Holy Sobriety (Chapter 17):
Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch, and be sober. (1 Thess. 5:6)
Thessalonians, a letter perhaps authored by Paul the Apostle, specifically invites us to be sober.[i] Dietrich Von Hildebrand uses this letter of Paul to start his chapter on Holy Sobriety.
Sobriety & Holy Sobriety:
Sobriety for most people immediately conjures up that alcoholic seeking recovery and attempting to achieve sobriety. In the scripture above Dietrich is speaking about not only sobriety for the alcoholic, but sobriety of the “heart, the mind, and the soul”[ii] of all men. He takes the comprehensive definition of a higher level of spiritual sobriety that men not become ensnared with worldly excesses in anything. To partake in excesses is to devalue the inherent good of things by assigning them more value that what they are inherently worth, placing these things before other higher level values such as friends, family, self, or perhaps even God.
We can become equally inebriated with pursuing many substitutes for fulfillment that we are missing from the absence of a deep spirituality (connection to God) and love of things (animate and inanimate) with proper context and care. In our material world this is evident in addictions (gambling, substance use, and alcohol, food, sex, and risk takers), wealth and status (cars, homes, watches, gold chains, money), power, competitions, sports, work, and just about any human endeavor (hobbies) that can be abused to satiate our human hunger or help us escape pain.
To review this chapter I cannot separate the two concepts though many readers would like a greater distance between their attachments to worldly things and the down and out alcoholic or drug addict or sometimes even super heroes:
The above depiction has super heroes (like Tony Stark) in an A.A. meeting. We tend to exaggerate, romanticized, glamorize or vilify addictions. It keeps it safe and distant from the every day man. America now knows it is in every community – addictions by various names are reaping misery, spiritual devastation and death.
For this post we are all one and the same with a spiritual malady that has manifested itself in symptoms and sickness in various forms of human misery that separate us from God or from our fellow human beings. To simplify I will use the term alcoholic to stand in for all addictions or excessive attachments we may gravitate to in life.
It is Noble to Abstain:
Premise One: It is noble to abstain (ascetic self-denial) of alcohol for both the non-alcoholic and the alcoholic. For the non-alcoholic it is a luxury to be weighed along with all other life’s pleasures and assigned a proper context and value in their life. For the Alcoholic there is no choice. They do not have the luxury to imbibe under any circumstances to truly live a holy life. The risk is simply too high. To borrow from Alcoholics Anonymous – this is my suggestion!
Premise Two: This post may attract non-Catholic readership that are interested in sobriety and attend self-help groups. The concepts discussed by Dietrich on Holy Sobriety are wholly compatible with recovery 12 self-help groups sense of living a sober life and having a “spiritual awakening” or “spiritual experience.” These groups primary purpose is to not drink (or not use, not gamble, etc). However, through a slow process of working a step program and fellowship the groups are a spiritual program. They stay away from the “religious” affiliations but hit on many of the core values that one might find in the Sermon on the Mount and many other biblical references. Countless writers have over-laid the spiritual principles of 12 step groups with the bible. This post of course is written by as a review of “Transformation in Christ” so the author would love to have every reader has what he has – belief in Jesus Christ as your higher power. If you are in the early throes of recovery – and are religious adverse, work your steps with a more liberal definition of your higher power. Things can have a funny way of working out later if you stay sober.
Premise Three: All addictions are not equal. Addictions do not discriminate. Addiction recovery may require medical intervention. Addiction recovery may require self-help 12 step groups. Addiction recovery may require surrendering to a “higher power of your understanding.” Addictions are complex and often have physical, emotional, situational, spiritual, psychological, genetic, and other causal influences or drivers that are beyond our ability to address or judge here. Get professional help if you have an active addiction and if you have a religious affiliation consider pastoral counseling as well.
Premise Four: Holy sobriety is all-inclusive and if practiced conquers physical sobriety as well. Despite seemingly giving up some “isms” in the form of addictions, limiting dependence on human attachments, and practicing a sobriety in all things Holy sobriety is “compatible with a life inspired and sustained by faith.” It can and will be joyous even in the face of adversity and suffering.
What does Dietrich say about Holy Sobriety? It is marked by a life style that embraces genuineness, simplicity, blunt truthfulness, humility, meekness, patience, mercy, love of God and our fellow-man. One sentence and we are good to go! No, of course it is not that simple. There are barriers and of course our inherent weaknesses as a species and our own individual failings and limitations. We are as a collective and as individuals maturing spiritually and we alone cannot rush this process:
“There are certain successive stages which must be traversed; certain stages which must be actually covered. If we ignore this rhythm which is the law of being; if we attempt to skip over the proper course of things and to secure the final result in one blow, if we even try to force some great plan – we fatally deprive that great thing of its depth and its inward weight, and substitute for it a mere counterfeit, bearing the stigma of flat artificiality. It is only the paths that God has marked out for us that we can reach the high peaks of spiritual being.”
