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SIGN, Vol. 25: 14-16, July, 1946
James P. Timmins
was Fred who, nearly three years ago, introduced me to the
Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the greatest social movements
of modern times, a movement whose implications have not
even begun to be realized by the world at large.
In the early evening of that far-off day, the doorbell of
St. Bridget's Rectory rang. I didn't know that something
new was entering into my life. I didn't even know it when
I opened the door and found there a old friend, but a friend
in what a state! He was bedraggled, down-at-the-heels, clothed
in a ancient sweater and a pair of pants which had long
ago seen their best days. And he was drunk. Not stupidly
or staggering, but excitedly drunk. More than that, in the
midst of his drunkenness he was ashamed. I could sense the
thought passing through his mind. For five years I had not
seen him or even heard of him, save rarely, and now, down
and out, he was in the sorry position of standing on my
doorstep seeking help. Fred who, a few years back, had often
welcomed me into his pleasant home.
could hardly believe my eyes. Was this friend the clean-cut,
affable, ambitions young business man whom I once had known?
I knew that he drank in the old days, but not, to my knowledge,
to excess, I knew too, that he had never been and was not
now anything like the classical conception of the weak-willed,
heedless, and irresponsible drunkard. He loved his home,
his lovely wife, and their child, a bright, intelligent
boy. He was ambitious and able, diplomatic and efficient
in his work of selling. But something had happened to him
in the years during which we had lost contact, in the years
when he drifted away not only from me but from every friend
that he ever knew. Something had torn him loose from everything
bright and beautiful in life and dropped him into an abyss
where all was sordid and mean and ugly. What was it?
himself didn't know. He came into my rectory, sat down with
me in the office, and poured into my ears such a tale of
bewilderment, confusion, and utter despair as I have never
before heard. That night I looked into the mind of a man
in hell. For two hours, in broken, stumbling words, he poured
out his story of the wracking, futile, hopeless struggle
with the demon of alcohol that possessed him and drove him
further and further into the dark and devastating loneliness
of the pit. Now he was nearly at the end. He could no longer
stand the the utter desolation, the panic fear that alcohol
itself was not capable of taking from him save in the hours
of complete unconsciousness. With tears streaming down his
face, this drunk begged of me to give him the answer. Was
it death? Or was there some secret which I possessed, some
life line which I could throw to him by which he could lift
himself out of the monstrous inferno in which he found himself.
I had to answer him that I did not know. I assured him that
suicide was not the solution. Beyond that I had nothing
to offer. Before my friend, who I would have given anything
to help, I sat troubled and helpless.
that I might have suggested he had already done. A good
Catholic, with a well-founded and strong faith, he told
me of wild prayers before the alter, begging God to take
away this devil that drove him to drink against his will,
this devil that was robbing him of everything that he held
dear in life. He told me of the business he had wrecked,
of the final job from which he had resigned before he was
fired. He told me of the shame and misery of dependence
on his wife, compelled to work to support him and hold their
home together. All meant nothing. Week after week after
week, and month after month, he drank with only the intervals
of nauseating physical sickness and shaky recovery to interrupt.
He told me, among other things, one of the saddest stories
of futile appeal to the better self of an alcohol addict
that I have ever heard.
mother-in-law lay dying. She knew that her end was near,
but, forgetful of herself, good, religious woman that she
was, she thought this was the opportunity to bring back
Fred to his senses and to restore him to a normal life.
She summoned him to her sick chamber, and there, in the
presence of his wife, she asked him to kneel by her bedside,
put his two hands in hers, and promise, before God, that
he would reform his life and be the husband and father that
he should. Shocked and moved as he had never been before,
he knelt beside the dying woman, and with his hands in hers,
promised with all the sincerity in his soul that he would
never touch another drop of liquor, and he walked out of
her presence, and with her words and his own promise ringing
in his ears, got drunk.
this man, my friend, I could give nothing. All that I could
think of was, "This is no ordinary drunk. This man
is abnormal. Maybe he is crazy." I thought an able
psychiatrist might be able to tell Fred what was the matter
with him. If it were a mental illness, maybe it might be
curable by some therapy which a layman would not know.
