For many of us, our work with the Course begins from a place of sorrow. Something in this world is making us crazy or breaking our hearts, sending us in search of a higher wisdom and a gentler way. So we come to the Course’s teachings with great longing and high hopes. But because our lives feel chaotic and our hearts are breaking, we may also come cautiously–warily–and armed with a fair amount of doubt about whether forgiveness really can heal our suffering and bring us peace.
That was true for Paula when she first came to Course Oasis in April 2007. At the time, she and her third husband had just agreed to divorce, and Paula realized therapy couldn’t help her deal with the pain she felt about her marriage ending. To get through this, she knew she needed a spiritual solution. She needed to reconnect with God. Not the punishing God of her childhood, but the kind and loving God she had encountered in Overeaters Anonymous during the early ’90s–a God she could trust to be there for her when she needed help, assuring her that everything would be okay.
It didn’t take long for Paula to feel His Presence encircling her, taking the form of an unusual but powerful forgiveness experience that let her know with certainty that the Course is her path. That experience began with the truly helpful prayer, which hangs above the fireplace in the cozy downstairs gathering space of Course Oasis.
I am here only to be truly helpful.
I am here to represent Him Who sent me.
I do not have to worry about what to say or what to do, because He Who sent me will direct me.
I am content to be wherever He wishes, knowing He goes there with me.
I will be healed as I let Him teach me to heal. (T-2.V.18:2-6)
“The truly helpful prayer and our discussion of it made a really big impression on me the first time I came to Course Oasis,” Paula says. “That night, I kept reading those words and thinking about what I was struggling with–how to get beyond the hurt and betrayal I felt toward my husband. And right away something began to shift in the way I looked at him.” Within just a couple of weeks, Paula had made significant progress in forgiving him–more progress than she had achieved after years of trying to recover from the breakup of her first two marriages.
During those two weeks, she also began hearing in her mind the unusual message, “Buy him a cheese grater”–a practical but odd bit of advice that Paula never would have guessed would lead to one of the most healing and uplifting experiences of her life. “My husband was moving to an apartment and I was keeping the house, so he needed some things to outfit his new place,” she says. “Even so, I kept arguing with myself. ‘No. Nope. I’m not getting him the stupid cheese grater.'”
But then Paula remembered the words of the truly helpful prayer: He Who sent me will direct me. I will be healed as I let Him teach me to heal. And suddenly she realized that the thing that was being asked of her was an act of forgiveness, a pure and simple demonstration of her willingness to be helpful–and that it was the Holy Spirit Who was doing the asking. “And that was it,” Paula says. “I thought, ‘Okay. I’m not supposed to hate him anymore. I’m not supposed to despise him. I just need to be kind.’ And I had no more hatred of him. None. It was instantaneous.”
In the end, which actually turned out to be, for Paula, a new beginning, she bought the cheese grater. “That forgiveness experience,” she says, “the combination of the truly helpful prayer and listening to that guidance–that’s what really sold me on the Course. I needed something to say to me, ‘Hey, this is really worth paying attention to.’ The fact that it happened so quickly gave me the evidence I needed. And after that, it was clear to me: I’m staying. I’m staying right here.”
“I am not a body”
Since that powerful and instantaneous forgiveness experience, Paula has become a dedicated student of the Course, attending Text and Workbook classes at Course Oasis and working one-on-one in teaching and counseling sessions with Mary Anne. As her understanding of the Course has increased, so has her willingness to give herself wholly to the healing process–the arduous work of bringing to the light, with Mary Anne’s loving support, difficult emotional issues and deeply ingrained core beliefs that have caused her to suffer.
At the heart of the hurt that Paula’s work with the Course is helping to heal is her sense of being fundamentally unlovable. That belief has manifested for Paula as a lifelong struggle with disordered eating and agonizing over her body’s appearance. Its impact is reflected in her most intimate relationships, especially those with her daughters, her sisters, and the men she married.
As one aspect of the healing work she is doing to undo this belief, Paula has gone through the Workbook to put together a “problem-solving repertoire”–lessons whose loving messages replace the hateful things she no longer wants to say to or believe about herself. “I’ve written down the titles of lessons that jumped out at me, the ones that remind me that God is my Father, that He adores me, that His love is just raining down on me all the time,” she says. “So when the ego starts criticizing my body, I’ve got these new thoughts–that I am loved–right at my fingertips. For now, I just have to keep trusting that it is sinking in at some level, even if it feels like it isn’t. And that it will get easier as I keep practicing.”
Although Paula admits the work she is doing with the Course isn’t easy, she says the healing results motivate her to stick with it. Occasionally, she even receives what seems to be a communication of encouragement and support from the Holy Spirit–some physical occurrence that she understands to be evidence of His guiding Presence in her life. One of those messages came in the form of a falling mirror.
“Every day, first thing in the morning, I wake up, look at my body in the mirror, and I hate it,” Paula says. “That’s how I start my day, right? With ‘I hate you.'” But that unkind daily ritual recently came tumbling down, literally, when the big mirror on Paula’s dresser mysteriously, or maybe miraculously, fell to the floor in the middle of the night. “The funny thing was, I didn’t even wake up! I thought I was dreaming that there was a crash outside. The mirror didn’t even break. It just came completely off the dresser.” Paula says it wasn’t until two days later that she realized it was not a random occurrence: The Holy Spirit was speaking to her again. “He was trying to tell me, ‘You don’t need this. You don’t need to start your day this way.'” So Paula took the Holy Spirit’s gentle advice and didn’t put the mirror back. “Following that, when I woke up in the morning, it was better. Now I know I don’t need to give the ego that chance to criticize my body, to get to me,” she says. “It doesn’t mean this issue is healed yet. But I’m working on it.”
