Not always a flash of light, but being capable of doing what we couldn’t say do before
I CAN REMEMBER, early in my sobriety, feeling depressed because I not had a spiritual experience. I was sure that I alone had not undergone a sudden change of heart.
This impression came from listening to some other members describe their spiritual awakenings. They described them simply and honestly. There had been, they said, no flashing lights, no burning bushes. But there had been a moment when they experienced total surrender, a sudden change of attitude. It was, they said, an experience that immediately changed their lives.
I assumed (erroneously, I later found) that all AA members had undergone a similar experience. I was sure that those who did not speak of their moment of truth were too modest to describe it. And I was also sure that I was the only one, even among the new members, who had not experienced an instantaneous change.
I believed that my entry into AA had been different. I had come in reluctantly, and had stayed reluctant for as long as possible. Only gradually, over a period of months, did I realize that I had no place else to go. There was never any sudden, joyful acceptance of recovery. There was, instead, a gradual, sad admission that I could choose AA or die. Not what I would have called a “spiritual” experience.
Fortunately, there was a small group of us who were all new to the program and very close. It was among them that I made a series of discoveries.
First, I discovered that I was not alone. All of us agreed that, whatever a spiritual experience might be, we certainly hadn’t had one. We had all been waiting for it to happen, and by now, most of us were convinced that it probably never would. We were different. Unlike the older members, we had too “sinful” in the past and were too secular in the present to be worthy of anything “spiritual.”
Our second discovery was more exciting. We discovered that most of the other members had not undergone an instantaneous change, either. We learned, by listening at meetings and talking to our sponsors, that the majority of those we admired had undergone, like us, a gradual change. We still didn’t know what a spiritual experience was, and we were still pretty sure that we hadn’t undergone one. But we had all experienced gradual change. So we weren’t inferior. We were with the majority.
The third discovery was a blockbuster. One of us read Bill W.’s discussion of the Twelfth Step in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. There, he explains that there are many kinds of spiritual experience. Some are like the conversions of the great religious leaders of the past; others seem purely psychological. Some are sudden or instantaneous; others are a gradual learning experience. But all of them, whatever form they take, have one effect: They make a person capable of doing something he could not do before.
As Bill puts it, “When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone.”
For all of us, this was an important discovery. I was now capable of doing things that had been impossible for me before; I could not deny it. The obvious example was staying sober–by this time, I had been dry for several consecutive months. Before AA, several consecutive days had been impossible.
But there were other important changes, which were harder to describe. My feelings of fear and guilt were slowly being replaced by feelings of hope and self-respect. And most important, that which had been impossible before–a trust in something or Someone other than myself–had now become possible.
In other words, I had been undergoing a spiritual experience without knowing it. My confused questioning about a Higher Power, my changed mental attitude, and even my physical recovery had all been part of a spiritual awakening. Without knowing it, I had been in contact with the source of life, whatever or Whoever that might be.
Paradoxically, the realization that even I had experienced something spiritual was in itself a spiritual experience, and I am only slowly understanding its implications. What happened in the past, without my knowledge, is probably continuing now. And in the future, when tomorrow becomes today, it can go on and on. All that is required is a desire to stop drinking, and to stay stopped.