What Must I Believe To Recover? The Spirituality of Twelve Step Programs.

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-088 What Must I Believe To Recover? The Spirituality of Twelve Step Programs., by Michael Wyatt QUARTERLY REVIEW, Vol. 9(4): 28-47, 1989

THE PRIEST, Vol. 44: 12-14, December, 1988

by Most Rev. Colin Campbell

I am not a recovering alcoholic but I would be a prime candidate. More than 10 years ago, I decided to. give up the little social drinking I did - for three reasons.

There is in my background a good share of alcoholics. Therefore, I believe that I have the genes which would prepare me to be a candidate.

I have a personality profile which I think would fit that of an active alcoholic. I do believe that I am an addictive personality type of the Obsessive Compulsive kind. If you saw the collection of compact disks I own, you would understand what I mean.

The third reason is that I had seen so many priests nailed to the cross of alcohol. I believe that our profession makes an excellent social setting in which the full-blown career alcoholic gets a start.

Presentation's purpose

We are often plagued with loneliness. We are often alone. We are able to shift schedules to fit any kind of bizarre drinking habit. We especially have the unconditional love of the people who will cover for us and refuse to use the tough love necessary to force the alcoholic to face facts.

For all these reasons and for many others, I do not drink at all, except when I am in Rome. This city I try to avoid at all costs but when I am there I certainly do not take a chance on the water. They tell me that consulting a doctor there might be even more dangerous. My solution is to drink reasonable amounts of white wine.

The purpose of my presentation is to suggest that there is a very close connection between Christian spirituality and the spirituality of the A.A. movement. That may seem to be a self-evident proposition but I want to develop certain aspects of it in the short space alloted.

I do this from a context of 32 years of priestly ministry in which I have seen every side of human suffering and know that all of it can be healed and helped with the proper approach and ministry.

Years ago, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had something very prophetic to say about our approach to Christianity. He suggested that the Marxists had a cross without Christ and a great many Christians want to have a Christianity without the Cross. Of course, there can be no such thing.

There is a daily parade of witnesses who want to live the most bizarre life-style but still say they are following Christ.

The versions I have heard go something like this.

Christ taught us about love: this is love; therefore this is Christlike. That sounds like perfect logic except that the minor, or second part of the premise, is often badly flawed. When I deal from a large ego, I can define just about anything as love. At least it is love from my point of being.

The evident fact of life is that there is suffering. No matter what we do to escape it, it is there. Who wants to have a child with Down's syndrome? The fact that some children have learning disorders cannot be denied. The plans of the planned life do not always work out as outlined.

One is either totally muted or totally in isolation to miss the suffering of life. One does not need to be a sidewalk sociologist or psychologist to see that people suffer. True enough, most of us are experts at solving the other person's problems. We can all tell Joe not to worry. It will all clear up, very quickly. The problem is that Joe does not listen to us and no one can know the problems or the suffering of the other, from the inside.

God so loved the world that He sent His only Begotten Son. The Son so loved us that He died on the Cross for our salvation. We believe that God set the tone of love. Indeed, creation and its wonders is a history and geography lesson of God's love.

The saving and loving life of Jesus is a salvation story of God's love. Jesus died on the Cross so that we would be saved from the ravages of sin. This sin is the sin of our parents, Adam and Eve. It is also the personal sins of each one of us.

There is more. The Christian believes he can link his suffering to Christ. In this way, his suffering becomes redemptive, while remaining real. This is not to gloss them over but to give them meaning and lift. This would seem to be a blasphemy were it not for the clear theology of St. Paul - I fill out in my body the sufferings that are lacking in Christ.

It is the role of every Christian to witness to Christ by how he imitates His suffering in his own life. If we are the extension of Christ's love, we are also the extension of His, suffering.

Put it another way. People will more easily see Christ in us, in our sufferings, than in our allegations of our love.

Or put it another way. The living out of the love of Christ means that there is some redemptive suffering as part of our lives.

Simple point

Sad to relate, this sometimes is translated as Christian masochism. So we think of the woman who was married to the alcoholic brutalizing beast and say - oh but she was a wonderful Christian. It might be that she was anything but this. Rather than looking at the Cross of Christ, perhaps she should have borrowed some of the timber from this cross and used it on her husband!

I do not want to mock something that is very sacred. My point is simple. There is suffering in life. We do not plan the way in which our suffering will be lived. We do not even have a menu by which we choose our sufferings. Christ offered a theology of suffering in which we can link our suffering to the redemptive suffering of Christ.

Behold the Cross, our only hope. We believe that we cannot be saved without the Cross. We believe that we can link the crosses of daily life with those of Jesus. The world tells us that all of this is nonsense.

The A.A. movement has clearly understood this view of life. I think of steps 1 and 3. 1 - We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. 3 - Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Real people suffer

The world does not want to hear about lives that are powerless. We are reading all the time about books that will teach you power. The Rambo philosophy is not just something that has made Sylvester Stallone a multi-millionaire. It is the philosophy that the weak and the suffering should be crushed out.

Why do you think that violence is so prevalent in our society? Why do you think that wrestling is making such a comeback? We want to crush out all suffering and weakness. The only thing that counts is power and strength.

Yet, any clergy person and any member of the A.A. movement knows that life is just not like this. Real people suffer. Rambo is a caricature. Real people have crosses. Rambo is an illusion. Real people want to be loved and healed. Rambo is a cardboard monosyllabic Cretan.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of our society is the serial monogamy and the bar scene. We are presented with a view of life that people have to hop from one relationship to the next. Yet, that fits into what I have said above. If there is no suffering, then there are no relationships.

Since we are dealing with Rambos, how can there be tenderness and love? Since we are dealing only from strength, how can we talk about suffering, weakness and need of help?

