Marianne Williamson's life could be divided into two parts: before she discovered the spiritual tome A Course in Miracles, and after.
Not just because her own guide to the Course, 1992 best seller A Return to Love, took off after Oprah Winfrey announced that she'd bought 1,000 copies of Williamson's book. But because she herself was blessed by the concepts of forgiveness, love and personal responsibility taught by the Course.
“For me, the Course was a breakthrough experience intellectually, emotionally and psychologically,” she writes in the introduction of A Return to Love. “It freed me from a terrible emotional pain.”
A Course in Miracles can be impenetrable to some who try to read it; A Return to Love is the Cliff Notes version, Williamson says. And while Williamson may be one of the best-known interpreters of A Course in Miracles, she'll be quick to correct you if you call her an expert on the Course.
As a spiritual teacher, she is continually relearning its lessons.
She tells of an experience she had not long after she began lecturing about the Course's teachings on forgiveness.
“I was getting my nails done,” she says. “And there was a woman in the room … she just had this grandiose personality. Her personality characteristics were over the top … every time she opened her mouth, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard.”
Williamson said she experienced waves of “wild judgment” of the woman. She found the woman to be so irritating, she did what she had learned from the Course: “I said a prayer.”
Within a few moments, another client asked after the woman's father, questioning if he was getting out of prison. Slowly, Williamson gleaned from the conversation that the woman—who moments before had been so annoying—had endured criminal abuse by her father. Williamson began to view that woman through a different lens.
“The same behavior that elicited intense judgment now elicited intense compassion,” she marveled.
“The miracle wasn't that she had changed; the miracle was that I had changed.”
During two days of lessons delivered during her “Miracle Workers Training” workshop at Unity Village, Williamson advised others how to adjust the lens through which they view the world. Citing from A Course in Miracles the way an evangelist cites scripture, Williamson frequently punctuated her points by addressing the audience, “Are you with me?” or “Does that make sense?” in a delivery that employed her trademark wit and wisdom.
What Is a Miracle?
The basic teaching of A Course in Miracles is to learn to relinquish thoughts based on fear and replace them with thoughts based on love, Williamson said.
“A miracle,” said Williamson “is where you actually make a shift out of the entire mindset of the ego … and you are lifted to the celestial order where all things are perfect, and … all aspects of your being and your life experience are brought to divine right order.”
“Our job is to place ourselves in a receptive mode of consciousness whereby we might receive the miracle that is always available.”
This message was transforming to Camille O'Brien, of Lee's Summit, Missouri., who attended the workshop.
“One of the main things I got out of it was it always comes back to us,” said O'Brien. “Everything that happens on the outside, it filters through our brains, so that's what needs to change.”
For O'Brien, the message was particularly meaningful. She had been having difficulties with her son, an 11-year-old whose struggles with attention-deficit disorder and panic attacks had been getting him in trouble in school. She and her husband had found it increasingly challenging to find solutions when their son acted out, and often felt ill-equipped to deal with the situation, fostering feelings of guilt and blame.
“I came away from this knowing what I needed to pray for,” she said. “I realized all along I had more faith in the problem than I had in God. When I looked to the future, all I could see was the problem getting worse.”
“I needed to love and accept my son for who he was.”
Williamson frequently broke from script to listen to participants' problems and offer spiritual solutions—or prayer.
Relationships can be seen as spiritual assignments, she said.
“Every relationship you have where there is unforgiveness can be healed, if you are willing to see the innocence in the other person.”
Participant Ira Corwin of Coral Springs, Florida, was prompted to reexamine—and reevaluate—his role in a relationship that had ended recently. He had concluded that the person was brought into his life because he was reliving abandonment that he had experienced as a baby given up for adoption.
Williamson offered another interpretation: “The ego loves to call it abandonment … but the spirit says ‘No, I caused her to leave. She didn't want to be here anymore,' which actually is more helpful because it leads to the deeper question, ‘What did I do?'”
“The Holy Spirit would never put anyone in your life to hurt you and have you learn from that.”
Williamson gently pressed Corwin to examine other causes for the relationship's demise, and he acknowledged that they'd argued over boundaries.
“The ego had a way of interpreting this whole thing in a way that it had nothing to do with you,” Williamson concluded.
