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ANTHONY MESSENGER, Vol. 99, No.4, September, 1991
SPIRITUALITY OF 12 - STEP PROGRAMS
by Judi Bailey
it is that your dealing with - maritial issues, raging
emotions, lack of faith, conflict with the Church - there's
thing you know for sure: You can pin your hopes on spirituality.
place to look for a spiritual framework is the 12 Steps,
to life recommended by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Although many Christians have stumbled into 12-step groups
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,
been an estimated 200 spin-offs. Those programs that stick
the original tenets of A.A. are spiritual in nature. Usually
only difference in other programs is the wording of the
(New programs obtain permission to use these steps from
World Services office in New York.) A.A. identifies alcohol
problem, but other groups might name relationships, sex,
other addictions. Some people who aren't in 12-step groups
use these concepts by slipping their primary problem into
step, admitting they are wrestling with such issues as anger,
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."
been members of the Christian renewal Oxford Group movement,
emphasis was placed on the power of the Holy Spirit, the
daily prayer and meditation, the importance of Christian
and the merits of witnessing. In 1935, A.A. was born, basing
its principles on Bill's and Bob's experiences in the Oxford
more than 50 years later, many Catholics are finding help
in the principles of the 12 steps. "From my experience
Anonymous," says Bill, a recovering alcoholic priest,
"I found a
viable spirituality, a relationship with God I never had
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.
Recent Popularity of Self-Help
to a recent Newsweek article, the number of self-help
organizations has quadrupled in the last 10 years. People
crowding into church halls, bank annexes, private homes
basements of fast-food restaurants - all reaching for some
healing. In fact, in one week alone, 15 million Americans
attend 500,000 group meetings. Dr. Frank Riessman, a psychologist
and codirector of the National Self-Help Clearinghouse,
programs are the fastest growing category of self-help groups.
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
system are making referrals in increasing numbers.
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."
people talk my language," says Beth, a member of
Anonymous. "When I arrived at my first meeting,
like I had come home. They're the only ones who ever really
understood. Everyone else says, 'Just don't eat so much.'
they know how hard that is to do."
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
inadequacy or a dip in your faith. In fact, listeners respond
sharing their own vulnerabilities.
addition, hearing someone else's experiences - from
rationalizations to results - cuts through denial more quickly
most forms of confrontation (which raises defenses) or traditional
psychotherapy. The credibility of others' successes offers
of the Movement
still consider self-help groups to be a type of cult,
particularly the 12-step groups since many of these groups
recovery, and therefore membership, a lifelong committment.
many who come to these 12-step programs have tried other
including religion, before they finally got help. Consequently,
turned cold to religion. Others, especially new members,
everything but their 12-step group.
Stanton Peele, a social psychologist, recently wrote
book Diseasing of America, which addresses what he considers
America's obsession with self-improvement programs. Peele
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
says this keeps us from working toward change.
critics point to those individuals who make self-help an
avocation, people who are compelled to attend group after
read book after book, searching for "the answer."
"Some are just
looking for a magic wand," says Pat Mellody, executive
The Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona.
cop out by running to a meeting rather than facing a
problem. Some hide in a book rather than admit authentic
Principles of the 12 Steps
not only the freedom from their addictions that makes the
12 steps so attractive to people, but also the spiritual
ensues from practicing the steps. The steps' central principles
Alfred H. Katz and Eugene I. Bender write in their
book, The Strength in Us, Self-Help Groups in the Modern
members "start from a condition of powerlessness -
no matter what
they may later achieve, their initial resources are always
is not a negative concept, but an empowering one. Its the
surrender-to-win paradox. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians
when I am weak, then I am strong."
an awareness of this victory principle, people
controlled by their compulsions remain driven. The crack
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."
workaholic says, "When I get past this project, I'll
take some time
state of acceptance is necessary for true recovery, a
coming-to-grips with the reality of your situation. For
you are lonely, accepting your emotions is the first step
resolution. If your relationship with your daughter is shaky,
need to acknowledge the tension before you work on it.
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."
The first time I felt my prayers were truly answered,"
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,
good it really is.
home from work, I had an urge to drink. It was my
regular time. I said, a generic prayer, something like,
there, please help me." It worked. I didn't drink.
Since then till
now, eight years later, I keep becoming more and more aware
much my life depends on God."
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
shoplifting or the absorption of our own emotions, most
of us are
surprised to discover the depth of our dishonesty. We don't
admit even to ourselves that we were really hurt by what
friend said, that we feel worthless, that we are filled
self-pity or that we abuse sex.
not a 'cash register honesty' that's so important,"
Bill says, "but understanding one's own life and one's
about other people. Rooting out the lies in ourselves is
the work of
look at how they've broken the Ten Commandments, how
they've harmed their relationship with God. They share the
bones of the appraisal with another person, often their
perhaps their sponsor (a mentor who has practiced these
longer than they have).
never believed in Confession before I joined A.A.,"Sam
But since I worked the fourth and fifth steps, the Sacrament
Reconciliation has been more meaningful." He now chooses
his sins face-to-face with a priest.
