success stories

Posted August 31, 2003

Spirituality and Recovery

Michael Fonseca, MA, NCC, CPC
Vol. III No. 4, September/October 1999

Taken from St. Luke's Institute Web Page

A transparent person is someone who is at home with self, others, and God. Another word for transparency would be authenticity or integrity. When a person comes to Saint Luke, their journey to recovery can be seen as one of becoming transparent. And this journey to transparency is a spiritual as well as psychological journey.

The difficult challenge in the spiritual life is to arrive at intimacy with self, others, and God. A true spirituality emphasizes that we cannot come home to God without coming home to ourselves. It is not possible to be open to God and self while shutting out the inspirations and challenges from our interactions with others. True spirituality involves coming to terms with our past, our family history and our own personality traits and limitations, and making behavioral changes that will facilitate our homecoming to self, others, and God. It means looking at our resentments toward ourselves and others and being willing to let go of them. As we befriend the shadows and skeletons in our closets, we gradually come to realize that the true God can only come to us in ecstasy after being present in our agony. Letting go of our shameful secrets by letting them out with at least a few significant persons is a fundamental spiritual exercise without which our relationship with God will sputter along and die. It is not surprising that the Church has upheld for centuries the tradition of confessing our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation and during the Eucharist. Likewise, the twelve step tradition has made admission to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs (the Fifth Step) the cornerstone of recovery.

Secrets and Sham Spirituality

Having secrets is counter to transparency. Secrets, whether they be of our own making, or a burden placed on us by others, torment because they arouse fear and shame, as well as deceit and denial in thought and behavior. Secrets destroy one's ability to be at home with self. Secrets wreak havoc on meaningful relationships with others and with God.

How do we come to develop secrets in our lives? Secrets can originate in our families where we carry on the burdens that have come down from one generation to another, as in the case of alcoholism and some other addictions. Secrets can be the result of harmful behaviors we engage in to assuage our pain, loneliness, and anger, leading to guilt and shame which further fuel the harmful behavior(s), thus resulting in a vicious cycle of low self esteem and harmful behaviors. At the core of secrets lie shame and fear. Shame results from the conclusion that we are not who we are supposed to be, that we are "damaged goods.' Fear becomes the constant companion of shame because there is the ever present danger that someone will find out about our secrets and the consequences will be devastating.

When a sacramental minister is burdened with closeted "demons," it is quite likely that his spirituality would consist essentially of "performing" the liturgy and other rites. The altar becomes a stage, the Eucharist becomes a drama and he is the lead character, the focus of the attention. God and the faithful are being serviced and there need not be personal relationships. One minister remarked: God is my boss to whom I give many hours of the day through my parish duties. In his mind there was no need to give God any of his personal time which often was filled with self-defeating behaviors. Such a minister does not bother to spend any time alone with God, face to face and eye to eye. Some are aware that their public image does not conform to their cloaked and closeted lives. They live in turmoil and guilt, trapped in helplessness and despair, resorting to excuses, denial, and deceit.

Moving Towards An Authentic Spirituality

Is it possible for a minister with addictive and self-defeating behaviors to arrive at a level of authenticity and true joy in his personal life and ministry? Have addicts been able to move from shameful secrets to truthful openness, from fear and obsessive rumination to peace in the present moment, from looking away to looking at, from isolation to connection, from control and deception to surrender and vulnerable honesty? While many have realized such a shift, each one's journey was unique to him or her and they could not do it alone. They needed the support and challenge of their fellow pilgrims and only they could have done it for themselves. No one else could have done it for them.

At the heart of an authentic spirituality is the need to keep a clean house. It does not pay to sweep the dirt under the rug. Keeping a clean house means understanding that dirt is and will be present on an ongoing basis and house cleaning will be part of one's daily schedule. When we are healthy we understand and accept that there are character defects that we will be working on for the rest of our lives and we will gradually come to realize that while it is our responsibility to clean house, we just cannot do it alone - only God can restore us to our original image of being God's likeness. God is no longer a distant and disapproving figure, nor ineffectual and unnecessary. A very personal dynamic is now established with God which leads to surrender and trust, openness and honesty and true communion which in time becomes union. This intimacy comes from the experience of God's love and presence in the depths of our darkness and evil. We need to believe in a God who is loving and accepting of us and also that we are subject to God's scrutiny. Acceptance without accountability leads to shallowness and complacency. Psalm 139:23-24 captures this delicate harmony: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

Gradually, God becomes an overwhelming presence before whom every aspect of our lives is brought up for scrutiny and a right resolution. Life is lived more in terms of what I need to do rather than what I want to do. What is the right thing to do is what determines my action rather than what is it that I want for myself. This partnership with God has ramifications in every aspect of the person's life and relationships. In this process there is a lasting coming home to self, others, and God.