A peculiar thing happened to Kenneth Wapnick on the way to the monastery: he encountered a massive, mystical manuscript that changed the direction of his life. This manuscript was published as A Course in Miracles in 1976, and in the years since it has changed the lives of countless others as well. With a million copies in print in English, and new editions available in Spanish, Portuguese, German, and French, the growing influence of the Course appears assured.
The Course is a spiritual self-study curriculum in three parts: a lengthy “Text,” a “Workbook for Students” offering 365 daily lessons, and a brief “Manual for Teachers.” The Course was written down in shorthand over a period of seven years by Columbia University research psychologist Helen Schucman, who claimed to hear a “soundless voice” giving her “inner dictation.” She read her notes to a colleague, Columbia’s psychiatry department chair Dr. William N. Thetford, who typed them up. The two of them kept their work a secret until its completion in 1972.
Schucman, who died in 1981, never claimed authorship of the Course or attempted to capitalize on its growing popularity. By all accounts a difficult and contradictory person, Schucman was fiercely protective of the Course in her last years, but she never accepted its transformative message herself. Near the end of her life, she told a friend, “I know the Course is true, but I don’t believe it.”
One of the things that made Schucman uncomfortable — and that many others find difficult to believe about the Course — was the apparent identity of the soundless voice that dictated the material. At a number of points that voice clearly identifies itself as Jesus Christ. For example: “I raised the dead by knowing that life is an eternal attribute of everything that the living God created.” And this remarkable passage:
If the Apostles had not felt guilty, they never could have quoted me as saying, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is clearly the opposite of everything I taught. Nor could they have described my reactions to Judas as they did, if they had really understood me. I could not have said, “Betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” unless I believed in betrayal. The whole message of the crucifixion was simply that I did not. . . . As you read the teachings of the Apostles, remember that I told them myself that there was much they would understand later, because they were not wholly ready to follow me at the time.
The “Workbook” section of the Course encourages surrender of the ego through constant forgiveness of personal grievances. The “Text” insists on a complete reversal of ordinary perception, urging that we come to consider spirit as reality and the physical world as illusion. “This course,” says the introduction, “can . . . be summed up very simply in this way: Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.” The frequent references to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit establish a Christian tone while the metaphysics of the Course suggest Gnostic, kabbalistic, and Eastern mysticisms. As the Course frequently reinterprets basic tenets of contemporary Christian belief, it presents an unmistakable challenge to Western religious traditions.
Although not yet a subject of analysis in academic or theological circles, the Course has acquired a considerable following, and some of its principles have found their way into such popular nonfiction works as Gerald Jampolsky’ s Love Is Letting Go of Fear and Goodbye to Guilt, and Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.
The Course also has its share of critics, including Christian evangelicals who decry it as a satanic deception and mention it in their roundups of “new-age” material that their followers should shun. On the other side of the spectrum, archetypal psychologist James Hillman has said that he hates the Course and regards it as “Republican right-wing politics in the guise of spiritual reformation.”
The controversy surrounding the Course is due at least in part to the fact that it is often mistaken for a moral philosophy — that is, advice on how to live — when in truth it is a mystical path, concerned not with daily conduct but with the inward transformation of consciousness. Because it asserts that the world we see is a perceptual error or “miscreation” of our minds, the Course is focused on changing students’ perceptions — through forgiveness, the release of guilt, and disidentification with the ego — rather than on directly promoting any moral code.
Kenneth Wapnick met Schucman and Thetford in 1972 and worked with Schucman for a year on editing the manuscript, making capitalization and punctuation consistent and adding subtitles to its original form.
Raised in a Jewish home and sent to a Hebrew school, Wapnick nevertheless thought of himself as an atheist by high school, recognizing only Mozart and Beethoven as his “spiritual teachers.” Still, for his doctoral thesis in psychology, Wapnick was drawn to study the mystic Saint Teresa of Avila, understanding “all her references to God and Jesus as metaphors for something else.”
After his first marriage ended in 1970, Wapnick recognized that his life was becoming increasingly solitary and monastic, and he took to reading the works of Thomas Merton. This study led Wapnick to visit the Abbey of Gethsemane, where Merton had lived, and it was there that he decided his personal destiny was to become a monk. Eventually, Wapnick was baptized as a Catholic, and he later visited two monasteries in Israel, choosing one in Jerusalem as the place where he would settle.
