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Posted June 20, 2005

Brother Paul

Case Study: Brother Paul
Joseph Bachand, MS, Th.D

Brother Paul is a fifty-two-year-old religious brother who is currently in treatment for alcohol relapse. This is his third residential treatment and both Br. Paul and his community are asking with some urgency: "What is going to be different this time?" This urgency is related to Br. Paul's compromised physical health as well as his community's decision that this is their final recourse: if he does not maintain a life of recovery, Br. Paul will not be assigned to ministry. Br. Paul acknowledges that in the past following treatment he would "go it alone:" He stopped attending AA meetings soon after treatment, stopped phoning his sponsor, and stopped sharing with his support group. "I figured I knew more than they did," he admitted so "what was the point of continuing?" As he relapsed into alcoholic behavior, Br. Paul acknowledged that he also stopped praying. Even when he prayed the Breviary, his attention was on other things. "God became a stranger," he admitted, "and somewhere deep inside I knew that if I let him into what was going on, I would have to change."

As part of his current treatment, Br. Paul is required to observe a "90/90," shorthand for ninety AA meetings in ninety days. In the midst of these ninety days, he begins to notice for the first time what the people attending the meetings are saying about God and how important their spiritual life is to their sobriety. "Even the younger people who come to these meetings talk about God and the importance of prayer in their lives," he says. "Here, I am a religious brother and they put me to shame. I realize that I am hearing stories of conversion, and I'm thinking that God may be calling me to conversion as well."

Sometimes residents at SLI pick up on such things right away. Sometimes it takes longer, as in the case of Br. Paul. What Br. Paul is beginning to realize is that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do not simply provide a blueprint for living sobriety, they offer a way into spiritual living consonant with the best of Catholic spirituality. Steps One and Two acknowledge our inability to effect our own salvation, clearly recognizing that it is God's doing - a basic awareness of Christian faith. Step Three asks us to "put our money where our mouth is," and make a decision to live out of that belief. Those who sincerely work at recovery return to these first three steps again and again, making of them a daily touchstone of their prayer life. Whether "surrendering" a particular urge to drink or a more general "giving over" of the day to God's care, this kind of prayer recognizes God's strength in our weakness (see II Corinthians 12:1-10). Along with the Serenity Prayer, the practice of the first three steps also helps recovering alcoholics (or anyone for that matter!) to come to terms with issues of control and perfectionism, life-stances that pose a challenge to healthy spirituality.

Steps Four through Nine would be recognizable to anyone schooled in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In effect these steps call for making an examination of conscience, expressing sorrow, making amends and intending "a firm purpose of amendment." More than that, we see here that the Twelve Steps confront us with the awareness that we do not live in isolation; our lives impact the lives of others. AA shorthand for this is that recovery is a "we program." Understanding our fundamental connectedness is a life truth and is not simply related to sobriety. It is an aberration or distortion to consider spirituality as an individual affair, something that probably has its roots in the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. This individualistic view finds fertile ground in contemporary Western culture, with its emphasis on individual achievement. Spirituality has been taught in this way, even in religious communities where "fraternity" or "sisterhood" is held as an ideal. The communal dimension of spirituality is primary, and Vatican II reclaimed this when it asserted that the Eucharist is the pinnacle of Catholic worship and spirituality. All else flows from this. Br. Paul is beginning to notice how regular AA meetings and sober living throughout the week harmonizes with the Sunday Eucharist/daily living rhythm of Christian life. Even more, he is deeply touched by the fact that his confreres and friends care that he "catch onto" recovery. He was unaware that his drinking was greatly impacting his relationships, causing sorrow and pain for those who loved him. In fact, his active drinking let him forget that he was loved at all.

Steps Ten and Eleven seek to make taking a regular inventory a continuing practice. This fits very well with the "Consciousness Examen" that Saint Ignatius demanded of his followers, wherein the times of distance from and closeness to God are called to consciousness. Taking an inventory enables a growing awareness of the way God is present in our lives, as well as the particular difficulties we may have in seeing or believing in that presence. Step Eleven describes an ongoing relationship with God nurtured by "prayer and meditation," intending to seek and know God's will. One way of defining spirituality is "our response to God's grace" and Step Eleven reminds us just how practical and daily is that response. Finally, Step Twelve recognizes the need to give to others what we have been given - a charge reminiscent of Jesus' command to his disciples in Matthew 10:8. Its insight also forms the basis for engagement in evangelization - indeed for any form of ministry. Some have suggested that "twelve-stepping," the very act of witnessing sobriety, is what helps cement recovery as a way of life: "it's not really yours until you give it away." This going out in compassion to other alcoholics allows one to see the joy in recovery. The Twelve Steps become a spirituality, and not simply a "task" I must do to stay sober.

Step Twelve concludes, "we tried . . . to practice these principles in all our affairs [emphasis added]." This finally is the awareness out of which Brother Paul is now choosing to live. This program of recovery is not simply about the non use of alcohol; rather it is about how one lives the whole of life. It is what we have always believed and tried to communicate about prayer and spirituality. Brother Paul is hoping this time he is "desperate" and fortunate enough to believe it.

Joseph Bachand, MS, Th.D. is Director of Spiritual Formation at SLI.