Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.Step 6: Alcoholics Anonymous
The wonderful thing about Step 6 is that it does not demand that we do anything about our defects yet. That can feel like such a relief when this one sinks in a bit deeper because we might be labouring under the sense that now the exact nature of our wrongs are on the table as it were, we are obliged to do something about them. This step slows down that process. No, we are not required to take action to remove our defects, the process is to be ready to allow God to remove them – in God’s own time. All we are is aware of them, and open and ready for God to work in us to remove them. What that looks like in practice will depend on the situation, our particular defect and probably many other facors we can only guess at.
I am reminded of A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Far be it for me to be critical of a respected work of English Christian Literature, but I just could not get on with that book. I joke that is was too puritanical for me, but that is not a joke, it actually is. Bunyan was a Puritan, I am not. My problem with it is in the essence of Step 6. There is the point in the book where Christian, the Prilgrim, meets with the Saviour of the world. But then, Jesus disappears again, and leaves the Pilgrim to walk the rest of this dangerous journey on his own, under his own steam, using his own strength and talents. I guess this part was supposed to represent the Ascension, but to me it felt a bit like being left to my own devices, and woe betide me if I strayed off the path, that was all my own fault and I would get what I deserved! In short, it felt punitive, that God is distant, abstract: watching and critical, waiting to see if I measured up, judgemental. It is not how I experience Him.
I am much more of that fractious child, who wriggles in His arms and squeals to be put down. So He does and I run off to make a mess and get myself into all sorts of trouble I can’t get out of. When I run back to Him crying and scared, He scoops me up and holds me close to Him: no scolding, just safety. This image is some of the fruit of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich.
Sometimes, when I hear people talking about their prayer, I frequently hear the phrases:
God wants me to…
And I ask:
How do you know it was God?
It is not that I doubt their experience, I ask myself the same question. Discernment is a process whereby we come to recognise the authentic voice of God amongst the cacophony of all the voices and noise we hear. We cannot necessarily assume it is God because the voice speaking says it is. How easily the deceiver could deceive us if that was all it took. It is a question of responsibilty. There is a danger of misinterpreting the Step 6 and thinking we can sit back and leave it up to God to sort it out, be passive if you like. I think that is why I also raise the question of whose voice is it we are listening to. Is this person moving through life, not being an active agent in it, where things happen to them and it is interpreted as being what God wants? It is the opposite extreme to the puritanical attitude of the Pilgrim’s Progress, where I am in complete control of my own salvation and it is all down to me.
In “Breathing Under Water”, Richard Rohr attaches an analogy of the chicken and egg to Step 6. He says:
It first recognises that we have to work to see our many resistances, excuses and blockages, but then we have to fully acknowledge that God alone can do the “removing”! But which should come first grace or responsibility? The answer is that both come first.Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
And he asks the very pertinant question:
Does God “produce” us, or do we by our own efforts “produce” God?Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
It is an interesting question. Ignatius questions, but does not assume, that a lack of effort on our part might be responsible for the “non-production” of God. He encourages spiritual directors to explore with their directees:
When the one who is giving the Exercises perceives that the exercitant is not affected by any spiritual experiences, such as consolations or desolations, and that he is not troubled by different spirits, he ought to ply him with questions about the exercises. He should ask him whether he makes them at the appointed times, and how he makes them. He should question him about the Additional Directions, whether he is diligent in the observance of them. He will demand an account in detail of each one of these pointsThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
In the Rules for Discernment, he gives three reasons why we might suffer from spiritual desolation:
The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.
The second reason 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 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, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us to build on the property of another, to rise up in spirit in a certain pride and vainglory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
The questioning of the director in what “efforts” the directee is making is merely an exploration of possible reasons for the apparant “absence of God”. The dark night of the soul is recognised in itself as being profound spiritual consolation, however painful it might be to the person experiencing it. It is not my own personal experience, but people have told me of it being theirs. As Rohr has suggested and implict in what St. Ignatius is saying, both our efforts and grace are involved in the encounter with God and in making Step 6. Richard Rohr goes on to talk about paradox.
Almost all spirituality has a paradoxical character to it, which is why the totally rational or dualistic mind invariably misses the point, and just calls things it does not understand wrong, heresy or stupid.Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
I love paradox; how you can be neither and both at the same time. One of the books I have read that has deeply influenced me is The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith, which is about the spiritual life as taught by Meister Eckhart. If you are on your toes, you will know that the quote at the top of my blog is from Meister Eckhart. I loved this book. I understood some of it, but by no means all of what I read. It might be time for a re-read, after Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Smith says of Ekhart’s spiritual way:
Two apparantly opposed realities will be brought by him into clashing confrontation until the dualism separating them is transcended and their underlying unity emerges like sunlight after rain.The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith
Like sunlight after rain…seriously, what a beautiful, evocative image of the spiritual struggle. It describes perfectly, the battle of the Step 6. But battle is the wrong word, it is tai chi, yin and yang: softness is the necessity, not hardness.
This swinging rhythm or oscillation between unlike poles, breathing in and breathing out, speaking and remaining silent, doing and resting is the basic rhythm of the spiritual life, and it is only within that rhythm that we can know God, experience Him, think and talk about Him.The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith
It reminds me of the grace of the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises:
…make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.
Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things…..The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
From my own experience of making the Spiritual exercises, and from listening to people as a spiritual director, I notice that in this part of the Exercises, there is an oscillation about this point of indifference, and we do not remain there once we have experienced it. It is but a moment, what I would describe as an eternal moment, because the consolation in receiving this grace remains in the felt memory of the soul and is stored up to be called upon when we are in desolation and troubled by the turmoil of spirits. I have referred to this practice before.
To me, the essence of Step 6 is in the principle and foundation, and in the end of the first week of the Exercises, moving into the Second Week. We have acknowledged our disordered attachments and our powerlessness over them, and we have become willing to learn more about where God would lead us into freedom from them. Here, I will let Cyrpian Smith sum up the journey:
But to learn to pour out while remaining inwardly detached, to be at once in movement and in repose, is largely what the spiritual life is about: to the extent that we have learned that we are true Persons, true images of God, true sharers in the swirling, glowing, energetic life of the Trinity. To live like that also means to be untiring, for it brings about accumulation, not loss, of energy.The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith