The first Lent following my First Communion I got the hare-brained idea of attending 6 a.m. mass every day before school at the Holy Name church about a mile down the road, and somehow talked my brother into joining me for the sake of his rotten soul. I would set my little windup alarm for 5:15, slip into a jumper, pull on my winter coat, and start down the big hill from our house with Michael, doing our best to avoid killing ourselves on the ice. Working a pink plastic rosary inside a white rabbit muff I had gotten for Christmas along with a matching cap.
In my memory it was always sleeting or spitting snow those dark, hollow mornings; trees groaning and rattling in despair. For once we never spoke, as if the sound of our own voices in the stillness might alert lurking predators. Surely God would take note of such sacrifice, I reasoned. Surely such devotion would whittle years off the sentence in purgatory our constant bickering and vying for parental attention had already cost us.
I am thinking about the practice of sacrificing ourselves in a pathetic effort to win back God’s love, the love we think we squandered when the tiny mad idea of individuality dawned in the one Son of God’s mind and we believed it. Thinking about the sin, guilt, and fear at the core of the ego thought system described in A Course in Miracles. A thought system that drives our behavior in this illusory world and eliminates the possibility of ever experiencing enduring, unconditional love.A thought system engendered by a false belief in differentiated selves unconsciously mired in guilt over the “sin” of separation, terrified of punishment, and literally hell-bent on holding someone else responsible to prove their relative innocence. I am thinking about all this because my parents are visiting from upstate New York and as I dropped them off at the Catholic Church near our house (aptly named Most Precious Blood) several distinct memories from my Catholic youth resurfaced for reconsideration.
“Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” I would chant, along with my fellow parishioners, kneeling on worn red velvet-covered kneelers, banging our fists to our chests in our efforts to make the sin of separation from God and the need to atone for it real. I passed out a lot in church back then. Partly from the heat (for mysterious reasons no one removed their coats), partly from low blood sugar (you could not eat before Communion), and partly from extreme anxiety over accidentally nibbling on Jesus.
Sister Scholastica had instructed us before we made our First Communion to make stunt wafers by mashing that squishy white bread everybody ate back then with our palms, cutting it into rounds with a juice glass or cookie cutter, and allowing it to melt on our tongues without touching it with our teeth. This was Christ’s body after all and people who wanted to get into heaven didn’t go around chewing on bodies, especially holy ones. It took practice. Like the real wafer, the stand-in stuck to the roof of your mouth and required robust tongue scraping to remove and eventually swallow.
I am thinking about the idea of sin, guilt, and fear alive in the Catholic ritual of converting Christ’s body and blood into bread and wine that we might literally partake of his innocence versus the Course’s concept of communion in which we remember our essential innocence by recognizing our mistaken belief that anything outside our mind can jeopardize it. As we turn that error in perception over to Jesus/the Holy Spirit/right mind our dark projections disappear in the light of true awareness that knows we remain healed, whole, and eternally loved.
We do this through forgiveness, the process through which we learn to identify the hidden motive of guilt behind our addictive urge to blame others for our suffering. And to turn our attacking thoughts over to the part of our mind that remembers there is no one to blame because wholeness remains whole. We remain resting in God’s mind as we always have and will, dreaming a silly dream of exile from which we can awaken once we have generalized the lesson of forgiveness to everyone and thing. Remembering we are not broken as we acknowledge you have not broken me.
This is the work.
I have been asking lately (OK, begging) for Jesus (that symbol of the awakened mind) to help me remove the blocks I have erected to keep the one and only real love that exists-an all-inclusive love that has nothing to do with this all-exclusive world–away. To help me remove all the chatter I have generated to prevent me from hearing that voice, all the clutter I have projected to obscure that vision. The answer I received?
This is the work.
The last few days as I entertained my parents, fought a bad cold and a bad back: I kept hearing that phrase over and over as I caught myself beginning to react, to make something external responsible for my internal state. This is the work of forgiveness. This mother, this father, this daughter, this husband, this body, these friends, this table of 24 in a Chinese restaurant in Boulder that all asked for separate checks. This waiter who forgot our condiments, a napkin, the water, this man on the mall folding himself into a 20 x 20 inch plastic cube for money. The goose feces in the park the dog kept trying to eat, the bald eagle landing on a tree in the middle of a frozen lake that took our breath away, these keys locked in a running car by an ego mind driven to distraction. This runny nose and sore throat; these children growing up and away.
As I sat listening to one of my husband’s stories at another restaurant that failed to live up to its reputation a wave of appreciation shuddered through me. I lost track of myself and experienced a sense of oneness with everyone at the table, in the restaurant, and passing by the glass outside. I had experienced something similar a couple weeks earlier at our neighborhood Starbuck’s as I passed a homeless man warming his hands around a paper cup of free coffee and leaning his elbows on a table. I could feel his exhaustion and recognized it as my own. That recognition somehow spawned a sense of utter completeness and comfort.
A few days later while pulling out of a parking lot a woman walked in front of my car diagonally without looking. Just a few years ago I would have rushed to judge such behavior but this time I didn’t react. I could only see her from behind, her back bent under the weight of satchels on both shoulders, nearly buckled by the weight of this existence. As I stepped on the brakes I lost track of which one of us I was. Her burden (symbolic of the guilt we all carry over the bogus “crime” of separation) became my own for an instant before vanishing in the incredible lightness of our right mind as the car ground to a halt and I caught my breath at the wonder of it.
This is the gift the work of forgiveness brings. Recognizing how much I want to project the guilt I’m seldom even aware I’m carrying over having pushed God’s love away onto someone else and choosing again for a better way I become more and more right-minded. More and more willing to see only common interests. More and more aware that I lose nothing by giving up what hurts me. Until sometimes, forgiveness just seems to spontaneously happen. I recognize my right-mindedness as I reach for the muscle of judgment I have spent most of my life building only to find it happily disabled.
By practicing forgiveness every time I catch myself holding someone or thing external responsible for my internal state the judgment muscle weakens, the forgiveness muscle strengthens, and I experience moments where I am truly watching with Jesus above the battleground. Having lost track of this false self and its special agendas. This is the true communion I am more and more ready to swallow, the healing of our seemingly split mind the work of forgiveness brings.