When I was a child in a Protestant denomination, summer “revival” services—a week of evening church services—were standard. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old when the preacher announced in advance these sermon topics: One night it was going to be “How to Get to Heaven,” to be followed the next night by, “How to Get to Hell.”
That second topic struck me as totally unnecessary, because (as I told my great-grandmother), “The way you get to hell is just not to do anything.” I never have known if she agreed with me, but she (the most loving person I have ever known) found my answer amusing and told the preacher what I had said. (I never knew his reaction, except that he laughed.)
So here was my childhood myth: Heaven was something you did! You did something to get into heaven, and if you just didn’t do anything—you went to hell! Clearly I was in a biblical camp: “Faith without works is dead.”
This specter has followed me even into the present, as I all too often try to do things to justify my existence (i.e., make this life count by making tangible progress back to God).
Yet I think I’ve only gotten a partial understanding, one that is not truly Jesus’ idea at all. Love of God and love of one’s neighbor were, in His words, the “greatest commandments.” Surely living these commandments will best dictate how one spends one’s time. And surely if one’s love is not genuine enough, no amount of service to others will redeem.
I had it all backwards in my childhood and youth. What I can now call “individual achievement” was all-important; the social was unimportant, and with it went what I now call “interpersonal caring,” or love. While I loved my family, it may have been to some extent because I needed security. Now in my idle moments, I wonder if in another life I might also get it all wrong in the beginning. Getting it all wrong certainly cost me a happy childhood and youth.
What setback has it also given me in my progress toward Enlightenment?
It is easy for achievers to fall for the delusion that superlative work is necessary to merit God’s approval. Such an assumption is usually the bane of first-born and only children, who got kudos from their parents for bringing home “A’s.” We can usefully see God as our heavenly Parent only if we don’t project conditional love onto him. God always loves us as only the Perfect Parent could, without any preconditions or second-guessing at all. I alternate between thinking that love, caring interactions with people on a daily basis are the best meaning of life, and believing instead that something more is required of me.
The “sometime more” is usually envisioned as work of some type, creative or otherwise. St. Paul said, “For by grace are ye saved through faith. . .Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ah, but the Protestant work ethic dies hard in modern-day America. And is it not possible, as Freud thought, that a synthesis of love and work best defines a fully-functioning adult?
Why is it so hard to understand that we are more important to God than any contribution that we might make? He doesn’t love us for what we can do for Him.
How important is it to learn how to work well? Do we retain our skills for eternity, or is competence ephemeral? In Heaven all talents are shared, but on this side of the veil ought we not to develop what comes naturally for us, our particular gifts from the great Storehouse?
It is an error to chase after mirages of difficulty that just ever recede into the mists. One might even call it masochism. Cultivate instead your little plot of land—your green garden planted with all your favorite flowers.
Related questions teasing me out of thought: Why has “success” been the elixir of life for me? Is it that I think I need another’s stamp of approval? Will God love me more if everybody else thinks I’ve really hit the jackpot? (Surely not.) Could it be I think God will love me because I achieve? What does it take to make “A’s” in life anyway? And what if it turned out that real life isn’t something you do at all?
The coward in me doesn’t want to suffer anymore. I dreamed of a staircase that could be climbed, but it seemed a struggle and in the dream I realized, “It didn’t have to be like that,” meaning that finding my way back to Heaven doesn’t have to be a struggle. In the past, all too often I’ve taken the quicker (?) and harsher route. Only my own militancy dictated this life course.
In my days of wanderlust, I used to alternate between “low status” and “high status” jobs. Then there came a time when I knew intimately that the status of a job had absolutely no bearing on living under God’s grace. The job also, not incidentally, said nothing about whether I was succeeding in life. After that realization, my vocational pathway smoothed out.
Had God been trying to get through? Had I listened more intently, would the vicissitudes have eased sooner?
Once, in an altered state of consciousness (hypnotic, dreamlike), I had a fantasy of my own Last Judgment.
In what seemed to be an age regression to the age of two, I answered a lot of questions asked by my animus alter-ego. I had a great sense of humor at the time, even admitting lying in the answer to one question, and then saying, “How do you expect me to pass this test otherwise?”
At the conclusion, rather than being admitted to Heaven or cast down to hell, I was directed to do a long list of things in this lifetime, most of which I don’t remember.
But at the conclusion, I responded, “That’s a tall order,” and I remember in my heart of hearts thinking I could not do them all.
My alter-ego replied, gently, several times, “Try.”