The next day I saw his wife and heard from her the usual
story of worry, uncertainty, insecurity, and anger at her
husband for his apparently willfully senseless course, and
a gnawing fear of what the future might bring. She was willing
to do anything. Fred himself had not come back. Following
what she said was a regular customer, he had disappeared,
moved by some vague desire of not annoying his family by
his drinking. But he had come back late that night. She
called me and told me he, too, was willing to do anything.
An appointment with a Hartford psychiatrist was arranged
for the following Monday afternoon, by which time Fred,
it was hoped, would be reasonably sane and sober. The three
of us went in, and the able doctor, an unsuspected angel
in disguise, examined my friend alone for a long time. Afterward,
he sat down with the three of us and told us in plain, blunt
terms, "This man is physically all right, and he is
mentally all right; he is not crazy, but he has a disease.
He is an alcohol addict. As far as I am concerned, the case
God that was not final. It might have been. except for what
the doctor added: "There is, perhaps, one chance for
him. Here in Hartford, there is a group of people called
the Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol addicts who are trying
to help each other to stay sober. In some cases they have
been quite successful. I have the telephone number of one
of them here. I suggest that you get in touch with him."
Right there and then, in the doctor's office, we did. This
man urged Fred to waste no time, to attend the meeting that
night at the Blue Plate Restaurant on Farmington Avenue
in West Hartford. Fred went, but not without the company
of his wife, who was afraid to trust him out of her sight.
At that, he had to fortify himself with a couple of drinks
before venturing into the strange, unknown territory of
an A.A. meeting; and here comes the marvel, the joyous,
unbelievable marvel. Those were the last drinks that Fred,
the hopeless, irreclaimable drunk, has had from that day
to this. I was confronted by the miracle of the A.A.
I was incredulous enough at first. A week went by, and Fred
stayed sober. But anyone, even an alcoholic addict, might
be able to do that by strenuous effort. Then other weeks
went by, stretching into months, and Fred still was sober.
I began to ask myself,"What is this thing called Alcoholics
Anonymous? What is its secret?" There must be some
very powerful remedy in it when it could halt a hopeless
drunkard in his tracks and put him on the road to reason
and a new life. I got the book and read it, and I went to
a meeting to see, and I was conquered.
subject to the proviso that all I say is my own opinion,
I will try to trace the A.A. pathway to success.
Fred came to me, he was, even in his drunkenness, battered
and beaten down until he had reached his bottom. There was
no more pride, no more egotistical self-reliance left in
him. He was willing to accept help from anybody or anything.
He had acquired what I consider the basic virtue necessary
for any man who wants to work the A.A. program successfully,
the virtue of humility.
is neither an abject nor a crawling virtue. It is, as the
word itself from the Latin humus, the earth, signifies,
a down-to-earth, realistic view of one's self, not as the
center of the universe and the lord of the world, but as
a very small and insignificant unit in the vast sea of humanity.
When one looks at the matter objectively, and not through
the veils of self-deceit with which the alcohol addict beclouds
reality, he sees that humility is an active, common-sense
admission of the hard fact that nobody can shape the world
to his liking or ever walk the ways of the world successfully
in lonely independence. But the alcoholic, isolated by his
terrible pride, must try it, and he is hurt, deeply hurt,
when the world rolls on, indifferent to his needs and his
demands, careless of his independence, rubbing raw his self-esteem.
No wonder he seeks the solace of the anesthetic, alcohol,
to him release from the painful prodding's of his own intelligence
constantly reminding of his actual inadequacy, of his failure
to live up to the lofty concepts of his egotistical self-appraisal.
