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"BLUE BOOK" AN ANTHOLOGY
Asceticism and the Twelve Steps
Edward Dowling, S.J.
The Queen's Work, St. Louis, Missouri
think that if our positions were reversed, you would feel
as I do -- grateful to be the focus of good will. I think
that is true of anybody who speaks at an A.A. gathering,
or about A.A.
am sensible, as you are, of God's closeness to human humility.
I am sensible, also, of how close human humility can come
to humiliation, and I know how close that can come to an
alcoholic. I think that in addition to my confidence in
the closeness of God to one suffering from alcoholism, I
would like to invoke our Lord's promise that where two or
three gather together in His Name, there He will be in their
of all, asceticism comes from the Greek word meaning the
same as exercise, or better, to practice gymnastics. The
concept of exercise is to loosen up the muscles to prepare
them for vigorous activity. Applied to spiritual matters,
it means to loosen up the faculties of the mind or soul,
to prepare them for better activity. Physical exercise is
gymnastics, setting-up exercises, preparing me to take steps.
In the same way, asceticism is preliminary, a preparation
for me to use the powers of my soul.
asceticism is contained, of course, in the Gospel. All the
teachings of Our Lord boil down to the cardinal ideas; one
negative, the denial of self; the other positive, the imitation
of and union with Christ.
of the many different systematized forms of Christian exercises
is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. There are many
others, and all are efforts to apply to one's life those
two principal ideas of denial of self and an affirmation
of Christ. "Spiritual Exercises" indicate, of
course, that the thing to be exercised is the spirit. The
word "exercise" indicates a releasing of the faculties
or powers of the soul.
Ignatius starts with a presumption that our power of faculties
are bound by sinful tendencies and addictions to the wrong
things. The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, work on the
soul in both a negative and positive way. The first section,
the consideration of my sins and of their effects in hell,
is the negative part. It aims by self-denial to release
our wills from our binding addictions, to enable the will
to desire and to choose rationally.
second part of the Spiritual Exercises, start in with a
consideration of the Incarnation and going through the Passion
and Resurrection, is an effort to see how Christ would handle
priest alcoholic, who has written with discernment on the
Spiritual Exercises, first pointed out to me the similarity
between them and the twelve steps of A.A. Bill, the founder
of A.A. recognized that those twelve steps are pretty much
the releasing of myself from the things that prevent my
will's choosing God as I understand Him.
Steps and the Spiritual Exercises
first seven or eight steps of A.A. are quite specific as
to what should be done in order to release the will from
addiction to evil. On the positive side, the twelve steps
are very general. Bill once stated: "It is a firm principal
with us that, so far as A.A. goes, each member has the absolute
right to seek God as he will." On another occasion
he declared that A.A. was not concerned about the particular
way a man works out his dependence on God. That depends
on him and on God, mostly on God. The alcoholic's business,
as expressed in the eleventh step, is to find out what God
wants and to ask for strength to carry that out.
the Spiritual Exercises, like Christian asceticism in general,
the twelve steps are not speculative ideas. They are practical
steps. May I suggest some of the parallels between the Spiritual
Exercises and the twelve steps.
first three of the twelve steps correspond roughly with
the foundation of the Spiritual Exercises. In the foundation
we see man as creature. It recognizes the dependence of
man on God because of the rather abstract, relatively unknown
fact, creation. A.A. bases dependence on a rather concrete
specific type of experience, drunkenness. The Ignatian foundation
indicates that everything else shall be chosen or rejected
in the light of the purpose that grows out of this dependence,
i.e., sharing Him for all eternity by doing His will on
A.A. third step directs that one's life and one's will be
directed by the influence of God. In it the alcoholic determines
to turn his life and his will over to the care of God as
he understands Him. This emphasis on the will indicates
that the alcoholic should direct himself by his will rather
than by the feelings that have enmeshed him. The focal importance
of the will is a characteristic of the Spiritual Exercises.
Inventory - Confession
the Spiritual Exercises, the next thing is the contemplation
of sin; sin in the angels, in our first parents, in others,
in myself, and sin in its effects. And of course, right
along the line there you have the fourth step of A.A., a
fearless, thorough moral inventory of one's sins. The parallelism
is rather striking.
a priest who asked Bill how long it took him to write those
twelve steps he said that it took twenty minutes. If it
were twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty
minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.
a moral inventory of one's life, all spiritual exercises,
Catholic anyway, demand the confession of sins. It is specifically
required in the Spiritual Exercises. In the A.A. fifth step,
you have that general confession admitting my sins to myself,
to God, and to another human being.
