A Joyous 2022 – An Invitation

Last year presented insidious challenges to our collective well-being. We suffered significant losses to the original COVID variant and an explosion of the Omnicron variant, deaths unrelated to COVID, ongoing “populism” politics spurning unhealthy anxiety and hate, economic hardships, and the not-so-hidden repercussions of global warming.

These external challenges are in addition to whatever personal demons (metaphorically speaking) we each individually carry on our shoulders. Past traumas, personal failures, relationship difficulties, disabilities, medical issues, and personal challenges are common baggage we all carry on our shoulders.

Is it normal to feel this exhausted all the time? Drawing. | Alien  drawings, Drawings, Tire art

The continuous and unrelenting nature of suffering in its multifarious presentations can be overwhelming, depressing, and draining. Pervasive tiredness can overcome the strongest among us. For some, this can even leap over into clinical depression or other mental health or physical manifestations requiring professional medical interventions.

A Tzu Chi USA described the Buddhist handling of the term suffering – referred to as dukkha in Pali and duhkha in Sanskrit – as indescribably with a single English word either. According to Buddhist sutras (scriptures), three root sufferings and three cravings contribute to suffering. Pain, anxiety, stress, distress, discomfort, frustration, and “unsatisfactoriness” are words used to capture suffering. If interested in knowing your “enemy” of peace and joy well – the Buddhist traditions provide a pretty good road map.

My own faith has an apostolic letter devoted to suffering by Pope John Paul II called “Salvific Doloris” which, in part, concludes, “Suffering is certainly part of the mystery of man. Perhaps suffering is not wrapped up as much as man is by this mystery, which is an especially impenetrable one.”  Despite this open-ended answer to the question of suffering, the Pontiff within this letter also prescribes spiritual answers for facing immense suffering. Its teachings help me attribute meaning to my trials and provide me, at times, deep consolation spiritually in my times of darkness.

The Beauty of Suffering: Salvifici Doloris « Catholic Insight

The pontiff points out where in scripture suffering is referenced: “Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. I would be lying to you if I did not own that sometimes great spiritual aridity leaves me feeling alone with today’s problems. These times, I am challenged to double down on my faith and persevere in faith. The Pontiff quotes from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death(5), the death of one’s own children(6), and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son(7); and then too: the lack of offspring(8), nostalgia for the homeland(9), persecution and hostility of the environment(10), mockery and scorn of the one who suffers(11), loneliness and abandonment(12); and again: the remorse of conscience(13), the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer(14), the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbours(15); and finally: the misfortunes of one’s own nation(16).” Do these sound familiar to you today?

Why am I spending so much space on suffering on a blog on a Joyous 2022? I know joy will not be possible for us if we do not accept the reality of suffering and the potentiality for its destructive force in our lives going forward. Understanding suffering, preparing for suffering, and perhaps even maturely embracing suffering (for the spiritually transcendent few among us) is what both religious traditions above teach. Both of those paths are long paths of contemplation and significant commitment – which I encourage.

In the meantime, however, I recommend a lighter path today or preferably simultaneously with one of the above paths.

“Gratitude, thankfulness or gratefulness, from the Latin word gratus “pleasing, thankful,” is a feeling of appreciation felt by the recipient of kindness, gifts, help, favors, or other types of generosity, to the giver of said gifts. The experience of gratitude has historically been a focus of several world religions.” (What post is complete without a Wikipedia quote?)

However, achieving this feeling is not my recommendation for a joyous 2022, though I hope you

have these feelings often! Transforming these feelings into action consistently and progressively throughout 2022 will profoundly increase your joy. If done so with a genuine and humble spirit, it may synergetically have a profound impact on those around you. USC University of Southern California noted that spiritual or philosophical gratitude has its roots throughout history. Not a USC fan, how about “Harvard Health Medical School: Giving thanks can make you happier” or “Healthline: The Benefits of Gratitude and How to Get Started.”

