Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.Step 4: Alcoholics Anonymous
There is something quite appropriate about looking at this step at the beginning of January! We might be in the first blush of enthusiasm for our New Year’s Resolutions – if we have indeed made any. Perhaps we have already forgotten it or given up.
This step is difficult and long, and not to be taken lightly. It is to be approached with seriousness, and also gentleness. Its equivalent in the Spiritual Exercises is the first week, where we look at our own sinfulness. Step 4 encourages us to look deeply at ourselves, warts and all, our strengths and our weaknesses, our virtues and vices. We are invited to bring everything out into the light to look at it.
In “Blueprint for Progress”, the workbook that goes along with step 4, personal qualities are put along side their opposites and we are invited to consider where we generally sit in the space between the two extremes. The process is then to consider examples of situations and our response to them that have led to us placing ourselves there. It is a process of discernment. When we are being too hard on ourselves, we might find that we can think of examples that support the contrary to what we propose. And when we are inclined to justify our behaviour or actions, the sting of conscience – the phrase St. Ignatius uses in the Exercises – pulls us up short and demands that we look more closely. As with the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, it is an uncomfortable journey. It demands humility, true humility. Not the self deprecating kind that refuses to recognise our own good as well as our own faults. And it is not a journey to make alone. Having moved through the second and third steps, where we came to believe and made a decision to turn our lives over to God, we make this journey together with our God.
In the Spiritual Exercises, where we have moved into the First week from the Principle and Foundation, we have come to know ourselves as created and deeply loved by God. It is our reaching out to God that enables us to make this inventory without growing to despise ourselves.
I was a young adult when I worked through this step formally. There were things I discovered about myself that I did not like, and I worked to mend them. There were identified characteristics of adult children of alcoholics that I recognised the potential for in myself and I resolved to avoid those pitfalls. One of those was that it was common for adults who had been raised in an alcoholic home to leave projects unfinished, to start something and then to walk away without seeing it all the way to the end. I saw that that could easily be me and it has stayed with me all these years. I may struggle to be consistent, and it may look like something has quietly gone by the wayside – my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich for example. I did not finish that in one year, even though at the beginning of Advent last year it seemed that there was more than enough time! I have not given up. I have resumed the journey where I left off in October, and I will finish it.
I do not drink alcohol myself. There is also a tendency for this addiction to run in families and I knew at the age of seventeen that I did not want to walk that path. I joined the Pioneer Association when I was eighteen and made that abstinence into a lifelong prayer.
I am struck by an idea I heard , I think when I heard Laurence Freeman speak in Norwich some years ago. It describes the perception of the Seven Deadly Sins as being compulsions, addictions that drive our behaviour and as such, make us not free. Addiction, by its very nature is an inordinate desire because the addict places their addiction above everything else. I would suggest that we all have them, and that they can be small as well as big. I know for example, that I am not able to “just have one” chocolate digestive, even if I resolve to, and I am in public. I can tie myself up in all sorts of knots with that one. If the packet is open I am not at peace. They call to me and torment me. Best not to buy them at all and refuse the first one. It may seem like a trivial example, but the behaviour and desire is there, nevertheless. The journey of the fourth step, and the First week of the spiritual exercises is to become aware of our own specific compulsions, even the subtle ones, and to remove us from denial so that we can live freely of them.
At the end of every year for quite a few years running, it was my habit to do a review of the year, a sort of examen. I would read through my diary and try to sum of the mood of each month and then create some sort on collage showing my movement through the year. I notice two changes to this habit in recent years that have made this review essentially obsolete. The first is that as I have engaged more deeply in Ignatian Spirituality, I have regularly practised the daily examen, and the second is that my “diary” is now exclusively my prayer journal. All my reflections are derived from my prayer, including my daily examen.
So, here is where I am today. In my examen of the year, I recognise the hand of God in the big changes taking place in my life, and my commitment and hard work, my complete cooperation, in the new direction He is leading me. I also recognise my compulsion to workaholism, motivated by pride, and that it has led me to burnt out exhaustion and away from the space and time for a slower pace and deepened engagement in prayer. This latter desire of mine and His is the raisin d’etre for changing direction in my career.
In the 10th Addition of the Exercises on Penance – believe me, I have a lot to say about that particular addition – Ignatius describes how we can do too much penance as well as too little penance. It is all about the point of equilibrium. The work of the Fourth step, the moral inventory strikes me as being the same thing. Ignatius encourages us to act against the desolation. So, in that spirit, while I am still working in school and trying to set up my business as an online Chemistry tutor, I will be cutting back a little in a few places. One of those is here. Between now and February, I will post a reflection fortnightly rather than weekly, alternating it with a Chemistry blog on my other website. I hope to pick it up weekly again when I am no longer spending my working days in the classroom. The other posts I do will continue in the normal pattern.
I would like to wish you all a safe and good new year, and for you to deepen your own prayer life and journey into the heart of God.