Liberation Spirituality

By Neil J. Carr

The shout, “THAT’S A.A.!” was one I hardly expected to hear in a graduate class of theology. But I heard it last fall at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. It was provoked by the professor’s lively overview of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous mirror in a remarkable way this letter of Paul. Those steps neatly package for our contemporary world not only this wisdom of Paul, but also the wisdom of the centuries, as captured in writings that go back even to pre-Christian times.

At the end of June, people will converge on San Diego by the thousands to celebrate their liberation from the effects of a fatal disease. To the casual observer they will appear no different from the usual conventioneers. But they won’t be drinking. They will be grateful members of Alcoholics Anonymous, there to mark A.A.’s 60th birthday, 60 years of rescuing over two million people around the world from the jaws of death, themselves included.

The deep spirituality of A.A.’s program of 12 steps has only recently been discovered by mainstream religious savants, who laud it now in such terms as “America’s unique contribution to the history of spirituality” (Richard Rohr, O.F.M.), and as “the greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century” (Keith Miller). I believe these claims are true.

What has made A.A.’s spirituality so effective in the lives of many people is, I believe, the specific nature of its suggestions. They embody ancient spiritual insights of many religions of both East and West and deliver them to people of the 20th century whose lives are unmanageable and who feel powerless to change them by their own devices. Such persons are trapped in various types of addictive behaviors. A.A.’s 12 steps have proved effective for compulsions other than drinking – gambling, narcotics, sex, eating and smoking, to name but a few.

For alcoholics, the A.A. program of 12 steps becomes a way of life. They see sobriety not as a destination, but as a journey. The alcoholic in A.A. suffers from what he or she knows is a fatal disease, presently in remission, but able to flare up at any unguarded moment. As the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.’s “Bible,” first published in 1939) explains, alcoholism is “cunning, baffling, powerful,” and for that reason external vigilance is required. The pilgrims making the A.A. journey in sobriety can enjoy no rest stops along the way, nor can they ever escape a constantly recurring roadside warning that reads “Under Construction.” The roadbed must be maintained in good repair, a task accomplished only when the alcoholic is willing to go to any length to win and persevere in sobriety. As the Big Book says, there is no “easier, softer way.” The founders of A.A. learned from experience that “half measures availed us nothing.”

A.A.’s third tradition states that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” True enough: That admits a person to the fellowship of A.A. But unless that desire is an honest one, it will never anchor him there. He must eventually fully embrace his powerlessness over alcohol in the very depth of his being.

One of the great blessings of A.A.’s spirituality is its asceticism, the disciplinary course of conduct needed to maintain the alcoholic’s prized sobriety. The A.A. member considers sobriety a precious gift, which, like all things precious, is fragile even after many years of testing and needs protection against destruction. Some treasures are subject to slow corrosion – but not sobriety. Once corrosion begins (as it does, for example, when an alcoholic begins to think he’s cured and stops going to meetings), a single drink is all that is needed to begin a precipitous slide into the darkness of addiction and the misery from which he or she had once gratefully escaped. Alcoholics deeply believe that no power of their own, indeed no human aid whatever, had gained their sobriety originally and that, in the event of a fall, they can redeem themselves only with the help of a higher power, the grace of Cod.

To spell out the asceticism of A.A.’s way of life in great detail would be a lengthy task. In broad terms, it consists simply of regular attendance at meetings – “90 meetings in 90 days” to begin with, based on an admission of powerlessness over alcohol and hence the need for a higher power to remove the deadly obsession that had driven the alcoholic to the edge of despair. In addition, the A.A. program requires daily meditation and prayer, the reading of A.A. literature, especially the Big Book, and the application of the 12 step principles to everyday affairs. The result is an eventual spiritual awakening and the joyous life of interior freedom.

I believe it was Robert Frost who once wrote that “the way out is through.” The alcoholic finds his way out of bondage to alcohol through A.A.’s miracle of recovery. Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A. with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935, used the word “recovery” often in composing the Big Book. The wise member of A.A., however, thinks of him or herself as recovering, lest complacency take root. Complacency would wean him from his spiritual base and allow his disease to return with even greater force than it had when he first stopped drinking. For, strangely enough, the disease progresses even during years of abstinence from alcohol, though its power to kill is arrested as long as one is not drinking.

The consolation of recovering alcoholics lies in their belief that they are exactly where God wants them to be, that somehow all the dreadful experiences of active alcoholism had a purpose. These have brought them to the happiness they now enjoy, to a freedom that they now know lay on the other side of A.A.’s discipline. For without that discipline, their way of life would lack structure.

Bill Wilson wrote in one of his letters, “We must find some spiritual basis for living, else we die.” Though not active in any particular church, he was deeply influenced by religious thought that came to him through early association with the Oxford Movement and through supporters like the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopalian, and a Jesuit, Father Edward Dowling, whom Wilson eulogized as a close friend and who was one of his sponsors. Father Dowling was the “human being” with whom he took his all-important fifth step: “(We) admitted to ourselves, to God and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.”

