WORSHIP, Vol. 64: 331-348, June, 1990
What Alcoholics Anonymous Can Teach Us
by Edward C. Sellner
Some years ago, while working with recovering alcoholics and their families, I first discovered through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous a spirituality that continues to influence my daily life. During that year of clinical training, I learned that A.A.’s recovery program is leading many people to a new way of life: to reconciliation with themselves, with others, and with their God (as they understand that Higher Power). I also discovered that such terms as conversion, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not abstract concepts of interest to only clergypersons and professional theologians, but living realities of crucial importance to everyone, addicted or not. Since then, I have come to see, after years of doctoral studies and work as an outpatient chemical dependency counselor and professor of theology, that A.A. has much to teach all of us about our very human need to seek forgiveness from one another and to give it. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not luxuries we can do without, but essential to the human spirit, our physical health, the life of the soul, and the family of humankind. As a pastoral theologian whose ideas of Christian ministry and church have been greatly influenced by A.A., I am convinced that when we come to know (and, hopefully, accept) an alcoholic or chemically dependent person, his or her struggles and suffering provide us with a mirror of our own processes of disintegration, conversion, and reconciliation.
This article is divided into three parts: 1) the story of A.A.’s origins which reveal, as A.A.’s co-founder Bill Wilson once said, “how, under God’s grace, an unsuspected strength has arisen out of great weakness;” 2) an overview of A.A.’s Twelve Steps with special focus on the Fifth Step, a type of confessional encounter considered of great importance for ongoing recovery; and, finally, 3) a look at the implications of that story and these steps for our own ministries and liturgies of reconciliation.
A.A.’s story: Discovering the language of the heart
First, the story of Alcoholics Anonymous must be put in historical context. We need to reimagine ourselves back to the time before A.A. was founded in 1935 – when the alcoholic was our society’s “shadow figure” (to use Jungian terminology) and treated by many in our churches as a moral degenerate or worse. He or she was a person too often misunderstood and rejected, a victim of pity and condescension on the one hand and of hatred and condemnation on the other. Although old attitudes die hard, and yes, continue to flourish, we have made some progress since then. The proliferation of self-help groups that have adapted A.A.’s Twelve Steps to their specific audiences and needs, as well as the increasing number of books on codependency and television shows on potentially fatal addictions have made many of us aware of everyone’s potential for being overly dependent or addicted to something or someone. It is primarily because of A.A. that this awareness is growing and that so many people are seeking and finding help. Our entire society is now being slowly transformed because A.A. compassionately welcomed society’s “shadow” into its midst, while more of us Christians are becoming aware of the need to help bind up the wounds of alcoholics and their families – as we recognize and care for our own.
Many persons and events contributed to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it began quite simply with two people revealing to each other who they were, openly and honestly acknowledging their struggles, sharing their life stories. As Bill Wilson later wrote in the book which gave the fellowship its name: “The spark that was to flare into the first A.A. group was struck at Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, during a talk between a New York stockbroker and an Akron physician.” Somehow during that talk a bridge was formed leading away from experiences of isolation, alienation, and loneliness to new experiences of community, fellowship, and common bonds. In that simple event of sharing, A.A. grew to a worldwide organization and discovered its own definition and purpose: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problems and help others to recover from alcoholism.” This method of sharing experiences is an important, if not essential, part of A.A.’s ongoing existence. It is the way members of A.A. minister to each other and help guarantee their own own ongoing recovery. It is also the foundation of any sponsorship or mentoring that they do.
