A Gift That Surpasses Understanding – Grapevine Article by A Priest April 1970

The spiritual experience in AA is something quite apart from formal religion, says this priest

Frequently around the AA program we hear a person say, “The spiritual side of the program is not for me” or “I don’t go for the spiritual bit. As long as I don’t drink, I’m satisfied. I leave the pie-in-the-sky stuff to other people.” Any such cavalier dismissal of the spiritual side of our program makes me wince a little and feel a bit sorry for this person. This sense of pity and sorrow is the more intense and poignant the longer the person has been in the program.

In most cases, I have good reason to suspect that this man or woman is unwittingly confusing formal religion with what we call the spiritual side of the program. To my mind, he is unconsciously rebelling against the possibility of his being soft-soaped into embracing the creed, code, and cult of some particular religious denomination and then being wheedled into a kind of dogmatic straitjacket. For him, the word “spiritual” has overtones of something soft, hypocritical, less-than-virile, because it can evoke images of “church mice” with hands folded, eyes down, grim faces that seem to say, “Remember death!” And, understandably, he wants nothing to do with these creeps.

Yet I am quite sure that such a person, like the rest of us, would be quick to deny that he came into AA primarily because he had a religious problem. I have never yet met anyone who crawled into AA because he couldn’t understand the infallibility of the Pope or the source of authority in the Protestant or Jewish faith. I seriously doubt, too, that any atheist has come into our program to get a black or white answer to the question of God’s existence.

When I first came into AA, the good people in the program told me that, if I was alcoholic, I had a very real sickness, that I was sick physically, mentally, and spiritually. I do not remember anyone ever telling me that I was sick religiously or that, because I was a priest, I could not be sick spiritually. And how right they were in refraining from saying that I was sick religiously! In my descent down the skids of booze and pills, I never had any serious difficulty with my religion or my priesthood. It is true that I was less than vigorous in the practice of both, but I sensed that my sickness was on a level much more basic than these.

And yet it was by no means clear to me what it meant for me to be spiritually sick and at the same time not to be religiously sick. Like many others in AA, I was uneasy with the word “spiritual” as it is used in the program. But when it dawned on me that the term “spiritual” is derived from the word “spirit,” things started to clear up. I was comfortable with the word “spirit,” because I had lived with it all my life. This spirit, this soul, this principle of life, call it what you will, was given to me long before I had any knowledge or practice of a formal religion, long before I had the slightest idea what profession or vocation I might want to pursue.

This is the spirit that was infused into me at the moment of my conception, the thing that would automatically give me membership in the human race. This spirit is the rational part of me that endowed me with dignity, nobility, and a separate identity. My spirit or soul gave me the power to think, to make judgments, to wish, to will, to love, to reach out for the infinite. This spirit of mine gave me all these wonderful powers and something more–it gave me my total personality, which in the years to come would be molded and shaped, for better or worse, by environment, education, and circumstances.

The environment, education, and circumstances of the intervening years can be briefly telescoped. I had all the advantages of a good home, a better-than-ordinary education, a life with pleasant surroundings. My priesthood, which I loved (and still love dearly!), should have enhanced all these advantages. But life does not always work according to a definite blueprint.

Somewhere along the line, fears, self-doubt, and a sense of inadequacy began to manifest themselves. Then I discovered those two “friends,” alcohol and tranquilizers, which seemed to quiet the fears and self-doubt and restore the sense of adequacy. The classical, insidious pattern started to form and continued growing over a long period: more and deeper fears, loss of interest in work and in life, gradual withdrawal from people and activities, deep-seated loneliness, panic, near despair. In this process of slow death, there was no one to whom I could turn except my two “friends.”

The climax was occasioned by an enforced withdrawal from both the alcohol and the pills during hospitalization for major surgery. I went into dt’s for a period of eleven days. After emerging from this pleasant interlude, I was immediately shipped to a “special-type” hospital (nut factory). About six weeks after being released from this institution, I went in and out of hallucinations, a delayed withdrawal symptom, and I soon found myself in the alcoholic ward of a state mental hospital. It was here that AA came to me.

Life had taken a tremendous toll on my spirit, my soul. I came into AA broken in spirit, soul-sick. If the ray of hope that I heard had worked for so many thousands in AA was to warm up my heart and light up my life, it would have to penetrate, not into the areas of my religion and my priesthood, but into the much deeper, more basic area where I was really sick–into my human spirit. Had there been in the AA program any suggestion of theology, formal or otherwise, I would have picked up my weak carcass and broken spirit and headed back to the desert outside. Having formally studied theology for four years under good professors, I was, according to ordinary standards, something of a professional theologian. At that time, I needed more theology about as much as I needed a third thumb.

What I did need and need desperately was, not more knowledge about God, but, with God’s help, a deep, penetrating knowledge about myself. How could I learn to live, not ecstatically nor even euphorically, but with at least a modicum of peace? How could this spirit of mine find some kind of interest, enthusiasm, self-fulfillment? I was to discover that AA had the answer for this plain, ordinary, human craving of my heart.

I followed the suggestions of the AA people in the hope that I might emerge from the jungle, as they had, and enjoy a kind of resurrection. I went and still go to many meetings; I talked with many people, a newly discovered pleasure; I read a great deal of the available AA literature. These were immensely helpful and will always be necessary for me, to a certain extent. But if these techniques are to have any real meaning, body, and flavor for me, they must rest on something as substantial, vigorous, and life-giving as the Twelve Steps. When I studied and started to live these Steps, it became clear that, at least for me, the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the Twelfth Step had to mean “an awakening of the spirit”–i.e., no matter how swift or prolonged the process might be, I had to come awake, alive in my spirit as a human being. From that time on, I have had very few, if any, hang-ups with the word “spiritual” as used in the AA program.

