Recovering grace: Spiritual wisdom from the 12 Steps

Catholics suffering from addictions to everything from alcohol to food are finding spiritual wisdom and serenity from the 12 Steps.

JOHN WAS NEVER A STEREOTYPICAL, fall-down, slur-your-words drunk. Drinking was fun, and alcohol was associated with good times, as he learned well growing up in an Irish Catholic home on Chicago's South Side. "Whenever company came over, the bottles came out," he remembers. When he got older, John and his drinking buddies organized their social lives around bars and beer. "I liked drinking. I didn't want to give it up," he says.

But John eventually realized that drinking was not only causing many problems in his life, it was alsrecovering graceo the source of a spiritual malaise that Catholicism alone could not cure. For that he needed the support of other alcoholics; he needed the 12 Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous. His decision to turn his drinking problem over to God--made 19 years ago and every day since--has led to a true spiritual conversion and to such peace and happiness in his life that he can truly say he's grateful to be an alcoholic. "This was the thing I needed to be saved from," says John, who like all 12-Step members, requests anonymity. "It really was a crisis of faith."

For decades, millions of hurting people have turned to the 12 Steps for help with addictions to everything from alcohol and drugs to gambling and sex. What they find is a program that not only helps them get "clean and sober" but also one that offers a framework for creating a healthy, mature relationship with God--or a "Higher Power," in 12-Step language. Often meeting in the basements of churches, synagogues, and mosques, 12-Step programs have become America's "stealth religion," as one writer terms them. An estimated 15 million Americans are currently involved in some form of recovery, making 12-Steppers more numerous than Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims combined.

Not surprisingly, many of them are Catholics or former Catholics. For some Catholics, 12-Step programs become a substitute for the faith of their birth, an alternative spiritual path they find less judgmental, more inclusive, and more relevant. In some ways, the programs seem to offer many of the "good" parts of religion--spirituality, community, ethics--without doctrinal requirements. But many Catholics involved in 12-Step programs, including John, find that the steps mesh well with Catholicism. For them, AA has only deepened their Catholic faith.

Yet many Catholics remain ignorant or even suspicious of the 12 Steps, in part because the program's emphasis on anonymity appears secretive. Also, because AA sees addiction as a disease, outsiders may worry that the sense of personal responsibility associated with more traditional views of sin will be lost. They wonder how AA fits--or doesn't fit--with Catholicism. Or they suspect that it may be a cult at worst or watered-down spirituality at best.

Those on the inside know better. "Far from offering 'spirituality lite' to its members, or encouraging self-indulgent navel gazing--as I sometimes see 12-Step programs caricatured in the media--I have found that AA fosters a solid and selfless spirituality," writes Sister Molly Monahan (a pseudonym) in Seeds of Grace: Reflections on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous (Riverhead).

An alcoholic in recovery for 20 years and a nun for 50, Monahan definitely sees connections between Catholicism and the 12 Steps. She also believes non-alcoholics can benefit from what is essentially a sound spiritual program. "The disease of alcoholism, for me, reveals some basic truths about human nature itself in its sad, lost, and sinful state, and Alcoholics Anonymous reveals some things about what God desires for all of us, alcoholics or not," she writes.

recovering grace"In fact, when my faith in my Catholic religion, and sometimes even in the existence of God, is weak, my experience in AA comes to my rescue. I can literally see and hear the effects of faith in a roomful of people whose trust in a Higher Power has restored them to health of body, mind, and soul."

Religious roots
From the very beginning, AA was a spiritual program. Founders Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio surgeon, had both been involved in the Oxford Group, a Christian movement that emphasized universal spiritual values in daily living. Wilson had drawn on those spiritual principles to become sober, and he in turn helped Smith give up drinking. When the two men reached out to a third alcoholic, they essentially started the first AA group.

In 1935 "Bill W." described recovery as a spiritual experience in the handbook Alcoholics Anonymous, known in AA parlance as "The Big Book." In addition to stories of dozens of recovering members, the book also lays out the core philosophy of the 12 Steps, a path that recognizes that the mammoth task of getting and maintaining sobriety must be broken down into manageable pieces. Life is a process, AA teaches, and so is recovery. That's why no one is ever completely "recovered" but rather always a "recovering" addict.

The first three steps describe reality: human beings' powerlessness over their addiction, their need for a Higher Power, and the importance of surrendering to that Power. It's all about undoing the illusion that we are in charge, that we are God, sometimes referred to as "functional atheism." Having had this spiritual awakening, the next set of steps details how to become aware of and make restitution for the messes that resulted from a life of addiction by taking a "moral inventory" and making amends. The final steps are about maintaining this relationship with God and going out and being of service to others.