The two men involved in that initial encounter became the cofounders of A.A.: the stockbroker, William Griffith Wilson, later known to A.A. members as “Bill W.”; and the physician, Robert Holbrook Smith, affectionately called “Dr. Bob.” Both of these men had a long history of alcoholism before their first meeting; both brought their own particular gifts to that developing friendship which complemented each other’s and contributed significantly to A.A.’s success. While Bill’s compulsive enthusiasm and energy had a major effect on A.A.’s direction, articulation of principles, and phenomenal growth, Bob’s quiet disposition and sense of priorities (epitomized in his saying, “Keep it simple!”) reminded Bill – and all of us – of what it takes if anything is to be accomplished well. In many ways both men’s experiences of recovery also represent two types of conversion. While Bob’s was less dramatic, a perhaps more common, gradual, day-to-day process of liberation from the compulsion to drink shortly after his first meeting with Bill. Bill’s initial conversion occured before the two met and was associated with a much more dramatic event. Depicted so movingly in the 1989 Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentation, “My Name is Bill W.,” it surely ranks as one of the great conversion stories of modern times. As Bill later described that experience, it happened at a time when he had once again been hospitalized for his alcoholism, was deeply depressed, and alone in his hospital bed. “All at once,” he said, “I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” Suddenly: “The place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air, but of Spirit. Blazing, there came the tremendous thought, ‘You are a free man.’ Then the ecstasy subsided. Still on the bed, I now found myself in a new world of consciousness which was suffused by a Presence. One with the universe, a great peace stole over me – I thought, ‘So this is the God of the preachers; this is the Great Reality.”‘ Discharged from the hospital a changed man, Bill Wilson began to associate with a Christian evangelical movement called the Oxford Group at Calvary Mission in New York run by an Episcopalian minister, Sam Shoemaker. While Dr. Bob in Akron, before he met Bill, was also trying to stay sober (unsuccessfully) with the help of this same Christian group, Bill took its principles to heart and began a ministry of outreach to fellow alcoholics.
This Oxford Group movement (which today survives by the name of “Moral Rearmament”) was started by a Pennsylvania born Lutheran pastor, Frank Buchman, in the early 1900s. As a result of his own conversion experience in 1908, Buchman believed that it was his mission to recall the world to primitive Christianity. Since he was then a college chaplain, the movement first flourished on U.S. campuses and then spread to other countries, including Oxford University in England from which it took its prestigious name. The Oxford Group’s basic theological assumptions were that all people are sinners, but they can be changed, and, once they are changed, they must help others. This change, according to the Oxford Groups, could be attained by passing through certain stages. These stages, without their Christian connotations, were eventually written by Bill Wilson into twelve “Steps,” created specifically for alcoholics. They included: 1) surrender, giving in to God; 2) listening to God’s direction in prayer; 3) seeking guidance of another person and a group; 4) making restitution for wrongs done; and, 5) sharing one’s sins. This latter practice of sharing of sins was a key dynamic of the Oxford Groups, and consisted of two types: the first, for the purpose of “witness” (e.g., the narration of how one’s life has changed); second, for “confession” in order, they said, to alleviate guilt. Both forms of sharing were encouraged to be done in a group context, although the more shameful sins were to be confessed to a loving, “changed” individual who need not be a member of the clergy.
Influenced by Sam Shoemaker and the other Oxford Groupers at Calvary Mission, Bill incorporated their theology into his life, while using his own method of reaching out to alcoholics like himself. His initial approach, however, was one of preaching at people, especially emphasizing his own dramatic spiritual awakening, which resulted, according to one biographer, in his “scaring the poor drunks half crazy.” At the end of six months no one whom Bill had tried to help had sobered up. (Many, perhaps because of his efforts, were drinking more than before!) A friend of Bill’s, Dr. William Silkworth, finally advised Bill to simply tell his story about drinking and how his life was changed by following the simple moral precepts of the Oxford Group, so that others could identify their stories with his. This simple method was to become for Bill and A.A. the primary approach for helping people. The language used would shift from “sin” which the Oxford Group emphasized to “sickness,” and the way of transmitting hope was to be found with those stories shared. A.A. historian, Ernest Kurtz, says that this storytelling has become “the practice and indeed the essential dynamic of A.A.” Such storytelling presupposes, as later A.A. writing suggest, that one never talks “down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop,” but simply offers “friendship and fellowship.”
A few months after Silkworth’s suggestion to Bill that he just stick to telling his story, Bill, on a business trip to Akron, put into effect all that he had learned. According to Bill, when he met Dr. Bob that evening: “This time there was no preachment from me. I told him of my experience and of what I knew about alcoholism. Because we understood and needed each other, there was genuine mutuality for the first time.” When the two men parted late that night after a six hour meeting that they thought would last fifteen minutes, both knew that something had radically changed, that they had found “a new, mysterious and loving kind of communication, a new language of the heart” through stories shared.
