During the first few years of attending 12-step meetings, I often found myself trying to describe the powerful presence of God that I experienced there to Christian friends. God seemed to be everywhere. Although no music, worship or sermon; no formal Sacraments or a Call to Worship, God was as present here as I'd ever experienced the divine.
The most common response from my Christian friends was, "AA is a bad place for a Christian. It's not Christian, and it's dangerous," they'd warn. "They don't require people believe in Jesus. They tell people God can be anything they want God to be. You are playing with fire, stay away from them."
At the time, I wasn't sure what to do with this. I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I also knew this was the closest I’d come to God - expressed through people. I was sure of it. Or at least as sure as anyone could be about something they couldn't know. We can’t know God, of course. If it wasn’t God in those rooms, who was it? It surely wasn’t anti-God. It was God as I understood God then - revealing himself through people. In a nutshell, that is the beauty of this spiritual program.
I'm one of the lucky ones who had one of those powerful, earth shaking spiritual awakenings years before I stepped foot in one of the rooms. It was in a Harlem revival tent. The kind of spiritual experience you hear about. People either brush them off years later to sensationalism, or it sticks to your soul the rest of your days as something holy that, for reasons you don't understand, you never question. There's no need to. You just know. You don't know what you know, but you know you know. It's true of people who never go to church again, as much as those who haven't missed a communion since the day it happened. It's pretty impossible to explain. I think it must be how people who see UFO's feel. I'm one of them. I stopped going to church eventually, and didn't live a religious life, for the most part. But when I entered those rooms, well, God was there. He wore different clothes than in that revival tent, but there nonetheless. And the rooms might not look like church, but it was.
The call to worship was called "How It Works." There was a benediction, said in unison as The Serenity Prayer or the Lord's Prayer. "Keep coming back" was the Amen. There was a sermon. It was preached by every person who shared. There was even music. The heart of each person listening to the other.
God cannot be defined, explained, or known. The ancients believed it was inappropriate for God to be named at all.
Meanwhile, powerful transformations appeared before my eyes. Deep, connective and transformational change happened every day, one day at a time. A foundational principle of AA is that it’s only today that counts, today is what we have now and what we should concern ourselves with now. An ongoing reminder of the present. Chop wood, carry water all over again in a language drunks could understand.
Perhaps it wasn’t the kind of miracle Jesus demonstrated, but I saw miracles every day nonetheless. These miracles were the result of practice. This methodical and intentional work was creating miraculous results for those “who gave themselves to this simple program.”*
My weekends were spent at home in Greenwich, CT. A relatively short train ride on the New Haven railroad from midtown Manhattan, but it felt like a thousand miles from my AA tribe. Not surprisingly, weekend dinner parties with non-AA friends triggered the desire for a glass of wine, or a gallon of vodka. I wasn’t picky. But the its seduction didn’t fool me. The reason I abstained stunned me. It wasn’t obvious, like I wanted sobriety more than life itself, or a need to improve my work performance, or build trust with my partner.
It was because these people in the rooms of AA mattered more to me than a drink did. Just one glass of wine would let them down. We’d come to belong to each other somehow. The last thing I wanted was to disappoint or discourage them. We were in the trenches together, operating as one in a sense. Breaking this sacred circle with the one thing that bound us in these early days was a consequence I couldn’t bear. Causing the undoing of this bond would have been a sin.
As I typed s-i-n just now, the word came to life for the first time since I can remember.
For years, I’ve tried to connect a behavior to the word sin that felt appropriate, or natural, real, or clear. It suddenly meant something. Meaning I’d never been able to attach to it before. Not authentically. This is a defining moment. All my attachments to it as shaming, judgmental, top down or oppressive were gone. It was freed of shame and worthlessness. It was accountable and aware. It’s power as a verb now correlated to its intent from my perspective. Doing something that not only, hurt you, but would also have far reaching effects that hurt others as well was clearly breaking a sacred and - dare I say - divinely inspired purpose that was leading me in the right direction. Bluntly, it would be stupid.
