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ST. LUKE'S JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY
Vol. 20: No.2, 124-138, March, 1977
THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS ARISING
FOR MALE ALCOHOLICS IN RECOVERY
by Robert M. Claytor, Jr.
article concerns itself with the small percentage of
alcoholics who are in the process of recovery. If we take
National Council on Alcoholism's conservative estimate of
million alcoholics in this country and A.A.'s figures of
approximately 450,000 in its ranks, we arrive at a "guesstimated"
figure of a five per cent probable recovery rate for alcoholics.
article is not about intervention in drinking problems.
It is not a "how-to" treatise on motivation. Here
ourselves with those who are aware of their problem, "own"
desire to stop drinking, and are in treatment.
writer has dual purposes in mind with this paper vis-a-vis
the parish priest and his ministry. These purposes are to
The competent and sensitive parish priest conversant with
dynamic understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous can have an
extremely valuable part in the recovery of an alcoholic.
role involves both theological interpretation and specific
The dynamics of the recovery process provide a view of metanoia
at a very practical and functional level. To facilitate
understanding necessitates some amplification of how the
Step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous works.
of the effective alcohol recovery programs are strongly
rooted in and related to A.A. This article assumes that
not cure - from alcoholism is essentially a two-year process
involving continued support, therapy, and "aftercare."
of the research data for this article was gained while
the writer was working in two clinical settings with alcoholics
described as follows:
U.S. Naval Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center, Norfolk, Virginia.
January of 1972 until September of 1973 the writer
functioned as a chaplain, meeting weekly for an hour-and-a-half
with the patients of the U.S. Naval Alcoholic Rehabilitation
at Norfolk, Virginia. This combination of group therapy
theological input was called "The Chaplain's Hour."
More than half
of the time was spent in dialogue and interaction with the
patients. Patients were all active duty Navy or Marine Corps
personel, including all ranks, officers as well as enlisted.
ninety per cent were male. Patients had either volunteered
treatment or had been assigned for treatment against their
a result of maladaptive behavior related to alcohol. This
center had a capacity for seventy-five patients. Since its
it had operated at full capacity and had a waiting list.
lasted for eight weeks post-detoxification.
in the treatment program these patients attended a
minimum of five and a maximum of seven A.A. meetings per
the community. They attended at least five additional A.A.
per week as part of the treatment program in the center.
patients were required to become totally familiar with the
literature of A.A. and to complete the Fourth Step written
inventory before leaving the center.
Western State Hospital, Staunton, Virginia
January of 1974 until September of 1976, the writer
functioned as a chaplain, meeting weekly for an hour and
with the patients on the alcoholism unit at Western State
Group therapy plus theological input was the style of relating
these patients. These patients had either admitted themselves
the hospital because of a self-diagnosis of alcoholism or
alcohol-related problems, or they had been committed by
for the same reasons. The socio-economic strata from which
patients come is typical of state hospital clientele. This
the patient population includes the "skid-row"
recidivist who has been through most of the other treatment
programs, and a surprising number who come from middle-class
families. All levels of education and professional development
to be represented.
cite 1974 as a typical year. The treatment program lasts
for three weeks post-detoxification. In 1974, 363 male alcoholics
went through this program. The ages of the male alcoholics
from 16 to 75, with a median age of 49.5 and a mean age
The Western State Hospital treatment prayer program has
significantly influenced by Alcoholics Anonymous. All patients
attend two meetings of A.A. per week in town and two meetings
week on the hospital grounds. The meetings are conducted
A.A. groups. All patients are required to become familiar
literature of A.A. and to complete a Forth Step written
before leaving the hospital.
Description of General Alcoholic Phenomenology
is difficult to define adequately with any real
precision. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the
Psychiatric Association defines alcohol addiction as follows:
condition should be diagnosed when there is direct or
strong evidence that the patient is dependent on alcohol.
available, the best direct evidence of such dependence is
appearance of withdrawal symptoms. The inability of the
go one day without drinking is presumptive evidence. When
drinking continues for three months or more it is reasonable
presume addiction to alcohol has been established."
purposes of this paper, the more commonly used clinical
and operational description obtains: An alcoholic is a person
obsessional thinking about drinking who has lost control
amount of alcohol he consumes once he begins to ingest it.
this loss of control is seldom within his conscious awareness
is usually mistakenly attributed to moral weakness by the
alcoholic. Since this debility is progressive, he will have
to develop an increasing number of problems.
