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Vol. 172(21), 20-22, June 17, 1995
12 Steps neatly package for our contemporary world not only
the wisdom of Paul, but the wisdom of the centuries.
SPIRITUALITY: 60 YEARS OF A.A.
Neil J. Carr
shout, "THAT'S A.A.!" was one I hardly expected
to hear in a graduate class of theology. But I heard it
last fall at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley,
Calif. It was provoked by the professor's lively overview
of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. The 12 steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous mirror in a remarkable way this letter of Paul.
Those steps neatly package for our contemporary world not
only this wisdom of Paul, but also the wisdom of the centuries,
as captured in writings that go back even to pre-Christian
the end of June, people will converge on San Diego by the
thousands to celebrate their liberation from the effects
of a fatal disease. To the casual observer they will appear
no different from the usual conventioneers. But they won't
be drinking. They will be grateful members of Alcoholics
Anonymous, there to mark A.A.'s 60th birthday, 60 years
of rescuing over two million people around the world from
the jaws of death, themselves included.
deep spirituality of A.A.'s program of 12 steps has only
recently been discovered by mainstream religious savants,
who laud it now in such terms as "America's unique
contribution to the history of spirituality" (Richard
Rohr, O.F.M.), and as "the greatest spiritual movement
of the 20th century" (Keith Miller). I believe these
claims are true.
has made A.A.'s spirituality so effective in the lives of
many people is, I believe, the specific nature of its suggestions.
They embody ancient spiritual insights of many religions
of both East and West and deliver them to people of the
20th century whose lives are unmanageable and who feel powerless
to change them by their own devices. Such persons are trapped
in various types of addictive behaviors. A.A.'s 12 steps
have proved effective for compulsions other than drinking
- gambling, narcotics, sex, eating and smoking, to name
but a few.
alcoholics, the A.A. program of 12 steps becomes a way of
life. They see sobriety not as a destination, but as a journey.
The alcoholic in A.A. suffers from what he or she knows
is a fatal disease, presently in remission, but able to
flare up at any unguarded moment. As the Big Book (Alcoholics
Anonymous, A.A.'s "Bible," first published in
1939) explains, alcoholism is "cunning, baffling, powerful,"
and for that reason external vigilance is required. The
pilgrims making the A.A. journey in sobriety can enjoy no
rest stops along the way, nor can they ever escape a constantly
recurring roadside warning that reads "Under Construction."
The roadbed must be maintained in good repair, a task accomplished
only when the alcoholic is willing to go to any length to
win and persevere in sobriety. As the Big Book says, there
is no "easier, softer way." The founders of A.A.
learned from experience that "half measures availed
third tradition states that "the only requirement for
membership is a desire to stop drinking." True enough:
That admits a person to the fellowship of A.A. But unless
that desire is an honest one, it will never anchor him there.
He must eventually fully embrace his powerlessness over
alcohol in the very depth of his being.
of the great blessings of A.A.'s spirituality is its asceticism,
the disciplinary course of conduct needed to maintain the
alcoholic's prized sobriety. The A.A. member considers sobriety
a precious gift, which, like all things precious, is fragile
even after many years of testing and needs protection against
destruction. Some treasures are subject to slow corrosion
- but not sobriety. Once corrosion begins (as it does, for
example, when an alcoholic begins to think he's cured and
stops going to meetings), a single drink is all that is
needed to begin a precipitous slide into the darkness of
addiction and the misery from which he or she had once gratefully
escaped. Alcoholics deeply believe that no power of their
own, indeed no human aid whatever, had gained their sobriety
originally and that, in the event of a fall, they can redeem
themselves only with the help of a higher power, the grace
spell out the asceticism of A.A.'s way of life in great
detail would be a lengthy task. In broad terms, it consists
simply of regular attendance at meetings - "90 meetings
in 90 days" to begin with, based on an admission of
powerlessness over alcohol and hence the need for a higher
power to remove the deadly obsession that had driven the
alcoholic to the edge of despair. In addition, the A.A.
program requires daily meditation and prayer, the reading
of A.A. literature, especially the Big Book, and the application
of the 12 step principles to everyday affairs. The result
is an eventual spiritual awakening and the joyous life of
believe it was Robert Frost who once wrote that "the
way out is through." The alcoholic finds his way out
of bondage to alcohol through A.A.'s miracle of recovery.
Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A. with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935,
used the word "recovery" often in composing the
Big Book. The wise member of A.A., however, thinks of him
or herself as recovering, lest complacency take root. Complacency
would wean him from his spiritual base and allow his disease
to return with even greater force than it had when he first
stopped drinking. For, strangely enough, the disease progresses
even during years of abstinence from alcohol, though its
power to kill is arrested as long as one is not drinking.
consolation of recovering alcoholics lies in their belief
that they are exactly where God wants them to be, that somehow
all the dreadful experiences of active alcoholism had a
purpose. These have brought them to the happiness they now
enjoy, to a freedom that they now know lay on the other
side of A.A.'s discipline. For
without that discipline, their way of life would lack structure.