The 12 step self-help community also relies heavily on the nurturing of gratitude and service (action) all throughout the program, but especially in the 12th step. Click here for an audio story of one of the founding members of Alcohol Anonymous entitled “Gratitude in Action.” Epidemiologic studies, as well as studies in treatment-seeking populations, converge to support the finding that

Groan. Groan. Not Another Gratitude Meeting – AA Beyond Belief

early-life trauma is common in people with alcohol dependence. Battling alcoholism or any other addiction in addition to healing from early childhood trauma is not easy. This is not surprising. The 12 step self-help community, although not a religious group, does espouse a spiritual foundation that culminates with the 12th step: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs. In this step, people in recovery get to most practice gratitude in action in a humble manner. Some A.A. groups devote an entire weekly meeting to the topic of gratitude alone. Look at Cleveland Alcoholics Anonymous Cleveland article – Gratitude in Early Recovery. If alcoholics and addicts recover using Gratitude in part as medicine – it can work for everybody. There is no condition or ailment they have not experienced or faced in their fellowship.

Practicing Gratitude is so easy and so accessible to everyone. It is a great starting point to a new you and a more positive future. It may lead you to have enough strength and motivation to take other challenging steps as well – with things on your “to-do” list you have put off or never thought was possible.

Here are some additional tools if you do not know where to start or need more motivation:

Life Hack: 4o simple ways to practice gratitude.

Positive Psychology: 7 Best Gratitude Apps to increase your well being

The above links may lead to sponsored or “pay for apps” as well. Gratitude and peaceful living are in high demand and are big business. If they help you get started or keep going – they may be worth the investment. Regardless of how to get started and keep going – discipline is required to actually “do” rather than just read, understand, and feel gratitude.

Everything you need is in this post or one of the links provided for alternative ideas. Your local library also has free resources.

I acknowledge you may be suffering; I know I cannot fully grasp your situation or enduring pain. I invite you to seek Joy anyway in 2022 by practicing the action of Gratitude every day in whatever form you decide.

Sincerely if you managed to read this entire blog and are committed to at least five minutes a day – please leave a comment now with that commitment on my blog and report back later!

Regardless, may peace, joy and health follow you in 2022!

Regards,

P.S. I made a small contribution to Tzu Chi USA while writing this post in gratitude for their detailed description of the suffering and the work they do….gratitude in action. I have no affiliation with this group.

Yom-kippur guide to A.A. Step 9?

Alcoholics Anonymous Step 9 begins with “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If your a Jewish Alcoholic working the steps – Step 9 might not be that unfamiliar to you.

Although lifetime prevalence among Jews for alcoholism is lower than those with a Christian background, it still affects 11.1% of Jewish men and 3.4% of Jewish women with some studies hinting these numbers are on the rise for Jewish youth.

Yom-kippur is in short a day of atonement. However, a simple description of its spiritual importance and the days of repentance before this day cannot be described or defined by me here. Simply put, it is a big deal, akin to Christmas or Easter for Christians. The below article captures some elements of this religious tradition for non-Jewish readers, certainly not the rich history and theological basis.

Many see Alcoholics Anonymous as having Christian roots, but it’s written form and current practice steers clear of religiosity and practices a spiritual program without religious affiliation. One could easily adopt the principles of Yom-Kippur to A.A.s step 9.

www.nytimes.com/2021/09/12/opinion/yom-kippur-forgiveness.html

Forgiveness and seeking atonement is present in some form or another in must religious text. Psychologically and spiritually we recognize the value of atonement and forgiveness. In practice, however, this deeply moving and healing process often takes a back seat to our secular priorities and perhaps overheated political/economic conditions of our society. The latter should encourage us to seek out the former, not once per year, but daily.

Spirituality cannot be compartmentalized to within the synagogue, behind the Cathedral walls, or in a basement A.A. meeting. It is designed to be within every moment, every breath, every action – inside and outside of places of worship or self-help organizations with a spiritual emphasis.

Yom-Kippur is like an annual 9th step for everyone – you don’t have to be Jewish, Catholic, or an Alcoholic working the 9th step to practice seeking atonement and practicing forgiveness (safely).

A tradition worth exploring if you are unfamiliar. Almost attracts me to Judaism.

Contemplative Life

On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.[i]

John of the cross

Two friends, 27 years apart, united in “their ardent desire to embrace the primitive Rule of Carmel, their longing for a deeper prayer life, their practice of poverty of spirit in the simplicity of their lives, the compassion evident in their love for others, active reformers, and yet mystics” wrote the first two of the first three books below.   The third, a young girl who seemingly since childhood was destined for the religious life, died a torturous death at the hands of Tuberculosis.  The latter born two centuries after the first two.  What do these authors from the 1500’s and late 1800’s have to tell us that is in anyway relevant today?