Before going to Israel, however, Wapnick had been introduced to Schucman and Thetford by a mutual friend. Returning from Israel to tie up the last loose ends of his life in the United States, Wapnick sat down with Schucman to look at the stack of typed volumes that would later be known as A Course in Miracles and was, he says, “bowled over. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d read since Shakespeare, and that it really said something. It took only days for me to decide that this was what my life would be.”
Wapnick went on to found, with his second wife, Gloria, the nonprofit Foundation for A Course in Miracles, which operates a teaching academy and retreat center at a former resort hotel in the Catskills. (There are countless study groups and several academies for Course studies, but there is no official central organization or leader promoting its teaching.) Through the foundation, Kenneth has published a number of books and audio tapes on Course principles, as well as a biography of Helen Schucman titled Absence from Felicity. I talked with Kenneth and Gloria on a warm summer evening at their retreat center near Roscoe, New York.
D. Patrick Miller: Did the transmission of the Course material through Helen Schucman always seem credible to you?
Kenneth Wapnick: I had tremendous faith in Helen and trusted her implicitly. I knew she didn’t have a dishonest bone in her body. What she said had happened simply made sense. It was clear to me that Helen hadn’t written the Course. In fact, when Helen and I were editing the material she would sometimes get confused about certain passages. We would read something aloud, and she would burst out laughing, saying, “I don’t understand what this means!” So the first Course teaching I ever did was to help Helen understand what it meant.
Patrick: Gloria, how did you come to study the Course?
Gloria Wapnick: When I was growing up Catholic, I always had a problem understanding how a loving God could create a world where there’s so much pain, suffering, and misery. The priests I asked could never give me a satisfactory answer; they’d just say it was a mystery. Even though I had wanted to be a nun when I was very young, I thought, If this is the best kind of world God can create, I really don’t need this kind of God. So I left the church, which dismayed my parents.
I studied other paths in high school and college and found a little bit here and a little bit there, but nothing ever made complete sense in terms of knowing the purpose of my life, what it was all about. I got married and had two children, but still I was searching. A colleague of mine referred me to a psychic, whom I went to see just out of curiosity. The psychic said I should go to Wainwright House in Westchester, New York, where I would find what I was looking for. That intrigued me.
I called the place and registered for a symposium there the following weekend; of the many workshops being given, I gravitated toward A Course in Miracles.
The night I arrived at the symposium, I started reading the Course. When I got to how God didn’t create the world, it was as if a lightning bolt had struck me. It was so simple, so clear, yet I had never thought of it before because I was so angry at God.
Later I met Kenneth in a study group, and I told him that there were two fears I couldn’t let go of: heights and snakes. He looked at me across the table we were sitting at with about fifteen people, and listed some of the reasons why I might be afraid of those two things. Then he said, “But that’s not what you’re actually afraid of. What you’re really doing is running away from Jesus.” When he said that, something clicked; I started crying and couldn’t stop. I had to leave the meeting, and I cried most of the night. I knew I had to call Kenneth. He had opened something very deep inside me, and I knew I had to find out what it was.
Patrick: Some people who dislike the Course say, “It’s too dense,” or, “It’s just too Christian; there’s too much ‘Son of God’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ in it for me.” Do you see the Course’s dense style and religious language as a deliberate screening system?
Kenneth: Yes, I think it’s no accident that the sentence structure is difficult. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll love the style, but it doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend. The concepts aren’t explained in a linear way, with definitions clearly given and principles built upon principles logically. Rather, the Course’s logic is circular, or what I would call symphonic.
I’ve never felt this was meant to be a popular book for the masses. It’s not easy to read. Its message is not hidden in the sense of being secret, but you have to work over a period of years at undoing your ego’s thought system to be able to understand the Course.
Patrick: What are some common misunderstandings of the Course? What would you say it is not?
Kenneth: We actually spend a great deal of time helping people realize what the Course is not: it’s not biblical; it’s neither Judaism nor Christianity; it’s not Christian Science; it’s not new age, Joel Goldsmith, or Edgar Cayce. The most common mistake that people make is to superimpose upon the Course their prior spiritual or religious path. That’s a natural mistake, but as long as you make it you won’t understand what the Course is saying. I think that’s what has happened with Jesus as well: the New Testament was written through the eyes of the Old Testament, so Jesus became a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. I think the real Jesus got lost in all that.