Since we have defined society as a society that does not want suffering, then this affects relationships. Since the only thing that matters is my ego, anything that harms that must be crushed out. so, at the first sign of difficulty in a relationship, I must pitch it and start anew. Better to go back to the bar and find another person who will not give me any other trouble.

The joke some years back was the divorce that was granted because the wife had cracker crumbs in bed. We have done one better than that. You can have a divorce for any reason whatever. The fact that you want it is the reason, or the nonreason. In this view of society, the children are unwanted or accidental results of sexual activity between two people who do not want a commitment beyond the next month.

It is no wonder that schoolteachers are up in arms about the children they are expected to educate. They feel they have been called to provide the parenting function in society with children who have not learned love. Since they have not been loved, they cannot tolerate limits or discipline.

People who know me know my love of music. Since I was the last of eight children, family discipline had eased by my time. Although I took singing and piano for two years, I have little to show for it.

I attribute my great love of music to my sister who worked at the piano so much that it was a part of the furniture of the house. For me, it has been an essential part of the ecstasy of my life. Truly I could not imagine life without music.

In the musical "Evita," Andrew Lloyd Webber takes us on a tour of this remarkable lady's life. I don't know enough about the history of Argentina to make an intelligent comment on his historical facts. If you will pardon the language, we are presented with a person who slept her way to the top.

More than this, we are presented with a compulsive personality. She was on the run, on the run, on the run, until she was dead.

If you want to plumb the philosophy of this age, I would suggest that you listen to the brilliant lyrics of this great musical. I make no comments on the historical accuracy but I give full marks for psychological insight and brilliance of writing. Evita thought she was immortal and could run forever. She discovered the truth only when she was dead.

I think there are many Evitas in our society and they are not all caught up with booze alone. Their cure is suggested in steps 2 and 7. 2 - Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 7 - Humbly saked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Will society stop and take notice before it is dead?

Despite the wonderful help I have had from members of the A.A. Movement in every parish in which I have served, there is one question that goes unanswered. How do you get the person to slow down and face facts before he is dead? We all know people who died first!

It is our challenge to learn how to raise the consciousness of all about addictions, so that more slow down and live.

Ministry of healing

It comes as no surprise that the Catholic Church is not doing a good. job in marketing the Sacrament of Reconciliation today. From my limited experience, I think that I have used the right language. People do not have a problem so much with this gift of God to the Church, but rather with their memories of it, or in their mixed understanding of it.

Most Protestants have a very jaundiced view of the whole procedure. They think of generations of Catholics who used this as a ploy. They either had no intention of a change of life or were experts at papering over the cracks in the wallpaper. Confession for them, was greatly linked to denial, minimalization or worse.

Yet in my 32 years as a priest, I have found confession to be one of the great gifts of ministry. As I have visited people in all sorts of settings, it is clear that they want to talk. They want to talk about the hurts and sufferings of life. They want to talk about how they have suffered from a life that believes in one-night stands and not in commitment.

I don't have to tell you anymore. Many of you have heard as many confessions as I have. You may not have heard them in the same sacramental setting but they have been just as authentic and healing as the ones I have heard.

If I may put it this way: we are all in the all-important ministry of healing and reconciliation. In a world that has gone crazy, there are few ministries more important today.

Important rite

A good friend of mine, a priest who is a recovering alcoholic, told me that he had taken a day and a half to take the fifth step. This really got me looking at the steps again. 5 - Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

As I do not have to tell you, this is a very clear statement. It is hard to dance around it. My purpose is .not to do the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church with you. However, you know that one of the great controversies in the Church today is about General Absolution. This is the absolution of sin in a church ceremony without individual confession.

My view is that this is an important rite in the Church and that we should use it for a bridge period. In other words, I believe that many Catholics and non-Catholics Christians have been turned off to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Until we have resold it, I think that General Absolution will hold them to this beautiful gift.

I am not denying that there are certain aspects of this communal celebration that are valid and important. However, there is something perverse in the human spirit by which we want to run from confession, admission of guilt and peace. We cannot have peace until there is the former. You can tell me about people who have balked at the fifth step. I can tell you stories of people who have been eaten with rage and anger toward the Church or toward others until they made peace and had a detailed talk about their sinfulness.

The story of Richard Nixon is an illustration. If you read the various books on him, you know that it was virtually impossible to get him to admit that he had sinned. The closest he came was to say that he had made misjudgments.

When Sir Anthony Blunt was confronted with all the evidence that he was a Soviet spy while climbing the steps of the British Establishment, he was humbled. Did he admit that he had done wrong? No, the closest he would come was to say that he had made a bad judgment.

Two famous examples

These are just two famous examples of people who denied the existence of their sinfulness, despite all the clear evidence to the contrary.

The latter we can understand for he opted out of the Church early in his life.

We live in a society in which the denial of sin is the norm. There can be no healing, however, without facing sinfulness. If I have a cancer in my body, it will not go away unless I have some treatment. The doctor may tell me that there is a good chance of a cure if I submit to the surgery. However, he cannot force me to get on the table without my consent.

Your ministry is critical in our society. People are ruining their lives and the lives of others. You are in the confrontation business because an important part of healing is facing sin. I appreciate all that you have done for people and I can assure you that the work of the A.A. movement and the work of the Church are beautiful complements to one another.

I hope that this article will produce more ideas about how we can help one another in our mutual ministry of healing and peace. God love you all and all that you do.


The Drunk Who Helped Millions Get Sober Alcoholic Priests: Are they Effective Pastors?

In practicing our Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. has neither endorsed nor are they affiliated with Silkworth.net. Alcoholics Anonymous®, AA®, and the Big Book® are registered trademarks of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.