Teresa of Avila – The Interior Castle[ii]

St. John of the Cross – Dark Night of the Soul

Sister Therese of the Child Jesus – Story of a Soul

These three saints have left behind numerous writings of which the above three were put in my path to read.    I had actually delved into Dark Night of the Soul prior – with my head and not with my heart.  Both are required!

A tremendous weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. It has been replaced with a greater weight that pulls me up rather than weighs me down.  The multifarious activities of my daily life are reoriented, redefined, and right sized.

Reorientation:  Rather than my activities being saddled on my shoulders they remain present as water buckets I must prioritize and move from point A to point B as my position in life and responsibilities dictate.

Redefined: These responsibilities as oriented to the good of others remain vitally important as they always have been in my life.  However, removed from them is the anxiety of expectations of others as well as expectation of myself.   The intricate and intertwined forces of providence, man’s will, man’s limitations and my own, accidental or natural misfortune, and evil at play render me powerless to understand and ultimately control my destiny or that of my neighbor.   You may as a reader be thinking “No shit Sherlock, you are not God.”  I understand this sentiment deeply.  Yet, when we are fully committed and dedicated to our responsibilities and passions it is easy to get lost in the emotions of the ego driven, goal-oriented actions and lose sight of the true nature of our purpose within a larger context of both current day forces of evil and good and as measured within historical time.

Right Sized: These buckets cover a football field.  There are the buckets of necessity:  routine chores, self-care, medical appointments, food acquisition, earning money for required daily expenses, budgeting, and countless other nuisance activities.  Yet each of these if handled with spiritual care and gratitude are elevated above the mundane.  The bucket of your personal callings in life carried out with utmost care and discipline to the best of your ability:  family, career, volunteer activities, and living within a community as a humble and integrated member.  Then there are the buckets of higher good that call for demonstrating mercy, seeking social justice, defending the poor, promoting peace, and living the word of God.  The latter will make all the former activities more complicated and more important.  They will come into conflict with social mores and accepted practices.  Our actions in each and every activity, in moving each and every bucket of water, must be our testament before we utter even a single word about our beliefs.  And the highest calling, seeking proximity to the Living God by carrying each bucket the way we would expect Jesus to do the same activity.  Consciously choosing which buckets deserve carrying and when.   Spending significant time in contemplation and prayer.  Accepting with an open heart our spiritual consolations and gifts, periods of spiritual aridity, and suffering in its manifold forms.

Thorns:

Proper orientation, proper definition and right sizing are spiritual habits to be well practiced.  Measure them against the beatitudes.  We are human by nature and live in society driven by other values.  Many thorns can thwart our intended practices.

Evil Buckets:  There are so many on the football field calling for attention.  If only they were properly labeled:  bucket of pride, bucket of greed, bucket of anger, bucket of lust, bucket of gluttony, bucket of sloth, and bucket of envy.  They are not labeled and often disguised and often quite ingeniously.  They are present in all the domains of our responsibilities: our routines, our personal callings, our integration in the community, and our spiritual aspirations.   One moment you can be carrying a bucket labeled social justice.  The next moment the label falls off to reveal it is a bucket of pride and gluttony fueled by self-righteousness, pride, and other indignities not worthy of proximity to the divine.  The bucket we are carrying was being carried to meet our needs – not the intended greater good.  Our intellectual and self-righteous ego co-opts a good cause.  Our bucket of fiscal responsibility transforms into gluttony and pride at the expense of other values.  Our attention and main focus in life becomes our monetary wealth, accrual of material things, and constant pursuit of what we don’t have or keeping what we do have today.  Sometimes they are even labeled properly and we pick them up anyway out of pure human desire unworthy of higher morality.

Suffering:    

Suffering Dog

Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966)

We recognize suffering when we see it.  Giacometti used his art to capture suffering.  His most famous works “include a series of elongated standing women, striding men, and expressive busts, that resonated strongly with a public grappling with the extreme alienation and anxiety wrought by the devastation of World War II. Giacometti was unflinching in his portrayal of humanity at its most vulnerable.”  Out of suffering we learn our true humanity and ability to transcend our misery as well.

