Journalist Randall Sullivan met Father Benedict Groeschel, a Catholic priest and popular speaker, while Sullivan was investigating claims of miraculous occurences in America and abroad. In this excerpt, Father Groeschel discusses Helen Schucman, who "scribed" the bestselling spiritual work "A Course in Miracles." Reprinted from The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions with permission of Grove/Atlantic.
...[Father Groeschel] was certainly no less perplexed by what he had witnessed more than 30 years earlier, when he had been present at the inception of a book now considered to be the "New Age Bible." He had been a graduate student in psychology at Columbia University during the late 1960s when one of his professors, a woman named Helen Schucman, had written-"which is not to say authored"-A Course in Miracles.
Helen Schucman was nearly sixty when they met, and Groeschel, who was then almost forty, knew her not only as a teacher but also as a friend. "Helen was a very scientific lady," he recalled, "a Jewish intellectual who considered herself to be an extreme agnostic, though not quite an atheist, and very skeptical about everything having to do with religion or spirituality." Schucman also was witty and engaging, and Groeschel, who was writing his dissertation on the relationship between science and theology, found her to be one of the most stimulating conversationalists he had every encountered. The older woman became a good deal more fascinating to him when she announced in 1969 that she was taking dictation from a disembodied voice she knew only as the "Son of God."
It had all started one day when she was riding the subway uptown and experienced a vision, Schucman explained: A beautiful light suddenly filled the car and shone on the faces of the people all around her. A short time later, she felt compelled to begin writing page after page of blank verse that eventually grew into A Course in Miracles. Groeschel still could vividly recall his "dizzy astonishment" as the professor explained that she knew the meaning of each sentence she was writing, but had no idea what was coming next. "The interesting thing is that it scanned," the priest remembered. "It was written in iambic pentameter, and some of the passages were quite beautiful." The result was a series of discourses by the "Son of God" in which the narrator/teacher/protagonist came across as the figure Jesus Christ might have been if born a Hindu rather than a Jew. Sin, sacrifice, and suffering all were dismissed as illusory, the maya (though this word was never used) of those chained to earthly existence.
Only forgiveness is real, and all things, even the most heinous acts, are forgiven, the "Son of God" says again and again, without any need for penance or punishment.
He eventually came to understand the book as the product of "an intellectual experience called 'sequential words,'" Groeschel said. "It's actually very common and probably the least impressive of all these things. St. John of the Cross nailed it. He said, 'They're calling the words of God the thoughts that they address to themselves.' Now, there's an ice-cold glass of hot water."
What Groeschel found to be at once most thrilling and confusing about Helen Schucman's process was that, during the time she wrote A Course in Miracles (a book that any number of fundamentalist Christian ministers have called the most dangerous ever published), she became intensely attracted to the Catholic Church, attended Mass regularly, and was devoted to the Virgin Mary. Only under close questioning did Schucman admit that, many years earlier, she had briefly been a Christian. This had resulted from an "accidental" childhood visit to Lourdes, where she had been so moved that she received baptism upon her return to the U.S. She also had prayed the Rosary for years afterwards, Schucman claimed, until she adopted scientific skepticism as her creed, and lived by it for most of her adult life.
When he suggested she apply for membership in the Catholic Church, Schucman replied that this was unnecessary because, as a Jew, she had been Catholic before "you Gentiles came along and made all these rules." No less fascinating to the priest was the sharp distinction between Schucman's own stated convictions and the content of A Course in Miracles. "I hate that damn book," she often told him, and regularly disavowed its teachings.
Groeschel continued to try to "open the doors of the Church" to Schucman, but his influence was subverted by her husband. William Thetford, also a Columbia professor, was a mysterious character, and "probably the most sinister person I ever met," the priest recalled. Only after he retired from teaching did Thetford's Columbia colleagues (who knew him best as a rare-books expert) discover that all during the years they worked with him, the man had been employed as an agent of the CIA--one who was, among other things, present at the first fission experiment conducted by physicists assigned to the Manhattan Project. Thetford also was "the most religious atheist I have ever known," Groeschel recalled, and conceived a great enthusiasm for A Course in Miracles, personally arranging for its publication. Schucman was embarrassed, Groeschel remembered, and confided to the priest her fear that the book would create a cult, which of course it did.
Groeschel initially read the Course as "religious poetry," but grew steadily more negative in his assessment of it as the years passed and sales of the three volumes passed into the millions of copies. From his point of view, A Course in Miracles served to undermine authentic Christianity more effectively than just about any other work he could recall, and while he was inclined to reject the position of St. John of the Cross that "these things are diabolical unless proven otherwise," doubts had crept in over the years. Most troubling to him by far was the "black hole of rage and depression that Schucman fell into during the last two years of her life," the priest explained. She had become frightening to be with, Groeschel recalled, spewing psychotic hatred not only for A Course in Miracles but "for all things spiritual." When he sat at Schucman's bedside as she lay dying, "she cursed, in the coarsest barroom language you could imagine, `that book, that goddamn book.' She said it was the worst thing that ever happened to her. I mean, she raised the hair on the back of my neck. It was truly terrible to witness."
Only during Schucman's last weeks of life did Groeschel learn that the woman's mother had been a Christian Scientist, one who read to the girl from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy all during her childhood. This information had contributed to the appraisal of the woman he found easiest to live with, the priest said: "I decided that A Course in Miracles was a fascinating blend of poorly understood Christianity inspired by her visit to Lourdes and poorly understood Christian Science inspired by her memory of Mary Baker Eddy's writings, all of it filtered through some profound psychological problems and processes." Yet doubts persisted. The morning Schucman died, Groeschel said a funeral Mass for her. "Only, when I opened the missal did I discover that it was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes," the priest recalled, "and I tell you, I shivered. The odds are one out of three hundred and sixty-five."
He had been sifting his experiences with Helen Schucman through his mind for more than three decades now, Groeschel said, and over the years had realized that any attempt to define them was futile. "What I learned, I think, is that these things can be both real and imaginary, paranormal and spiritual, divine and diabolical. And that when you enter the world of the supernatural, the worst mistake you can make is to impose a ultrarealist point of view. You can't make those kinds of distinctions about experiences that are beyond our comprehension. You have to do as Moses Maimonides instructed and teach your students to say, 'I don't know.'"