Fundamentally, the Course says that only spirit is real, and there’s nothing else. It also says that God is not involved in the world of matter. It says the proper role of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, is not to solve problems for you, but to be a loving presence in your mind that reminds you not to accept the world of time and matter as real. By joining with Jesus, you correct your erroneous perception. That’s very different from praying to Jesus to solve your problems in this world, or to have him tell you what to do.
Gloria: I often see people wanting a quick fix. We live in an instant-gratification society, and people new to the Course tend to see Jesus or the Holy Spirit as a magic wand to solve all their problems and get them everything they want. But when they realize that the Course asks for tremendously hard work — you have to pay constant attention to the workings of your mind — they begin to fade away if they’re not serious. The Course demands that you try to let go of your grievances and work constantly to forgive. And forgiveness is the last thing most people want to do. The Course challenges the ego, and that’s very frightening. This is a simple path, but a very difficult one to take.
Patrick: In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck writes that the challenge of psychotherapy is not getting people to see what’s wrong with their lives but getting them to do something about that realization. Is this similar to the difficulty the Course presents?
Kenneth: I don’t entirely agree with Peck. I think most people are aware that something is wrong in their lives, but they don’t know what it is — namely, their ongoing decision to remain separate from God. It takes a lot of work just to understand that. But once you get there, you will automatically “choose again,” as the Course puts it. Once you are clear about the choices before you — and that you are solely responsible for your life because it’s your dream — you will make the right choice.
Patrick: But “choosing again” is not a one-time decision, in the fundamentalist sense of “getting saved.” Rather, it’s an ongoing process of growth.
Kenneth: Right. Once you choose differently, you’ll discover another choice to be made underneath that one, and another level underneath that one, and so on. It’s a process of undoing the world we have miscreated. The ego invented time and space to put distance between the cause of the world — that is, our choice to believe in it — and its effect on us, so that we experience the pain of the world without realizing that we are the only cause of it.
Patrick: The idea that God did not create this world runs counter to virtually every Western religious tradition.
Gloria: Yes, and it’s the one concept to which people have had tremendous resistance everywhere we’ve taught the Course. People find it very difficult to deal with, because the direct implication of God not being responsible for this world is that we are. This means I have to take responsibility for my existence and everything about it, and who wants to do that?
Patrick: How do you feel about popular authors like Marianne Williamson softening the Course’s message?
Kenneth: I think that when you start taking some of the tough stuff out, it stops being A Course in Miracles. There’s a line in the “Text” where Jesus says, “You either believe all of this course or none of it.” In other words, the thought system of the Course is a perfectly integrated whole, and if you take out a part of it the whole thing falls apart. You don’t need to soften up the Course just to give people the message that God loves them.
Gloria: Many people who have read Marianne’s book have come here for classes, and they end up asking if this is the same course she talks about. People are getting the idea that the message of the Course is “Pray to God and all your prayers will be answered,” and that’s just not the point.
Patrick: The Course itself seems to invite popular interpretations, however, because it clearly states that anyone who finishes its three volumes has become a “teacher of God.” The author implicitly places a great deal of trust in Course students.
Kenneth: The trust is that the message won’t be destroyed regardless of what happens. A big advantage of the Course is that we finally know what Jesus really wants to say. We were told from the very beginning that the book was never to be abridged or condensed, nor were the volumes ever to be sold separately. It is always to remain in its original published form.
Patrick: Why would Jesus choose such a peculiar method — sending his message through the mind of a religiously ambivalent psychologist — to communicate with the modern world?
Kenneth: Helen was very split, but part of her operated on a high spiritual level. On that level she could form a union with Jesus for the transmission of the Course. In a sense, you could say that Helen became a psychologist so that the Course could come through in the way it did — in a form appropriate to this psychological age.
Helen was a Freudian who understood psychoanalysis very well. I think that’s why the Course so directly meets the needs of the modern Western mind. I believe Freud’s work was extremely important to our culture’s spiritual development. These days it seems that Jung is the darling and Freud is the bad guy, but despite his active resistance to religion, I think Freud’s spiritual contribution was incredible. Even Jung said, “I’m like Joshua standing on the shoulders of Moses.”
