Spiritual Steps to Freedom

By Ruth Gledhill

A devil sits on the shoulder of an alcoholic, and it is very hard to remove. No method has been more successful than that adopted by the fellowship known as Alcoholics Anonymous. When the principles on which A.A. rests are examined, as here by the religion correspondent of The Times, a theology emerges.

As the millennium approaches, all journalists, myself included, are planning ahead for the respective inventories which we must soon make of the most significant developments in our fields of study. In the spiritual as opposed to the material world, but with an inestimable impact on both, the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, in 1935 must head or come near the top of the list. Anyone looking for signs of immanent apocalypse in the twentieth century need only consider the devastation wreaked on a daily basis in millions of lives by the obsessive illnesses of alcoholism and addiction. For corresponding evidence of the saving grace of God in our world, we could then turn to the development of the Twelve Steps of A.A. by the fellowships founders, Bob S, an Akron surgeon, and Bill W, a New York stockbroker.

To an outsider, these steps can at first seem anachronistic, exclusive, simplistic and impossibly agnostic, not to say illogical. Nevertheless, in spite of considerable initial skepticism, four years in religious journalism have convinced me that they have something vital to offer , not to alcoholics alone but to anyone in the grip of an obsession. Few of us can claim complete freedom from obsessive behavior, whether the focus be an addictive substance, a man or a woman, work, leisure, exercise, food or even laziness. Only an individual can decide when a healthy commitment to or dependence upon a person or activity, which entails a fundamental act of trust, crosses the narrow line into obsession, the antithesis of trust; but not for nothing does the Shorter English Dictionary define obsession as actuation by the devil or an evil spirit from without.” In my work as a religious affairs journalist, I am encountering increasing numbers of people, many of them non-alcoholics , who are using the Twelve Steps as spiritual as meditative guides, in conjunction with the allied spiritual literature published by America’s Hazelden organization and others with a rock-bottom interest in the elusive process known as “recovery.”

In the Twelve Steps, the word “God” appears four times, the word “alcohol” once. Anyone familiar with the stories of Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the concept of the “suffering servant,” the Judaeo-Christian message of victory through defeat, and salvation through suffering, will find that A.A. literature seems familiar. The literature betrays the influences of psychological, philosophical and theological thinkers ranging from Augustine of Hippo through to Carl Jung. Even the concept of Twelve Steps is not itself new: Bernard of Clairvaux’s first published treatise, written probably in 1127, was The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride. Although there is no evidence that the founders of A.A. were aware of this work, there are remarkable similarities. Now in print as a Hodder Christian classic, Bernard’s Twelve Steps urge the “step of truth, where awareness of our own shortcomings makes us merciful towards other people.” He describes the joy in “letting go” of his pride.

A.A., however, despite its well documented roots in the Oxford Group, the inspirational revivalist movement founded by Dr. Frank Buchman in America, is not evangelical in that it does not actively recruit members. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Most A.A. members do report, however, that those who achieve a lasting and contented sobriety are those who learn to depend on a God “of their own understanding.”

Fr John, a Roman Catholic priest with 18 years of sobriety under his belt, describes how A.A., far from destroying the belief on which his living depended, opened the door to a faith that worked. “My drinking history was traumatic,” he says. “I was a pub drinker. I would try and keep topped up. Right at the end I occasionally drank alter wine, because there was nothing else. I used to mix vodka and poteen with it to give it a lift.” He describes falling asleep on the alter at Mass, and being “poured over the presbytery doorstep” by taxi-drivers after a night out. He was also a heavy user of barbiturates, which made his behavior unpredictable and his “blackouts” – memory losses – more frequent. His faith did not help his problem, one he says is common to many of his fellow A.A. members, was not that he did not believe in Sod, but that God did not believe in him. “I was utterly convinced that I was outside redemption.” The Church came to his rescue, giving him the choice of voluntary admission to a treatment center, or compulsory admission to a mental hospital. He chose the lesser of the two evils, and at the treatment center, which he prefers not to name, was introduced to A.A. Anonymity is central to A.A., a protection for both the individual and the fellowship. We talk on the telephone, and he calls me. I am not given his number, or his full name.

“My first meeting had a tremendous impact on me, and from that day until today I have not picked up a drink,” he says. “It was like being born again. I started going to a meeting every day, and began to understand the nature of the initial impact. I put it down to unconditional love, which I describe as an actual grace.” He means this to be understood in Augustinian terms, and repeats it: “A.A. is theologically, an actual grace.” But was this the power of the group or of Sod? “What is the difference? God works through people. It is as simple as that. ” Yet the puzzle of why some drink again , often to die or face imprisonment or insanity, remains. Fr. John says: “I can only make a suggestion, and that is that God gives his grace to whom he will. There is a lot of Augustian thought in A.A. The notion is of a choice, but you have an Augustinian rather than an Aristotelian concept of freedom. Augustine’s guide in moral theology was, ‘Love, and do what you will.’

