The Spirituality of Twelve Step Programs

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-098 The Spirituality of Twelve Step Programs, by Judi Bailey ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, Vol. 99, No.4, September, 1991

ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, Vol. 99, No.4, September, 1991

by Judi Bailey

Whatever it is that your dealing with - maritial issues, raging emotions, lack of faith, conflict with the Church - there's one thing you know for sure: You can pin your hopes on spirituality. One place to look for a spiritual framework is the 12 Steps, an approach to life recommended by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although many Christians have stumbled into 12-step groups because of some kind of addiction - such as alcohol, drugs, sex and food - many others have turned to the principles of these programs as a way to boost their working faith. From Alcoholics Anonymous, there have been an estimated 200 spin-offs. Those programs that stick close to the original tenets of A.A. are spiritual in nature. Usually the only difference in other programs is the wording of the first step. (New programs obtain permission to use these steps from the A.A. World Services office in New York.) A.A. identifies alcohol as the problem, but other groups might name relationships, sex, gambling or other addictions. Some people who aren't in 12-step groups simply use these concepts by slipping their primary problem into the first step, admitting they are wrestling with such issues as anger, debts or indecision.

According to pastor Dennis C. Morreim, author of The Road to Recovery, ".... the Bible had a profound influence on the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith." Both had been members of the Christian renewal Oxford Group movement, where emphasis was placed on the power of the Holy Spirit, the need for daily prayer and meditation, the importance of Christian fellowship and the merits of witnessing. In 1935, A.A. was born, basing many of its principles on Bill's and Bob's experiences in the Oxford Group.

Now, more than 50 years later, many Catholics are finding help in the principles of the 12 steps. "From my experience in Alcoholics Anonymous," says Bill, a recovering alcoholic priest, "I found a viable spirituality, a relationship with God I never had before."

He's not the only one. Relieved of the self-centered cloak of addictions and other problems, many people have been led back to God and their religion as a result of exposure to the spiritual principles inherent in the 12 steps.

The Recent Popularity of Self-Help

According to a recent Newsweek article, the number of self-help organizations has quadrupled in the last 10 years. People are crowding into church halls, bank annexes, private homes and the basements of fast-food restaurants - all reaching for some sort of healing. In fact, in one week alone, 15 million Americans will attend 500,000 group meetings. Dr. Frank Riessman, a psychologist and codirector of the National Self-Help Clearinghouse, says 12-step programs are the fastest growing category of self-help groups.

Once deemed faddish, self-help groups have earned a solid respect. Considered to be one of the most effective mental-health approaches of our day, psychologists, psychiatrists and the court system are making referrals in increasing numbers.

The appeal of self-help stems from its frequent and fluid expressions of spirituality - namely unconditional acceptance, understanding and tolerance. There's also identification or as many call it, a "common bond."

"These people talk my language," says Beth, a member of Overeaters Anonymous. "When I arrived at my first meeting, I felt like I had come home. They're the only ones who ever really understood. Everyone else says, 'Just don't eat so much.' At O.A. they know how hard that is to do."

Here's a place people aren't afraid to talk about their real thoughts and feelings. Members don't scoff or throw a quick scriptural passage at you if you express jealousy, feelings of inadequacy or a dip in your faith. In fact, listeners respond by sharing their own vulnerabilities.

In addition, hearing someone else's experiences - from rationalizations to results - cuts through denial more quickly than most forms of confrontation (which raises defenses) or traditional psychotherapy. The credibility of others' successes offers hope.

Criticism of the Movement

Some still consider self-help groups to be a type of cult, particularly the 12-step groups since many of these groups consider recovery, and therefore membership, a lifelong committment. Also, many who come to these 12-step programs have tried other resources, including religion, before they finally got help. Consequently, some turned cold to religion. Others, especially new members, reject everything but their 12-step group.

Dr. Stanton Peele, a social psychologist, recently wrote the book Diseasing of America, which addresses what he considers America's obsession with self-improvement programs. Peele says we're in the "age of addiction," claiming that we discover more and more things to be addicted to every day. He warns of the self-centeredness that can come from all this looking at oneself and says this keeps us from working toward change.

Many critics point to those individuals who make self-help an avocation, people who are compelled to attend group after group, read book after book, searching for "the answer." "Some are just looking for a magic wand," says Pat Mellody, executive director of The Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona.

Some cop out by running to a meeting rather than facing a problem. Some hide in a book rather than admit authentic concerns.