Wilson wrote in one of his letters, "We must find some
spiritual basis for living, else we die." Though not
active in any particular church, he was deeply influenced
by religious thought that came to him through early association
with the Oxford Movement and through supporters like the
Rev. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopalian, and a Jesuit, Father
Edward Dowling, whom Wilson eulogized as a close friend
and who was one of his sponsors. Father Dowling was the
"human being" with whom he took his all-important
fifth step: "(We) admitted to ourselves, to God and
to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs."
as not to turn away suffering alcoholics who might be agnostics
or atheists, A.A. suggests to such persons that they use
as their "higher power" a group of the fellowship
itself whose meetings they attend regularly, and to others
that they use God‘ as they understand God. A.A. thus
wisely treats the creed and worship of organized religion
as not essential to the healing process, while yet encouraging
church or synagogue attendance as helpful. A.A. insists
that its program is spiritual, not religious, since no specific
understanding of God. is prescribed, but only the need for
a higher power of individual choice. There is, therefore,
no religious creed or liturgy connected with its meetings,
although most conclude with the recitation of the Lord's
Prayer. For the God mentioned in the steps is clearly personal,
all-powerful and loving: the Judeo-Christian God, not a
vague source of strength. The power "greater than ourselves"
mentioned in the second step is a stepping stone to trust
in a God who knows, loves and is ready to help his children.
in a higher power is essential to an alcoholic's journey
to sobriety. "No human power," says A.A., could
have relieved our alcoholism." Yet faith is not sufficient
of itself. Trust is the capstone, trust in God and in the
program. In the third of the 12 steps, it is suggested that
alcoholics turn their will and their lives over to the care
of God as they understand him. This implies, as just mentioned,
belief in a personal, loving God in whom they must put their
spectator at a circus who peers up at a man on the high
wire pushing a wheelbarrow across from one end to the other
feels very certain that the performer will arrive at the
other end without incident. But if he had trust, he would
be willing somehow to climb up there and sit in the wheelbarrow.
That is quite a difference, yet that is the kind of trust
in God and the program asked of the alcoholic. Once in the
wheelbarrow, however, the alcoholic becomes part of the
act, a very essential part, and is greatly responsible for
preserving the balance. This is where a rigorous fidelity
to living the 12 steps becomes all-important. Such personality
flaws as projection or retrospection - leaning in one direction
or the other - can disturb the balance and court disaster.
Consequently, these and other character defects, such as
surrendering to impulses toward pride, anger and other primordial
instincts, must be curbed, a life-long process of both purification
spiritual liberation has deep roots in the religious traditions
of the ages, going beyond the Judeo-Christian. This has
been well demonstrated by E. Kurtz and K. Ketcham in their
book, The Spirituality of Imperfection. St. Paul, for example,
in his letter to the Romans (7:15 ff.) wrote what an active
alcoholic could well say today: "I do not understand
my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the
very things I hate... I can will what is right, but I cannot
do it." Yet Paul saw his powerlessness over "the
thorn in my side" as a blessing, for the Lord "said
to me 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made
perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor. 12:7-9). One of A.A.'s
original slogans is "But for the grace of God."
speaking of God's grace , were 12 step spirituality ever
to have a patron saint, it would have to be St. Augustine,
often referred to as the Doctor of Grace - a writer, philosopher,
theologian and a towering figure of his time whose voice
is still loud in circles of Christian faiths. His confrontation
with heretics was not the greatest battle of his life. It
was a battle against addiction.
a youth Augustine gave full expression to lustful instincts,
over which, he admits in his Confessions, he fought a losing
battle. "The enemy had control of my will, and from
that had made a chain to bind me fast. From a perverted
act of will, desire had grown, and when desire is given
satisfaction, habit is forged; and when habit passes un
resisted, a compulsive urge sets in: by those close-knit
links I was held" (VIII, v, 10).
not anyone truly addicted claim these words as expressing
his or her own struggle? Augustine saw that he must, in
A.A.'s words, "go to any length" to rid himself
of his compulsive urge: "It means a whole-hearted and
undivided act of the will, not this stumbling to and fro
with a maimed will" (VIII, viii, 19). Addressing Cod,
he acknowledges that on his own he can do nothing. "The
nub of the problem was to reject my own will and to desire
yours...What I once feared to lose was now a delight to
dismiss" (IX, i, 1). Complete surrender. An honest
the first nine chapters of his Confessions, Augustine describes
his addiction, its consequences and what took place after
his spiritual awakening. It is the self-portrait of a convalescent.
This part of the Confessions, a Christian classic, is A.A.'s
fourth and fifth steps in published form. Augustine saw
his confessions as essential to his recovery, admitting
his shortcomings to himself, to Cod and to the people he
now served as their bishop, all the while giving Cod full
credit for his recovery.
was two versus in Paul's letter to the Romans that turned
Augustine's life around: "Let us live honorably in
the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery
and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead
put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for
the flesh, to gratify its desires" (xiii, 13-14). These
were the words Augustine read when he heard a voice telling
him to "Pick up and read" the Bible.
immense help to Catholic recovering alcoholics are local
meetings of the Calix Society, which has its headquarters
in Minneapolis, Minn. Too little known by those Catholics
whose lives , except for the grace of Cod, would have ended
in a tragic death. Calix meetings explore with them and
their families the riches of the Catholic heritage. Such
topics as the workings of grace, the sacraments, God's love
and forgiveness are discussed in regard to how these touch
upon the participants' ongoing recovery from alcoholism
San Diego at the end of June, the bartenders may not be
overjoyed at the huge throng of ex-drinkers who will populate
the streets of their city. Our contemporary world, however,
can well rejoice with the conventioneers in their celebration
of the 60 year impact of Alcoholics Anonymous on their lives
and those of so many of A.A.'s members, some of whom are
prominent citizens. For alcoholism, like any disease, is
no respector of persons.