Employing the method Bill used with Bob, the two began to work together in helping others to stay sober. Sister Ignatia at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron joined them in their efforts. Though many failures followed, groups of recovering alcoholics gradually began to spring up around the country, and by early 1939, the book Alcoholics Anonymous (today affectionately referred to as “the Big Book”) was published. This book, written by Bill Wilson, consisted of life stories of recovering alcoholics; it gave the group, now split from the Oxford Group movement, a specific identity and goal. It also contained the Twelve Steps which Bill had written, based on the “word of mouth” program that was having such good results.
In retrospect, without in any way minimizing the creativity and significant contribution of the two men, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob (and, I might add, the patience and love of their long suffering wives, Lois and Anne), we can see how much of A.A.’s initial success was the result of ecumenical collaboration. Without the help of the Oxford Groups and Christian ministers and mentors such as Silkworth, Shoemaker, Sister Ignatia, and later, Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who acted for years as Bill’s spiritual guide, A.A., according to Bill Wilson, “could never have started in the first place.” This is a major acknowledgment, considering that Bill saw himself as a man who “always carried a certain amount of prejudice against churches and clergymen and their concept of God.” What he had obviously learned from his experience of powerlessness and his own encounter with a Spiritual Presence was the need for a Higher Power and a loving, forgiving community in which we help ourselves by helping others (and vice versa). He had come to realize that conversion, “the very thing most alcoholics have sworn they would never have,” and the ongoing recovery process structured by A.A.’s Twelve Steps are meant to be shared. No wonder Bill later described the organization which he and Dr. Bob founded as “the Fellowship of the Spirit.”
The Twelve Steps: Guides to spiritual progress
When Bill Wilson drew up the Twelve Steps in December 1938, he first prayed to the Spirit for guidance, and then recalled the “word-of-mouth” program that he and Dr. Bob had been using the preceding months. In order to encourage a diverse membership and to avoid theological controversy that might divide those in the new fellowship, he kept the language of the steps non-denominational. When the word “God” was used, the phrase “as we understood Him” followed. Beginning with an admission of powerlessness over one’s alcoholism in Step One and ending with the sharing of A.A.’s message of hope in Step Twelve, the Twelve Steps in their entirety outline a concrete program of reconciliation that can lead to a “spiritual awakening,” defined by A.A. as a profound personality change, a new state of consciousness and being, the beginning of “true kinship” between persons and God. Described by Bill as “steps backward” into the “universal heart” of humankind, they are seen as guides to spiritual progress leading one to new and deeper levels of harmony and serenity. Each step is more than a mere intellectual understanding of what one must do. They all involve a personal response of head and heart and a commitment to take specific steps that will change one’s life. There also seems to be some sort of mystical order to them. If a person, for example, is having difficulty with Step Three, it often seems helpful to go back to Step Two again and start there if further progress is to be made. All twelve steps presuppose changes in the way we relate to ourselves, other people, and God. Although these relationships are intertwined, each step focuses on at least one relationship in particular.
Step One is concerned with a new more realistic relationship with self in which one acknowledges, often for the first time, powerlessness and human limitations. Steps Two and Three have to do with establishing a new relationship with God, one based more on belief, trust, and surrender than on disbelief, denial, or, more subtly, the need to control. Steps Four and Five focus again on the self, calling for honesty and humility versus the dishonesty and grandiosity which so frequently characterize our lives. Steps Six and Seven ask us to turn to God once more for the removal of our defects and deficiencies, while Steps Eight and Nine turn us back again to the human circle and invite us to make restitution and heal the wounds of those who we have hurt through our harmful actions or neglect. The rest of the steps are about the continuance of this spiritual awakening that we have now begun to experience: Step Ten challenges us to ongoing daily self-inventory, Step Eleven to maintaining daily contact with God in prayer and meditation, Step Twelve to carrying the message of hope to others and practicing the new way-of-life in all that we do. All of this spirituality, A.A. says, is to be lived one day at a time.
