The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps

Vanitas – Inhertiance
The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps, reading of this post.

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.

*In the twelve steps used by Al Anon and Alateen, step twelve is modified to read “others” rather than “alcoholics”.

St. Beunos: main garden steps
The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps 2, reading of this post.

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.

The Path
The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps 3, reading of this post.

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.

The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps 4, reading of this post.

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.

Can be printed onto A6 or A4 card to have in your prayer place if you would find it helpful.
The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps, reading of this post.

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.

Serenity Prayer – used to close Al Anon, and other twelve step meetings.

Three kinds of silence.

Reading of Three kinds of silence, Part 1.

I described in an earlier post that I liked to read fantasy novels as a way of relaxing during the holidays, and that “The Name of the Wind”, by Patrick Rothfuss, contained a prologue which is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces of prose I had ever read in my life. He titles his prologue ” A Silence of Three Parts”. He begins his description:

The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves.

The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss

He has also written a beautiful, poignant book about one of the characters we meet in “The Name of the Wind”, called “The Slow Regard of Silent Things”.

Silence is an issue. Ignatius also writes in the power of three in the Spiritual Exercises: the first, second and third sin; the three powers of the soul, three classes of men; three kinds of humility; three times of making a choice; three methods of prayer, three principle reasons why we suffer from desolation. And in a previous post I wrote about speaking out, the opposite of silence. Hence the convergence of these three ideas here. Further, I would describe three aspects to the three kinds of silence, a sort of fractal pattern.

The first kind of silence I would describe as a literal, physical silence, something of which Rothfuss is describing above. There is a noticeable lack of it in our fast paced world. It may present as the absence of ambient noise that we selectively do not hear, it may be in holding our tongue in non verbal disapproval, or maybe even shock, at the behaviour, actions or speech of another, or it may be keeping quiet to allow another, or others, to speak in conversation or in a group setting. One thing I have noticed more and more since becoming a spiritual director is that when we are in conversation with each other, we often only listen for the pause in the conversation so that we know when we can voice our own opinion; we are not really listening to what the other person is saying. I see this a lot in the classroom: a child puts their hand up to ask a question mid explanation, and I finish my explanation before they are given the opportunity to speak, only to find that I have just explained the answer to their question in the intervening period. So intent were they in listening for the pause, that they missed the answer to the question they had put their hand up to ask. Or, during meetings sometimes, someone is speaking and making a point, and someone else, or more than one someone else, starts talking over them and the chair frequently has to step in: and of course, not just meetings, in any group conversation I notice this happening. I notice myself doing it too, and when I do, I apologise for interrupting and I attempt to correct my behaviour. So here, I want to issue you with a challenge: sit back a bit this week and listen. Where do you see this lack of silence and listening in your day to day life?

The second kind of silence I would describe is the silence of abuse. Firstly , the silence of the victim, who feels unable to speak out. Secondly, the silence of those who know about the abuse, but are unable to stop it and do not speak out. And thirdly, the silence of those who both know about the abuse and are in a position to make it stop, but do not take the necessary action to terminate it.

I wrote in a previous post about Ignatius’ description of how the enemy acts as a false lover, by whispering secrets and encouraging us not to tell, whether it is grooming or gas-lighting. He encourages us to speak out, to act against the compulsion to silence. I would like to illustrate with a story:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: We are family.
Reading of Three kinds of silence, Part 2

Tara has been gas-lighted and abused by her family all of her life, and we see her at the beginning of the scene with no sense of her own self worth. She has lied, deceived and put her friends in danger, and they have just found out. Notice the movement in her from the beginning to the end of the scene, with each intervention. Willow firstly speaks forgiveness and understanding, and she is coming from a place of love; Buffy steps in with strength and protection and the others collectively draw out the truth of the abuse. Notice how her family respond to these interventions: with the continued lies and fallacious reasoning, anger and emotional blackmail. Until finally, Tara finds courage and strength to stand, to face down her abusers and to see herself as worthy of love and life. To me, this scene is excellent in its depiction of turmoil of spirits, and Tara’s responses show movements of desolation and consolation throughout the scene. From the position of protection, coming from a place of love, understanding and truth, light is shone on the abuse and it is brought to an end, and recovery is given the opportunity to begin.

There is no room for silence where abuse is concerned, and those who have been abused need those who know about it to listen and to act, so that they can speak out and we can collectively make it stop.

Light in the darkness

The third kind is the silence of prayer. In maintaining a silence during a retreat for example, or setting time aside at home in order to enter into that space where we can connect with God. This also includes a silence from all sorts of input via books, television, social media. It is cutting ourselves off from distractions, the urgency of the clamour that demands our attention. By silencing the cacophony of the world, we are creating a sacred space where we can enter into the depths of and with God. Imagine the feeling of walking along a beach alone, where hours pass and it feels like seconds, and now imagine that sense lasting and deepening over a period of days. It is also our silence and stillness when we place ourselves before Him to listen.

And it is also, sometimes, the silence when we hear nothing back from Him, as in the film “Silence”.

Reading of Three kinds of silence, part 3.

Such times, when we feel an absence of God’s presence, and we are consistently bombarded by the actions of the evil spirit manifested in others and in our own thoughts, it can be extremely painful and confusing. Ignatius has some useful advice to help us at such times:

…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against desolation. We can insist more on prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance,

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

As I stated earlier, Ignatius offers three principle reasons why we suffer from desolation:

The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety…

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

The second is because God wishes to try us to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion…or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

So Ignatius encourages us, that while God does not cause desolation, He allows it for our ultimate benefit and uses it to draw us still closer and more deeply into Him. Ignatius advises us, that when we are in a time of consolation, we consider how we will conduct ourselves in a time of desolation and that we store up a supply of strength as defense against that day. In practice, this may mean that when we are in desolation we call to mind, during prayer or during our day to day activities, memories of past experiences of consolation and savour them.

I would like to invite you this week to notice silence in your life. Where is it coming from? Where is it leading to? What are your own inner movements in the silence, and as you notice the silence?

I will end with this cover, and video, of a classic song because the first time I saw it, I was moved and haunted by it, and I pondered it for quite a while afterwards.