I think people who do unusual things of that type are probably considered
somewhat dissociated or possibly schizophrenic. However, the fact
that Helen's ability to function as a psychologist was not impaired in
any way during this period was a clear indication that she did not suffer
from a delusional system. If anything, I would say that her ability
to function professionally was enhanced as we continued with this work.
During the time we were working on the Course we seemed to actually increase
our professional productivity and quality.
One confirmation of this is that
when we completed the manuscript we were both awarded tenure as professors.
NR: Helen seemed
to have much more difficulty embracing the Course material than you did.
Was there any kind of spiritual or religious background in your life, or
anything else, that made this so?
it certainly wasn't due to any early religious background for me.
I had gone to the Christian Science Sunday School until age seven, when
my sister died suddenly and my parents lost interest in all religion.
Later in my youth, I attended various Protestant churches, but by the time
I had started my graduate work at the University of Chicago, I had certainly
given up any interest in religion. Besides I recall how the University
of Chicago was often described as a Baptist University where atheist professors
taught Jewish students Thomistic philosophy! With that kind of background,
I think it's apparent that whatever religious beliefs I might have had
would simply have become more confused.
NR: What would
you say was your philosophical or spiritual outlook then?
THETFORD: I would
describe myself as an agnostic. I was not really concerned with whether
spiritual reality was a fact or not.
Freud regarded religion as an illusion,
and I think many of the graduate students and faculty with whom I associated
at the time saw religion as something that lacked intellectual respectability.
NR: Given your
agnostic outlook at the time, was there anything you were involved with
that might have set the stage for your being the catalyst for A Course
as such, although I was one of Carl Rogers’ first graduate students after
he came to the University of Chicago in 1945. He taught that “unconditional
positive regard” was an essential prerequisite for client-centered therapists.
I now realize what Rogers was really emphasizing was that total acceptance
in our relationships meant expressing perfect love. Although I recognized
how far I was from being able to practice this concept in my life, I grew
to appreciate its contribution to my own spiritual development.
Actually, I always thought that
a Higher Authority must have goofed in selecting Helen and me for this
assignment. When Helen asked the voice once why she was chosen for
this role, the answer she got was, “You're obviously the right person because
you're doing it.”
NR: What's so curious
is that both of you - Helen the atheist and Bill the agnostic - would entertain
the notion of doing something like this. How do you reconcile that?
Surely something must have been triggered within you.
that summer of 1965, we had many experiences that shook up my belief system
and caused me to be much more open-minded to the possibility of divine
intervention. By the time the Course started, I would say I was no
longer really an agnostic.
Helen, however, had great difficulty
with the Course regarding her own personal beliefs. She continued
to question what was happening to her throughout the time she was transcribing
the Course, and I'm not sure she was ever able to reconcile what she was
doing with who she was.
NR: Its interesting
that you often use the word “assignment” with regard to you're and Helen's
involvement with the Course. Why?
THETFORD: Well, the
events we experienced leading up to the Course's dictation seemed to us
to be preparation for an assignment that somehow, somewhere, we had agreed
to do together. In a sense we were fulfilling our function.
NR: The events you
refer to as preceding the Course's dictation by Helen involved a number
of psychic and mystical experiences she had. Did you have similar
THETFORD: Yes, but
they never seemed as dramatic as Helen's. However, one that had a
very profound effect on me occurred Easter Sunday in 1970. I had
agreed to take Jean, an elderly woman artist, down to dinner in Greenwich
Village with some other artist friends. It was a very cold, stormy
wintry day, with sleet and high winds - unusual for that time of year.
Being without a car, I realized I was going to have a lot of trouble getting
a taxi, and so I meditated briefly about what to do. I got a clear
message that I was to go to the corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue,
near where I lived, at exactly 3:15, and the problem would be taken care
of. I had enormous resistance to doing this, but I put on my stormy
weather gear anyway, walked to the corner, and tried to hail a cab.
Since I was in competition with all the doormen on Fifth Avenue it seemed
Then for just a moment I closed
my eyes and let go of my troubled thoughts, saying to myself: “Thank-you,
Father, it's already done!” And for an instant I truly believed that.
When I opened my eyes, a chauffeur driven limousine had stopped right in
front of me at the corner and the driver rolled down his window and asked,
“May I help you sir?” This, as anyone who's been to New York or lived
there knows, was a highly improbable happening.
I was very tempted to ask him why
he had stopped for me, and then I realized that this would be an inappropriate
question; I was simply to accept this gift. I got in and we drove
over to Jean's and picked her up. She was absolutely thrilled that
I had come to pick her up in a limousine!
The interesting thing, too, is that
I didn't discuss a fee with the driver. He simply took me without
any question, and when we arrived at our destination I asked him how much
it was, and he said something ridiculous like “five dollars”. I think
I gave him several times that amount out of enormous gratitude and relief.
NR: What other
we were in the process of transcribing the Course material, I prayed that
we might encounter a living teacher - someone who embodied these teachings
in his or her own life. Around this time a priest friend, Father
Michael, told me about Mother Teresa of India. Duly impressed, I
obtained a copy of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God,
the first book which describes Mother Teresa’s astonishing healing work
with the poorest of the poor.
Shortly after I read the book, Father
Michael informed me that Mother Teresa was currently in New York.
She had recently established a New York Center for her order in the South
Bronx - at that time, the worst of all crime-ridden poverty areas in New
York - and he had been asked to help facilitate some of her local arrangements.
He invited Helen and me to join him in visiting her in the Bronx.
Initially, I felt apprehensive about actually having my prayers answered,
since I was not sure that I was up to meeting a living saint. However,
when this tiny woman graciously met us with palms extended, I felt an almost
instantaneous sense of relief. It seemed as if I had always known
her. Completely selfless and without pretense, she radiated the joy
of total spiritual commitment. Later, when she turned to me and said,
“Doctor, wouldn't you like to come to India? There is so much that
you could do to help the poor,” I felt an almost irresistible impulse to
I have met with Mother Teresa on
a number of occasions since that time, including one visit she made with
Father Michael to our offices at the Medical Center the year before Helen
retired. To me, her life is a demonstration of the importance of
total dedication and complete consistency on the spiritual path.
Our prayers are answered, even though frequently in the most unexpected
WITH THETFORD, Part 3 =>