“Yet taking Step Two was the most difficult part of the program for me. I was convinced I was a wicked person, and here I was being offered the experience of recovery, of a loving, warm, caring higher power.” After nine months, the penny dropped. “I realized I had to let go of my own idea of Sod, which was a sick and false idea, and experience the reality of love, healing, hope and joy that was coming into me. Then of course I found that all this had already been said about Sod, in the Bible, and I became the biggest bore about it.”

“I now realize that religion cannot be a substitute for spirituality. The latter is necessary, the former is not. But where recovery from alcohol is concerned, religion as an adjunct to spirituality is like a booster rocket. I see A.A. as a partial outpouring of the spirit, as in Ezekel and Isaiah. A.A. is a ministry of deliverance from obsession, and must therefore be a great spiritual enrichment to society as a whole. It is a joyful walk with the Lord.”

His language became positively evangelical as he warmed to his subject, a phenomenon common to all the alcoholics I spoke to for this article, and to the A.A. literature I was given to read. In the A.A. Bible, Alcoholics Anonymous (or the Big Book as insiders call it, after it was printed on thicker-than-average paper to reassure tight-fisted alcoholics that they were getting value for money), Bill W. summarizes the alcoholic nightmare in apocalyptic style. “The less people tolerated US,” he recalls, “the more we withdrew from society, from life itself. As we became subjects of King Alcohol , shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding, companionship and approval. Momentarily we did. Then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen – Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration and Despair.” In his subsequent book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. suggests A.A. members approach the quasi-confessional Step Four by taking “a universally recognized list of major human failings – the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.”

Bill W. sobered up in hospital after an extraordinary spiritual experience, described in his biography, Pass It On. Aware he was close to the end, facing death and madness, he reached a state of absolute surrender, and cried out: “If there be a God, let Him show himself!” His prayer was answered. In his own words: “Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy – I was conscious of nothing else for a time.

“Then, seen in a mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, ‘You are a free man.’ I know not at all how long I remained in this state, but finally the light and the ecstasy subsided. I again saw the wall of my room. As I became more quiet, a great peace stole over me, and this was accompanied by a sensation difficult to describe. I became acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of loving spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘must be the great reality. The God of the Preachers’…. For the first time, I felt that I really belonged. I knew that I was loved and could love in return. I thanked my Sod, who had given me a glimpse of his absolute self.”

It becomes important, considering such language, to listen to A.A. members who say with determination that their fellowship is not Christian, not even religious, but spiritual. Step Two, they argue, speaks not of Cod but of a “power greater than ourselves,” known universally as the “Higher Power.” (This can arouse fears among the Church community, however I learned recently of one churchman whose concern about the amorphous nature of this Higher Power was such that he feared it to be so far from God as to be His antonym, and considered taking steps to end the regular A.A. meetings which had been taking place in his church basement.)

One determined agnostic, who combines considerable eminence in his chosen career with voluntary work in treatment centers that sobered him up seven years ago, says: “In the steps, there are two sets of four words which are underlined: they are the words ‘As we understood Him.’ It is quite clear to agnostics who read the steps carefully that they have come to a place where there is no prescriptive approach to God. It is a far cry from my own experience of the Church, where the approach to Cod is extremely prescriptive and prejudicial.”

He found faith through a personal recovery that certainly saved his life: “You make your acquaintance with the Higher Power, given that your recovery goes well, as you feel it work. You can define it, know it, relate to it, even as it makes its presence known to you.” He chooses to call his higher power Cod, despite his stated agnosticism. “both theologically and philosophically, in many different disciplines, Cod always suffices as a shorthand of some kind or other. For me it has become a shorthand for goodness. It takes the mystery out of the word to have it simply as the source from which goodness flows. My choice is to believe in its existence. Otherwise, I do not think I would have recovered.”

This man also had a vision, but in the suitable secular terms appropriate for such a devout agnostic. A picture of a boot crushing a green shoot in a desert appeared, and remained with him for many days. As he began to get well, and took counsel from a sober Catholic priest seconded by his religious order to the treatment center, the boot lifted and finally disappeared, leaving the green shoot free to grow. This demonstrated to me that there was a force in play, and it was working for my rescue. That it was a vision there can be no doubt, but it was presented in a secular manner. There was no Victorian tableau with some marble, redeeming hand descending from angry clouds. The imagery was in primary colours, and to do with primary matters of life and death. It was a Clear Signal that I was imperiled. In the desert you die without sustenance.”