Though each step is important to the entire process leading to reconciliation and is meant to unfold one at a time, Step Five, “Admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” is considered one of the most necessary to long-term sobriety and peace of mind. Without it the alcoholic may never overcome the compulsion to drink or abuse drugs. Whether one confesses to a clergperson, doctor, psychologist, family member, or friend (A.A. recommends any of them), the telling of all of one’s story, all those things which stand in the way of reconciliation, is considered “vital” to that process of spiritual awakening and its continuity. Because of its significance, let us take a closer look at this step.
The Fifth Step is concerned with the acknowledgment of all those areas of a person’s life which arose in Step Four’s “searching and fearless moral inventory.” Through Step Five’s wording refers to only “wrongs” being admitted, the explanation offered of it in the Big Book and a later publication, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (also written by Bill Wilson), obviously goes beyond strictly moral categories. What is to be admitted includes: 1) memories: “Every dark cranny of the past,” all those “tormenting ghosts of yesterday”; 2) character defects: every twist, obstacle, weakness, and defect that has come to light during Step Four; 3) feelings of guilt: “the open and honest sharing” of “its terrible burden”; and 4) all those things which “really bother” a person, such as anger, resentments, and unexpressed grief. If one attempts to carry the burden of these items alone, the very concealment can lead to increased anxiety, tension, irritability, depression, remorse – and, with them, thoughts of drinking again. Another part of Step Five is the acknowledgment of personal assets and attributes in addition to the obstacles and character defects. In that way, the entire story is told, since everyone has God-given talents and strengths which usually are not accepted and affirmed unless they are first named.
What can happen when a person’s story is shared with another? A.A. lists a number of possible results: an end to the compulsion to drink or abuse drugs, increased self-knowledge, new self-confidence, relief and release from feelings of guilt, delight, humility, loss of fear, emergence from a terrible sense of isolation, healing tranquility, a sense of gratitude, the ability to forgive others and oneself, and possibly most important of all: “Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheist, tells us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the presence of God. And even those who had faith already often became conscious of God as they never were before.”
Considering these potential results, we can see that the telling of all of one’s story with the help of another person can be a very significant event of reconciliation. It is also evidently an event which is not meant to occur only once in a recovering person’s life, since Bill Wilson’s explanation of Step Ten recommends annual or semi-annual “housecleanings” as worthwhile. They help the conversion – reconciliation process continue in greater depths with more openness to where the Spirit moves.
What I have discovered in my own work with with recovering alcoholics and my research with alumni of Hazelden, a Minnesota rehabilitation center located outside of the Twin Cities, seems worth repeating here. Many people with whom I have spoken have had good experiences with their Fifth Steps, associating them with increased self-knowledge, a sense of catharsis or purification, renewed strength, a hope “not felt before,” even “spiritual awakening” – just as A.A. literature has described. For others, however, the Fourth Step was not so positive. Some left that encounter, they said, feeling dejected, crushed, exhausted, let down. One man, a Roman Catholic whom I will call Daniel O., stated that he felt “a recall of the confessional, like I was back in the confessions of my youth when the only thing I could expect was condemnation.” Upon analysis, his and others’ experiences, both positive and negative, seemed clearly related to how the alcoholic perceived the minister or listener in the Fifth Step, and what the minister did or failed to do. Certain people, for example, left their Fifth Steps feelings as though they had failed or been condemned: 1) when there was no previous relationship between the minister and alcoholic before the Fifth Step began; 2) when there were few or no introductory remarks by the minister at the beginning of Step Five; 3) when there was no sharing of aspects of the minister’s life or attempts at dialogue during the Fifth Step; and, finally, 4) at the Fifth Step’s conclusion when there were no words or gestures of encouragement and affirmation. With those dynamics absent in their Fifth Steps, the recovering alcoholics evidently perceived the minister as not accepting them, and thus left feeling unforgiven or unreconciled. (People interviewed did equate the two terms: acceptance and forgiveness.) The opposite was also true. When people knew the Fifth Step listener before taking the Fifth Step with some degree of familiarity or friendship, when there were some attempts during the step at dialogue and sharing, and when there were some words, gestures, and signs of affirmation at its conclusion, they left feeling accepted, and thus associated their Fifth Step with an experience of reconciliation.