Calling it a sin seems so appropriate somehow. Satisfying a craving or bodily urge was certainly not worth risking these friendships for. It was deeper than just disappointing them. It was a trust we shared without words. It wasn't as if we said we would not drink or our friendships depended on it. We didn't drink one day at a time, always reminding us to stay in the present. There was no promise of not drinking in the future. The future was irrelevant to today. Don’t drink just for today. This, of course, can be applied to just about anything we have a desire to let go of.
This was more akin to being soldiers together, or sharing boot camp, at least as I've heard and seen it described by those who served. It’s the most powerful kind of bonding.
Looking forward to seeing them made me want to come back, but It was the raw, gritty, honest conversation that kept me there for the long haul. The people would make anyone come back again where I started out - and it wasn't the so-so coffee - - it was its rawness and grit. The emotional honesty and common humanity riveted me. If a hologram of this program could be characterized by a single trait, I’d say it was humility. Humility and obscurity defined its essence.
In any given meeting in Manhattan, a homeless woman might sit to the right of me, while Liza Minelli, Mary Tyler Moore, or the mother on the Waltons, ironically, might be on my left. If anyone in our culture reflected the homespun and healthy values of American culture, it was the Walton family. Even more so than the Cleavers. They weathered the struggles and hardships of life with grace during a period that begged people to be tough and willing.
The healing took place in many ways. Humor was an important ingredient to this good medicine. We laughed at ourselves. A mighty sense of humor laced the rooms, allowing us to see the absurdity of our behavior with humor amidst the wreckage that was sometimes too painful to focus on. The humor helped to begin the process of forgiving ourselves. We remembered what it was to genuinely laugh while being fully present. I’m not sure there’s anything more vibrant and thrilling than having a deep, genuine belly laugh at ourselves. Most importantly, however, self-effacing humor helped us let go of shame. Shame had been growing inside most of us incrementally, until it’s weight became so heavy that we couldn’t move - even though most walking in the door would struggle to find words for what kept them frozen in place. The real freedom to step into different choices came when we surrendered ourselves to something beyond ourselves there - no matter what we called it.
The deepest, darkest shame that we carried secretly, some for decades, might not be released in this way, but the stupid or thoughtless things we did to ourselves was fair game. These weren't romanticized or trophy stories either, even though we had plenty of those. Either way, the stupidity and bad choices had earned us a seat at the table, and the laughter helped us heal and balance the tears. The humor was grounded in humility and self-defacing, transforming it from comedy to good medicine.
When you move into the space that says, "I can't do this alone anymore - because my way isn't working" and muster up the courage to walk through those doors, you stand a good chance of coming back again.
This was life transparent.
For the very first time in my life, there were no unspoken rules about how I should behave to fit in - except not pick up a drink. That was it. Granted, this was no easy feat for most newcomers, but something that felt even better than their beloved drug or drink happened there, which made parting with their first love worth it.
They belonged and were accepted. Who they were was enough.
And when life got the toughest, you knew someone was in the trenches with you - no matter what.
Church wasn't like that. Just the other night I had an experience perfectly exemplifying this. DIANA REBECCA WINTER PROGRAM, and a meeting was scheduled with a group that calls itself the worship team.
The most powerful aspect of Alcoholics Anyonymous is humility. It has embedded itself into every aspect of this simple, but powerful, program. Much criticism has been thrown at the idea that someone with 10 days of sobriety is equal to someone with 10 years sober. If one is criticizing this, they don’t fully understand it.
It’s not intended to diminish the hard work someone has done to achieve ten years, but rather, to remind us we are on a level playing field. It maintains humility. The minute someone thinks they have the answers or self assuredly claims they’re sure they’ll never drink again, they’ve hopped the wrong train. I've seen this happen time and time again. Even in my own life...until I learned the hard way.
It is the shared experience that fuels this program's power source, and the spiritual component is what makes it tick. Even if someone doesn't believe in a God, as we understand God.
Human instinct responds to certainty by no longer listening. Not unlike scientists. Science also stop paying attention when they believe they understand something. This is widely acknowledged in the study of living systems. The complexity of living systems is often far beyond our ability to predict the outcome, even if we think there’s sufficient knowledge to arrive at our conclusion. Humanity is also a living system, and no different in regards to its behavior.