A New and Truly Undivided Loyalty2
Paula traces her feelings of being unlovable back to her relationship with her father, a man she describes as an emotionally abusive alcoholic who gave her the message that she was a burden to him. “He believed that men and boys were more important than women and girls,” Paula says. “He told my sisters and me, ‘I just had three girls so I could get my boy.’ He had no time for us, no affection. Just being in a room with him terrified me, because I felt like the scum of the earth whenever I was around him.”
At Mary Anne’s suggestion, Paula recently wrote a letter to her father as part of the forgiveness work she is doing, bringing to the surface the deep-seated resentment she held toward him. “I’ve done a lot of work around my father, tons of therapy,” Paula says. “So when Mary Anne asked me to write him a letter, I at first thought, ‘I’ve written a thousand letters to my dad. Why write one more?’ He passed away in March, and I didn’t have any problems with the funeral. I didn’t have any unresolved issues coming up at the time.” In spite of her resistance, Paula went ahead with the assignment, trusting in Mary Anne’s advice. “I didn’t know what would come out of it, because I wrote it thinking, ‘I’m not really angry at him.'”
The letter she wrote was brief, direct, stunningly honest, and incredibly kind. For Paula, it resulted in an amazing insight: the revelation that she still feels an intense sense of loyalty to her father, one that prevents her from turning to God, her real Father, for the love and protection she yearns for. With the transformative power of the Course behind it, this letter released Paula in a way all the others she had written through the years failed to do. She writes: “Dad, I have given you absolute authority for the last time. I need to turn to an amazing loving Father so my girls can too….I now need to feel and be lovable in order to honor the messages my new Father is giving me.” Along with that declaration of independence, Paula extends to her father an invitation, one that carries the gift of true forgiveness. “I still care about you, Dad,” she writes, “but I must switch allegiance for myself and my kids. If you decide to switch, you can join me and my Father’s new team. You already are a member anyway. You just don’t know it.”
Amazingly, Paula recently experienced a similar breakthrough in understanding her relationship with her mother, who died 20 years ago. In preparation for a vacation in Mexico with her two sisters, Paula scheduled some time with Mary Anne, wanting help with applying the Course’s teachings to the anxiety she was feeling about the upcoming trip. “I thought it was about learning how I could feel okay about wearing a bathing suit in front of my sisters,” she says. But the issues that came up for her during that session went much deeper. Paula realized she felt an intense fear of hurt and abandonment related to being the “odd man out” in her relationship with her sisters. She saw them as having a close connection with each other–much like the one Paula had had with their mother–but one from which she felt excluded.
“I was my mom’s buddy growing up, and my one goal was to try to make her happy,” she says. “My mom was very unhappy and believed you stay miserable and sacrifice yourself till you die.” During the session with Mary Anne, Paula recognized that, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty3, she had adopted her mother’s belief. “How can I be happy,” she thought, “when Mom is so miserable?” She was making an unconscious decision to be unhappy by keeping extra weight on and seeing herself as different than and disconnected from her sisters. She was making them the enemy, and making herself miserable. “But really I am imprisoning my mom by keeping myself in prison, staying bound to a body instead of a spirit,” Paula says. “By keeping my mom’s belief alive that it is shameful to be full of happiness and love, I keep that unhealthy connection alive.”
Once that realization had been brought to light, Paula was able to make a new decision about how to approach the vacation with her sisters. “I am going to write a letter to my mom to set her free before I go on this trip,” she says. “I am going to practice on the beach, ‘I am not a body, I am spirit.’ I am bringing the Course and lots of love for my sisters and myself. I will trust in God and the Holy Spirit to be the tour directors. My goal is to extend love, and to soak up the sun!”
As she continues in this transformative work–deepening her relationship with God and learning to trust in her true identity as His beloved Child–Paula is noticing the impact the Course has on other aspects of her life, including her work as an addictions counselor. While she has always felt there was a higher power guiding her counseling, she now sees herself offering counsel from a calmer place, and being more loving and tolerant with both clients and colleagues. “I even find at work that I kind of give my agenda to the Holy Spirit and ask Him for guidance about how to organize my day,” she says. “I’m less judgmental. It’s easier to know now that the only thing my clients need is love. So that has taken the pressure off me–thinking that I have to go get a lot more upgrades in my counseling skills and things like that. What’s clearer to me now is that all I really need to do is love.”
She also sees the benefits of her work with the Course extending to those closest to her, including her two daughters, who have recently reconciled with their dad after years of being in conflict with him. That’s something she’s been praying for. “What I’m fascinated with is that I can give a problem to God, and I have no idea what He’s going to do with it,” she says. “But there has been a surrender in me. He can do a much better job than I’ll ever do, so I’ll just sit back and watch. I see that with these family relationships and the ways they are healing.”
It’s been a little less than two years since Paula began studying the Course, but its impact on her life has already been a profound one, one that is moving her steadily from a place of isolation and grief to one of openness, hope, and healing. She hopes to pass those gifts along one day, using her own experiences and learning to bring other people to a place of peace with the Course. She is grateful to have found her teacher in Mary Anne, and feels blessed by the loving support of everyone at Course Oasis–her mighty companions on this spiritual journey. “It is amazing to me that I have given myself this time to just do this work and face my unlovableness, without rushing into a new relationship, and without feeling alone,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without Mary Anne, and without the sense of community I feel at Course Oasis. This Course, this place, and these people have been a lifesaver for me.”
1 The concept of a “problem-solving repertoire” appears in Workbook Lesson 194 (6:2). It is your own personal collection of Course practices that you find particularly useful in helping you solve your problems and deal with challenging issues, situations, and relationships. It’s like your own personal toolkit from which you can draw for “what works” for you.