of the non-A.A. world tries to determine alcoholism by
the number and gravity of the life problems that drinking
engenders. Marital conflict or divorce, loss of job,
hospitalization for alcoholism, financial problems, and
of friends are typical. This is unfortunate because the
question of the alcoholic to himself is, "Is this one
bad enough to
make me an alcoholic ?" The human capacity to rationalize
is frightening almost inevitably produces a negative answer.
the alcoholic self-diagnoses himself, little progress will
exacerbate the problem further, there are three strong
reasons the alcoholic cannot accept his alcoholism. These
are: 1) palimpsests (blackout) or amnesic states; 2) the
psychoanalytically described phenomenon of repression (this
escalated because of the fact that there is, in his recent
much more material, in terms of behavior, to repress); and
euphoric recall is probably the most devastating blind-spot
This is the phenomonon of remembering drinking episodes
euphorically or in only a pleasant way. This means that
of the alcoholic to make the necessary self-diagnosis is
difficult for most and for many, apparently, impossible.
objective data he needs to reach this conclusion are almost
outside of his awareness, and they will stay out of his
as long as his defense system works. The conclusion that
he is an
alcoholic is terrifying. He usually knows total abstinence
the price of recovery. His highly developed defense system
him out of touch with reality. If the behavior which most
the spouse, family, employer, associates, and the parish
were presented to the subject by means of a video tape machine,
alcoholic himself would be the most surprised of all.
Unfortunately, hardly anyone in the life of the alcoholic
aware of this phenomenon. They will mistake his "blindness"
intrapsychic repression as obstreperousness, stubbornness,
mood swings of a drinking alcoholic range from expansive
feelings of grandiosity and omnipotence, while inebriated,
feelings of despondency, despair and humiliation while in
"hangover" or withdrawal state. The moods of shame,
impending doom, and the constant fear of detection seem
universal among drinking alcoholics. The alcoholic is out
with the reality of his own life history at this point.
constantly swearing off only to return to drink within hours,
this return is generally rationalized as a desired choice
than as the enslavement to a compulsion.
personality generalizations are somewhat suspect, this
writer perceives alcoholics as a class as bright, sensitive,
frequently charming, "nice" people. They seem
passive-dependent and/or passive-agressive. While drinking
lead a double life, referred to by the "Big Book"
as analogous to
the story of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.
the illness of alcoholism progresses, the male alcoholic
will reach the stage of sexual impotence, incontinence,
hallucinations, delerium tremens, and possible convulsions
withdrawal. The final "symptom" is death!
family of the alcoholic, if he still has one, is generally
characterized by a great deal of scapegoating. Everyone
convenient times to blame all ills on the alcoholic as the
alcoholic becomes expert at blaming everyone but himself.
understandable, since the guilt for his behavior has become
too heavy to bear.
Crisis of Faith
the genesis of A.A. is deeply rooted in the
Judaeo-Christian faith, this does not seem widely appreciated
within the "folklore" of A.A. The notion that
A.A. is divinely
inspired is widely held among A.A. members. Yet, most of
not aware that two priests, one nun, one psychiatrist and
physicians helped conceive the process in conjunction with
co-founders. This writer cannot urge strongly enough that
parish priest read A.A. Comes of Age. This is a kind of
history" of A.A. with the GSO "imprimatur."
The priest should also
read Chapters 2-11 of the "Big Book."
unofficially and officially A.A. is very busy protesting
how non-theological and non-religious it is. Of course,
and "theological" are used here in the popular
sense, not in that
of the trained theologian. The "preamble" of A.A.
says, "...A.A. is
not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization
institution. ..does not wish to engage in any controversy..."
referred to as "God as we understand Him," a Higher
Power," or a
"Power greater than ourselves."
the beginnings of a crisis of faith begin to emerge for
recovering alcoholic, he is told that he must find a "God
own understanding" if he is going to recover, yet he
is not told
specifically how or where to look outside of A.A. He is
if he works the Twelve Steps he will have a spiritual awakening
a result of these steps."
the number of references to God in the Twelve Steps;
(The comments in parentheses by the writer.)
"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that
our lives had become unmanageable." (Already a subtle
attack upon his own "infantile omnipotence.")
2. "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves
could restore us to sanity."
3. "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives
over to the care of God as we understood Him." (Notice
the more prevenient nature of God's action in Step 2 before
any conscious decision making in Step 3. Also, note that
the statement of the steps is essentially the older members
sharing their "experience, strength and hope"
with the newer members. Note how the message is cast in
the past tense of the behavior of the older members, meaning,
"this is what we did and found that it worked for us,"
rather than, "here is what you must do." This
seems an extremely commonsense manifestation of grace.)
