of physical laws, but an inner shift in perception. And then the title seems to make more sense.
Yet I think we could take another look at what the Course really means by the word "miracle." For instance, if what the Course means by "miracle" is so unconventional, why does it use that word? What is the relationship between what the Course means by the word and what the word usually means? And finally, is a miracle really a "shift in perception"?
Miracles in the Ministry of Jesus
In trying to capture the Course's definition of "miracle" we should begin by looking at the more traditional meaning. I think it is no accident that the man whom the author of the Course claims to be—Jesus of Nazareth—was renowned for working miracles. In fact, if one compares his life to that of other religious founders—for instance, Muhammad and Buddha—Jesus comes out on the extreme end in terms of miracle-working. His miracles provided the basis for much of his reputation as recorded in the Gospels and even in early historical references (in the Babylonian Talmud there is a reference to the fact that he "practiced sorcery"). Further, miracle-working was one of the legacies that he left through his followers, whom he reportedly sent out to preach and to heal, and who continued this activity after his death.
In the ministry of Jesus, miracles had an important meaning. Let me try to sketch that meaning as I understand it based on my reading of modern scholarship. In those times, sickness was not seen so much as the result of natural law or even divine punishment, but as the expression of evil powers. The fact that suffering was so rampant was proof that the world was in the grip of demonic influences. Jesus came preaching about a God Who was so loving, compassionate and providential that He sought simply to make His children happy. He sought to be the perfect Parent, Who would chase away the demons, gather His children up in His arms, and kiss their tears away. This basic idea provided the center of Jesus' message. Above all Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, by which he meant that the current rulership of the earth was and is being overturned; that a loving Father was coming to take over the world and wrap it in wings of healing.
Miracles were the concrete expression of this abstract idea. They were the proof, the living example, of God's coming rulership. They made the very vivid statement that 1) a loving God was intervening 2) to overturn the painful way that things normally work here, so that 3) sickness and suffering could be replaced with healing and happiness.
Just imagine the effect of being there in the time of Jesus. Imagine believing deeply that the world was in the grip of evil and seeing the torturing evidence of that everywhere. Then imagine this amazing man coming into town and proclaiming that a loving Father was overturning all that and replacing the rule of pain with the global rule of love. And imagine seeing the actual proof of his statements as miracles flowed from his fingertips as easily as light from the sun, reversing all the laws by which things seemed to operate, bringing hope where there was despair, life where there was death. The effect would have been exhilarating, life-changing; and apparently it was.
So if we look at the miracles of Jesus, we see several key elements. 1) They are acts of God; 2) they pass through a human instrument (Jesus) to another person; and 3) they heal the other person, overturning the existing order of things in the process.
A Shift in Perception
Now let us turn to the Course's definition of the miracle. Although, as I will attempt to show later, the Course's definition of the miracle has much in common with the more traditional image, there is one very critical difference. The Course has taken an event that has been primarily conceived of as physical and made it primarily psychological. The Course has psychologized the traditional miracle.
Personally, I think this is much more a correction for how history has viewed things, rather than a correction for what Jesus did back then. For, as I read the life of Jesus and the scholarship about him, it seems clear to me that what Jesus was really all about was what you could call "the inner miracle." This was the conversion from inwardly obeying the rulership of evil to surrendering to God's rulership of love. This inner miracle, just like the outer one, was sparked by something that flowed from Jesus' presence and was made possible by a choice, an assent of faith, on the part of the recipient. But, unlike the outer miracle, this inner miracle was the whole point of Jesus' ministry. The physical manifestations were just that: outer reflections of the real meat of things, the inner transformation.
Yet, even though I think Jesus understood that the mind, not the body, "is the proper aim of healing" (T-8.IX.1:5), the rest of us generally have not. We have an addiction to hoping that if we can merely rearrange our outer world, and leave our minds just the way they are, then everything can be better. And so miracles, as traditionally conceived, have fed right into that addiction. By saying, then, that the miracle heals the mind, or shifts our perception, the Course is dramatically reinterpreting the normal use of the word.
The Course's assertion is that everything stems from the mind. The mind's thinking provides the basis for everything that it experiences. Whichever way the mind chooses to look at reality, it will find itself surrounded by and experiencing a "reality" that is the precise mirror of that. The mind's fundamental belief-system first manifests as inner feelings, emotions, interpretations and perceptions; and then manifests as the "outer" reality in which the mind seems to live.
Our current human condition, then, including all of its sickness, pain, tragedy and limitation, is simply the outpicturing of a sick belief-system, which the Course calls the ego. This belief-system has blinded us to the eternal fact that we are God's Son and that we abide forever in Heaven. It has convinced us that we are tiny minds living in little bodies on a planet ruled by suffering and death. It has manifested inwardly as feelings of anger, guilt and fear, and outwardly in the form of sick and fatigued bodies, painful life circumstances, limiting physical "laws" and the overall confining structure of time and space.
