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DIGEST, Vol. 55: 103-106, April, 1991
ED AND A.A.'S BILL W.
by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.
Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous was down. His
feet hung over the end of the bed that nearly filled the
he and his wife, Lois, had rented above the 24th Street
in New York. It was a cold, rainy November in 1940. Lois,
supported them both with a job at a department store, was
was wondering whether the stomach pain he was feeling was
walls were closing in. Thousands of copies of the Big Book
were waiting in a warehouse, unsold. A few people were sober,
Bill was frustrated. How could he reach all who wanted help?
months earlier, a gathering of rich New Yorkers had come
with applause for the young movement, but no money. Hank
complaining for half a year, finally got drunk in April.
a nationally famous ballplayer, sobered up but broke A.A.'s
of anonymity by calling the press for a full name-and-photograph
story. Eventually Bill fell into the same trap as Rollie;
calling reporters, too, wherever he gave talks. Now he was
the center of attention. He had just returned from Baltimore,
a minister had asked him to face the self-pity in his own
was depressed. What if he-five years sober-were to drink?
was 10 p.m. The doorbell rang. Tom, the club's maintenance
man, said there was "some bum from St. Louis"
to see him.
Bill said, "Send him up." To himself, he
muttered, "Not another drunk."
Bill welcomed this stranger, all the same. As the man
shuffled to a wooden chair opposite the bed and sat down,
raincoat fell open, revealing a Roman collar. "I'm
Dowling from St. Louis," he said. "A Jesuit friend
and I have been
struck by the similarity of the A.A. twelve steps and the
Exercises of St. Ignatius."
heard of them," replied Bill.
Ed laughed. This endeared him to Bill. Robert Thomsen
tells the rest of the story this way in his book, Bill W.:
curious little man went on and on, and as he did, Bill
could feel his body relaxing, his spirits rising. Gradually
realized that this man sitting across from him was radiating
of grace....Primarily, Father Ed wanted to talk about the
of A.A., the 'regeneration,' he called it, the strength
of defeat and weakness, the loss of one's old life as a
for achieving a new one. And Bill agreed with everything...."
Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth
step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this
had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his
impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions. "Blessed
Father Ed said, "who hunger and thirst."
Bill asked whether there was ever to be any satisfaction,
the priest snapped, "Never, Never any." Bill would
have to keep on
reaching. In time, his reaching would find God's goals,
his own heart.
had made a decision, Father Ed reminded him, to turn his
life and his will over to God . ..he was not to sit in judgment
how he or the world was to proceeding. He had only to keep
channel open...it was not up to him to control how fast
slowly A.A. developed... For whether the two of them liked
not, the world was undoubtedly proceeding as it should,
Ed continued quoting Bill's work to him. No one had
been able to maintain perfect adherence to the principles.
were saints. They claimed spiritual progress, not spiritual
Father Ed left, he pulled his body up, and leaning on
his cane he thrust his head forward and looked straight
eyes. There was a force in Bill, he said, that was all his
had never been on this earth before, and if Bill did anything
mar it or block it, it would never exist anywhere again.
night, for the first time in months, Bill Wilson slept
began a 20 year friendship nourished by visits, phone
calls and letters. Both men spoke the language of the heart,
learned through suffering: Bill from alcoholism, Father
arthritis that was turning his back into stone. Bill turned
Father Ed as a spiritual sponsorl a friend. Father Ed, in
to his provincial, noted that he saw his own gift for A.A.
"very free use of the Ignatian Rules for the Discernment
for the second week of the Spiritual Exercise."
Father Ed endorsed A.A. for American Catholics with his
appendix in the Big Book and his Queen's Work pamphlet of
was the first to see wider application of the twelve steps
addictions, and wrote about them in Grapevine (A.A.'s magazine)
the spring 1960 issue. Bill added a last line to that Grapevine
article: "Father Ed, an early and wonderful friend
of A.A., died as
this last message went to press. He was the greatest and
gentle soul to walk this planet. I was closer to him than
other human being on this earth."
his part, Father Ed counted many gifts from Bill. He had
told his sister Anna, that the graces he received from their
meeting were equivalent to those received at his own ordination.
And he thanked Bill for letting him "hitchhike"
on the twelve
steps. In 1942 he wrote to Bill that he had started a national
movement for married couples to help each other through
steps: CANA (Couples Are Not Alone). He used the steps to
people with mental difficulties, scruples, and sexual compulsions.
When chided by an A.A. member about his smoking, Father
with help from the twelve steps and wrote to Bill that as
he was becoming as "fat as a hog."
he tried to use the twelve steps with his own compulsive
eating. On story of his struggle ends with Father Ed one
eating all the strawberries intended to feed the whole Jesuit
Community. He became so sick he had to receive last rites.
from 242 to 167 pounds and up again like a yo-yo. He asked
start an 00 ("obese obvious") group.
Father Ed spoke of being helped by attending an open
A.A. meeting and wrote to Bill that A.A. was his "lonely
club." In his last twenty years his ministry changed
to A.A. and his friendship with Lois and Bill. He gave CANA
conferences for families, using the twelve steps, once a
1942 to 1960. He cheered Lois on as she started and continued
Al-Anon. Father Ed rejoiced that in "moving therapy
expensive clinical couch to the low-cost coffee bar, from
inexperienced professional to the informed amateur, A.A.
democratized sanity." He wrote his superior to free
Jesuit, Father John Higgins, who was recovering from mental
illness, to work with Recovery Inc., a group Dr. Abraham
started for people with mental problems. Those groups for
illness were especially close to Father Ed's heart as there
history of depression in his own family. He called people
"wounded healers" for each other.
there anything from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius
Father Ed's gift to Bill? Father Ed pointed out parallels
the Spiritual Exercises and the twelve steps several times,
Bill had written the twelve steps before he ever heard of
Ed did give Bill a copy of the Spiritual Exercises in
1952, underlining the "Two Standards" meditation.
When Father Ed
met Bill, moreover, he had called him to the place where
bottomed out and he had surrendered to his higher power.
believed that this was the place where humiliations led
and then to all other blessings. In saying this, he paraphrased
Ignatius's closing prayer of the "Two Standards"
this, Father Ed maintained, was where the Exercises become
most like A.A. He went a step further and invited Bill to
choices based on poverty and humiliation rather than on
power, or fame.
suggestion helped Bill turn down an honorary degree from
Yale. On the packet of letters dealing with his decision,
"To Father Ed with gratitude." In the letter to
Yale he stated his
reasons for declining the honor:
own life story gathered for years around an implacable
pursuit of money, fame, and power, anticlimaxed by my near
in a sea of alcohol. Though I survived that grim misadventure,
well understand that the dread neurotic germ of the power
has survived in me also. It is only dormant and it can again
multiply and rend me - and A.A., too. Tens of thousands
members are temperamentally like me. They know it, fortunately,
I know it. Hence our tradition of anonymity and hence my
obligation to decline this honor with all the immediate
satisfaction and benefit it could have yielded."
then, is where Father Ed met Bill that rainy night long
ago, in the small room where bottoming out opens up to life,
humiliations lead to humility - and to all other blessings.