4. "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of
5. "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human
being the exact nature of our wrongs."
6. "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these
defects of character."
7. "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
(Notice the almost incredible amount of trust placed in
the healing and redeeming power of God.)
8. "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became
willing to make amends to them all."
9. "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others."
10. "Continued to take personal inventory and when
we were wrong promptly admitted it."
11. "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve
our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying
only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry
that out." (Not only is trust in God required, but
now a life of prayerful relationship with Him is assumed.)
12. "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result
of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics,
and to practice these principles in all our affairs."
(A very often neglected key to the whole spiritual process
of A.A. is that the spiritual awakening is "as the
result of these steps.")
A.A., not "allied with any sect or denomination,"
reference to God or a direct euphemism for God in six out
Twelve Steps. Further, in a summary paragraph following
Steps, the "Big Book" says:
description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic,
and our personal adventures before and after make clear
three pertinent ideas:
That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our
(c) That God could and would if he were sought.
is not hard to understand that the recovering alcoholic
begins a quest for God, and often a whole new look at organized
churches. This quest is often seen by the recovering alcoholic
matter of life and death. For to continue to drink is to
only help held out to him is reliance upon A.A. He is convinced
must take A.A. seriously. A.A. is clearly insisting to him
find God, so if he is to take A.A. seriously, he must take
quest for God very seriously.
hammers home two basic concepts: 1) It is the first drink
that gets you drunk, and 2) the life of continued drinking
issue in either the "wet brain" or death or both.
hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher ever was more effective
someone to turn for help out of his "hell." It
was Martin Luther
who said that man must experience damnation before he can
experience salvation. Alcoholics can understand this truth
extremely basic and practical level, although they may not
to articulate it. The alcoholic comes to realize that up
point, he has seen alcohol only as a solution for most of
problems. Now he realizes how it has become the center of
and the center of the source of meaning of his life. Nearly
the pleasant as well as the unpleasant associations in his
alcohol-related. We might call it "alco-logia."
All thinking and
reasoning is, figuratively speaking, soaked in alcohol.
Not only is
alcohol greater than he is, he comes to see that it is his
At the same time, this "god" is destroying him.
It is worship of
the "god" alcohol, that is chronically killing
him. To the extent
that will-to-live remains, he is now willing to be aware
of what is
happening to him.
his "god" has backfired on him, because it now
him instead of delivering him, because it fails him, for
reasons and these alone most alcoholics will consider another
as an alternative. Pious altruism is to no avail. Discussion
wife and family, of stopping drinking for their sakes, is
than worthless. To the extent that he can hear these reasons
all, he usually will feel more guilt, more pain, and will
reason, "Well, I might as well drink myself to death.
I'm no good
to them or anyone else anyway."
crisis crystallizes. Alcohol is a power much greater than
he is, whether drunk or sober. He cannot "lick it."
What A.A. has
told him makes sense. Only super-human aid holds out any
Alcohol is bigger than life itself. It is going to take
else bigger than life to be bigger than alcohol for him.
is there but God? Metaphysical arguments about the existence,
non-existence, of God have long since paled into insignificance.
About the Existence of God
is commonly much skepticism on the part of recovering
alcoholics. They tell you quite frankly that they have been
preached at so much, and in the South, where this author
gathers his data, much of traditional Protestantism is still
associated with prohibition. The alcoholic who grew up in
prohibitionist environment has to feel guilty not only for
drunkenness, but also his having drunk at all. It is not
for the recovering alcoholic to label himself agnostic or
The problem is so significant that Chapter 4 of the "Big
entitled "We Agnostics."
both the Federal Government and the State of
Virginia utilize this chaplain to "teach the spiritual
side of the
program" in compulsory alcohol treatment programs,
amendment to the United States Constitution notwithstanding.
of the individual A.A. members vary everywhere from
the faith of the dedicated Christians to the self-proclaimed
atheist. The attitudes of the A.A. members vary along the
spectrum with one exception. None of them is casual about
matter. Tillich would describe them as being "concerned
ultimately." So does this writer.
are futile. To the believer who has recovered, to
try to argue with him against the existence of God is like
to convince a man who was just rescued from drowning that
guard who pulled him out of the water probably does not
older A.A. member who calls himself a non-believer is usually
pretty well entrenched and in a small minority within the
fellowship of A.A.
is not at all uncommon to hear one say, "I used to
did not believe in God. Then I came to understand that the
the matter was that I just did not think God believed in
me. It was
you people (in A.A.) who have made me see through your lives
God does, after all, believe in me."