Most importantly, the steps are worked within a community of people who suffer from similar addictions. Radical acceptance is the cornerstone.

"In AA, we find acceptance from people who honestly admit to being just like us in all our frailty. We are carefully listened to. We are thought worth saving, and people like our sponsor and friends give us their time, their attention, their energy," writes Monahan. "No matter how many times we may fail at becoming sober, we are never kicked out, never 'excommunicated.'"

Through this radical acceptance, people come to see God as loving--a message that may have been preached, but not always modeled, at their churches. In AA, it is no longer an abstract teaching, it's a lived experience. People involved in 12-Step programs know God loves them because that God has helped them overcome something they previously knew to be impossible to beat.

It's easy to forget how revolutionary AA was when it was first founded. It not only launched the small-group movement but also the self-help movement, both of which rely on the ability of the afflicted to heal themselves better than professionals. That struck a blow not only to health professionals but also to clergy. In fact, many religion observers, including author Phyllis Tickle, believe the founding of AA--more than anything else--was responsible for much of the massive change in religion in the 20th century.

"Before that, there was nowhere to go and say, 'I have a problem with alcohol' or 'I'm obsessed with sex,' or 'I don't think God loves me,' " she says.

AA created the "I'm hurt; you're hurt; let's help each other" paradigm that seems so obvious to us today. "But back then, it used to be if your husband was a drunk, it was because something was not right between you and your God, or him and his God," says Tickle. "That freedom to share sadness, sorrow, and human weakness and not be condemned was enormously liberating."

AA and other 12-Step groups also drastically changed the religious landscape of the 20th century with the simple use of the generic "Higher Power" to refer to the divine. "It's not Yahweh, not God, not anything the church in this country had used before that," says Tickle.

Not only did this language make AA accessible to people of all faiths, people with ill-defined faiths, or even people with no formal faith, it also opened the door to increased ecumenism and interreligious relationships. "This is a clean, clear, popular statement in American culture of accepting the presence of possibly more than one God."

Although there were many other contributing factors, AA and other 12-Step programs also had a hand in the "I'm spiritual but not religious" attitude so prevalent today. "There is no question that it contributed to spirituality coming to be seen as something different from religion," says Tickle.

New images of God
Celeste gets annoyed when people talk about the "spiritual part" of 12-Step programs. "There's nothing but a spiritual part of this program. I don't think you could go through the program without a relationship to a Higher Power," says the 40-year-old midwife, farmer's wife, and mother of four in Oregon. "That's the whole thing--that God does this for us. Our obsession is lifted; there's no white-knuckling. It's not about will power. It's about clearing the path and being willing."

She found relief from compulsive overeating and other self-destructive behaviors in a 12-Step program called Recoveries Anonymous, which rather than focusing on an individual behavior, such as alcoholism or overeating, focuses on the solution: the 12 Steps. For Celeste, the crux of recovery has been admitting powerlessness and turning her life over to God. "Do I believe God is the center of this and is going to take away my obsession, or am I trying to take away my obsession? God has to be the center," she say.

The 12 Steps

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill W. (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services)

That God is the linchpin in 12-Step programs is obvious; five of the 12 Steps explicitly mention God. But then the question becomes, who is this God who helps people overcome their addictions, turn their lives around, and become happier, healthier people? The founders were intentionally vague, even in the use of the terminology of "Higher Power," so that the program would be accessible to people of any faith or even atheists (although some disagree that 12-Steppers can be atheists, as the program so explicitly demands faith in a God). Even the 12-Step group itself can serve as a member's Higher Power.

For many Catholic 12-Step members, the Higher Power they encountered in the program looks quite different from the God they learned about in Sunday school.

Celeste experienced a major transformation in her image of the divine. "I used to have so much shame and guilt, thinking, 'If only I would behave this way, God would love me.' What I learned from this program is that God loves me, period," she says. "My new image of God is as completely loving, versus my childhood image of a white-haired guy up in heaven who's pissed every time I do something wrong or sin."

Many Catholics come to their first 12-Step meetings with an image of a punitive God in the sky with a tallysheet of each person's wrongdoings, says Father Roy Drake, S.J., who has conducted 12-Step retreats all over the world.

"So many people are suffering guilt, shame, and low self-esteem," he says. "At 12-Step meetings they hear the message of unconditional love, that God's love is infinite and unconditional. I can't merit it, nor do I lose it when I'm bad."

