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Saved by Grace

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 1

Saved by Grace
Sunday, November 15, 2015

The spirituality of the Twelve Steps is another important part of my wisdom lineage. Although I have never formally belonged to a Twelve Step group, I have learned much from people who are in recovery. I truly believe that the Twelve Step program (also known as Alcoholics Anonymous or A.A.) will go down in history as America’s greatest and unique contribution to the history of spirituality. It represents what is good about American pragmatism. There’s something in the American psyche that becomes mistrustful and impatient with anything that’s too abstract, theoretical, or distant. Americans want a spirituality that is relevant, that changes people, and that really makes a difference in this world. For many, the Twelve Steps do just that. They make the Gospel believable, practical, and even programmatic for many people. [1]

My first eight years in Albuquerque, beginning in the late 1980s, I lived downtown, next door to a little church where Twelve Step meetings were held. As the members gathered right outside my back door almost every other evening, we became friends. They invited me to join them in their closed meetings. [2] I felt very privileged. It was like being welcomed into a sacred sanctuary of people who weren’t afraid to openly admit they were “sinners.” [3] I’d go home afterward thinking this felt more like church than the liturgy on Sunday morning. It was as if each person was a priest, and they were all healing one another. The God-talk was honest and experience-based, not “belief”-based. There was no hesitancy for each person to describe their history of failure and recovery—or death and resurrection, if you prefer Christian vocabulary.

Opening with “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” is a humble and honest admission of deep need, which is what the Catholic penitential rite, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” is supposed to be. Jesus taught us that God’s love is not dependent on our “worthiness.” He healed and ate with sinners and outcasts when he was on earth. He told parables, like those about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18: 9-14) and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), where the one who did it wrong ended up being right and the one who seemingly did it right ended up being wrong. The entrance requirement for an A.A. meeting is not worthiness, but unworthiness, not capacity, but deep need—just as it should be.

Worthiness is not the issue; the issue is trust and surrender. As Thérèse of Lisieux said, “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude.”[4] Let’s resolve this once and for all: You’re not worthy! None of us are. Don’t even go down that worthiness road. It’s a game of denial and pretend. We’re all saved by grace. We’re all being loved in spite of ourselves. A.A. had the courage to recognize that you don’t come to God by doing it right; you come to God by doing it wrong, and then falling into an infinite mercy. [5] The Twelve Steps wisely call such mercy “Your Higher Power.”

I also want to add what only the Gospel is fully prepared to proclaim: You’re absolutely worthy of love! Yet this has nothing to do with any earned worthiness on your part. God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good!

And thus, A.A. and the Gospel fit together like hand in glove.

Gateway to Silence:
Breathing in—receiving mercy; breathing out—letting go

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr’s Lineage,

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), MP3 download.

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, How Do We Breathe Under Water?: The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eucharist as Touchstone (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2000), CD, MP3 download.

[5] Adapted from Rohr, The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered.

Image Credit: Two Women Sitting at a Bar (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902, Blue Period, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
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