Spiritual Principles of the 12 Steps

It's not only the freedom from their addictions that makes the 12 steps so attractive to people, but also the spiritual growth that ensues from practicing the steps. The steps' central principles are as follows:

Powerlessness. Alfred H. Katz and Eugene I. Bender write in their book, The Strength in Us, Self-Help Groups in the Modern World, that members "start from a condition of powerlessness - no matter what they may later achieve, their initial resources are always limited."

This is not a negative concept, but an empowering one. Its the surrender-to-win paradox. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10, "For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Without an awareness of this victory principle, people controlled by their compulsions remain driven. The crack addict thinks, "This time it'll be different." The sex addict thinks, "it won't hurt anything." The codependent thinks, "I could be happy - I just know I could - if only he'd quit working so much." The workaholic says, "When I get past this project, I'll take some time off."

A state of acceptance is necessary for true recovery, a coming-to-grips with the reality of your situation. For instance, if you are lonely, accepting your emotions is the first step to resolution. If your relationship with your daughter is shaky, you need to acknowledge the tension before you work on it.

"Until we understand our own powerlessness, our poorness, our own dependence on God," Father Bill says, "we don't have a spiritual life. We live in darkness."

Faith. The first time I felt my prayers were truly answered," Mary says, "was on my first day sober. I had attended an A.A. meeting the night before and heard over and over again how prayer works, how good it really is.

"Driving home from work, I had an urge to drink. It was my regular time. I said, a generic prayer, something like, "If your there, please help me." It worked. I didn't drink. Since then till now, eight years later, I keep becoming more and more aware of how much my life depends on God."

Those who practice the 12 steps value surrendering to God. "I had to give up trying to fix my family," says Sue, a member of Adult Children of Alcoholics. "I decided to let God do it in his time." Honesty. Whether blinded by too many carbohydrates, the self-deception of a mood altering chemical, the false high from shoplifting or the absorption of our own emotions, most of us are surprised to discover the depth of our dishonesty. We don't want to admit even to ourselves that we were really hurt by what our best friend said, that we feel worthless, that we are filled with self-pity or that we abuse sex.

"Its not a 'cash register honesty' that's so important," Father Bill says, "but understanding one's own life and one's feelings about other people. Rooting out the lies in ourselves is the work of a lifetime."

Many look at how they've broken the Ten Commandments, how they've harmed their relationship with God. They share the bare bones of the appraisal with another person, often their priest or perhaps their sponsor (a mentor who has practiced these principles longer than they have).

"I never believed in Confession before I joined A.A.,"Sam says. But since I worked the fourth and fifth steps, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been more meaningful." He now chooses to discuss his sins face-to-face with a priest.

Humility. The basic text of A.A., Alcoholics Anonymous (lovingly nicknamed the "Big Book"), offers 12 promises to those who diligently practice the principles. One promise is, "We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows."

In other words, we will achieve humility. These principles can guide us from self-absorption to a humble perspective of ourselves. Emptied of our obsession with our problems or our compulsion to get, we can be open to receive guidance and direction.

Humility is often an ongoing issue for participants of 12-step groups. "I've defined it differently over the years," Alan says. He points to the 11th step, an invitation to seek to do God's will. "It's an open-ended issue. Where you might think you know the will of God, later it's revealed that will is different than what you believed."

Continual adjustments are needed. "Humility involves accepting yourself as you really are," Alan continues, "not as you thought you were."

Retribution for harms done. Stoping compulsive pill-taking is one thing. But the pills caused a trail of abuse and rejected people. What about them? Ceasing overspending is a terrific start. But the misuse of money led to neglected kids, disgruntled bill collectors, a confused spouse.

Central to our religion is the belief that until we clean up the past, our relationship with God - and with our neighbor - remains tainted. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-24, "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the alter, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the alter, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift."

A renewed desire to return to the Church prompted Alan's motivation to make amends. "I had a long talk with the priest about coming back to Church. He told me, "If there's anything you haven't scored up with God before you come back, you need to score up.' I went back to work on steps eight and nine immediately."

Self-sacrifice ("helping others"). Sister Ignatia, the admissions officer at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron who worked with A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob Smith to provide medical treatment to alcoholics, was fond of pointing out this key idea: You'll find yourself by losing yourself to others.

