INSTITUTE OF PASTORAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1957
A CLERGYMAN’S VIEWPOINT
FREDERICK G. LAWRENCE, M.S.SS.T.
The title of this paper is very important. I have been asked to give one Clergyman’s viewpoint on Alcoholics Anonymous. I shall endeavour to do just that. Not any other clergyman’s viewpoint. Just mine. It shall differ, I am sorry to say, from what you may have heard or read expressed as the viewpoint of other clergymen on this subject. But I can speak for no one save myself. My opinion, my viewpoint is the result of many years of close association with Alcoholics Anonymous, a little formal education in regard to the problem of alcoholism, but mostly, it has been formed by the edification and inspiration, the veritable miracles I have seen wrought, in the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. At the end of the paper, I have listed some of the chief references to the work of Alcoholics Anonymous.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS BEST THERAPY
First of all, therefore, let me express my viewpoint on Alcoholics Anonymous. Then will follow the “why” of this opinion. TO ME, ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS IS THE BEST THERAPY EXISTING TODAY FOR ASSISTING MOST ACTIVE ALCOHOLICS TO A MAINTAINED AND A HAPPY SOBRIETY.
I say that it is the “best” therapy, because there are others that have achieved, if even in a lesser degree, some success in the treatment of sick alcoholics. And the adjective “most” precedes the words “active alcoholics” because some, due to a neurotic condition, a deep-seated psychosis, or definite brain damage, need professional medical care, which A.A. as such, cannot offer. Finally, the words “maintained” and “happy” condition the noun “sobriety,” for I see little value in sobriety that is not lasting, and even less value in sobriety that is not enjoyed or happy.
Now – an explanation on why I entertain such a viewpoint. May I beg your indulgences as I tell you how my interest in A.A. came to be? It was born of gratitude; gratitude to God for an answer to a seemingly insoluble problem. One year after ordination, filled with the zeal of St. Paul, I was placed in charge of a geographically large, numerically small parish in southeastern Alabama. Of the 65,000 souls who lived in the 3,500 square miles serviced by our parish, only some 35 to 40 were Catholics. Yet, into this small number God tucked one very, very sick alcoholic. I tried to help her to correct her problem. Every spiritual aid I could think of was suggested and tried – the pledge, novenas, the rosary, aspirations, spiritual communions, frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, even daily Mass and Communion. Nothing seemed to effect the desired results. As a matter of fact, the problem grew worse instead of better. Six months after I had been introduced to this poor woman, she, on her own, joined A.A. When, after a period of a month’s sobriety, she invited me to attend an open meeting, I was so grateful to God for the success she was having, and so curious to see what had caused it, that I went. It was definitely a case of “I went; I saw; I was conquered,” for I have been going to A.A. meetings ever since, and that first one was in January of 1946. And – lest you wonder – my parishioner who joined at that time is still sober and active in A.A.
Generally, in speaking with clergymen about my interest in Alcoholics Anonymous, I am asked a series of questions. I feel the answers to these questions will very well cover my viewpoint on Alcoholics Anonymous, and therefore I would like to present them to you today.
First of all – Did I find anything new in A.A.? Not exactly. What I heard, read, and saw had a very familiar note in the beginning. Later I realized that the A.A. philosophy was basically nothing more than a Christian way of life, presented in a little different fashion, perhaps, and disguised in a new vocabulary, but fundamentally the teachings of Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly, this is what made it, from the very outset, so attractive to me.
Did I find A.A. some overpowering, perplexing philosophy? Again the answer is “no.” It is a simple program, with twelve simple suggested steps, and simple mottoes, such as “Think”-“Easy Does It”-“A Day at a Time”-“Live and Let Live”-“But for the grace of God.” I found the members to be as simple as children, as sincere as saints, and I remembered that a requisite for sanctity is that we become as little children.
Did I find anything un-Christian, or un-Catholic about A.A.? Most decidedly not! Rather did I find in A.A. a wonderful specific alignment of Christ’s teachings as applying to THIS PROBLEM. This program not only does not contradict any Faith of any adherent, it actually complements their faith. I found that Catholics who lived the A.A. program were better Catholics because of A.A. As a matter of record, I might say I have never seen the virtue of charity, the great commandment of love of neighbor, more universally practiced than I have seen it lived by the members of A.A.