With his intellect deadened, plunged into the realms of
alcoholic illusion, he can set up a dream world where, paraphrasing
the words of Henley, he can be the imaginary master of his
fate and the pretended captain of his soul. But the real
world forever crumbles the dream, and the illusion is harder
to seize as the years go on. And finally there is little
left but wrath and horror and degradation, and the refuge
of oblivion. Yet, even at that stage, when the anesthetic
has lost its power to give anything but a living death,
there are alcoholics who cling with devilish persistence
to their pride, who will not admit to themselves "I
am powerless over alcohol - my life has become unmanageable,
and I need help."
can depict that soul-searing loneliness of the alcoholic?
He lives in the bosom of his family; he eats and drinks
with them; but he is as removed from them as the inhabitant
of another planet. They do not understand him, nor he them.
They look upon him as a heedless and irresponsible destroyer
of their peace, a shirker of duty, and a willful devotee
of the dreadful vice of drunkenness. They argue with him.
They reproach him. They strive in every way possible to
get him to stop drinking. To them, it seems a simple matter
of using his common sense and will power, but the alcoholic
knows it is not. He knows that he is driven by some incomprehensible
compulsion, so his sensitive soul shrinks into itself. He
lies and evades and cheats to protect it from the painful
wounds inflicted on it not only by his family, but by his
friends and his associates in the business or social world.
Even in the midst of those who love him, he lives alone
with no remedy against the stark terrors of isolation save
the old enemy, the anesthetic, alcohol.
the companionship of the A.A. what a remedy for loneliness
the alcoholic finds! He cannot deceive these people. He
cannot evade them. They know him through and through. They
have endured his sufferings, borne his terrors, and felt
his remorse. In short, they talk his language.
humility and hope, Fred proceeded on his road into the A.A.
By example he learned the value of relaxation. "Easy
does it," he heard repeated again and again. He learned
to narrow his problem down to manageable proportions. He
learned, in the words of Sir William Osler, "The load
of tomorrow added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes
the strongest falter."
came to the core of the Alcoholics Anonymous way of life,
the religious element. That, for him, was not too difficult.
Born and brought up a good Catholic, holding on to his faith
even in the worst days of his addiction, he believed in
God and the necessity of God's grace if he was to live soundly
and sanely. Not all alcoholics have as much when they enter
the A.A. Self-centered as they are, making idols of themselves,
they shy like frightened horses at the bare mention of a
higher Power. How many times the addict has said, "I
like the Alcoholics Anonymous; but this God business, I
will have none of it." Yet there it is. Seven of twelve
steps in the A.A. way of life refer to God. How can one
get around that fact? All that I can say is that the higher
Power in those seven steps of the A.A. grows upon the alcoholic,
even if he has little religion or no religion at all. I
have seen it grow, even in Catholics. For they, too, by
their addiction, withdraw themselves from the God in whom
they believe, from the Church which is their mother. It
is as if, even against the father of the family of the Faith
they build for themselves the same wall which separates
them from their wives, their children, and their friends.
In rare cases like that of the holy and devout Matt Talbot,
potential saint of the alcoholic, the battering ram of a
great and all-absorbing devotion breaks down the wall and
frees the alcoholic from the domination of his obsession,
but not too of ten.
single instance will suffice to show what I mean by the
growth of faith in a Catholic member of the A.A. A Catholic
member who is a resident of a city not far from Hartford,
sober now and happy in his sobriety, went to a church to
pray. "I had no particular thought in doing SO,'^ he
said, "save to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
Yet as I knelt before the alter, there came over me a peace
which passes understanding, and I felt the presence of God
as I never felt it before. I found myself praying, not for
any gifts from God, but that He would walk with me and direct
my will and my life so that I might continue in this way
of happiness I had found. And I thought of myself as I was
a year ago, kneeling in front of that same alter, praying
wildly that God would get me out of this drunken debauch,
that He would not let me lose my job, that I wouldn't have
the jitters too bad, that He would keep my wife from bawling
me out when I came home. That was not a prayer. That was
the screaming of a soul in torment, as remote from God as
the devil in hell. I thank God that through the A.A. my
faith has been restored to me to be my solace and my strength
instead of my reproach."