The 12th step suggests that after having resolved some of the more burdensome issues of our lives, it's time to get out of ourselves and help others with similar problems. The former exercise fanatic shares her story with fitness freaks and in so doing helps herself remember "how bad it was." People pleasers "carry the message" to those still suffering from a lack of assertiveness.

Often after helping their 12-step brothers and sisters, members recommit to ministry at their place of worship. After a number of years of sponsoring A.A. members, Sam now spends his time as a eucharistic minister, helping the sick in the Hope Ministry and as a Catholic evangelizer, informing alienated Catholics that the Church still welcomes them.

"It's my 12th step," he says.

Life Beyond the 12th Step

The principles of 12-step programs can aid the practice of Catholicism, but religion also enhances the 12 steps.

"I returned to close the ring of my spirituality," Sam says. "I used to attend A.A. Sunday mornings. Every time I'd drive past my church to get to the meeting, I'd feel a tug. I was looking for more in my spirituality. I felt there must be life beyond a 12-step program."

As people enter their recovery and confront the aspect of spirituality, many report confusion over their concept of God, a frustration programs handle with a liberal concept called the "Higher Power."

According to Vivian, a member of 12-Step programs dealing with destructive relationships, "Prior to my recovery, I always thought of God as some kind of cosmic butler: If you're good you get rewarded, if bad - punished.

"But I never felt I was good enough, so my God was a guilting type God, tallying my sins with a clipboard in his hand."

Vivian, like many others, had a negative, frightening picture of God until something happened to force the issue. For Vivian, it was loneliness. "As I began to eliminate all the sick relationships I had with men, I had no one else to talk to but God." That was the start. Now God's her best friend.

But we don't all have such troublesome beginnings. For many years, Ann, a member of Al-Anon, a 12-step program for those close to alcoholics, went to church on her lunch hour to get comfort.

"Now, although I still attend Mass, I can find God anywhere. I always saw God as a trusting figure, as love. But I now have a closer relationship. I'm not just praying to someone up in heaven. Now he's a friend and a father figure."

Many report a greater openness, a more expansive, flexible concept of God, and a greater use of their faith since practicing the 12 steps. For instance, Ann reports that she talks to God all the time, about anything. Previously, she only knew how to recite her old, formal prayers.

Others understand their religion better. To Mary, Catholicism seemed much more positive after she joined a 12-step program. "The message is no longer, 'Don't do this, don't do that,"'she says. "Now I'm much more in tune with the compassion in the message of the gospel."

Sam says he is experiencing more aspects of his religion than he ever has before. Although he attends Mass regularly, he also partakes in other avenues of Catholic expression.

"When I returned to the Church, I couldn't believe how much it had changed," he says. He reads the Bible more and has become involved in a number of sharing groups. The fellowship he had found in A.A. made him hungry for closer ties to the Christian community.

In Ann's early days in Al-Anon (and her husband's beginnings in A.A.), she interpreted the 12-step program as a contradiction to her religion. The sacrament of matrimony said she and her husband were one; A.A. and Al-Anon were telling her, "Take care of yourself. Work your programs separately. Each of you is an individual."

But after a number of meetings, Ann's perceptions began to change. She saw that the two messages actually reinforce one another. "Al-Anon deepened and strengthened my Catholicism - and my marriage," she says after 14 years in the program.

Although Father Bill always enjoyed the mystery of the Church, the spirituality of his 12-step program gave deeper meaning to Scripture and the Mass.

Some of that, Father Bill says, was through greater flexibility. "lots of religious people are rigid in their mentality. They're always looking for someone else to give them rules for what is right and what is wrong.

"Spirituality makes you openminded to yourself and toward other people. We have to let go of our rigid thinking and become like children."

Father Bill often uses principles of the 12 steps when he preaches. For instance, he equates the "one day at a time" concept with repentance." The idea of Christianity is repentance - the need to change," he says.

The message of 12-step programs is the same everywhere: Turn over your troubles to God and make small changes one day at a time. You don't have to be a member of a 12-step group to put that view to work.

Father Bill summarizes a basic belief found in both the 12-step concept and Catholicism. "Every moment is a beginning and an end, a death and a resurrection. Rather than living in the past or dreading the future, when people live in the present they can be of service to others and live a life of thanksgiving."

This life of gratitude can be practiced through pinning your spirituality on the principles of the 12 steps: being honest about your situation, practicing humility, paying for past errors and helping others. It's a great way to boost your working faith!


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