I was greatly impressed with the order, the logic, and the thoroughness of the Steps. They seemed to be an all-or-nothing deal. If I had taken the First Step and settled for that, I would have been guilty of the “selective surrender” spoken of by that pioneer friend of AA, Dr. Harry M. Tiebout. In his wonderfully perceptive brochure “The Act of Surrender in the Therapeutic Process,” he makes this comment about one of his patients: “His surrender is not to life as a person, but to alcohol as an alcoholic.”

Had I merely surrendered to alcohol as an alcoholic, this would have been good, but not nearly good enough. True, it would have meant that alcohol and pills, two deadly substances for me, would have gone out of my life–no small blessing! But the trouble with me was that everything was going out of my life–friends, activities, my sense of values, the meaning of life, love, laughter, and beauty. My human spirit was indeed desert-dry, and now, with booze and pills gone, it would seem a more arid, barren wasteland. If I was to recover the wholeness, the oneness of my personality, if I truly wanted a rebirth of my human spirit, a taste of the joy of living, then, in accordance with Dr. Tiebout’s formula, I had to surrender, not only to alcohol as an alcoholic, but to life as a person.

But Chapter V of the Big Book, “How It Works,” assured me that this awakening of the spirit was the natural, orderly result of studying and living the Twelve Steps. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path,” it says. Here was a safe, secure, comfortable framework within which I could move forward gradually and gracefully toward a new way of life, toward something of the peace and serenity that I saw in other AA people. Here was a mode of living fashioned, not from pure theory nor in the halls of academe, but from the rough, tough, raw experience in life of the first hundred members of AA, who had desperately wanted the same kind of awakening of the spirit that I was searching for.

This awakening of the spirit is set down so naturally and confidently in the Twelfth Step that it seems to carry this implicit warning: “If you are not having at least the beginnings of a spiritual awakening, it would be well to look back over the Steps and find out where you are failing.” And there are no qualifying words, such as “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “perchance.” On the other hand, there is a kind of built-in guarantee that, if you are living the Steps to the best of your ability, no matter how difficult it may be at times, you will eventually have this awakening of the spirit. What a tremendous source of encouragement!

It should not surprise us that the idea of God and our complete dependence on Him for recovery should be woven into the Steps. God has many kinds of presence. He has a general presence, by which He is present at every moment in every nook and cranny of the universe. He has many kinds of special presence, by which He is present to different groups who are trying to do something in His name. We can say that God is present with a special presence in a church congregation when its members are gathered to honor and worship Him according to the dictates of their conscience and the rites of their particular denomination. God is certainly present with a special presence to the heads of governments who are honestly seeking ways and means of promoting justice and peace. He is present by a special presence to any society, fellowship, or family that is gathered together in His name to work out some problem or achieve some worthwhile goal. Should it surprise us, then, that God is present by a special presence in AA, which is “a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism”? Indeed, since alcoholism is such a destructive, insidious, baffling disease, would it be an exaggeration to say that God is present to us in AA by a very special presence?

Yet this special presence of God in AA says nothing about our religious creed, code, or cult. It imposes no theology on anyone. It says one thing clear and loud: If you have a problem with alcohol and if you wish to do something about it within AA, then you, too, can partake of this special presence of God in this Fellowship. “If a drunk, fallen-away Catholic comes into AA and if he works the program with God’s grace to the best of his ability, he will emerge as a sober, fallen-away Catholic. But the difference is infinite.” Such is the astute observation of a priest friend of mine, who is very knowledgeable both in things AA and in things theological. This observation would be as true, it seems to me, whether the person was Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist, provided that he recognized his need for a Power greater than himself.

Should a man, after attaining a length of solid sobriety, wish to return to the practice of some formal religion in a particular denomination, this would be fine with AA. But, it would seem, such a return would require another special type of God’s presence, outside the ambit and concern of AA.

I feel that anyone who comes into AA wants to “get better,” whatever this term may specifically mean to him. It may mean getting out of trouble, placating the family or others, retaining his sanity, etc. The reason for a person’s coming into AA is not important; any reason or even excuse will suffice. But it strikes me that the reason for his or her staying in AA is immensely important. Getting out of trouble, placating the family or the superior, etc.–all of these may be good for the time being. But for the sustained, lifetime work of handling this deadly, progressive disease of alcoholism, experience has shown that such motives are inadequate, short-lived, or too fragile; they do not meet the problem head-on, and under pressure they will snap or wither. The family, the boss, the probation officer, collectively or singly, are not the problem.

The problem is me (ungrammatical and humiliating as this may be). I am truly grateful that there was a fellowship, a group of warm, understanding people, to whom I could bring this “problem of me.” Nobody lectured me; nobody gave me the moral wheeze; nor, on the other hand, did anybody stand in awe of me. The black suit and the Roman collar were merely the accidental and, therefore, unimportant attire of a sick human being. The important concern of the AAs was to reassure me that they knew what and how I was suffering and that I would “get better,” as they had.

I somehow sensed immediately that the God of my understanding was present in AA by a special presence, a presence by which I could ask for and receive graces to handle my alcoholic problem, a presence that gave me these graces with and through AA people. I am grateful that within this apparently formless AA Fellowship, where only “suggestions” are made (famous last words!), there was a structured program of recovery where I would not be on my own. The Twelve Steps were there to guide me. And just over the horizon in the Twelfth Step was the promise, almost the guarantee, of something for which I had been searching over the years–a spiritual awakening!

Whatever this spiritual awakening may mean to anyone else in AA, to me it means that the God of my understanding has given me, by His special presence in AA and through AA people and the Twelve Steps, a gift that surpasses understanding–an awakening of my human spirit!

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