The experience itself, my research seems to show, had a great deal to do with the Fifth Step minister’s compassion, acceptance, hospitality, and awareness of the importance of ritual dynamics. When these qualities were lacking, the experience itself was not all that it might have been.
We have now briefly examined the story of A.A. and its process of conversion – reconciliation facilitated by the Twelve Steps. What can we learn, then, from A.A. about reconciliation? Here I would like to delineate three areas under the general categories of 1) developing a spirituality of reconciliation in our daily lives; 2) promoting ministries of reconciliation in our parishes; and 3) revitalizing the first rite of the 1973 revised Rite of Penance, the one-to-one encounter with a priest.
Developing a spirituality of reconciliation
The first lesson we can learn from A.A. is the importance of developing a spirituality of reconciliation in our daily lives, one that affirms spiritual progress rather than expects spiritual perfection. The genius of Bill Wilson when he wrote the Twelve Steps is that he understood human nature and the nature of conversion that leads to reconciliation. Based on his own struggles with powerlessness and his Higher Power, he understood that conversion, if it is to happen at all for us (whether we are alcoholic or not), and if, once happening, is to continue, means more than abstinence, more than merely turning away from alcohol, other fatal addictions, or our own self-destructive, sinful behavior. It means turning toward something or someone else, and embracing fully a new way of life. This new spirituality presupposes reaching out, often when we feel least capable of doing so, to a supportive group of friends, and to a God who may at times seem more absent than present to us. If we are to learn from A.A., developing a spirituality of reconciliation implies more than adherence to religious beliefs and dogmas (as important as they can be); it is fundamentally about learning to trust our Higher Power – as we stop trying to play God ourselves.
With this new spirituality, we begin, first of all, with ourselves. We start by acknowledging our own very human limitations and forms of sickness that color all our lives. We stop focusing on failures, frailties, and sins of others, and instead attempt to recognize our own. We seek to name those broken, raw areas that continue to cause us and others frustration and sometimes great pain, and we act upon our insights, our guilt and unhappiness, our yearning to change. We open ourselves up to its possibilities; we make ourselves ready, through prayer, for the courage that will bring change about. Daily, in different and often very ordinary ways, we go to one another to be forgiven, and when asked, we are ready to give it – sometimes, only with the help of prayer and the healing balm of time.
If we are parents, we try to change ourselves first, by discerning (perhaps with the help of a spiritual mentor or soul friend) old, sometimes inherited, often unconscious patterns of behavior. With that painful recognition, we attempt to model for our children new patterns of relating and of dealing with stress and just plain tiredness. We openly ask forgiveness of our spouse in front of them when conflict has occured between us; we ask forgiveness of them for the mistakes we make or the anger expressed inappropriately. We begin to teach them by our example that those who love each other do fight at times, will experience disagreements, and that all of us have the need to seek forgiveness and to make restitution for wrongs done. Daily inventories during some suitable time of quiet meditation or prayer often reveal what needs to be done to heal wounds and areas of outright neglect – not only in our personal lives, but in society and church as well.
When conflict is especially severe, when we discover destructive patterns more deeply rooted than we had imagined, when we are experiencing confusion, loss, and the deep awareness that something must change (and it is probably us!), A.A.’s practices, associated with Step Four and Five, can be helpful for anyone. What one discovers and confesses at this time of self-evaluation, A.A. associates with getting at the truth of one’s life, an ancient process the Irish, among others, called “soul-making.” Especially helpful at midlife and other major life junctures, it can then be shared with a confessor, spiritual guide, or soul friend. Many people experience the healing power of such self-disclosure, manifest in the motto of the Greek mystery religions: “Give up what you have, and you will receive.”
Whether at significant turning points, at times of unexpected crisis, or when we were simply living with our daily responsibilities, developing a spirituality of reconciliation that learns from A.A. can eventually result in new feelings of gratitude, joy, and hope. Such feelings often invite and challenge us to more conscious and committed forms of ministry, for, as Bill Wilson once said, “Life gives us moments, and for those moments we give our lives.” If we are Christian, this ministry is done in Jesus’ name.