Sister Therese of the Child Jesus (also known as the Little Way or Little Flower) states her “soul has matured in the crucible of exterior and interior trials.”[iii]  She goes further in her prayers to ask God for increased suffering:

“O Jesus, unspeakable sweetness, change all the consolations of this earth into bitterness for me.”[iv]  

And towards the end of her short life she indeed receives spiritual and physical suffering:

“I felt I was alone in the garden of Gethsemane like Jesus, and I found no consolation on earth or from heaven; God himself seemed to abandon me.”[v]

I lack the courage to ask God for more suffering for fear I will crumble under the duress!

St. John of the Cross in his treatise “Dark Night of the Soul” speaks of a self-purifying journey (putting to death sinful nature) which can never fully be realized as we remain in our human flesh.  The journey though is remarkable in its spiritual dissection of seeking an enlightened life.

And Teresa of Avila brings us to the existential place of Carmel, which is hidden within ourselves and accessible to each and everyone of us if we pursue and are open to the spiritual life.

Between the three, the essence of accepting and embracing suffering can transform suffering of its evil power regardless of its causation (accidental, natural, medical, human malfeasance, and outright evil).  Suffering becomes a bucket to be carried and shared with the mystery of the Trinity and the redemptive act of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Historical Time:

clock

Longing for or mourning our past is not a bucket we should be carrying.  In the 19,861 days of this life I have had spiritual consolations in the past that I yearn for, actions that I regret, and decision points that I sometimes cannot but help wonder “what if” I had chosen another path.  If the actuaries are right and I die on time should I really waste any 8401 days left on desiring or regretting the past?  No.  In my mind I am living on borrowed time of at least 12 years and in reality, I have been living on borrowed time since inception.  It is valuable to recollect our past to inform our present and future, but not to go back for perceived glories or live in martyrdom with past miseries.

Mysticism: 

Josep_Benlliure_Gil43

The belief and pursuit of union with God with an understanding that true knowledge of the absolute God is beyond our intellectual grasp and inaccessible through direct means and the will of man.  Contemplation and self-surrender through prayer is essential to living a holy life.   This is not heresy to the catholic church:

Vatican II and in the new canon law repeatedly takes it for granted that “contemplation”, “mystical treasures”, ”an abundance of contemplation”, “the experience of divine things” and “an assiduous union with God in prayer” are meant for each and every person in the church.”[vi] Father Dubay (Fire Within)

There is great fear of mysticism and mystics as there is ample room for birth to self-delusion, misguided believers falling prey to occults, and obfuscation of true beliefs and representation of the word of God as stated in the bible.  These fears are true.  At the same time the bible is not a dead historical document.  There is a reason why we use the phrase the “living word of God.”  The Church moves very slowly, and not without error, vetting its faithful and its traditions, sacraments, and Saints.  So, we too must move slowly with our interior prayer life, our investment in readings, traditions, and other spiritual endeavors and have sources outside ourselves for validation and confirmation.  We have individual responsibility.

I belong to an on-line contemplative group whose leaders maintain a list of what they consider dangerous authors.  Two authors include Thomas Merton and James J. Martin, SJ.  The first they site the authors later life and potential Buddhist influences and the latter they site pieces of his liberal acceptance of people with life styles contrary to church teaching.  Thomas Merton would definitely fit the classic definition of accepted Church Mystic.  His life is definitely not error free.  James Martin, SJ is living his faith embracing everyone (believers, non-believers) and teaching mercy and acceptance while maintaining the eternal truths of the faith internally.   His outspoken defense of groups of people, specifically the LGBTQ community, has earned him vitriolic hatred by conservative branch of Catholicism.  He is not labeled a mystic.  I raise this as being exposed to these two writers leaves me with the responsibility of discerning through prayer and contemplation what is the right orientation of their writings to my beliefs, the responsibilities implied and defined, and the appropriate weight I assign them (tiny bucket, large bucket, no bucket?).  All five of these authors are drawing from the Gospels.

Mysticism and our own infused contemplation and prayer must always be tested by the source validation of our core spiritual beliefs as found in the Gospels and talked out with at least one more seasoned believer, perhaps a spiritual adviser.

The contemplative group is right to ban these writers from their forum as their forum is dedicated to Carmelite Contemplatives.  They pursue advanced discussions and growth on what they see as the safest and truest way to seek closer union with God.  By avoiding writers that inspire controversy they have created a safe haven devoid of controversy for like-minded Carmelites.    It comes down to temporal time and how best to use the moments you have left before your human mortality comes to an end.

