I can remember the first time I read the following sentence from chapter five of the Big Book: “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” I was sitting at a Big Book meeting, only a few months into the program, still pretty shaky and confused. But those words gave me a feeling of release and freedom such as I had never experienced in all my thirty-one years as a “religious woman.” Here I was, an alcoholic, a young girl child (in the guise of a woman!), and “religious” by profession, hearing, for the first time, that God did not expect me to be “perfect.” What a relief!
I had admitted that I was an alcoholic a few months before, in the presence of an alcohol counselor and my therapist, and I thought with that admission, that my world had come to an end. My world of religious perfection did not allow for such a weakness. I felt very ashamed, and even though my head told me it was a disease, my heart told me it was a moral issue.
It took a lot of love on the part of my therapist, the alcohol counselor, and my spiritual director to convince me that I was not a bad person, but rather a sick person in the throes of the disease of alcoholism. They also convinced me to go to AA. I can still remember that cold January Sunday morning, when I walked from the convent to the parish church to attend my first AA meeting. I knew it was the right thing to be doing, but I did not feel it was right for a nun! When I got to the meeting, I unobtrusively slipped into a row of chairs, and somehow I managed to hear the promises (which are read by the group before their Sunday meeting). I particularly heard: “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Again, I felt I was in the right place, even though I was on the verge of tears. I cannot recall who spoke, but halfway through the meeting I recognized the man from whom I bought my liquor! I thought it was amazing that he should be in AA. When the meeting was over, he recognized me, too, and came right up to me and welcomed me in a very warm way. He got me coffee and sat down and talked to me. By then I was crying! But I felt safe and glad to be with someone I’d come to know quite well! He told me he was going to introduce me to some of the women and when he did, there were no coincidences there either! One of those women was a person to whom I had given a retreat a few months before! She knew me, and it was a good feeling. It seemed right that a few weeks later she should become my sponsor.
I think God tried to tell me early on that these people who knew I was a nun welcomed me as a fellow alcoholic and were genuinely happy to see me. It helped to dispel some of my fear of people finding out I was a religious woman who was also an alcoholic. I’ve come to understand that I’m an alcoholic who also happens to be a religious woman!
That kind of acceptance of who I am has been a slow painful journey in sobriety. It is now three-and-a-half years since that cold January Sunday morning and as I have been guided through the Steps by my sponsor, I have come to see that I do not have to be perfect or even strive for perfection. Rather, the work of getting sober has to do with becoming human and getting in touch with my creaturehood. In all the years of religious life I had labored under the burden of trying to live up to the perfect image–a God-like facade that did not let me get in touch with my true feelings: anger, fear, resentment, jealousy. I was a being apart, untouched by messiness of any kind!
My drinking progressed slowly, but it became the perfect escape, and prior to my coming into the program I was drinking daily, in the secrecy of my room. I was very depressed and felt that I would never get my life together (one of the reasons I entered therapy). It was my bottom and it was a highly emotional one.
Looking back now, I realize that in spite of my shame at having to admit I’m an alcoholic, it was also a great and long-in-coming relief! From almost the first meeting that I attended I knew I belonged there. I was absolutely amazed that so many people (of all different backgrounds and persuasions) could touch chords in me that vibrated to their accounts of how they had always felt! And so many seemed to be saying (and I suspect God let me hear) that they had always tried to be perfect. It seemed to be a failing of alcoholics: never to admit to imperfection of any kind. It was why so many of us drank–to cover up the bad feelings about ourselves! I was so good at beating myself up! I just never measured up and God wasn’t going to really love me until I did!
Today, I’m glad that God let me flounder around for so long in that frame of mind. God’s timing is perfect and it was time for me to let go of such rigorous demands on myself. God gave me the AA program and the very human, loving and sober people of AA to teach me that our only big task is to seek spiritual progress through the Twelve Steps of recovery. Never again do we have to place on our shoulders the impossible burden of spiritual perfection.
Truly, God does do for us what we could never do for ourselves!