the A.A., if the addict does his work well and sincerely,
something happens. The self-god is toppled from its pedestal,
and in its place a new image begins to take form. It is
the shape of a Power beyond himself, whose nature he may
not even be able to formulate in words, but which, nevertheless,
becomes an ever-increasing reality in his life. I can put
that remarkable and beautiful experience into no better
words than those said to me by a one-time suspicious, cynical,
self-centered alcoholic. "Father, I can hardly believe
what has come over me. You know that less than a year ago,
I told you that I could take everything in A.A. except its
spiritual angle. I simply didn't and couldn't believe in
any kind of a God. This morning, by the Lord Harry, I find
myself driving through the sunlight, looking at the grass
and the trees, and the blue sky like a sentimental sap,
happy as a lark, and feeling, mind you, feeling that in
back of it all was Someone or Something bigger than I am,
and that I needn't worry about anything as long as that
Someone or Something was with me. I must be nuts but it
is a nice way to be nuts." There, put crudely, is the
spiritual experience of the A.A., the experience of the
birth of a living faith.
of faith and hope in the heart of the addict are born charity,
not John Boyle O'Reilly's "organized charity, scrimped
and iced, in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ,"
but rather the virtue of which St. Paul tells: "Charity
is patient,is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely;
is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own,
is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not
in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things,
believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things."
With that charity, which is essentially nothing but the
love of God and the love of neighbor, the whole way of a
man in the A.A. becomes easy, and not only easy, but happy.
If he has true charity, how can he help searching out his
own defects and with the aid of God, trying to remove them?
How can he help making amends for wrongs done? How can he
help praying that he may conform with the will of God who
has become his rod and his staff? God and my neighbor are
now the watchwords of his life. In those watchwords is a
challenge to the world.
A.A. itself challenges nobody, has no quarrel with anybody.
Its sole aim, its single purpose, is to give the alcohol
addict the tools with which, if he wants to use them, he
may rise from the slough of addiction, become sober, and
be happy about it.
seed was formed a decade ago in the mind of a despairing
drunk whose black shell of isolation was shattered into
bits by an actual grace of God, and whose hope was reborn
in the sunlight of God's presence. The seed germinated in
the warmth of companionship between that drunk and another,
sitting in a room together, talking of their problem. Out
of the seed has grown a strong tree made up of the approximately
twenty thousand addicts who have attained sobriety through
the A.A. It will continue to grow without diversion and
toward one end only, the salvation of the alcoholic addict.
Yet, still I say the A.A. offers a challenge to the whole
Church, of course, always has and always will preach a way
of life which is opposed to the way of the world. She must
forever teach that the true mission of men in this world
is to know God, to love Him and to serve Him, and that the
true end of man is to be happy with God forever. The real
secret of peace on earth, she declares persistently, is
to be found, not externally in the riches of science, but
internally in the riches of the grace of God bringing a
security and a peace that the world can never know.
fierce irony of it all and the world challenge of the A.A.
is that the secret of happiness has existence now in the
living philosophy of a bunch of ex-drunks endeavoring to
stay sober. For their sobriety, and their happiness in sobriety,
are based on actual day-by-day observance of two ancient
commandments for which the world has professed profound
admiration, and, which, for the most part, the world has
entirely neglected to follow. These commandments are found
in the Old Testament and in the New: "Thou shalt love
the Lord thy God." "Thou shalt love thy neighbor
as thyself." In the living of them is the whole secret
of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead of "Me and Myself,"
"God and my neighbor" have become the passwords
of its members. The world might well sit at their feet,
for they, men and women, have, through travail and sorrow
and pain, learned the secret of life, a secret that is summed
up in five words, "My neighbor and My God."