Why has A.A. been so successful when so many other programs have failed? I believe that the first among these reasons is the recognition on the part of A.A. that alcoholism is a threefold sickness. For centuries, the human race has considered, accepted, and discussed alcoholism as being basically, essentially, if not exclusively, a moral problem; an evidence of lack of will power on the part of those afflicted. It is my considered opinion that most people still view it in this light.
Alcoholics Anonymous, on the other hand, maintains that alcoholism is a sickness of the body and mind, as well as of the soul. Thus the A.A. therapy suggests a correcting and eliminating of the spiritual problem that afflicts all alcoholics to a greater or lesser degree. A.A. members further maintain that neither the physiologist, nor the psychiatrist, nor the clergyman alone has the answer, but all three must work together. A threefold correcting must be affected or no lasting results can be produced.
To draw an analogy with the famous story of “The Leak in the Dike,” had there been three leaks, instead of one, the little lad’s finger could not have averted the disaster. Three fingers would have been necessary or destruction would have ensued.
Why do I think A.A. works? Because it is a positive program of rehabilitation, and every alcoholic needs, in some degree to be rehabilitated, not imprisoned or incarcerated, not condemned or ridiculed, not shunned or over-protected. A.A. does not simply ask the alcoholic to stop drinking, as we do when we administer a pledge. A.A. suggests a new way of life to the alcoholic, and then makes suggestions as to how he may follow it. Sobriety is basic, essential, a “sine qua non,” if you will, but like Baptism – it is only the beginning. The twelve suggested steps lead to a serenity for which the Alcoholics Anonymous members plead in the very first line of their so-called “A.A. Prayer;”-“God grant me the serenity.” And the effectiveness of the A.A. program in the life of its members is in direct proportion to the success they have in accepting, understanding, and applying these twelve steps to their lives.
A.A. is a simple program, but it definitely is not an easy program. “Easy does it,” but the alcoholic has to do it! The twelve steps are but tools to be used by the alcoholic in sculpting from the clay of a broken life, a new existence. But, he must do it! No one can do it for him. He is simply presented with the tools. He produces their effectiveness. Gathering dust from lack of use, growing dull from lack of understanding, the steps are useless. But taken one by one, and applied to daily living, they can make of the most desperate derelict, an edifying image of the God who dwells within us all.
What is the nature of the A.A. therapy? A.A. is a program of education, or introspection, if you will. It borrows from the ancient Greek philosophers the admonition,”Know thyself,” when it suggests each member take a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” Being creatures of habit, it is important that the members of A.A. recognize the habits that rule his life. He must decide which habits are good, and which are evil; how the good can be developed, and the evil eliminated. Thus A.A. members talk of removing “wrongs, short comings, defects of character.” The desired goal is the habit of sobriety. It is aquired only by much practice, much determined action, much accentuation of the positive and elimination of the negative.
A study of the twelve suggested steps will reveal that each required the practice of a virtue where once vice or imperfection ruled. Thus the first step suggests humility be substituted for pride; the second, faith in God for self-conceit; the third, trust in God for despair; the fourth, truthfulness for falsehood; the fifth, simplicity for duplicity; the sixth, sincerity for sham; the seventh, meekness for arrogance; the eighth, love of God for love of self; the ninth, honesty for hypocrisy; the tenth, fortitude for insincerity; the eleventh, prayerfulness for godlessness; and the twelfth, love of neighbor for intolerance.
Finally, what is the secret of continued success in A.A.? I think it depends upon the member’s ability to maintain his “sense of awareness.” He cannot afford to forget. For him, it takes a lifetime to be a success, just a second to suffer a relapse. His creed is:”Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” His is a sickness that can be arrested, but never cured. One drink shall always be too many, a thousand never enough. And this “sense of awareness” is best maintained, all A.A. members will tell you, by attendance at meetings; associating with other members; reading the A.A. literature; applying the twelve step program to their lives twenty-four hours of every day, a day at a time.
This, therefore, is my viewpoint on Alcoholics Anonymous. It is the best therapy existing today for assisting most active alcoholics to a maintained and a happy sobriety. I hope the reasons given have been sufficiently sound to induce you to agree with me. If so, then my admiration and enthusiasm for this Christlike fellowship will have won it new friends among the clergy. If so, then more alcoholics will receive the understanding sympathy and counsel that they need from those of us who have been ordained to help all men attain their eternal destiny – to be happy with God forever. It is my prayer that all of you will allow the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous to assist you in helping all alcoholics achieve this goal.