One recent morning I had coffee with a friend, a devout Catholic who is in recovery.
“It’s hard when we read the Big Book and get to Bill’s letter about clergy,” she said, referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook written primarily by AA co-founder Bill Wilson. “He writes that over time, he came to accept, and actually admire, some of them,” she sighed as she set down her cup of Dunkins. “When we get to those lines, almost everyone in the room groans.”
For many of those seated in the AA meeting with my friend, and their brothers and sisters elsewhere, AA and other 12-Step programs have become the “new church.”
This church is a blend of many faces. There are victims of clergy abuse who can barely make their way down to the church basement where the meetings are held. There are those who felt spiritually starved in what they experienced as a cold, judgmental, and unforgiving Church culture. There is the contingent that desperately seeks companionship, those who have experience of church less as conversation than a lot of listening. And there are those who feel isolated by the superficial greetings among those in the pews.
If I had a dollar for every person who has asked me, “Why can’t the Church be more like AA?” I’d be dining out every night. In this fall season of start-up, new programs and small group opportunities, I decided that rather than defend the Church, I would ponder this question more seriously. In what ways do the 12 Steps answer deep spiritual needs that the Catholic Church can learn from? In the wake of Pope Francis’ visit and his gentle urgings, we can begin to address our own sources of spiritual poverty with new honesty and compassion.
1. In AA, you come as you are.
There’s no “dressing up” in AA. By this, I mean more than just our wardrobe, though this is a good place to start.
When we get ready for Mass, we tend to put on our best. Yes, we do this as a sign of respect and reverence. But truth be told, we also do it to keep up appearances. We know that we will see and be seen. We tend to adopt the “dress code” of the church community of which we are a part. We dress up, and we evaluate others on the basis of how they look in the fellowship hour.
Most of us do this without realizing it. We are eager to get to the place where we can be with God, in a dedicated time and space, to experience the sacraments. But we don’t ask what other “codes” we may be accepting, what other assumptions about goodness and compassion and self-acceptance – and the limits on same – we may be making when we “dress up.” While the “outfits” we don for church may not be as well-fortified as those we put on at other times in our day, they can deeply interfere with the kind of self-acceptance that Jesus taught.
To hear my AA friends, meetings are for people who are seeking authentic connection, to themselves and to others. Healing and wholeness, they say, comes from gradually accepting their true selves, getting in touch with their better natures, and living each day as consciously as they can. The ethos is authenticity, not acting out of any kind of socially-sanctioned script – an unconscious temptation every time we go out in public.
2. In AA, people come with their wounds and their deep life experiences on display.
There’s no pressure to be happy-clappy or even stiff-upper-lip at a 12-Step meeting. Quite the opposite. Struggle is the common ground, and honesty the lingua franca.
In church, by contrast, we tend to focus on “goodness” – good behavior, good works, virtue, and aspiration. Too often, men and women who have barely made it to Mass that morning because their kids were sick, or they had an argument, or are swamped with unpaid bills, are exhorted to the wisdom and perfection of the saints. When we are vulnerable, tired, struggling, and just looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, even the parables can become the mountain too far to climb.
Without a healthy dose of acceptance, a supportive circle of friends, and a grounded prayer life (and who among us has those all the time?), we will never measure up to the standards we hear from the lectern. Life is, in actual fact, flawed, painful, complex, and difficult. When we are trying our best, the emphasis on doing “even better” can set us on the slippery slope from compassion and forgiveness to judgment and self-righteousness. It can leave us even lonelier than we were before.
3. In AA, people’s voices are heard.
Personal experience is grist for the spiritual mill. Vulnerability in a context of trust, according to my friends, enables people to be open and honest with one another. There is no intermediary, no “expert.”
Sharing one another’s journeys, tales of tragedy and loss and resurrection, is the profound gift that the group gives its members. Listening leads to speaking. Every day, people discover in themselves a wisdom and strength they didn’t realize they possessed. They are “forgiven, healed, renewed” by this process. They gain perspective on problems and learn to “bring them to their Higher Power.” Friends in recovery tell me that when people are able to share their wisdom in a safe and supportive setting, they can, indeed, speak with the tongues of angels.
To my ear, the community of the 12-Step programs feels much like the early Church, where people were all equal, all shared equally, and individuals rose to leadership on the basis of individual integrity and wisdom.
Pope Francis, with his gentle, direct insightfulness, has repeatedly tried to wake up those of us in the “First World” to the fact of our own poverty. Ours may not be the material poverty of the southern hemisphere nations, but it may be more serious. We suffer the poverties of inner emptiness, lack of meaningful community, and too often, the absence of inner connection to our deepest selves.
The hardest thing for us in this society, in which success and competition, independence, and appearances are more important than connection and interdependence, is vulnerability. People are hungry. Addiction is rampant. Can we learn from the 12 Steps how to better be with one another, and to create places where we can be true, heard, and loved through our struggles (not by hiding them), and feel ourselves, through the grace moving through others, healed?
Can our small church groups become places that genuinely bring us closer, and with prayer and the sacraments, inspire us to use our best selves for a world that needs us?