Readings for the 4 th Sunday of Lent: 2 CHR 36: 14-16, 19-28; PS 137: 1-6; EPH 2: 4-10; JN 3: 14-21;
This year for Valentine's Day, my bride of nearly 40 years, Peggy, gave me a wonderful gift. Or I should say, she gave us a wonderful gift. She enrolled us in a live-streaming seminar led by Marianne Williamson, the great spiritual teacher, peace activist, and author of many books, including Return to Love, which both Peggy and I had read with great profit several years ago.
What Williamson presented turns out to be intimately connected with today's liturgy of the word. It presents us with a rich catechism of some of the most-powerful images and metaphors belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition. They include a whole list of choices humans (and married couples) must make between: (1) exile and liberation, (2) Babylon and Jerusalem, (3) death and life, (4) worldly values and Christ's values, and (5) works without faith or works with faith. In their esoteric senses, keeping those choices in mind proves helpful in pursuing our Lenten disciplines, especially as they affect our most intimate relationships.
You see, Marianne Williamson is a student and teacher of religious metaphor like the ones I just referenced. As a Jewish counselor and teacher, she honors all those biblical memes. And yet, her main spiritual reference point isn't the Tanakh, but A Course in Miracles (ACIM). That's an esoteric spiritual classic based on a series of "revelations" received by Helen Schucman, a research psychologist and one-time aggressive atheist. Over a period of seven years she took dictation from the Spirit of Jesus about how to experience all of life as a Miracle -- as an unending series of joyful wonders.
That whole idea might be off-putting to some. As a matter of fact, that's what I experienced when I first picked up ACIM, maybe thirty years ago. Some have described it as New Age psychobabble. I'm afraid I jumped to that conclusion. I also found its entire premise somehow disconcerting -- I mean: actual dictation from Jesus? It just wasn't my cup of tea. And I still have some reservations.
Yet, the book's basic claim resonated with me. That claim is that at their summits, all the world's great spiritual traditions converge in the basic mystical realization that ALL LIFE IS ONE. In our depths, our real Self is divine. There is very little difference between us humans. In a real sense, both you and I are one.
More than that, we share unity with the trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, animals, and insects. Only the misplaced importance we give to our individual egoic selves prevents us from recognizing that mystical insight. That's a truth I've encountered not only in the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, but also in my study of Buddhism and Hinduism. It's also something that accords with my own experience over the last 18 years of committed meditation twice a day. The meditation teacher I follow, Eknath Easwaran, would find very little strange in A Course in Miracles.
In any case, Williamson's teachings from ACIM, as well as her interactions with her audience of about 50 couples were astounding. She was incredibly fluent, funny, self-disclosing, and honest in her presentations. She was also unbelievably wise and helpful in dealing with the problems audience-participants presented during question and answer periods that often turned into full-blown counseling sessions. These had couples generously divulging problems of achieving intimacy, of heartbreaking infidelity, inability to communicate, and basic misunderstandings between women and men -- yin and yang.
And then there was Williamson's unflinching insistence on prayer and meditation. To begin with, she held that there can be no spiritual growth for anyone without putting God first and without the daily practice of meditation. From a leftist peace activist, I found that refreshing and challenging.
According to Williamson, anyone interested in personal or couple transformation needs to meditate every day. Ideally, couples should do it together every morning. But even more impressive to me was Williamson's ability to pray herself. She concluded most interactions with couples by inviting them to pray with her. And it all seemed perfectly natural and invariably quite beautiful.
In fact, Peggy and I were so impressed, and our conversations following Williamson's sessions were so helpful that we resolved to work through A Course on Miracles as our Lenten discipline. And that's what we've been doing since the Ash Wednesday which followed so closely this year's Valentine's Day.
In connection with this morning's liturgy of the word, here's what we discovered:
- Most of us married people are living in exile -- in Babylon like the Jews in the 6 th century BCE described in today's first reading.
- Perhaps without even realizing it, we long for "Jerusalem," -- for return to our true home, the "container" of love, safety, trust and intimacy we embraced on our wedding day.
- But like the exiles in today's responsorial psalm, many of us have stopped singing the love songs that came so naturally then. We've hung up our harps and refuse to sing to our intimate partner.
- Too often we've become like the walking dead -- rejecting the precious fullness of life together that's available for the asking.
- As Paul puts it in today's second reading, our lives together have become "works without faith." Work in our lives has replaced faith -- in God and in each other.
- With our loss of faith, the superficial values of the world (rejected by Jesus in today's gospel selection) have replaced his Kingdom values of unconditional acceptance, service and forgiveness.
Forgive me if all of that sounds bromidic and hackneyed. This Lent Peggy and I are finding that Marianne Williamson's advice about praying and studying together brings them to life. We've come to realize she's right.
For us, there's just no other way.