are very practical ways in which this comes about. A
newer member is trying out the 11th step, "Sought through
and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God
understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for
the power to carry that out." An older member shares
experience, "Well, at first I tried it by saying, 'O
God, if you're
there and if you can here me, please let me get through
without a drink.'" So, it is "working!" No
one in A.A. is about to
suggest that this might just be auto-suggestion. Next, he
thank this God for getting him through the day. This God
functional in his life. Before he realizes it, he has "come
does pass for atheism in the recovering alcoholic is more
of a psychological reaction to pain than any sort of carefully
reasoned theological position. When Sigmund Freud reasoned
the existence of God by saying that God was merely a projection
our own father image onto the heavens, he was in error in
of purely reasoned metaphysics. However, the significance
truth here is that the way most of us think about God is
influenced by the way we think about our own parents and
figures. Those who have perceived their parents mostly in
fear of being caught, of fear of condemnation and rejection,
have to deal with this psychodynamically by denying that
heavenly "father" (obviously, to them, only mean,
rejecting) does not, in fact exist. Denial of the existence
may be a covert and unconscious expression of hostility
emanating from deeply buried anxiety.
Issue of Conversion Experience and Related Theological Questions.
who has seriously tried to break himself of a bad habit
knows experientially something of the difficulty of the
instance, if the habit has to do with tobacco, time must
restructured. We cannot sit around idly "not smoking"
success. We may have to re-socialize away from those who
perpetually smoke. We will need to break thought associations
are linked with smoking, such as "finishing a meal
reminds me of
tobacco." Finally, if there is to be any contentment
in life after
the breaking of the habit, there will have to be some change
attitudes vis-a-vis smoking and tobacco.
we are talking not only about a habit, and a very bad
habit, alcoholism, but also about a dependency and a physiological
addiction with roots which go deep into the persona. Consider
the problems that go with breaking any other bad habit multiply,
it were, exponentially.
the recovering alcoholic, time must be restructured.
Re-socialization away from old "drinking buddies"
Thought associations are devastating if not altered. The
associates all forms of pleasure-music, dancing, sports,
sex, eating, etc., with drinking. He must learn to enjoy
without booze and without thinking of booze.
refers to this phenomenon as a "spiritual awakening"
requires it as the sine qua non for any long-term sobriety.
what our patient is told is that he must experience what
tantamount to at least a kind of mini-conversion experience.
the "Big Book" speak for itself as it quotes the
words of the
celebrated psychiatrist, Carl Gustaf Jung, in referring
"spiritual awakening" the alcoholic must experience
if he is to
appear to be in the nature of huge emotional
displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes
which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these
are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set
conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."
these changes are absolutely essential and "as the
result of these steps" and not always "suddenly
cast to one side,"
the later literature provides modification of the time factor
involved in this essential change.
our rapidly growing membership of thousands of
alcoholics such transformations (suddenly revolutionary
though frequent, are by no means the rule. Most of our experiences
are what the psychologist William James calls the "educational
variety" because they develop slowly over a period
of time. Quite
often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference
before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone
profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a
could hardly have been brought about by himself alone. What
takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished
years of self-discipline."
theological trained ear begins to hear the dynamics of
metanoia and the rebirth experience. Anyone who hears the
story with his own name as the nominative of direct address
the same question as did Nicodemus, "but how is this
literature of A.A. is adamant and without compromise:
you have decided you want what we have and are willing to
go to any lengths to get it - then you are ready to take
steps... At some of these we balked. We thought we could
easier, softer way. But we could not . ..Some of us have
hold on to our old ideas, and the result was nil until we
is being asked of the alcoholic is change of his basic
raison d'etre. His whole reason for being, a life wrapped
bottled anesthesia which has given solace for so long is
whisked away, and a new, but unknown, substitute is offered.
will have to have new ways of reducing anxiety and new ways
relating closely and intimately to others. The psychological
"vacations" from reality we all need will have
to be found in new
ways. A new sense of significance must come and from another
source. New ways of finding euphoria and other ways of experiencing
transcendence are essential if he is to be "alive"
with any sort of
"abundant" life. The patient is afraid - terrified
is not too
strong a word. He is also irritable, resistant and dubious.
is held out, and it is described. Here is a description
we are painstaking about this phase (the discussion of the
first nine steps) of our development, we will be amazed
are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom
and a new
happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut
the door on
it. We will comprehend the word "serenity" and
we will know peace.