Parish ministries of reconciliation
The second major thing A.A. can teach us Christians is the need for promoting ministries of reconciliation on the parish level. A.A.’s story and steps, with their focus on fellowship, friendship, and mutual mentoring, clearly reveal the principle that conversion – reconciliation is a communal task that depends upon ministries of reconciliation shared by all. The form of ministry A.A. advocates is one in which a person acts (with the support of a caring group) as an agent of change in other people’s lives – not in an authoritarian way which demands change from others, but rather in a way mutuality and respect that invites, encourages, offers freely so that others can freely choose to respond. As the story of A.A. shows, this human presence of care often helps others discern and discover, experience and then name a transcendent “power greater” than themselves. This reconciling ministry, as we’ve seen, is based upon honest communication, the language of the heart.
The communal dimension of conversion-reconciliation, an important theological principle in the history of Christianity (although, in practice, too often ignored) was openly acknowledged in the revised Rite of Penance. That document clearly states that the entire sacramental process of conversion-reconciliation leading to any liturgical celebration includes the ministry of “the whole Church as priestly people.” Good theology, but how to implement it more effectively for Roman Catholics (and other Christians as well)?
If Christian conversion and reconciliation are to become ongoing realities that reflect a truly communal dimension, let more parishes hire a trained staff and promote volunteer ministries that offer programs, workshops, retreats, lectures, and homilies that focus on what the Rite of Penance calls people’s “priestly ministry”. With such an emphasis in parishes, more lay-directed programs would increase and could respond more effectively to people’s needs than the diminishing numbers of ordained and religious can now do. As more lay people are visibly involved in forms of collaborative ministry on the parish level in either full-time or part time capacities, other lay people will begin to identify their own vocation to serve as agents of change and reconcilers not only in the parish, but wherever they live and work: in the fields of education, politics, culture, the arts, science, and theology too. Communal celebrations of reconciliation, especially, have great potential for raising that awareness of what the Rite of Penance itself calls “the ecclesial nature of penance.” From this perspective, it seems a shame that the third rite is being increasingly limited, since that sacramental celebration so clearly reminds lay people that the priestly ministry of reconciliation is not limited to the ordained, but a responsibility of us all.
On the parish level too, certain lay people, recognized for their particular gifts and given the encouragement and financial assistance for further theological and spiritual formation, could act as mentors, sponsors, or spiritual guides to those who are facing experiences of powerlessness, life transitions, and unexpected crises. It is especially during such times that people most sense the need for change, self-evaluation, reconciliation – when they question the direction of their lives, the meaning of their suffering, and, sometimes most acutely, whether there is a God at all. These are the times when they most need acceptance, support, and guidance. Lay people who are especially gifted and trained might offer, through their willingness to share their own stories, assistance to others by helping them identify both their sins and gifts, liabilities and assets, what is called in the sacrament “the inner examination of the heart.” This process could precede participation in the liturgical expression of reconciliation, whether celebrated later in one-to-one encounters with a priest or communally. (A communal celebration, of course, would reflect most clearly the communal dimension of the process in which they were involved, but people should, I believe, have the freedom to choose according to their needs.)
Revitalizing the use of the first rite
The third major lesson A.A. has to teach us has to do with the first rite itself, popularly called “confession.” A.A.’s history and practices reveal the beneficial value of confessional encounters. Both A.A. fellowship and our church emphasize their potential to heal sickness and the wounds caused by sin; both speak of the need for verbal or “exterior accusation” to another human being; both presuppose the presence of a Higher Power when such disclosure of the heart is made. Whether Christian or agnostic, we humans need to confess, to acknowledge our sins and struggles, and to experience, often through someone else’s acceptance, what Paul Tillich calls the greatest experience any of us can have: The experience of forgiveness, “the fundamental experience in any encounter with God.”
What is becoming clear is that increasing numbers of people are finding those kinds of experiences as well as ongoing guidance in relationships with spiritual directors, mentors, and soul friends (thus perhaps accounting for less people participating in the first rite). Still, others speak of the need for priestly help and the explicit affirmation of the entire church that they have been forgiven. Whoever celebrates this first rite (whether they are ordained or, possibly in the future, lay people called forth because of their giftedness), the encounter itself can be especially helpful at critical junctures and turning points: when we have been given painful doses of self-knowledge, or when we are experiencing great remorse, or when we desire a clearer discernment of what God is calling us to do, or when we simply want to make, as Bill Wilson said about the Fifth Step, an annual or semi-annual “housecleaning.”