We are all called to be responsible mystics!    We should aim to be saints in our own right without claiming to be saints out of misguided hubris.

Addictions and 12 step groups:  At the heart of all 12 steps groups is both a primary purpose (to abstain from source of addiction and help others to do so) and a higher purpose to live a spiritual life.  The 12 steps are in fact a secularized “Dark Night of the Soul” experience.  It is spirituality without religiosity.  The original program was very much based on Christianity. Just take a look at the Serenity prayer, steps prayers (4th, 7th, and 11th steps), and The Promises.[vii]   A person in recovery who truly actualizes the 12 steps in their daily lives will have a Dark Night of the Soul experience! They enter the program knowing suffering and misery and will come to know a God of their understanding (often accompanied by a return to their religious roots as well).  They will realize the PROMISES of AA and shed their old lives and become new men both in abstinence of the addiction that initially sort help for and in living life with a new spiritually enriched purpose.  People in recovery embody conquering suffering caused by both addiction to substance or behaviors and spiritual maladies.   As St. John of the Cross says, “God is pleased to strip them of this old man and clothe them with the new man.”

Abandonment:

Leap

Henri “Papillon” Charrière leaps to escape prison in Papillon (2018).

Faith in times of struggle or times of great success can be difficult to maintain.  Sometimes as in life we must take a leap of faith.  The situation we are in, favorable or must unfortunate, can blind our spiritual and moral compass without us even noticing we have gone adrift.  Sister Theresa described her situational challenges eloquently:

“Now, abandonment alone guides me.  I have no other compass!  I can no longer ask for anything with fervor except the accomplishment of God’s will in my soul without any creature being able to set obstacles in the way.”[viii]

“Knowing it is cowardly of me to enter into a duel, I turn my back on my adversaries without deigning to look them in the face; but I run toward my Jesus.”[ix]

We live in this world, not in the eternal world.   We will be tempted to be driven by worldly pressures and fight unnecessary duels sometimes even invoking the name of God and higher morality.   While we must never be silent we must always check our intent and which master we are serving.

Contemplatives:

The history of Discalced Carmelites[x] is a good starting point for the uninitiated in contemplative traditions.   They do not own contemplative prayer but have an orientation that is directly focused on the Trinity as well as Mary, the mother of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  Seeking God in Catholicism is not seeking an abstract unknowable God.  It is seeking Jesus Christ, seeking the advocate (Holy Spirit), seeking the Father with the spiritual gifts that we have been provided (the Gospels, the Sacraments, the lives of martyrs and saints, and our rich traditions) while acknowledging we are God’s mercy for revelation.

It is profoundly deeply humbling with every perceived elevation of my spiritual journey I am simultaneously falling through a what I perceived to be a firm foundation under my feet to a new floor beneath.  At once my faith is strengthened with each morsel of revelation and yet my hunger and desire inflamed.  The more I come to understand the less I know.

All three books sited above if read without adequate preparation will present less spiritual value to the reader and hide inherent wisdom within the writings.  I do not say this with any sense of condescension.  I have myself read the Dark Night of the Soul prior years ago and on reading it today, have come to know how shallow my reading was prior.  I also presume that if I were to reread this text in merely a few months from now, more would be revealed.

Oh, by Happy Chance may my writing find you and may it inspire you to find your contemplative soul.  By Happy Chance may your suffering be transformed and your purpose in life enriched.  Oh, by Happy Chance may we all live in greater unity with God. I am torn between Fitzgerald’s humor an Campbell’s synopsis of the Dark Night of the Soul:

STANZAS OF THE SOUL

  1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
  2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
  3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
  4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
  5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
  6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
  7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
  8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies[xi]

[i] https://www.ourladyswarriors.org/saints/darknite.htm#CHAPTER%20VIII

[ii] https://catholicstrength.com/tag/the-seven-mansions-of-teresa-of-avila/

[iii] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 15

[iv] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 77

[v] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 109

[vi] Fire Within by Father Dubay

[vii] Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the Serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference. 

Third Step Prayer: God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life.  May I do Thy will always!

Seventh Step Prayer: My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding.  Amen.