Our healing, then, must be a healing of the mind, a healing of our fundamental perspective on reality. This is what the miracle does. It comes in a moment, a holy instant, when we decide to temporarily suspend our habitual perspective on things. As we momentarily loosen our grip on the ego, our minds are allowed to shift into a new way of seeing things. And since our thinking is the foundation for our entire experience, as our thinking shifts, so does everything else. Our whole experience of life is allowed to brighten from the bottom up, making this kind of healing more deeply liberating than being healed of even the most insidious and destructive physical disease.
Yet as much as the point of the miracle is to heal the mind, I would like to take issue with calling a miracle a "shift in perception." The terms "miracle" and "shift in perception" have become so synonymous among Course students that even raising this question feels a little bit like cussing in church. Yet I think there is an important point to be made here. True, what a miracle does is shift perception. But to call it "a shift in perception" tends to leave out aspects of the miracle that are critical in the Course's eyes. To be more specific, it tends to imply 1) that the miracle is a shift that we ourselves accomplish; 2) that it has nothing to do with any outer or physical healing; 3) that it is has nothing to do with others, that it is a strictly internal, as opposed to interpersonal, event.
As I will attempt to show in the remainder of the article, all three of these dimensions (which I would call the Holy Spirit dimension, the physical dimension and the interpersonal dimension) are critical aspects of the Course's definition of the miracle. Yet all three tend to be left out by the term "a shift in perception." And, further, it is these three dimensions that most obviously connect with what Jesus did 2,000 years ago, and thus throw light on why he chose the word "miracle" as opposed to some other word. All of this, I believe, is why the Course never calls a miracle a shift in perception. The closest it comes to doing so is when it says that the miracle "entails" (T-1.II.6:3) or "introduces" (T-5.II.1:3) a shift in perception—two words that leave a lot more room than saying that the miracle is a shift in perception.
An Act of the Holy Spirit
Just like the biblical miracle, the Course miracle is an act of the Spirit. The Course even at one point calls miracles "intercessions." The Course makes it very clear that it is the Holy Spirit that actually "does" the miracle, as we can see in the following montage of passages:
The Holy Spirit is the mechanism of miracles (T-1.I.38:1). I inspire all miracles, which are really intercessions (T-1.I.32:1). The power of God, and not of you, engenders miracles (T-14.X.6:9). You cannot be your guide to miracles, for it is you who made them necessary (T-14.II.7:1). …the nature of miracles you do not understand. Nor do you do them (T-16.II.1:3-4). And since you are not relying on yourself to find the miracle, you are fully entitled to receive it whenever you ask (W-pI.77.7:6).
The miracle is thus a healing impulse from the Spirit. It is the event of the Spirit acting upon the thought-patterns of our minds: "A miracle is a correction introduced into false thinking by me. It acts as a catalyst, breaking up erroneous perceptions and reorganizing it properly" (T-1.I.37:1-2). In other words, the healing of mind, or shift in perception, is a result. This is why the miracle "induces" (T-3.II.6:7) a healing of mind or introduces a shift in perception, rather than is a shift in perception.
Webster's Dictionary says a miracle is "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs." So central in the word's definition is this element of divine intervention, that if the Course left that out there would not be much point anymore in using the word. This also helps explain why the Course has chosen to use the words "miracle" and "magic" as opposites, when in common parlance they are sometimes interchangeable. For even in normal parlance, magic is usually conceived of as a power that humans wield, while a miracle is something that somehow comes above. As such, magic can be "white" or "black." Yet no one would talk about a "black miracle." In the Course, then, magic is the attempt to solve things through an outer change effected by our own power; while a miracle is a healing of the mind effected by the Holy Spirit.
A Healing of the Body
Even though we all know that a miracle is primarily aimed at healing the mind, the Course nevertheless makes it clear that a miracle also heals the body. This is, I perceive, a controversial subject among Course students, but the Course is very clear on this point. It routinely talks about miracles as if physical healing is a natural—though not a central or necessary—part of what they are. For instance: "If the mind can heal the body, but the body cannot heal the mind, then the mind must be stronger than the body. Every miracle demonstrates this" (T-6.VA.2:6-7). Or, "Thus is the body healed by miracles…" (T-28.II.11). Or "…miracles violate every law of reality as this world judges it. Every law of time and space, of magnitude and mass is transcended, for what the Holy Spirit enables you to do is clearly beyond all of them" (T-12:VII.3:2-3). Further, it is implied more than once that miracles can and should substitute for any sort of physical medication (T-2.IV.4, (M-5.II.2); that is, unless one is too entrenched in fear to accept a miracle.
