Lets Ask Bill W.
Question & Answer # 23
Can the Twelve Steps be compared to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius?
In 1941, I visited St. Louis and Father Ed Dowling met me at the field. This was a blistering day and he had come to bring me to the (Jesuit) Sodality Headquarters. I was struck by the delightful informality. Of course I had never been to such a place before. I had been raised in a small Vermont village, Yankee style. Happily there was no bigotry in my grandfather who raised me but neither was there much religious contact or understanding. So here I was in some kind of a monastery. Even then, believe it or not, I still toyed with the notion that Catholicism was somehow a superstition of the Irish!
Then Father Ed and his Jesuit partners commenced to ask me questions. They wanted to know about the recently published A.A. book and especially about AA’s Twelve Steps. To my surprise they had supposed that I must have had a Catholic education. They seemed doubly surprised when I informed them that at the age of eleven I had quit the Congregational Sunday School because my teacher had asked me to sign a temperance pledge. This had been the extent of my religious education.
More questions were asked about AA’s Twelve Steps. I explained how a few years earlier some of us had been associated with the Oxford Groups; that we had picked up from these good people the ideas of self-survey, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others and prayer, ideas that we might have got in many other quarters as well. After our withdrawal from the Oxford Groups, these principles and attitudes had been formed into a word-of-mouth program, to which we had added a step of our own to the effect “that we were powerless over alcohol.” Our Twelve Steps were the result of my effort to define more sharply and elaborate upon these word-of-mouth principles so that the alcoholic readers would have a more specific program: that there could be no escape from what we deemed to be the essential principles and attitudes. This had been my sole idea in their composition. This enlarged version of our program had been set down rather quickly – perhaps in twenty or thirty minutes – on a night when I had been very badly out of sorts. Why the Steps were written down in the order in which they appear today and just why they were worded as they are, I have no idea.
Following this explanation of mine, my new Jesuit friends pointed to a chart that hung on the wall. They explained that this was a comparison between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, that, in principle, this correspondence was amazingly exact. I believe they also made the somewhat startling statement that spiritual principles set forth in our Twelve Steps appear in the same order that they do in the Ignatius Exercises.
In my abysmal ignorance, I actually inquired, “Please tell me – who is this fellow Ignatius?”
While of course the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous contain nothing new, there seems no doubt that this singular and exact identification with the Ignatius Exercises has done much to make the close and fruitful relation that we now enjoy with the Church. (The ‘Blue Book’, Vol.12, 1960)