Eleventh Step Prayer:  Lord, make me a channel of Thy peace; that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that where there is error, I may bring truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that where there is despair, I may bring hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring light. that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted; to understand, than to be understood; to love, than to be loved.  For it is by self-forgetting, that one finds. It is by forgiving, that one is forgiven. It is by dying, that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen.

The “Promises”: From pages 83-84 in “The Big Book”: If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not! They are being fulfilled among us – Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

[viii] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 178

[ix] Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux pg. 213

[x] http://www.carmelitaniscalzi.com/en/who-we-are/storia/history-of-discalced-carmelites/

[xi] http://www.carmelitemonks.org/Vocation/DarkNight-StJohnoftheCross.pdf

 

Transformation in Christ: Part XI

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:

tony-stark-and-carol-danvers-in-an-aa-meeting-1

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.

Holy Sobriety:  

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.”

humble

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:

icarus

“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.

Humble: 

“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:

quote-be-sober-be-vigilant-because-your-adversary-the-devil-as-a-roaring-lion-walketh-about-seeking-bible-281303

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!

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[i] https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/1-thessalonians-5-6.html

[ii] https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/1-thessalonians-5-6.html

 

Blasphemy of Alcoholics Anonymous?

Higher Power versus God

Relapse versus Sobriety

Misery versus Happiness

The characters behind the scenes of the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous are numerous both at its inception as well as built on the pain, suffering, and deaths of alcoholics preceding them and to follow them.   That being said Dr. Bob, Bill W., Anne Smith (Dr. Bob’s wife), Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker[i], Frank Buchman and Dr. Silkworth are names people must research and know if they are to understand the foundations of AA today.   I am particularly interested and have not read yet the diaries of Anne Smith[ii], wife of Dr. Bob.

The General Service organization maintains a list of “approved literature” that includes 14 books and other resources (pamphlets, workbooks, conference materials, etc) for general use and carrying the message forward.   This is a good practice.  For the newly recovering Alcoholic the field of recovery books is awash from the excellent to an outright harmful menu of options.   If you are early in your recovery or considering recovery this post is probably not for you right now.  I would direct you to professional help, a self-help group that is well established and related to your addiction, and if you have one, your faith support system.  The evolution of AA and internal and external politics of the organization is simply not helpful to early recovery.

The essence of this post is on the definition of a “higher power of my understanding.”  Dick B’s book “The James Club and The Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials” makes a strong case for AA’s early success being routed in Christianity and specifically the Gospel of James, the 13th chapter of first Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount.   It is not an approved history of AA.

Current coinage in “the room” allows for “higher power” to be defined by almost anything from a monotheistic absolute god to an inanimate object like a chair.  Despite this metaphysical abstraction AA maintains it is a “spiritual program.”  And it is a spiritual program.

The primary aim of course is to abstain from alcohol.  That being said, for long-term sobriety and happiness, the spiritual program takes hold and focuses on principles and a way of life that embraces a higher purpose be instilled, developed, and maintained.    It does so by presenting incrementally principles to live by and testimonies to support pursuing such an endeavor without wedding the model to any religious institution, deity (by name), or formal recovery treatment program.  Its independence and separation allows access to all people regardless of religious affiliation or absence of any belief at all.

The white washing and scrubbing of its Christian roots has allowed AA to have a vast casting net to worldwide potential members that are suffering from the disease of alcoholism.  The risk (or downside) is new members may benefit from the recovery tools of meetings, abstinence, fellowship, service and other tangible supports but never quite receive the “spiritual awakening” that so often provides recovering alcoholic’s purpose, happiness, and sustained sobriety.

The conundrum for the addicted is a phrase “half measures will avail you nothing.”   In all likelihood many suffering from addictions only know one speed – all or nothing.  Many will enter the AA room and size up rather quickly the immensity of the change being proposed, and if throwing in a God they have cast aside decades ago as well, may leave and never get the chance to return.

The caveat of using the term “Higher Power of your understanding” allows agnostics, atheist, and non-Christians a chance at using the principles of AA[iii] without the religious affiliation.   The Oxford Group that preceded AA had similar principles like the four absolutes.[iv]  Dick B maps out extensively the comparisons of these principles to the New Testament as well as the life experiences of the early founders of AA.