The old Indian parable of the man who retreated to the mountains to become enlightened comes immediately to mind. He stayed in a solitary environment for years meditating, and the day finally came when he knew he'd reached enligtenment. This was his sign to re-enter the village and appear among people again. He entered the square where it was crowded with people, and they bumped up against him from every which way as they always had done, when he found himself jabbing someone with his elbow and telling him to get off him. This was his next sign. He went back up the mountain to continue meditating towards enlightenment.
Being sure of something can be a dangerous proposition.
The challenge for me in church was often the same, even when I couldn't put my finger on it. I always had a nagging sense that something wasn't authentic. Even unenlightened. Although those in the sanctuary were willing to worship and pray, it was rare to hear them achknowledge any shortcomings. Not even in humor. There was a collective pride that made me uncomfortable. It seemed disingenuous. Over time, it became clear to me that they had the cart before the horse.
My experience in AA, and other personal growth experiences, had demonstrated people entering the space with a vulnerability and hunger for being better. While, in church, people appeared to act like they were better. This incongruent reality spoke volumes to me, and frustrated me as well. Society had been growing and moving in so many directions spiritually and consciously, while the people in church appeared to act like they had it all tied up and they did not feel like it. You can tell when someone is missing an important component of communication, transparency, or authenticity. It might be camoflauged for a little while, but it doesn't take long until it starts seeping out the sides in bouts of self-righteousness, pride, and judgement. I've watchd some people genuinely surprised at their anger or passive aggressive behavior, hiding their embarrassment. This is a clear example of how they haven't yet done the work - individually or as a group. In an AA setting, if someone loses control or behaves badly, the structure is designed to deal with it through the steps. And there are no rules. People do it as they're ready, respecting the need for self honesty and reflection in order to heal and prevent the desire to use again; but they are well aware if an apology is in order that it will have to be made in order to move forward in his or her own journey of healing.
This is missing in church.
There is no framework or structure to help shape the journey. There's no GPS and rarely a sponsor that helps light the path when it gets dark using our own devices.
The celtic Christian had someone called an Aman Cara, who played the role of a sponsor almost to a T. It was someone in their community who was handpicked, and said to be from God for each person to have someone they could trust and reveal their innermost secrets to. It was also someone who would tell them the truth about themself, lessening the possibility for blind spots which can trip us up when we least expect it.
St. Brigitte is said to have made this comment: A person without a anam cara is like a head without a body.
When we haven't done the soul's inner work, we won't do the spiritual work very well, unless we are simply following a black and white set of rules, clearly defined for us. This is not the spiritual path. It's the way of the most right.
I've witnessed this particular shortfall in churches when they are talking about doing mission work. It made me cringe so much that I found it hard to even say the word mission. It all just felt wrong, disingenuous and contrived. That's not to say that many aren't passionate and caring in regards to what they call mission work. They are I'm certain. But when we determins that we have to do good for others, and operate out of that premise, we are surgically removing the work of the heart that must take place prior to it.
Our soul won't walk into this calling without having learned to take care of ourselves first. Granted, we can be selfless and still do good. But if we don't learn who we are in the process, with some kind of accountability structure in place, there's no way to measure or monitor our own progress.
God is in these rooms, and God works through the people in them. The anonymous structure, the shared purpose, the guiding but non-directive framework, and the even playing field grounded in humility in the trenches together, the lack of focus on fame, promotion, or money, creates an environment of growth and personal empowerment.
After attending meetings for a few years, and finding empty relationships in church, it was a no-brainer as to what I considered my church.
Without using the terminology, AA rarely creates opportunities for the ego to have a stage. This is rare in our culture, as most activities are motivated by an agenda of one kind or another.
The ego is easily seen in the rooms because it can't control the process. When it pops out, we know it. It also is not the hero here - not inside ourselves or as we see others. We are only received in the way that feels good to us, and to others, when we are authentic. We learn this quickly too. Recovering people are known for not throwing any punches unless they're deserved. They're as blunt as the day is long in summer.