AA and other 12-Step programs also help people see God as active--no, make that essential--in their everyday lives, because only God helps them overcome their addiction each and every day. While previous experiences of church often have felt like intellectual exercises, the 12 Steps are all about experience. No one discusses theory at an AA meeting; they only talk about their own experiences.

"Before, I knew about God, I read about God, I heard about God. But in 12-Step groups, I met God. I experienced God," says Drake.

Sans sin?
All that happy talk about God's unconditional love, combined with the now commonly-accepted view that most addictions have at least some biological component, makes some question whether AA can be compatible with the traditional Catholic view of culpability and sin.

People in AA don't use the word sin, but there is probably no group of people more aware of their own faults than people in

12-Step programs. Steps 5, 6, and 7 specifically mention "our wrongs," "defects," and "shortcomings." And the "powerlessness" of Step 1 isn't about lack of responsibility but rather about an inherent brokenness in human beings--a teaching that could have been taken straight from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Although there is no judgment about anyone's behavior, AA really emphasizes the fracturedness of human nature," says Father Phil, a retired priest of the Rockford, Illinois diocese who has been involved in AA and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) for almost 20 years.

"But if we're made in the image of God, there's a goodness in each of us," he says. "Then sin is really a failure to love."

While AA acknowledges people's brokenness, its primary goal is their healing and redemption--but the two are related. For it is only through acceptance of their own powerlessness and submission to God that addicts get well. In a word, that's grace.

"AA talks about being redeemed from the bondages of the self. There is a freeing, a salvation," says Father Phil. "We're saved through grace, and grace is healing."

While traditional Christianity has sometimes overemphasized the "pie in the sky" redemption after death, 12-Steppers experience God's healing every day. "It's 'One day at a time,'" says John, quoting a popular AA saying. "If I worry about the afterlife, I'll be drinking again.

"If I'm spiritually connected to God, I know a taste of heaven. If I don't tend to my spiritual life, I'll go to hell--and I don't mean after I die."

For the Fourth Step, which requires a personal inventory, some AA literature suggests using the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth). But that inventory isn't about merely listing wrongdoings, like a schoolchild tallying up how many times he lied to his mother. Rather, the program emphasizes getting at the root of one's actions--and then asking God for healing.

If that sounds a lot like the sacrament of Reconciliation, it is. For Celeste, who has always been a practicing Catholic, the moral inventory in Step 4 didn't replace Confession, it only deepened it.

"Rather than focus on each incident of how I've hurt people, I now look deeper into what caused those incidents, my selfishness and fear," Celeste says. Then, when she makes amends, she can do so without judgment.

That's just one way the 12 Steps have changed Celeste's experience of church. "It has allowed me to experience it at a deeper level," she says. "In some ways, it gave structure to my faith. I think spiritual truths are spiritual truths. This program gave it to me very clearly. Now I recognize spiritual truth in my Catholic faith more clearly."

recovering graceHer prayer life also has become more consistent, in accordance with the 11th Step's requirement of regular prayer and meditation. Most 12-Steppers do some sort of daily check-in prayer to reflect on the previous day and look ahead to the next one with an openness to God's will. Celeste used to do this inventory first thing in the morning and last thing at night but now finds she often has to squeeze it in while pulling weeds in the garden or driving in the car. "It really calls me back and gives me focus," she says.

For Mary, a Chicago woman who overcame a compulsion with food through Overeaters Anonymous, prayer also was instrumental in her spiritual conversion--one that ultimately led her to join the Catholic Church. "I had no prayer life before OA," she says. "I had no relationship with God. I thought a lot about God and I had this spiritual yearning, but I never got spiritually fed."

Before her first OA meeting, Mary wolfed down an entire pizza. Five days later she had committed to a healthy food plan and was sticking to it. Such a radical transformation from her previously unmanageable life convinced her of God's involvement in the process. "I knew I didn't do it myself," she says. "It made me know God was active in my life."

With that knowledge she was able to begin to pray to this God, first with popular AA prayers like the Serenity Prayer. "As I started to experience God more directly, I was able to converse with God and say what I was feeling, including a lot of pent-up anger," she says.

After getting involved in a centering prayer group, she now sits in silence twice a day. "It's not just talking to God, but meditation is listening to God," she says. "I used to spend a lot of time telling God how to best solve my problems. Now I'm much more open to listening for God's will."