Patrick: Given the characters and backgrounds of Helen, Bill Thetford, and the two of you, it’s always seemed ironic to me that the Course is generally identified as an example of new-age spirituality. Do many people who come to study with you become disillusioned by the real nature of the Course?
Gloria: I don’t know if I’d call it disillusionment, but some people do have to realize that the Course is not a magical, easy path to fulfillment. This is a serious undertaking that requires a lot of study and effort. We don’t have a guru atmosphere here; in fact, we actively discourage it.
Patrick: I encountered the Course in the midst of a severe health crisis when my ego was already pretty well battered, and I don’t think I would have been able to undertake it otherwise. Do many students arrive here in states of crisis?
Gloria: A lot of people who come here are in pain, because people everywhere are in pain due to the upheavals in our culture. Marriages are collapsing, people are losing jobs and are worried about their children, and so on. Many students are asking, “What’s it all about?” because their lives seem to be crumbling.
Kenneth: But we try to make it clear that we’re not here to solve anyone’s personal problems. What we offer is a clarification of Course principles, an understanding that can help their study of the Course. Their own study of the Course may ease their crisis, but we can’t do that.
Patrick: Since the Course isn’t intended as psychological self-help in the usual sense, how does it change people?
Kenneth: People who study the Course eventually learn that they must accept responsibility for everything they do; they become much less prone to rationalize their egotism and sense of victimization. This doesn’t mean that their egos disappear. But many of them begin to understand that their egos are to blame for their problems. They find hope in the realization that they don’t have to change the whole world or other people to find peace. In the Course, they have a tool to find peace, even if it takes a while.
Gloria: Before the Course, I was prone to blame everyone else for everything that seemed to happen to me. We all tend to do that. After the Course, I realized that you have to take responsibility for your own life. As the Course puts it, you’re not just a cork bobbing on the ocean of life, being hurled around by the waves and the stormy weather. The idea that you can ask for help within your mind at any time is very important. The Course reminds you that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are always available in your mind.
Patrick: Some people might find the idea of total responsibility overwhelming, so what keeps Course students going? What is it that feels good about it?
Kenneth: What feels good is the sense of hope that the Course provides — not naive hope that God or the Holy Spirit will descend and take away your problems, but real hope that the possibility of happiness rests within yourself. Even if you haven’t fully chosen that, you know that you can eventually change your mind by asking Jesus for help.
Gloria: The Course works if you apply it — if you ask for help and correction. Many Course students have realized that nothing works in this world — no economic system, no political system, no religious system. These people realize that they want to awaken from the dream, and they recognize that the Course is what’s going to help them awaken.
Patrick: What do you see as the most common misapplications of the Course?
Kenneth: The Course is certainly meant to be lived in the world, but I think people make the mistake of trying to apply it too literally to world issues. The Course is strictly a mind-training system. Someone recently asked me what kind of moral system the Course proposes, and I told them simply this: by learning to join more with Jesus and less with the ego, you will automatically learn to do what is loving and helpful in your relationships, your job, whatever forms your life takes at the present time. In that sense the Course is meant to be applied in every aspect of life, but it should not be read as advocating any particular social program or political stance.
Since it says that there is literally no world, only a dream of one, the Course is not interested in trying to improve the dream. It wants only to change the mind of the dreamer. When that is accomplished, the dream will automatically change in one way or another. But it’s the mind of the dreamer that is the focus of the Course.
Gloria: A common mistake of Course students is trying to drag God into the world. The Course refers to it as “bringing truth to illusion,” when the goal should be the opposite: to bring our illusions to truth.
Patrick: The Course has been interpreted by some as an abdication of social responsibility. James Hillman even accused it of harboring a veiled right-wing agenda. Yet Marianne Williamson, one of the most well-known Course proponents, makes no secret of her liberal politics. How do you respond to these wildly varying interpretations?
Gloria: I would say that Course students cannot be pigeonholed in any political category, because the Course discipline is one of going within and asking for guidance. The curriculum is highly individualized. One person might be led along one political path, and someone else along another. Either way, the aim would be to heal one’s mind of the idea that there are “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Kenneth: Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and it would be a mistake to try to extract any political philosophy from Course principles. The Course describes itself as “a course in cause, and not effect.” That means this is a course in changing your mind — which is the cause of everything — and not your behavior, which is the effect, The unequivocal message of the Course is about choosing the Holy Spirit rather than the ego as your teacher.