She later examined the role of ego: “The way A Course in Miracles talks about it, the ego is not a good thing: ‘Do not underestimate the vengeance of the ego,' it says. ‘The ego is suspicious at best and vicious at worst.' The ego is a lie about yourself that you have bought. It is a total lie.”
“If you ask, ‘Don't you have to have it on this earth?' Absolutely not. You have to have a personality, but that doesn't mean you have to have an ego. Ego is false belief about yourself; false belief about others. Think about when you have fallen in love with someone or held your baby for the first time—you have had egoless moments on this earth. The point is getting to the point where you can live egoless.”
Corwin reflected on the workshop later: “It was transformative. Marianne said, ‘You blew it. You didn't have boundaries.' Even though it takes two to tango, Marianne, like a big sister, explained it to me.”
A Course in Miracles Primer
It was 1965, and a 56-year-old clinical psychologist named Helen Schucman was about to change the religious landscape of America.
For months she had experienced episodes of vivid dreams and visions; finally, one night she called her colleague William Thetford and told him that she had been instructed by an inner voice: “This is a course in miracles. Please take notes.”
Over the next seven years Schucman became a scribe at the behest of the inner voice, whom she identified as Jesus, and Thetford became the transcriber.
The irony, perhaps, is that Schucman was an agnostic who had been raised in Judaism but had studied other spiritual practices growing up. “Certainly the subject matter itself was the last thing I would have expected to write about,” Schuman would later say. She described the experience:
“The Voice made no sound, but seemed to be giving me a kind of rapid, inner dictation which I took down in a shorthand notebook. The writing was never automatic. It could be interrupted at any time and later picked up again. It made obvious use of my educational background, interests and experience, but that was in matters of style rather than content.”
In 1975, A Course in Miracles was published. Since then, 1.5 million copies of the 1,200-page, three-volume tome have been sold worldwide.
The introduction contains this cryptic summary: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.” What follows are lessons blending psychology and religion.
Dozens of authors have offered their interpretations of the work; workshops are held in churches and community centers; speakers travel talk-show circuits to offer guidance.
But A Course in Miracles has not been without its detractors, some of whom claim that its teachings run counter to those of the Bible.
“In traditional Christian circles it's very controversial,” says Neal Vahle, a former Unity board member who is writing The Origins of A Course in Miracles. “In the Course, Jesus is a way shower, an elder brother, not a godhead. Anyone from a traditional Christian background considers it to be heresy.”
Schucman herself, who died in 1981 from cancer, was not a convert to the material, said Vahle. “She would have been very uncomfortable if she had been out in the public eye as the source of this material,” he said.
So what are the teachings of A Course in Miracles? As a spiritual path, the intent is to retrain the mind to perceive the world differently.
- Thoughts and results have a cause-and-effect relationship.
- The greatest cause of our problems is our sense of separation from God.
- Atonement is key to spiritual development.
Followers of Unity see similarities with Unity's core principles, beliefs that have also come under fire from traditional Christian circles.
But there are Unity churches that have not embraced the Course. One Unity church where you will not find the course being taught is Unity of Clearwater in Florida. There, Rev. Leddy Hammock calls it a “mixed bag.” What she finds most disturbing is the level of worship the book seems to have received.
“It does not express on the same level as the Unity teachings, which we always send people back to,” Hammock said. “Jesus is alive as we teach and believe, and expresses directly through the individual.”
On the other hand, there are devotees such as Dorothy Pierson, wife of Phillip Pierson, former dean of Unity Institute. The couple is close to publisher Judy Skutch and knew “transcriber” William Thetford well.
“We feel it is authentic,” says Phillip Pierson. “I'm not certain at all it was Jesus who spoke through (Schucman), but it was someone ‘other-worldy' who was very wise.”
While Phillip says he is “conversant” in the Course, his wife, Dorothy, has studied it at great lengths and has written poetry inspired by it.
She says she frequently meditates on the lessons; it is not something you can be taught, but it must be experienced. She has never read any of the other works inspired by the Course. Those works reflect other people's ideas, and she says it's important to experience the teachings on one's own.
As for its teachings?
“It is Unity,” she said. “It's Unity principles.”