I have wondered if my flirtation with library administration as a career path is really because in this dreamlike state, administration was one of the directives.
A hypnotic state can confuse or clarify the way ahead. I can’t continue to refuse administration because I am afraid of it; I can’t let fear win out on any level.
But I also can’t respond to what might essentially be ego-based, and not part of a Higher Directive at all. More pondering is definitely ahead.
I once had a dream about my function on the Other Side. In the dream I had gone to a counseling session with an old friend’s mother. I wanted to get help on deciding the next step in my life. Suddenly, I interrupted the session to exclaim, “That’s what I did! I helped other people plan their lives.” Then I added, “Why didn’t I become a guidance counselor?”
If this was an experience of the numinous, it would explain my own preoccupation with determining “God’s will” in my life, my sometime rigidities (especially against making mistakes), and my early adult emphasis on striving to be “perfect” (unrealistic though that might be).
Maybe I lamented any deviation on the part of my “advisees” from the plan that we had devised. If true, though, I don’t think I was a very proscriptive counselor. When I was a college advisor early in my career, I always wanted my student advisees to take what they wanted—not what maybe might be a better choice from my point of view.
I do honor, in my better moments, the Holy Spirit’s guidance as present in the understanding of another. I can’t discern that for anybody else, only for myself.
On the value of individuality: “I’m very much trying to do what is ‘me’—the karma of individuality. Be the best Elaine I can be. God won’t ask if I did somebody else’s task. To build a bridge for God is not the way to go if it’s somebody else’s bridge to build.”
The Holy Spirit has been trying to turn me outward more and thereby convicting me of my self-centeredness. The only time recently that this conviction has not been upon me was when we visited David’s parents over the Christmas holidays. I felt a true relationship to them, and genuinely entered into the conversation with an attitude of love and care.
But now, back home in my daily routine, even my prayers for others seem to have too much “I.” I think overweening ambition is the culprit here. If it isn’t my job, it’s my writing. Jesus’ “light yoke” is love of others, and I actually enjoy being with other people. Why do I think something more by way of work is required of me? And why do I get so enthralled by the work? There is some ego there!
Always it is best to combine work and play—indeed, to make work “play,” if that be possible. I love studying A Course in Miracles, and I adore writing about it (and other similar musings) in an attempt to help others. What more could I ask?
This place we call earth isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but it becomes Heaven indeed when one’s state of mind is in harmony with the music of the universe. (How I long for that peace to be omnipresent! But I have not arrived home yet.)
Why do I always want to do the “right thing”? What will happen if I err? Mistakes are not sins (as the Course declares). But some part of me fears the karma of wrong action. Don’t I live in the Age of Grace, and don’t I have the Holy Spirit as my Guide? Be gone, timidity! As the biblical quotation has it: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
Certainly if I lived in the “real world” of the Course all the time, I wouldn’t have such a fear of doing the wrong thing. And just as surely do I know that forgiveness (of myself as well as others) is the cosmic lamp by which the real world is lit.
Catherine Marshall felt that “love of others” has always been Jesus’ way—the way that makes the burden light. She felt this to be an interior word from Jesus himself.
Ruth Montgomery’s Guides counsel “service to others” as the Way. Certainly love will lead naturally to service, and take any unwillingness out of it.
I have long believed that the interactions are everything, though I do not always live this. So ingrained in me is the impetus to succeed by achievement that I wonder (falsely) that I am miss-ing the boat if I’m not pushing Sisyphus’s rock up the hill.
As the Course says, “Prisoners bound with heavy chains for years, starved and emaciated, weak and exhausted, and with eyes so long cast down in darkness they remember not the light, do not leap up in joy the instant they are made free. It takes a while for them to understand what freedom is.”
Certainly I am happier when I relax into enjoying my relationships. Indeed, life isn’t like Sisyphus at all when I keep the proper focus.
If more people found contemplation an immensely enjoyable pursuit, everyone would be better off. It is our fast-paced world again; we are addicted to thrill-seeking. But real soul satisfaction comes only in quietness.
How much are risk, excitement, growth, challenge, of the ego? God’s peace is very quiet.
On the folly of too much striving: “I don’t want to do something that will create fear in me. I risk not achieving enough, or not striving hard enough, to take the easy pathway–to peace.”
The path to peace is found in what we really want to do. But what we really want to do must first be informed by the Holy Spirit. And this listening requires abundant flexibility and volition. Yet, as the Course asserts, following the Spirit’s guidance is our “way out of hell.” Dare we do any less?