Patrick: Both of you have some political activism in your backgrounds. Has the Course made you less involved in political issues or involved in a different way?
Gloria: My whole orientation has changed. Before the Course, I was very politically oriented. I believed that I could make the world a better place by working for political and economic change. I had trained to go into the Foreign Service, thinking I could influence American foreign policy. After the Course, I realized that I had been looking at the world as split between the forces of good and evil, when actually it was my split mind that needed healing. The Course teaches that if you condemn any part of humankind, you’re actually condemning a part of yourself. The Course doesn’t say whether one should join in a protest march or not. The point is to heal one’s mind so that you act as an instrument of the Holy Spirit.
Kenneth: In the sixties I participated in a civil-rights march in Mississippi led by Martin Luther King Jr. Even then, I was troubled to find just as much hatred among the marchers as among the whites who were resisting us. We were just certain that we were the good guys.
I think it’s possible to be an activist without the mindset of opposition. One of King’s messages to the Mississippi blacks was “They can’t break your back unless it’s bent.” He wanted them to change their minds about themselves. The heart of that message is the same as that of the Course.
Gloria: Remember the old saying “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem”? What that means to me now is that if you join in the chaos of opposition, then you’re part of the problem whichever side you’re on. I think it’s possible to show people that there’s another way of living in this world, one that’s different from the way we’ve been doing things.
Patrick: What you refer to as “joining with Jesus” sounds quite similar to what Christian fundamentalists call “being born again.”
Gloria: I have a brother and sister who are born-again Christians, and we don’t see things at all in the same way. Their agenda is quite clear; they are right-wing Republicans who want to stop abortion, put prayer in the schools, and establish a theocratic state. The Course has no investment in any political aims, conservative or liberal. While Christian fundamentalists oppose abortion because they believe that life begins at conception, the Course teaches that God created neither the world nor the body, and that there is no life outside of heaven, which the Course defines as “an awareness of perfect oneness, and the knowledge that there is nothing else; nothing outside this oneness, and nothing else within.”
Patrick: For new students, perhaps the toughest question the Course raises is “How do I know when I’m hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the voice of my own ego?”
Kenneth: The Course offers some means of distinguishing, one of them being that when you are following the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you are “wholly without fear.” But really the question is misplaced. The focus should not be on how you can tell which voice you’re hearing, but on clearing out the obstacles to the voice of the Holy Spirit — namely, guilt and the ego’s sense of specialness. The more you get rid of these interferences, the more you will hear the true voice of the Holy Spirit. The question “Who’s who?” won’t even arise anymore.
Gloria: Also, you don’t have to think in narrow terms of a voice inside your head. The Holy Spirit can reach you in a dream, a phone call, something you overhear that “clicks” for you. Because the Course refers to a voice people sometimes get confused and think they have to hear it in a literal sense.
Patrick: So the voice may have to ambush you in a way, to avoid ego-driven expectations.
Gloria: The way the Course would put it is that you are in charge of your “wrong-minded script” — that is, the voice of the ego — but you are not in charge of your “right-minded script”; the Holy Spirit is. So you have no control over it. And who wants to switch to a script over which they have no control? Why should people want to listen to a voice that’s going to tell them they’re not in charge?
Patrick: While the Course doesn’t claim to be superior to other paths, it does claim to function as a kind of “spiritual accelerator.” There are cryptic suggestions that Course students will save “thousands of years,” and that adherence to its method will work much faster than a lifetime of meditation or conventional religious approaches to “fighting sin.”
Kenneth: One of the ways people report such acceleration is that things get worse for them much more quickly. People either encounter the Course during crisis or go into crisis soon after taking it up. The Course speeds up one’s process by getting to the root of the problem: the mind’s decision to keep separate from God. That’s the fundamental problem of humanity. The Course focuses so directly on that problem that you don’t have to spend time on meditation, rituals, or other religious disciplines. Even though the process still takes many, many years, within the greater scheme of things you’re speeding along because you’re getting to the root of the real problem.