So as not to turn away suffering alcoholics who might be agnostics or atheists, A.A. suggests to such persons that they use as their “higher power” a group of the fellowship itself whose meetings they attend regularly, and to others that they use God‘ as they understand God. A.A. thus wisely treats the creed and worship of organized religion as not essential to the healing process, while yet encouraging church or synagogue attendance as helpful. A.A. insists that its program is spiritual, not religious, since no specific understanding of God. is prescribed, but only the need for a higher power of individual choice. There is, therefore, no religious creed or liturgy connected with its meetings, although most conclude with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. For the God mentioned in the steps is clearly personal, all-powerful and loving: the Judeo-Christian God, not a vague source of strength. The power “greater than ourselves” mentioned in the second step is a stepping stone to trust in a God who knows, loves and is ready to help his children.

Relief in a higher power is essential to an alcoholic’s journey to sobriety. “No human power,” says A.A., could have relieved our alcoholism.” Yet faith is not sufficient of itself. Trust is the capstone, trust in God and in the program. In the third of the 12 steps, it is suggested that alcoholics turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as they understand him. This implies, as just mentioned, belief in a personal, loving God in whom they must put their trust.

The spectator at a circus who peers up at a man on the high wire pushing a wheelbarrow across from one end to the other feels very certain that the performer will arrive at the other end without incident. But if he had trust, he would be willing somehow to climb up there and sit in the wheelbarrow. That is quite a difference, yet that is the kind of trust in God and the program asked of the alcoholic. Once in the wheelbarrow, however, the alcoholic becomes part of the act, a very essential part, and is greatly responsible for preserving the balance. This is where a rigorous fidelity to living the 12 steps becomes all-important. Such personality flaws as projection or retrospection – leaning in one direction or the other – can disturb the balance and court disaster. Consequently, these and other character defects, such as surrendering to impulses toward pride, anger and other primordial instincts, must be curbed, a life-long process of both purification and enrichment.

A.A.’s spiritual liberation has deep roots in the religious traditions of the ages, going beyond the Judeo-Christian. This has been well demonstrated by E. Kurtz and K. Ketcham in their book, The Spirituality of Imperfection. St. Paul, for example, in his letter to the Romans (7:15 ff.) wrote what an active alcoholic could well say today: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Yet Paul saw his powerlessness over “the thorn in my side” as a blessing, for the Lord “said to me ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). One of A.A.’s original slogans is “But for the grace of God.”

And speaking of God’s grace , were 12 step spirituality ever to have a patron saint, it would have to be St. Augustine, often referred to as the Doctor of Grace – a writer, philosopher, theologian and a towering figure of his time whose voice is still loud in circles of Christian faiths. His confrontation with heretics was not the greatest battle of his life. It was a battle against addiction.

As a youth Augustine gave full expression to lustful instincts, over which, he admits in his Confessions, he fought a losing battle. “The enemy had control of my will, and from that had made a chain to bind me fast. From a perverted act of will, desire had grown, and when desire is given satisfaction, habit is forged; and when habit passes un resisted, a compulsive urge sets in: by those close-knit links I was held” (VIII, v, 10).

Could not anyone truly addicted claim these words as expressing his or her own struggle? Augustine saw that he must, in A.A.’s words, “go to any length” to rid himself of his compulsive urge: “It means a whole-hearted and undivided act of the will, not this stumbling to and fro with a maimed will” (VIII, viii, 19). Addressing Cod, he acknowledges that on his own he can do nothing. “The nub of the problem was to reject my own will and to desire yours…What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss” (IX, i, 1). Complete surrender. An honest desire, finally.

In the first nine chapters of his Confessions, Augustine describes his addiction, its consequences and what took place after his spiritual awakening. It is the self-portrait of a convalescent. This part of the Confessions, a Christian classic, is A.A.’s fourth and fifth steps in published form. Augustine saw his confessions as essential to his recovery, admitting his shortcomings to himself, to Cod and to the people he now served as their bishop, all the while giving Cod full credit for his recovery.

It was two versus in Paul’s letter to the Romans that turned Augustine’s life around: “Let us live honorably in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (xiii, 13-14). These were the words Augustine read when he heard a voice telling him to “Pick up and read” the Bible.

Of immense help to Catholic recovering alcoholics are local meetings of the Calix Society, which has its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minn. Too little known by those Catholics whose lives , except for the grace of Cod, would have ended in a tragic death. Calix meetings explore with them and their families the riches of the Catholic heritage. Such topics as the workings of grace, the sacraments, God’s love and forgiveness are discussed in regard to how these touch upon the participants’ ongoing recovery from alcoholism and co-dependency.

In San Diego at the end of June, the bartenders may not be overjoyed at the huge throng of ex-drinkers who will populate the streets of their city. Our contemporary world, however, can well rejoice with the conventioneers in their celebration of the 60 year impact of Alcoholics Anonymous on their lives and those of so many of A.A.’s members, some of whom are prominent citizens. For alcoholism, like any disease, is no respector of persons.

AMERICA, Vol. 172(21), 20-22, June 17, 1995

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