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see
experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness
self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish
and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip
whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of
and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively
how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will
realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for
these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being
fulfilled among us - sometimes slowly. They will always
if we work for them"
this promise has not yet been experienced. He asks, "Will
it ever happen to me and can life even be fulfilling and
again?" The experience of the older members of A.A.,
to which they
never cease testifying, is that for many of them, the reality
described above has happened.
the patient who wishes to be a "winner" has his
out for him. He cannot just wander around vaguely looking
kind of "Damascus" road where something might
happen to him. He has
been told that these changes occur as the result of these
theologically trained ear will pick itself up at the
mention of "steps" and immediately suspect Gnosticism.
believe there is little, if any, of climbing ladders up
to God in
these steps, let us peruse them in some detail.
4 is written "searching and fearless moral inventory"
taken patiently and slowly so as to be "thorough."
It is to list
all of the offensive thought and behavior of the past which
produces guilt and shame, as well as the positive attitudes
oneself. It is far more extensive and intensive than the
preparation of the average penitent's first lifetime confession.
5, "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human
being, the exact nature of our wrongs," it is a kind
out of the spiritual garbage can. It is admission of all
of this to
God, to oneself and to another human being. It involves
anyone's lifetime confession does and much more. At this
"Big Book" makes a very precise referral:
..Those of us belonging to a religious denomination which
requires confession must, and, of course, will want to go
properly appointed authority whose duty it is to receive
we have no religious connection, we may still do well to
someone ordained by an established religion. We often find
person quick to see and understand our problem. Of course,
sometimes encounter people who do not understand alcoholism."
implications for an Episcopal priest should be obvious.
Suffice it to say that it is hoped that this priest is,
at the very
least, conversant with the literature of the "Big Book"
and the "12
priest can now expect some very specific questions to be
inevitably articulated. "This God of understanding
is very appealing, but is it all right with my church for
believe this?" "My preacher told me that drunkards
could never go to heaven, but would burn in hell. What do
think?" "Is there really a devil?" "Is
there really a hell?" "I
cannot believe every word of the Bible, so how can I believe
it at all?" Usually, there are a number of specific
how did God make the sun stand still, create the world in
days, etc. They are asking, "How can I understand God?"
6, "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these
defects of character," and Step 7, "Humbly asked
Him to remove our
shortcomings," involves a serious change of character,
many old habits and the re-establishment of new habits.
Step 7 and
Step 8, "Made a list of all persons we had harmed,
willing to make amends to them all," involve "amendment
of life" in
a radical sense. (This is taking "and intend to lead
a new life",
seriously.) This means searching out people and institutions
one has harmed and violated and, in a most concrete way,
to make restitution wherever possible. It is only after
all of this
is done in a "painstaking" way that the promises
listed above are
held out. The recovering alcoholic has faced a number of
crises, had many theological questions and struggled with
he has any realistic hope of recovery.
if guilt is to be reduced, self-acceptance recovered and
relationships improved; if self-forgiveness, the forgiveness
others and the respect of others is to ensue, there is little
through any other alternative.
11 says, "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve
our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying
for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry
Many alcoholics at this stage of recovery seek and need
clergy. They need to know more about what prayer really
is, how to
pray and if their own style of informal prayer is valid.
the 11th step as one of the three "maintenance"
steps - as
essential to maintain the new style of life.
author hopes it is now evident that the competent and
sensitive priest who is fairly sophisticated in the dynamics
alcoholism has a very important role to play in the recovery
alcoholics. He alone is qualified to perform this theological
theological areas to which he can speak concern the nature
of God, sin and the life of prayer. A.A. has presented these
to the recovering alcoholic as indispensable to recovery.
has not provided all of the answers. A.A., by its very nature,
cannot provide these answers.
the taking of the 5th step, a combination of
components and confession and counseling, is thought by
A.A. authorities as indispensable to the "spiritual
which is essential for longterm, contented sobriety. The
specifically counsels that the alcoholic sees his priest
it is hoped that the 12 step process of "spiritual
awakening" - a major attitudinal change - provides
theological analogue. This major displacement and rearrangement
old ideas, attitudes and emotions by a whole new set of
thoughts and attitudes provides an excellent lens through
understand conversion to Jesus Christ. While the "spiritual
awakening" should not be equated with Christian metanoia,
it is as
similar to it as anything known to this author. Further,
who is aware of the dynamics of both, and understands both
relation to the other, may be able to be a more effective
facilitator of Christian conversion. He can also have a