I have to soberly strive for ascetic practices that do involve certain self-denial practices or even combat with excessive habits, attachments, or outright addictions. These actions will require me to have a pretty good sense and awareness of my values and where they may be distorted or out of alignment with a higher order of values. The removal of these barriers or at least intention to limit their choke hold on me doesn’t even address living a holy sober life – it only addresses eliminating a behavior.
The successive stages above speak to a slow process of spiritual awakening and elevated sense of our true metaphysical situation (size of gulf that separates us from God) including our blind spots, misaligned aspirations, real limitations, strengths and other graces that we may have been granted. Living soberly is more than not just eliminating a negative aspect of our behaviors.
It is living a positive, meaningful, zealous and energetic life that strives for holiness while remaining grounded in the reality that our two feed are grounded here on this earth. We are limited by our mortality, our own dispositions, and the random accidental nature of life and its problems. The latter presupposes that our emotional response is always centered in the duality of our human limitations and spiritual aspirations. There is an acceptance of evil while we still do what we can to fight evil. We are still called to hunger for justice and to be peacemakers in this world.
Okay, I am sober physically and emotionally. I have turned my will and my desire over to the God of my understanding. I am joyously celebrating life’s graces and the world’s natural beauty. I am loving my God (meditation, prayer, liturgy and mass). And yet this is still not enough.
Holy Sobriety has an element of total surrender to God, an element of acceptance of our status in our lives today and crosses we have to bear, a profound awareness of our separation from God, a deep belief in God’s redemptive powers, and yet living life on an even keel despite our humanly traits to perhaps exaggerate our own personal experiences (our great crosses, heroism, humility or other grandiosity). We will delve neither into great pessimism or optimism and yet not become a slave to rigid rules or totally be divorced from our personality and unique gifts!
There is a dynamic of Holy Sobriety that both contains immense energy and yet sublime peace and containment. It is deceptively simple and complex.
Dietrich gives many examples of what Holy Sobriety is not as a measure of guiding the reader’s awareness of the many pitfalls of human aspirations and awareness. Here is an example of his description of one such danger.
The Natural Idealist:
“Thus, his lofty mood involves a certain divorce from reality; his bold perspectives are never free from a trait of anemic thinness and of reckless illusion-ism. He would storm the skies by flight, like Icarus – instead of humbly ascending step by step the narrow, steep, and laborious path that leads to eternity. His attitude has something forced and high strung about it. His enterprise is doomed to failure, for it rest on a gigantic illusion concerning human nature, whose dismal abysses he hardly suspects. He fails, in a word, owing to his ignorance of man’s need of redemption.”
Perhaps even a greater danger is falling into the abyss religious illusionism. In our zeal to attain and live a holy life we fall into a trap of believing certain private illuminations is definitively the voice of God. Without thorough contemplation and due diligence of testing our “illuminations” against other possible explanations (like natural phenomena, our very own spiritual imagination, or co-incidental events) we act on our belief without even running it past a spiritual director for external validation.
Pursuing a spiritual life whether for genuine desire to be closer to God or because your life may depend on it (Alcoholics, Heroin/Opiate addictions, etc) remains an honorable path that requires patience and persistence. Most importantly it requires increasing humility with each step up the ladder. In my view the higher you climb the smaller you become relative to where you are going.
“The root of all ‘mystical illusionism lies in pride.”
“Holy Sobriety, on the contrary, implies a humble admission of the fact that we, too, must pay our tribute to universal human weakness.”
If we were to apply the standards of “alcoholism” to man’s reliance and hunger for earthly things above mature spiritual living we would have an explosion of adults confronting countless dependencies that distract us from living truly spiritually driven lives.
A powerful chapter on living in Holy Sobriety that has universal value beyond people in recovery from an “ism.” If none of this grabs you, perhaps this can enliven your spiritual imagination:
For me, seeking to live an holy life is not driven by fear of a vengeful God or the gates of hell. I cannot begin to know nor trust in my ability to discern evil or holy doers in my midst. I can barely keep my own motivations and intentions aligned with the virtues I hold to be proper and good for mankind. If you believe in God however, you probably also believe in the opposite, an existence without God or worse yet an eternity with the devil.
The only true glimpse we have of this however, is our daily actions and faith today to provide us a scent of the future’s potential, both here on this earth and after we depart. For most of to spend an inordinate amount of time on the eschatological matters is as abstract as the word eschatological itself. The latter is important – but what we do while in seemingly eternal perpetuity of the end of times is more important. We only have a limited time to contribute our being to human kinds spiritual development and ascension while hopefully working for the betterment of fellowman in real time, here on earth, today.
Our eschatological destiny (death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind) is something we gamble with everyday. Our destiny will probably not be revealed to us within our mortal lives. In the meantime we have the pursuit of Holy Sobriety!