Even though the Course is extreme in saying that any sort of physical limitation can be easily removed by the miracle, it is equally extreme in saying that this will only happen if you focus your attention elsewhere, not on the body. For instance, we are urged to "not ask the Holy Spirit to heal the body" (T-8.IX.1:5). For seeing the body as the goal of healing and the center of life is part of the sickness that made the body ill in the first place. Thus, the Course would not agree with approaches that teach the mind to direct healing energy to the body, or that imply that the mind should be healed so that the more important physical healing can then follow. The way to heal the body, from the Course's standpoint, is to stop identifying with it, to realize that it is not who you are, that it has no power over you, either to make you sick or to make you happy; that it is "little more than just a shadow circling round the good" (T-31.VII.3:3).
An Extension of Healing to Others
Perhaps more surprising than any of the above is the fact that most of the Course's (over 550) references to the miracle talk about it as an interpersonal act of extension, rather than an internal shift in perception. This, in fact, is where I think the "shift in perception" phrase falls most short. Surprisingly, what this means is that when the Course calls itself A Course in Miracles, it is more calling itself A Course in Extending Healing to Othersthan calling itself A Course in Shifts in Perception. Certainly both meanings are implied in the title, but the emphasis is on the first, for that is how we shift our perception.
I do not want to take too much space documenting this, but a few quotes are in order. In the miracle principles that begin the Text we are told that miracles are "the maximal service you can render to another;" that "they are performed by those who temporarily have more for those who temporarily have less;" that through them we accept "forgiveness by extending it to others;" and that "They bring more love both to the giver and the receiver." At one point the Course says that the whole purpose "for which the miracle was intended" (T-2.VII.2:3) is hampered if the miracle worker needs a miracle to set his own mind straight. Later we are told, "You cannot perform a miracle for yourself, because miracles are a way of giving acceptance [to others] and receiving it. In time the giving comes first…" (T-9.VI.6:3-4). Again: "Offer [to your brother] the miracle of the holy instant through the Holy Spirit, and leave His giving it to you to Him" (T-15.I.15:11).
Yet how do we reconcile all this with the fact that the miracle is also talked about as an internal healing of our own minds, a usage which becomes prevalent in the Workbook? In other words, what is the relationship between the healing of our own minds and the extension of healing to other minds? This is a large and complex issue in the Course, but there are some simple things we can say about it here. To begin with, the Course repeatedly refers to a three-stage process of accepting, giving and receiving.
1. Accepting. First you accept healing into your own mind. You accept the Atonement for yourself. You cannot give it to another unless you first have it yourself.
2. Giving. Then you give this healed perception to another. This giving can be very conscious and overt, or it may simply be something that radiates from your overall attitude and body-language; then again it may be just a feeling of your mind going out to someone not physically present.
3. Receiving. Once you give it to another, you become aware of the true magnitude of what you originally accepted. Or, as the Course puts it, "To give is how to recognize you have received" (W-pI.159.1:7). "We will not recognize what we receive until we give it" (W-pI.154.12:1).
As you can see, this is a process that is dedicated to both your healing and the healing of the other. In fact, it is even more mutual than the above stages would indicate. For the first stage seems dedicated to yourself, the second stage to the other and the third stage to yourself again. Yet in actuality each of the three stages is dedicated to both of you. For instance, you accept healing into yourself through your own change of mind, yet the most catalytic change of mind is a change in how you see others. Further, you accept healing into your mind so that you can give it. And you give it in order that you may receive it. In other words, you accept the miracle into yourself for both of you; you give it to your brother for both of you; and you receive IT back into yourself for both of you. At each point along the way the miracle transcends the loser-gainer mentality of the ego and refuses to acknowledge anything but oneness.
Hopefully, this discussion has revealed the miracle to be a much broader and more multi-faceted event than one might at first suspect. And hopefully we now can see why the Course has chosen to use the word "miracle." For the Course has not thrown away the miracle's traditional shape—that of the Spirit acting through a human instrument to bring healing to another. It has kept that basic frame, and simply given it a whole new set of psychological guts. Instead of an outer Deity that intervenes physically, the Holy Spirit is an inner Presence dedicated to psychological healing. Instead of a healer who may possibly be giving what he does not have, the healer must first accept the healing into himself. Instead of freeing a brother from the rule of evil spirits that have injured his body, he frees a brother from the ego's enslavement of his mind; the healing of the body is merely a symptom of the awakening of the mind. And instead of healing someone else and remaining unaffected himself, the healer gives the gift apparently outside himself, but does so in order to claim the gift more fully and to realize that he is one with all living things. And now we know what Jesus was really doing 2,000 years ago. All that we saw on the outside was a man going around and changing bodies. Now we have the report on what was really happening on the inside.