As this illustrates, to debate too closely the religious nature or otherwise of A.A. ‘would be to miss the fundamental point that its aims are intrinsically spiritual. Depending on whether they are agnostic, atheist or believers, A.A. members looking for an excuse to drink again are quite capable of arguing either that their fellowship is too religious, or, if they are themselves religious, that A.A. is not explicitly religious enough. Equally, new members who refer to the “spiritual side” of the programme will often be pulled up by older members arguing that to speak of a “spiritual side” is false, since it implies the existence of a non spiritual side; that in truth the programme is spiritual in substance. It is possible also, members report, to go too far in the opposite direction: to place undue emphasis on the spiritual life can also be to miss the point that the Twelve Steps climax with one which enjoins service and working with others, and it is only the eleventh that calls for “prayer and meditation.”

A recovering alcoholic who does not make it a first priority to help others recover is unlikely to get well, no matter how devout and real his or her faith. This was well illustrated by Bill W’s own early experience. After Bill was discharged from hospital on December 18, 1934, he never took another drink. But the crucial aspect of this story is that he failed dismally for many weeks to make anyone else sober up by his description of his transforming experience. It was only when he was put in touch with Dr. Bob, and described his experience as an active, suffering alcoholic in a way that the doctor could identify with, that another alcoholic was set on the road to recovery and A.A. officially began. In her book Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, however, the Pulitzer prize-winner Nan Robertson relates that Bill W., although sober, remained endearingly alcoholic in certain traits of his personality to the end, proof that members are never cured, but achieve only a daily reprieve from their illness. He tried and failed to recapture his spiritual experience through the use of seances and LSD.

Inevitably, physicians have since speculated that Bill W’s vision was a function of delirium precipitated by toxic psychosis. Similar but less dramatic stories of spiritual awakenings are repeated in the slim A.A. volume, Came to Believe. Bill W., who subsequently became an avid reader of books such as William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, says: “It is certain that all recipients of spiritual experiences declare for their reality. The best evidence of that reality is in the subsequent fruits. Those who receive these gifts of grace are very much changed people , almost invariably for the better.”

Bill W. and Bob S. early on pledged A.A. to an absolute apolitical stance. The fellowship would not then, nor will it to this day, comment at all on any issue to do with temperance, licensing laws, the beer trade, or in fact anything at all outside its own direct sphere of influence, helping suffering alcoholics to achieve sobriety. The “organization” of A.A., and I put that in quotes deliberately because it is probably the closest thing to a successfully functioning anarchy in existence, has no opinion on the temperance question.

Bill W. and Bob S. always acknowledged the help they received from the Oxford Group but they recognized that the growing fellowship of A.A. would have to split from this organization after Buchman was accused of pro-Nazi sympathies. Buchman was later vindicated, but this change brought the group into the kind of public controversy which was contrary to the emerging principles of A.A. Also the Oxford Group changed its emphasis from small, intimate meetings to national and world assemblies. At the time Bill W. wrote: “The principle of aggressive evangelism so prominent as an Oxford Group attitude had to be dropped in order to get results with alcoholics. Experience showed that this principle….would seldom touch neurotics of our hue.” Bill called for greater tolerance and love: “The atheist may stand up in an A.A. meeting denying God, yet reporting how he has been helped in other ways. Experience tells us he will presently change his mind, but nobody tells him he must do so.”

What the fellowship appears to have done is to ditch the political and overtly Christian moralizing of Moral Rearmament (as the Oxford Group became) in order to concentrate solely on the concepts of service to others, personal development through the process of a “personal inventory” in step four, five and ten and spiritual development through all twelve. That this was not an easy process can be gleaned through the story of one early member, Ed, an atheist salesman who managed despite skepticism from his fellow-members to sober up dozens of alcoholics. In his words, recorded in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, his objection was to the higher power: “1 can’t stand this God stuff! It’s a lot of malarkey for weak folks. This group doesn’t need it, and I won’t have it! To hell with it!” The group tried to expel him, prayed almost that he would drink, but he refuse to leave, citing them the third tradition, that to be a member he need only have a desire to stop drinking. Ed apparently never did drink again, but one night, alone and desperate in a hotel room in 1938, he found the Gideon Bible and began to read it , and discovered a faith. Bill W. records: “What if we had actually succeeded in throwing Ed out for blasphemy? What would have happened to him and all the others he later helped? So the hand of Providence early gave us a sign that any alcoholic is a member of our society when he says so.”

This was an early recognition of the inescapable fact that, no matter what the truth or otherwise of Christianity’s message of hope and redemption, no alcoholic will stop drinking who does not first want to do so. Bill W. recognized this, and so have the many clergy, ministers and Catholic priests who continue to allow their halls, crypts and basements to be used for meetings of an organization baffling in both its power and powerlessness to help the suffering alcoholic through faith.

THE TABLET, Vol. 249, 104-107, January 28, 1995

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