Culpae and Reatus Poenae
are two liabilities when we commit a sin: one, reatus culpae,
the guilt of the sin; the other reatus poenae, the obligation
of restitution. The A.A. sixth and seventh steps cover the
guilt of the sin, and the eighth and ninth steps the obligation
think the sixth step is the one which divides the men from
the boys in A.A. It is love of the cross. The sixth step
says that one is not almost, but entirely ready, not merely
willing, but ready. The difference is between wanting and
willing to have God remove all these defects of character.
You have here, if you look into it, not the willingness
of Simon Cyrene to suffer, but the great desire or love,
similar to what Chesterton calls "Christ's love affair
with the cross."
seventh step implements that desire by humbly asking God
to remove these defects. The alcoholic sees one defect go
as a bottle of beer is taken away. And so, that continuing
detachment which goes along in any ascetical life holds
true in A.A. As one grows in A.A., the problems seem to
get bigger, the strength bigger, and the dividends greater.
comes the reatus poenae, the obligation of restitution or
penance. God's forgiveness is sought in the sixth and seventh
steps. In the eight and ninth steps one makes restitution.
In the eighth step the alcoholic makes a list of those people
he has offended and whose bills he hasn't paid. In the ninth
step he pays off these obligations, if he can do so without
hurting people more.
eleventh and twelfth steps give a rather limited parallel
to the positive asceticism of Christianity. The eleventh
step bids one by prayer and meditation to study to improve
his conscious grasp of God, asking Him only for two things,
knowledge of His will and the power to carry it out. Now,
that is a true and accurate description of the positive
aspects of Christian asceticism as well as of the second,
third, and forth weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St.
the twelfth step. Having had a spiritual exercise or awakening
as a result of these steps, we carry this message to other
alcoholics and practice these principles in all our other
affairs. In our apostolic work we should be an instrument
in God's hands. The A.A. steps before this twelfth step
are to improve by instrumental contact with God this dependence
of work for others on my growth toward Christ-like sanity
and sanctity has significance to an alcoholic priest. Often
such a one will say, "If I could only get a little
work, I feel that I could stay sober." Gradually he
finds out that if he approaches sobriety through work, the
work isn't going to come and the sobriety may not come either.
But, as soon as he says, "Once I become sober, work
will come," the hope of success is much greater.
Humility Without Humiliation
has helped me as a person and as a priest. A.A. has made
my optimism greater. My hopelessness starts much later.
Like anyone who has watched A.A. achieve its goals, I have
seen dreams walk. You and I know that in the depths of humiliation
we are in a natural area, and, rightly handled, especially
is the inner spirit of that sixth step, I think we can almost
expect the automatic fulfillment of God's promise to assist
the humble. Where there is good will, there is almost an
iron connection between humiliation and humility and God's
helps the priest in other matters than alcoholism, as the
twelfth step indicates. I had a little exercise which will
illustrate this point. It is a very small thing in itself,
but I feel that it is a clear example of how A.A. work can
help personally even a non-alcoholic priest.
Not To Think About It
obtain a greatly needed help which prayer alone didn't seem
to bring, I thought of giving up smoking. I had failed to
give it up, even though in retreat after retreat I had tried
various plans to break off the habit. None of them seemed
to work for long.
thinking of A.A., I realized that I had seen men in that
same boat who couldn't give up drinking. I realized that
A.A. does not directly cause a man to quit drinking, but
rather it causes him to quit thinking about drinking. Well,
it seemed easier to give up thinking about smoking; but
I didn't think I could do even that. I thought of A.A. novices
saying, "I can't do it all my life. I can't do it all
day. I can do it for maybe ten minutes." Inspired by
the humble example of A.A. men, I said at that point to
myself, "I won't try to quit smoking but I will, with
God's help, postpone the thought of smoking for three minutes."
That is a humiliating admission for a priest who tells others
to give up much harder things.
A.A. I learned to respect the little suffering of denying
self the thought of a smoke and to pool that suffering with
the sufferings of Christ, in the spirit of the sixth step.
At that moment, like a breath of fresh air, came the thought
of the widow and her mite and the importance which love
can give to unimportant things. With humiliation came humility,
and with humility came God's promised help. It is three
or four years since I thought of myself smoking, and I have
learned that you can't smoke if you don't think about smoking.
is a little instance from among hundreds of the applications
of A.A. principles. I have watched the most difficult personal
situations which a priest faces yield to the A.A. twelve
steps approach, even though no alcoholism was involved.
