I read in Fr. James Martin’s book “A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” that one of the founder members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., had received spiritual direction from a Jesuit priest, and Andrew Garfield in his interview about the film “Silence” on the Late Show, mentioned that The Twelve Step program is based on Ignatian Spirituality. Andrew Garfield did the Spiritual Exercises by the nineteenth annotation with Fr. James Martin, so I expect it is where he learned this particular gem. I said in an earlier post that I had spent some time in a support group and I quoted the third of the twelve steps. The group to which I belonged was firstly Alateen, and then Al Anon, since my dad was an alcoholic. Alateen and Al Anon are twelve step fellowships for family members and friends of people whose lives have been affected by alcoholism. Knowing what I know about The Twelve Steps and The Spiritual Exercises, it would not surprise me in the least if the first is built on foundations of the latter. In the first year of my formation as a spiritual director, we were asked to write about other spiritualities that had influenced us in our lives: I wrote about the Twelve Steps as one of mine, because it is fundamentally a spiritual programme, without having any specific religious affiliations. It truly expresses and lives “God in All Things”. As it is Alcohol Awareness week in the United Kingdom this week, and the theme for the week is “Alcohol and Me”, it seems the most appropriate time, and the most appropriate post, for me to write, especially since I am now attending Al Anon meetings once more. The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions are read at the beginning of each meeting.
The Twelve 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.https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA
*In the twelve steps used by Al Anon and Alateen, step twelve is modified to read “others” rather than “alcoholics”.
The first point to stress is that this program does not belong to any particular religion, and the mention of God can be problematic for some people. However, the phrase “Power greater than Ourselves”, or “Higher Power” is both helpful and challenging. I knew an AA member once who told me that having no religious faith, he struggled with the concept: not with accepting that he was powerless, the first step made sense to him by the time he came to AA, because he knew that alcohol was more powerful than he was by the way that it had affected his life: it was the idea of God he struggled with. In the end, he accepted GOD as an acronym for “Group Of Drunks” because he accepted the Higher Power of his AA group and knew that it helped him to sobriety, to stay sober and was ultimately life giving, leading him to better health, self esteem and reconciliation with his family.
One of the slogans used in twelve step fellowships is:
Let go and Let God.
and Saint Ignatius calls consolation:
…every increase of faith, hope and love.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Loius J. Puhl S.J.
Regular use of the above slogan leads to a deeper trust in God. The enemy does not lead people into life, ultimately, and it was in Al Anon, through the Twelve Steps, when I first learned to recognise the action of God, as I understand Him, in the lives of these courageous and honest people, even if they did not call Him by the same name as me.
Where steps 1 – 3 might have echoes of the First Principle and Foundation of the Exercises, where the movement is towards indifference to created things and to seek only what God would have us do and be, steps 4-6 overlap with the First Week, where the grace to be asked for is sorrow and knowledge of myself as a sinner, and to come to know the nature and patterns of my own sinfulness, while still holding onto the knowledge that I am loved by God. Making a personal inventory, the fourth step, is no joke: it is a warts and all approach and is consistent with the movement in the first week of the Exercises. I allow light to shine on all my defects of character, to recognise the pattern of them, to feel the sorrow of them, and so come to the point of desire to be free from them.
Step 5 is important here, and probably worth repeating:
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
It is very easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we do not really have to share our wrong doings with another person, that God forgives us anyway. Absolutely, He does, but one of the ways the enemy works, according to Saint Ignatius, is as a secret lover, whispering lies to draw us away. His answer is to tell: a spiritual director or some other person well versed in discernment. In Al Anon, or another twelve step program, the other person may be our sponsor, someone who understands where we are and sees the patterns by which we can be tied up in knots. Sharing the exact nature of our wrongs is not about self abasement or self loathing, and it is not necessarily a good friend who simply comforts and affirms us in the error of our ways because they want to cheer us up and reassure us that we are not all that bad. The challenging and loving director or sponsor encourages us in our spiritual growth, and yes, while that can be painful, it is life giving and worth it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at this point in the journey may be spiritually refreshing.
