I've been reading a lot about near-death experiences lately. I just can't seem to get enough of these amazing stories. Besides being uplifting and inspiring, there is so much that is Course-like in them. Here, I'd like to share a story that in my mind offers an especially Course-like account of the real cause of illness and the true nature of prayer.
This account is from a book by Dr. Melvin Morse and Paul Perry entitled Transformed by the Light: The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People's Lives. This book reports on Morse's "Transformations study," a scientific study of people who had near-death experiences as children. Morse's aim in this study was simple: He wanted to determine whether NDEs produce lasting transformations in the lives of people who experience them. So, he collected a large sample of people — both those who had experienced NDEs as children and various control groups who had not — gave them a battery of questions and tests, and statistically analyzed the results. In a nutshell, he found that yes, childhood NDEs did profoundly transform the lives of those who had experienced them, virtually always for the better.
The story I'll share here, though, is actually from one of the control subjects: a woman who had a powerful "light experience" but not an NDE. "Janet" was a 39-year-old who had been diagnosed with basil cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. The cancerous growth was on her nose and the doctors insisted that it needed to be removed immediately. Here is what happened next, in Janet's own words:
I was in the deepest state of depression and despair that I have ever known.
Two nights before surgery I was sleeping when I was awakened by a bright light shining in my eyes. I opened my eyes to see a large sphere of light floating about five feet in front of me. There was a light within it that was rotating slowly from left to right. This sphere spoke to me: "You aren't afraid, are you?"
Seeing this light made me fearless. In fact I was filled with the most incredible peace I have ever known. Whoever was speaking to me knew what all my problems and fears were. All of my burdens slipped away.
Suddenly the light went through me. It didn't reflect off of me or anything like that. It went straight through me. As it did, I was filled with unconditional love which was so complete and powerful that I would need to invent new words to describe it.
This sounds very similar to the experience of the "being of light" so common in NDEs: an experience of deep, indescribable peace in the presence of a luminous being who radiates unconditional love. No matter how many of these stories I read, I never fail to be uplifted and comforted by them. Chills run down my spine as I read Janet's account. I look forward to the day when I will experience this for myself.
But it's what follows in Janet's account that really jumps out at me. This is the portion that discusses the nature of illness and prayer:
I asked that my cancer would be removed. I prayed actually. And the light said that what we think of as prayer is more like complaining and we are frequently begging to be punished for something that we are simply going to do again in the future.
He asked me to think of my own worst enemy and I did. Then he said to send all of my light to my worst enemy. I did and a sudden burst of light went out of me and returned as if it had been reflected back from a mirror. I became aware of every cell in my body. I could see every cell in my body. It was the sound and sight of light coming from my being. I was crying, laughing, shaking, trying to hold still and trying to catch my breath. When I finally recovered, the being of light said, "now you have prayed for the first time in your life." (pp. 138-139)
Long story short: Janet's cancer disappeared. Morse says, "It is extremely rare for a basil cell carcinoma simply to disappear." It was a true miracle of healing.
I find this account fascinating, in part because it says things about illness and prayer that are eerily Course-like. First, when Janet prayed for the removal of her skin cancer, the being of light gave her a surprising response: the statement that "what we think of as prayer is more like complaining," and that "we are frequently begging to be punished for something that we are simply going to do again in the future." These lines are a bit cryptic, and the being doesn't elaborate. But I can easily see in them a reflection of the Course.
In the Course's view, physical illnesses and other problems we pray about, like Janet's cancer, are caused by our desire to punish ourselves for our "sins." Deep down, we are indeed "begging to be punished for something that we did in the past," something we continue to find so enticing that "we are simply going to do it again in the future." Why do we want to punish ourselves, and why do we continue to find "sin" enticing even after that punishment is delivered? Because, identifying with our egos, we have a sick attraction to guilt, the magic elixir that keeps the ego "alive."
Driven by our attraction to guilt, then, we keep right on "sinning" and punishing ourselves for it. As the Course says, "Sometimes a sin can be repeated over and over, with obviously distressing results, but without the loss of its appeal" (T-19.III.3:3). The punishment, in fact, reinforces the "reality" of the sin and ensures that we will do it again in the future: "What must be punished, must be true. And what is true must be eternal, and will be repeated endlessly. For what you think is real you want, and will not let it go" (T-19.III.2:5-7). Thus the ego stays in business.
If all this is true, then when Janet prayed, she was sending mixed messages. On the surface, she was asking for the removal of a distressing symptom: her cancer. But deeper down, she really wanted that cancer as a self-inflicted punishment for her sins. Her initial prayer was thus merely a form of "complaining" that went something like this: "I made this symptom to punish myself, but I don't really like it. Please remove it for me without me having to actually change my mind about my sinful nature. I don't want the cause of my illness to be undone; I just want the painful effect removed."
The Course speaks of this phenomenon in the "Answer to Prayer" section (T-9.II), which discusses why our prayers to the Holy Spirit don't seem to be answered:
An individual may ask for physical healing because he is fearful of bodily harm. At the same time, if he were healed physically, the threat to his thought system might be considerably more fearful to him than its physical expression. In this case he is not really asking for release from fear, but for the removal of a symptom that he himself selected. This request is, therefore, not for healing at all. (T-9.II.2:4-7)
Janet, then, wanted the removal of a symptom that she herself selected, but was too afraid (at least at first) to let the sick thought system at the root of her selection be healed. Therefore, her request was "not for healing at all." It wasn't true prayer.
Since Janet's core problem was her attraction to guilt, her "begging to be punished," the only thing that could truly heal her cancer would be to let go of that sick attraction and embrace her true innocence. How could she do that? The Course is clear that there is only one way for any of us to do that in a deep and lasting way: We must see our brothers as innocent. We must forgive them. This forgiveness, this seeing our brothers as innocent, is what ultimately convinces us that we are innocent. "Only in someone else can you forgive yourself, for you have called him guilty of your sins, and in him must your innocence now be found" (S-2.I.4:6).
This, of course, was the exact prescription the being of light gave Janet. He asked her to bring to mind her "own worst enemy" and send light to that person. Clearly, this was the light of forgiveness. When she did what the being asked, she says, "a sudden burst of light went out of me and returned as if it had been reflected back from a mirror." It sounds like the light of forgiveness that extended from her to her "enemy" came back to her and she experienced forgiveness of herself. Seeing her brother's innocence enabled her to see her own. This healed the guilt at the root of her cancer, and thus healed the cancer as well.
This, the Course tells us, is true prayer. As it says later in that "Answer to Prayer" section:
You can no more pray for yourself alone than you can find joy for yourself alone. Prayer is the restatement of inclusion, directed by the Holy Spirit under the laws of God. Salvation is of your brother. The Holy Spirit extends from your mind to his, and answers you. (T-9.II.6:1-4)
This looks very much like what happened in Janet's experience. Her prayer to heal her own cancer was transformed into a prayer to forgive her worst enemy. When she prayed in this way, the Holy Spirit extended from her mind to her brother's, and through her brother the Holy Spirit answered her. By not praying for herself alone, her prayer for herself was answered. She had finally prayed truly; as the being of light said to her: "now you have prayed for the first time in your life."