Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.Step 5: Alcoholics Anonymous
As if Step 4 was not hard enough, Step 5 is also difficult and sore, and at the same time, pours a soothing balm into our self inflicted wounds. Our wrongs, by their very essence, are those things that we identified as being faults and failings: places where we did not live up to being the person we were created to be; the dark corners where we hide away those things about ourselves that we are embarrassed and ashamed of; we are now being asked to bring out onto the light of day, not just to show them to God, not just to look at ourselves, but to show them to someone else. To be appropriately and openly honest about the bad and the ugly within us. Daunting work.
It is worth remembering, that we have not come to this point in isolation – we have already been journeying in the steps and are walking here with God. At this point, we have submitted to our Higher Power in Step 3, and have committed to this work: we trust Him enough. To try to this step without having made the journey to it would be like doing the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, without firstly having prayed with the Principle and Foundation – not to be recommended. I did try that once a long time ago. I really wanted to do The Spiritual Exercises, but my children were too young for me to go away for thirty days to do them. I had not heard of the nineteenth annotation, where you could do them in every day life, at that time. Not that that would have made a difference. I think I had too much on my plate to be able to devote myslef completely to them at that point in my life. I know that now, but then – I naively thought I could pray my way through each of these meditations. So, I started with the first contemplation of the first week – that seemed logical enough. That meditation is about the fall of the angels and it left me in a very dark place, full of fear and anxiety, like having had a nightmare, and God was not there! When I talked to my spiritual director about it, he was firm in his suggestion of me putting those books away, that the Exercises were a guidebook for directors who were accompanying people as they made them, they were not intended to be done alone.
The same is true for a Twelve Step program. While we do the work ourselves, we are not alone in it, and we cannot do it alone. There is too much room for dishonestly, denial and delusion when we go it alone: we are too close to our faults and cannot see the wood for the trees. When we share our turmoil and the traps and turns with an experienced and caring other, when we bring God into that conversation and allow Him to shine His light on us, these malicious whisperings lose their power to hurt us.
St. Ignatious describes the different ways the enemy works in us in vivid analogy. The particular one I am thinking of here is as a “false lover”:
He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered. If such a lover speaks with evil intention to the daughter of a good father, or to the wife of a good husband, and seeks to seduce them, he wants his words and solicitations kept secret…In the same way, when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
And Ignatius does not just describe the problem, he offers us the solution:
He is greatly displeased if his evil suggestions and depraved intentions are revealed by the daughter to her father, or by the wife to her husband. Then he readily sees he will not succeed in what he has begun…The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.
It is uncomfortable, but ultimately life giving, because it helps to free us from those traps which ensare us, often repeatedly, when we act on our compulsions and our signature sin, in spite of ourselves.
Ignatius mentions two people we can talk to about our faults: a confessor and another spiritual person who understands. I would equate a spiritual director as the second person here , and the first, in the Roman Catholic tradtion, to which I belong, as the priest who hears our confession. In my experience, these two conversations are very different. In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes on Step 5:
What humanity needs is an honest exposure of the truth and true accountability and responsibility for what has happened.Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
I would say that the most honest confessions I have ever made in my life – forget the five minute shopping list – are when I have been on an individually guided retreat and have already spent six days in silence, speaking only to a spiritual director, and the confession is made in a face to face conversation, no hiding behind the grid of the confessional box. At the end of the honest exposure, the accountability and responsibility, there is forgiveness. I am also able to forgive myself.
Rohr contrasts two models: the juridical model
sin–> punishment –> repentence –> transformation
and the restorative model:
sin –> unconditional love –> transformation–> repentence
God shocks and stuns us into love. God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
It is the movement I was describing in the earlier post: How does He look at Me?
In my second year of training to be a Spiritual Director, I was drawn to write my paper on the Exercises on penance, and my understanding of it is in this light. It is about reparation, not punishment, it is about making it right when I have messed up, and I do and will mess up. I am a sinner after all.
Rohr sums it up:
Step 5 is far from any notion of retributive justice, which the sacrament of “penance” too often became, and returned it to the much more biblical notion of restorative justice – to restore relationships themselves, to restore integrity with myself, and to restore a sense of communion with God.Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.
It feels very appropriate to be writing about step 5 at this point, given the retreat day on Positive Penance which I ran last weekend. The movement was very much to encourage a more personal, restorative approach to doing penance in Lent, rather than just picking up from the usual three, without necessary pondering their relevance to my own relationship with God. The point is to notice where am I not fully being in my relationship with God, and then seeking to act against the desolation and so express my sincere desire for reparation. I am currently acting against my tempation to workaholism, which had indeed led me and my soul to be:
…wholly slothful, tepid and sad…
I am acting against the symptoms and the root cause this Lent; all those areas where I make the easy, lazy choice. And I set the timer when I am working. I am allowed one ten minute snooze on the alarm to finish off, in an effort to prevent me from carrying on until it is too late to cook, exercise or even go to bed in a timely fashion, because my head is still spinning round. Since that snooze on the alarm is now beeping at me, I know it is time to switch off the computer.