Steps 7 – 11 echo the second week: they are about making a decision about how we live, and to trust it to God, being willing to be guided in our decision by His will. There is discernment involved here in all aspects of our lives and in the individual decisions we make in every day situations, and while some of our decisions can be big decisions, many of them are not. In the Al Anon book “One Day at a Time in Al Anon” the meditation for October 8 ends with a quote from Thomas A’ Kempis:
Whensoever a man desires anything inordinately, he is presently disquieted within himself.Thomas A’ Kempis: The Imitation of Christ
Ignatius cites as the purpose for the spiritual exercises as:
…the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl, S.J.
It is an important business: it is about making the right decisions and for the right reasons, and enabling us to live peacefully with the consequences of our decisions. It brings serenity, that much used word and sought after grace of the program. Sometimes it may simply boil down to the decision to be kind and courteous in this particular conversation: to choose our attitude. Another tool the program has to help us to focus this principle in our little decisions in the course of a day is the Just for Today card, which is something I use regularly:
Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won’t find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.Al Anon Just for Today card.
The one above is one of my favourites, and one I find quite challenging. It encourages me to find the right balance between superficial vanity and slothfulness: to love myself and to see myself as God sees me. And of course, it also encourages me to see others as God sees them, and to love them as God loves them, and to refuse to see it as my job to fix or convert them to my way of thinking.
The Twelve Step program diverges from the Exercises at the second week however. The second, third and fourth weeks of the exercises have their focus centred on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and therefore locates them very specifically within the Christian faith. The Twelve Steps is a non religious program for everyone. In the preamble to the steps it says:
The principles they embody are universal, applicable to everyone, whatever his personal creed.The Twelve Steps, preamble.
Ignatius offers an eighteenth annotation of The Exercises where he says:
The spiritual exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them…The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl, S.J.
and he goes on to describe different situations and ways that it might be done. He begins his conclusion with:
But let him go no further and take up the matter dealing with the Choice of a Way of Life, nor any other exercises that are outside of the First Week.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl, S.J.
Ignatius is effectively saying, horses for courses: if beyond the first week is not appropriate, then there is no need to pursue it further. It might be considered that The Twelve Steps is in effect an Eighteenth Annotation of The Spiritual Exercises, where we:
…take what we like and leave the rest.
It is not to say that The Twelve Steps are less: in one sense they might be considered more, because of their adaptation beyond the Christian faith to all religions and none. It is analogous to the movement of Christianity itself from the Jewish faith where it began, outwards to the Gentiles, and to the whole world. I cannot help but feel that both Ignatius and God approve.
Steps 7 – 11 also incorporate within them The Examen, the purpose of which is “to improve our conscious contact with God” and Ignatius is known to have encouraged the Jesuits in that,if they only had the space in their day for one prayer, then it is this one that they should do.
In fact, steps 4-6 also echo The Examen in their movement.
The twelfth step is suggestive of the Contemplatio, where Ignatius makes the first point:
…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
The concept of service is a principle which runs through The Twelve Traditions of twelve step fellowships, the purpose of which is:
…personal progress for the greatest number….Al Anon, Tradition 1.
and members volunteer for a variety of roles from maybe chairing at a meeting one week, to speaking publicly at conventions. I once spoke at a convention in Edinburgh as a member of Alateen when I was eighteen. It is an important witness, because when people living in this chaos see that it is possible to find serenity, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not, it is powerfully attractive. Ignatius describes in the Two Standards meditation of the Exercises how those under the standard of Christ attract and draw, rather than drive, bully and coerce. The eleventh tradition states this principle explicitly:
Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion;Al Anon, Tradition 11.
Both The Twelve Steps and The Spiritual Exercises offer transformative processes by which to change our lives. The former provides emergency support and hope for those living in the chaos of deeply destructive addictions, and its byte sized slogans and steps give oxygen immediately in instances of suffocating despair and desolation, securing the idea that “no unhappiness is too great to be lessened.” Continual engagement with the program, with meetings and with the help of a sponsor fosters a deepening of these principles, in faith and love, as we continue to apply them to our lives, irrespective of our religious practice. They are a great gift. I once heard Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the other founding member of AA, described as the greatest social architects of the twentieth century and I believe that there is some truth in that statement. The Spiritual Exercises provide a similar process specific to Christian faith, and for everyone in acceptance of that faith, a means to deepen their personal relationship with God and live according to His will, regardless of their personal circumstances. There are some of us who are grateful to know and have both.