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
interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows."
other words, we will achieve humility. These principles
guide us from self-absorption to a humble perspective of
Emptied of our obsession with our problems or our compulsion
we can be open to receive guidance and direction.
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
"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
adjustments are needed. "Humility involves accepting
yourself as you really are," Alan continues, "not
as you thought you
for harms done. Stoping compulsive pill-taking is one
thing. But the pills caused a trail of abuse and rejected
What about them? Ceasing overspending is a terrific start.
misuse of money led to neglected kids, disgruntled bill
a confused spouse.
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,
bring your gift to the alter, and there recall that your
anything against you, leave your gift there at the alter,
and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer
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
scored up with God before you come back, you need to score
went back to work on steps eight and nine immediately."
("helping others"). Sister
Ignatia, the admissions
officer at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron who worked with
cofounder Dr. Bob Smith to provide medical treatment to
was fond of pointing out this key idea: You'll find yourself
losing yourself to others.
12th step suggests that after having resolved some of the
more burdensome issues of our lives, it's time to get out
ourselves and help others with similar problems. The former
fanatic shares her story with fitness freaks and in so doing
herself remember "how bad it was." People pleasers
message" to those still suffering from a lack of assertiveness.
after helping their 12-step brothers and sisters, members
recommit to ministry at their place of worship. After a
years of sponsoring A.A. members, Sam now spends his time
eucharistic minister, helping the sick in the Hope Ministry
and as a
Catholic evangelizer, informing alienated Catholics that
still welcomes them.
my 12th step," he says.
Beyond the 12th Step
principles of 12-step programs can aid the practice of
Catholicism, but religion also enhances the 12 steps.
returned to close the ring of my spirituality," Sam
used to attend A.A. Sunday mornings. Every time I'd drive
church to get to the meeting, I'd feel a tug. I was looking
in my spirituality. I felt there must be life beyond a 12-step
people enter their recovery and confront the aspect of
spirituality, many report confusion over their concept of
frustration programs handle with a liberal concept called
to Vivian, a member of 12-Step programs dealing with
destructive relationships, "Prior to my recovery, I
of God as some kind of cosmic butler: If you're good you
rewarded, if bad - punished.
I never felt I was good enough, so my God was a guilting
type God, tallying my sins with a clipboard in his hand."
like many others, had a negative, frightening picture
of God until something happened to force the issue. For
was loneliness. "As I began to eliminate all the sick
I had with men, I had no one else to talk to but God."
That was the
start. Now God's her best friend.
we don't all have such troublesome beginnings. For many
years, Ann, a member of Al-Anon, a 12-step program for those
to alcoholics, went to church on her lunch hour to get comfort.
although I still attend Mass, I can find God anywhere. I
always saw God as a trusting figure, as love. But I now
closer relationship. I'm not just praying to someone up
Now he's a friend and a father figure."
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
the time, about anything. Previously, she only knew how
her old, formal prayers.
understand their religion better. To Mary, Catholicism
seemed much more positive after she joined a 12-step program.
message is no longer, 'Don't do this, don't do that,"'she
I'm much more in tune with the compassion in the message
says he is experiencing more aspects of his religion than
he ever has before. Although he attends Mass regularly,
partakes in other avenues of Catholic expression.
I returned to the Church, I couldn't believe how much it
had changed," he says. He reads the Bible more and
involved in a number of sharing groups. The fellowship he
in A.A. made him hungry for closer ties to the Christian
Ann's early days in Al-Anon (and her husband's beginnings
A.A.), she interpreted the 12-step program as a contradiction
religion. The sacrament of matrimony said she and her husband
one; A.A. and Al-Anon were telling her, "Take care
of yourself. Work
your programs separately. Each of you is an individual."
after a number of meetings, Ann's perceptions began to
change. She saw that the two messages actually reinforce
another. "Al-Anon deepened and strengthened my Catholicism
- and my
marriage," she says after 14 years in the program.
Father Bill always enjoyed the mystery of the Church,
the spirituality of his 12-step program gave deeper meaning
Scripture and the Mass.
of that, Father Bill says, was through greater
flexibility. "lots of religious people are rigid in
They're always looking for someone else to give them rules
is right and what is wrong.
makes you openminded to yourself and toward other
people. We have to let go of our rigid thinking and become
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.
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
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
the future, when people live in the present they can be
to others and live a life of thanksgiving."
life of gratitude can be practiced through pinning your
spirituality on the principles of the 12 steps: being honest
your situation, practicing humility, paying for past errors
helping others. It's a great way to boost your working faith!