AA and Catholicism
For Mary and often for others, involvement in a 12-Step program not only gave her a healthier image of God and improved her prayer life, it also made her more open to institutional religion, which she had shunned because of prior negative experiences. When she found herself unemployed, a friend from OA helped her get a new job at a dynamic parish, where she eventually became a Catholic at Easter Vigil.

Father Phil agrees that a healthy sobriety often enables former addicts to incorporate the church into their spiritual path. And he sees 12-Step programs as spiritual communities that fit well with Catholicism. "Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered, there I am. So whenever two or three are gathered searching for acceptance, healing, love, and self-awareness, I think a Christian presence emerges out of that."

The teachings of the 12 Steps are so universal, however, that adherents of many other faiths also find compatibility between AA and the religion of their birth. Drake, the Jesuit priest, recalls outlining the steps at a conference in India. "One man came up to me and said, 'That's precisely what we teach in Confucianism.' Another said, 'You must have read the Buddha.' And another: 'It's what we practice as Muslims.' "

It is true, however, that exposure to such an egalitarian spiritual organization sometimes turns people off to hierarchical religion for good. For many, 12-Step programs highlight the distinction between "spirituality" and "religion," and they find religion wanting.

While a church basement is one of the most popular meeting sites for 12-Step groups, some joke that AA should go upstairs and the church move downstairs. That the church could learn a thing or two from the success of the 12-Step movement seems self-evident. Although the Catholic Church has seen the light about the importance of small groups, some believe it could still take lessons from the success of "friends of Bill W.," as members of AA often refer to themselves.

One day at a time.

Spiritual progress, not perfection.

Came, came to, came to believe.

Avoid people, places, and things (that lead to drinking).

Live and let live.

Living life on life's terms.

Give time time.

Let go and let God.

Act as if.

Turn it over.

Do the next right thing.

Let us love you until you can love yourself.

There but for the grace of God go I.

By connecting faith and experience, AA has found a way to make spirituality attractive and available to many who never thought they would spend so much time thinking about God. For some, that personal relationship with a Higher Power, combined with the community of meetings, is enough. For many Catholic 12-Steppers, however, it is not.

In a chapter titled, "My name is Molly, and I'm a Catholic," the writer/nun explains why she needs both. "While I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude the ways in which AA has helped me grow spiritually, I must also acknowledge that the seeds of its sprituality fell on the rich soil of the ancient Christian tradition in which I was raised. It is no doubt for these reasons that AA spirituality alone would never be enough for me, austere as it necessarily is, without signs or symbols or sacraments, without ritual or communal worship."

Spiritual director Carolyn Hudson, who does workshops on 12-Step spirituality in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, tries to make connections between the 12 Steps and Catholic sacraments. Not only does she see the obvious affinity between Reconciliation and Steps 4 and 5, she also believes working the program can go hand-in-hand with Mass and Communion.

"I think the 12 Steps can really prepare us for the Eucharist. If we're in the darkness, we can receive the Eucharist as healing, and if we've moved from the darkness, we can experience the true joy of the Eucharist," she says.

Another area where the two spiritual traditions agree is on the importance of community and of reaching out to others who are hurting. In AA, sobriety is not an end in itself but leads quite naturally to service to others. "Sobriety, unless it reaches out to others, isn't sobriety," says Father Phil.

But the 12th Step's directive to "carry this message to alcoholics" doesn't mean evangelization in the way many Christians define the word. "AA is a program of attraction, not promotion," says Phil. In addition, the program's tradition of anonymity, meant to curtail personal ambition and pride, means no one individual can ever speak for the program. There are no leaders, no spokespersons, and no gurus in AA.

One way 12-Steppers are of service to others is through sponsorship, a sort of spiritual companioning along the 12 Steps. Any sober member of AA can sponsor another member; no other training or credentials are needed. Often beginners in 12-Step programs call their sponsors every day. The sponsors listen and share their own experiences.

That sense of reciprocity and community is evident in the first-person plural wording of the steps themselves. It's not "I" am powerless; but "we" are powerless.

"I look around at meetings, and I see miracles," says John. "I know the story of these people, and I know how far down their lives had taken them. Yet I look at them today and see humor and caring and lives well lived. I know they didn't get that way on their own and neither did I. We needed each other, and we needed the Higher Power. As a Catholic, I recognize that as becoming the body of Christ.

Heidi Schlumpf is managing editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the November 2003 (Vol. 68, No. 11: pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.

For more information about Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, visit AA World Services, Inc. on the Internet at They also can be reached at 212-870-3400, or by writing AA World Services, Inc., Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 459, New York, NY 10163. Many phone books also list local AA offices.

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