Of course, Christ and His Passion came in encouragingly
through the third and eleventh steps.
Membership in A.A.
the part which I would like to submit for your discussion,
should a priest go into A.A.? Should a Catholic join A.A.?
There are two questions to be answered before one can decide
whether or not a priest should enter A.A. First, what will
be the effect on the Church? Secondly, what will be the
effect on the priest?
I don't think the Church needs saving nearly as much as
the man. God's cause is often hurt by people who are trying
to save God. There is an apostolic opportunity that you
can find in dealing with A.A., which has therapeutic value
to the individual and which offers great opportunity for
the Church. The scandal that a drinking priest might give
is not so serious in A.A. as it would be of a Catholic organization
meeting, because the understanding is different.
twelfth step demands an apostolic outlook, that is, it demands
that we not only apply what we have learned to our own life,
but also that we carry the good news to other people, and
specifically to alcoholics.
Moral Side of Psychiatric Problems
of Psychotherapy, by Sebastian de Grazia, is a humble confession
of the failure of most psychiatric efforts. Psychoanalysis,
which is the dominant psychotherapy today, is impractical
for most people because of the expense and because of the
unavailability of psychoanalysts. Its record of cures is
not much better than the rate of neglected and spontaneous
cures in state mental hospitals.
Grazia's book is replete with devastating quotations from
psychiatrists on the failure and inadequacy of current therapy,
though he recognizes that all therapies have a certain percentage
of cures. After surveying all therapies through history
and throughout the world, de Grazia says, "Moral authority,
an idea widely spurned by modern healers of the soul, is
the crux of psychotherapy. The crystals that remain after
the distilling of the multiplicity of therapies are not
many. A bewildering array of brilliants dwindles down to
a few precious few: neurosis is a moral disorder; the psychotherapeutic
relationship is one or authority; the therapist gives moral
one of Freud's first followers, wrote, "Among all my
patients in the second half of life - that is to say, over
thirty-five - there has not been one whose problem in the
last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook
on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill
because he had lost that which the living religions of every
age have given to their followers. None of them has been
really healed who did not regain his religious outlook."
theory that moral and religious treatment is the type needed
for today's epidemic of psychoses and neuroses is being
most effectively urged by Dr. Frank R. Barts, director of
the department of psychiatry at Creighton University in
Omaha. In his book, "The Moral Theory of Behavior"
he writes: "All extent theories of mental illness have
been refuted by able critics." He feels that the virtues
of charity and humility would go a great distance in many
neurotic and psychotic situations.
Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1952, wrote up Recovery
Inc., and showed how it approached neuroses and psychoses
in much of the amateur group way that A.A. approaches the
alcoholic neurosis. Its founder, Doctor Abraham A. Low,
rejects psychoanalysis as philosophically false and practically
ineffective. He writes: "Life is not driven by instincts
but is guided by the will."
rather than sobriety, is the aim of the A.A. second step.
Psychiatric literature echoes A.A.'s statement that alcoholism
is a form of insanity. Yet, in treating this insanity, we
know the success of the approach which is amateur and group,
moral and spiritual. We remember the last speech of Dr.
Bob, co-founder of A.A. Dying of cancer, he left his mental
legacy: "Don't louse it up with psychiatry."
of A.A. have two indelible marks: once an alcoholic always
an alcoholic; once a priest, always a priest. Two invisible,
indelible marks, both of tremendous significance to others.
As alcoholics they know insanity from the inside. As members
of A.A. they know the techniques and they know the wonders
that can come from amateur group psychotherapy based on
the human will aided by God's help.
of Clergy Conference
this room we may be seeing the confirmation of B.B. Cattell's
statement, in his Meaning of Clinical Psychology: "The
possibility that the clergyman, rather than the psychologist
or mental practitioner, is the ultimate specialist in human
adjustment has been most unscientifically ignored."
experience in this room makes it easier to see de Grazia's
statement: "Were a system of psychotherapy to be built
by having all secular therapies agree to harmonize their
divergent criteria of cures, it would emerge as a religious
enterprise, an Imitation Cristi."
are not only members of A.A., but priests trained by and
adept in the use of Christian asceticism, priests who speak
with authority because they are experienced. I cannot help
feeling that there are trends and forces, human and divine,
that keep rendezvous here tonight, and that the happiness
and sanctity can be richer if we meet the challenge of this