If more people are going to discover the potential value of this form of sacramental encounter, however, much will depend on the celebrants of it. As we learned from A.A., people respond more openly if they are offered friendship and fellowship rather than being preached at. This especially applies to sacramental participation. If there is to be a reawakening of people to the value of rituals of reconciliation in general, but especially the first rite, there must be a reawakening of its celebrants to their own vocation of being a “friend”: someone whom others can turn to, confide in, share with and not fear condemnation for the painful, disruptive, sinful dimensions of their lives. As the prodigal son’s story shows, the courage to take that step, to make that journey home, to fully reveal oneself to another in the hope of being welcomed back, depends to a great degree upon a previous relationship of some familiarity and trust. This means that the celebrant of the first rite be someone with whom others feel welcome, and, like themselves, be in search of holiness and God; someone in the ancient Celtic tradition of the anamchara or soul friend who as a spiritual teacher, mentor, and guide elicits and invites a response of openness when things come up in people’s lives and they most genuinely desire to discern and acknowledge their change of heart.
Secondly, if there is to be an reawakening to this form of celebration, people must experience the sacrament as it is described in the revised Rite of Penance: as a healing, prayerful, concelebrated event which is part of a conversion process (as is A.A.’s Fifth Step) leading to reconciliation. For this to happen there must be recognition on the part of the celebrant of the therapeutic dimension of the first rite in addition to the ritual dimensions which are important to both sacrament and A.A.’s Fifth Step. This means that sufficient time must be provided so as to include some form of spiritual discernment, pastoral response, and dialogue. The first rite is not meant to be a brief encounter “sandwiched in” between other private confessions in a large communal rite. Participation in this first rite should be an opportunity for the penitent to identify and share all of his or her “story,” finally capable of claiming it gratefully as one’s own. Then this confession becomes what it is meant to be: a confession of praise and gratitude and joy, like St. Augustine’s, at discovering the tremendous goodness and mercy of our God. Only when the first rite is experienced in terms of mutuality and trust, as a time for getting at the truth of one’s life, for discerning patterns which continue to cause suffering, sorrow, grief, and guilt, as a truly healing, transforming event will more Roman Catholics find it meaningful, and thus begin to discuss its value. As we know from A.A.’s phenomenal growth and influence, good news travels quickly by word of mouth – as much now as it did in ancient times. Only when more lay people tell their story of how beneficial this sacramental confession has been for them will adults like Daniel O., mentioned earlier, overcome the hurtful memories and fear often associated with the confessions of their youth, and make use once again of this one-to-one encounter.
One last comment about the first rite. Its historical origins reveal a great diversity of ministers, but a characteristic commonly identified with that ministry is the discernment of spirits: an ability to help others read their own hearts, a task that the Rite of Penance itself describes as “a gift of the spirit.” Whoever facilitates this one-to-one encounter should have a formation that includes supervised practicum experiences, as well as familiarity with psychology, and knowledge of our great Judeo-Christian traditions related to spirituality, ritual, and the care of souls. We know that not everyone has the talent and temperament to function as celebrants in this first rite, if it is to be experienced meaningfully. The church (which means all of us) must continue to reflect upon this form of sacrament and ministry, and discern who has the charism to help others disclose the secrets of their hearts. If we value the great potential of the first rite, we will need to accept, like St. Paul, that “our gifts differ according to the grace given us,” and ultimately these gifts are distributed as the Spirit chooses.
The story and Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have much to teach us about the dynamics of conversion and reconciliation. The Twelve Steps were written for people who know how difficult it is to live as we were meant to live. We learn slowly, step by faltering step, like a child learning to walk; we learn painfully, often against our wills, in the school of suffering. Then one day, in our recognition of powerlessness, we learn surrender and what it means to pray: what it means, finally, to take the risk that new life can be born.