It is not surprising that the bible is not credited with attributions on A.A. literature despite evident overlay and outright plagiarism.  It is perhaps the most plagiarized book in history.  While the bible is recognized by most as public domain it is still intellectually dishonest to not credit sources if the ideas presented are not your own.  Most authors will credit both the bible and its version when quoting or paraphrasing from the Holy Book.  That being said I am not accusing Dr. Bob or others of any theft of intellectual property.   They have lived experiences that have included quite heavy influences from the holy bible and Christian institutions and leaders.

It is no accident most AA groups find their homes in church basements for a nominal fee.  The evidence of AA history overwhelming points to the original “higher power” used by the early fathers of AA is being Yahweh and the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  However, AA is not a Christian institution.   You do not need to believe in God to benefit from AA.

If you are Christian is it blasphemy to promote “a higher power of your understanding” as potentially being anything as abstract as an empty chair?   Is it disingenuous to do so if you secretly aspire that an unbeliever will find true conversion through the program as spirituality reveals itself overtime?   Probably yes.

However, AA is not an evangelical program even though its Big Book, Steps, Traditions and Fellowship may lead people to a stronger relationship with God.   What is a Christian in Recovery to do?  The answer is so relatively simple.   Both Christian evangelization and Alcoholics Anonymous are programs that work by attraction – not by coercion.

The Recovering Christian Alcoholic need only be transparent and brutally honest.   The newcomer will be attracted to the recovering alcoholic that he/she can identify with in the rooms.  The atheist or agnostic alcoholic will probably not identify with the Holy Roller Jesus Christ preaching enthusiast anyhow – at least not initially.  However they might be attracted to the success of the Promises of AA and is fulfilled and demonstrated by the Recovering Christian Alcoholic’s story and want what they have.

If the Recovering Christian Alcoholic can give away what they have for free from AA and help someone get sober – great weather who they help shares their faith is a believer, agnostic or atheist.   That is the primary purpose of AA.  If the fellowship blossoms over time and that someone express an interest in your “higher power” as you understand him that is something that can be shared but not put on the fellow alcoholic.    AA is not a “sell up” program where you come in wanting a car and they sell you an RV.

AA managed to collect the work of several hundred great people in its early days and create a reference that would provide replicating aspects of what they did for others to do and carry forward the message.  The melding of ideas was truly conflictual and dynamic and the end result looks very different from the truly early days.

However, you cannot replicate the truly early days that were dependent on unique characters, small numbers, shared visions (and in many cases shared religious views), shared homes and meals and much more.   It is a wonder how the program ever managed to survive.

And its survival is a question today.  Is AA effective?  AA self-reports indicate participation improves recovery and sobriety.[v]  American Addiction Center[vi] seems to support AA assertions.   However, it is not as successful (ratio wise) as the original group of founders.

I propose the fragility of the “higher power verbiage,” a less spiritual society, and struggling Christian and Catholic institutions (from self-inflicted wounds and moral decay by leadership and believers) have an impact on alcoholics being able to enter and engage A.A.

On a more positive note improved treatment options (medication and cognitive behavioral treatments) may also draw away some who may have been prime candidates for successful engagement and partnership with AA in supporting people in need of help for alcoholism always have a place to go.

Whatever your view alcoholism and other “isms” have not been defeated in our society.  The self-help community, professional treatment community, religious and governmental planners at all levels (researchers, policy makers, economist, legislators, and the president) would be remiss to not continue to fight and refine our efforts in prevention and treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse disorders.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one has an “ism,” don’t go it alone.   Get professional help.  Call a self-health hotline.  Seek a spiritual transformation.  It can be the difference between relapse and recovery, between misery and happiness, between purposefulness and alienation.

To answer the question, AA is not blasphemous, imperfect yes, blasphemous no.  AA clearly refutes itself from being religious and thus sidesteps the thicket of thorns of defining the absolute, the creator of the universe, or whatever the alcoholic deems to be his/her higher power.  Religion is left for the churches and the theologians.  Sobriety and Spirituality are its calling card for those with the desire to not drink.

serenity

[i] https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/a-biography-of-sam-shoemaker

[ii] http://dickb.com/annesm.shtml

[iii] Honesty, Hope, Faith, Courage, Integrity, Willingness, Humility, Brotherly Love, Discipline, Perseverance, Spirituality and Service

[iv] Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love

[v] https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-48_membershipsurvey.pdf

[vi] https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/12-step/whats-the-success-rate-of-aa/

 

 

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