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Step 4: Dark Grace

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2

Step 4: Dark Grace
Wednesday, November 25, 2015

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. —Step 4 of the Twelve Steps

Moral scrutiny is not to discover how good or bad I am and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest “shadow boxing” which is at the heart of all spiritual awakening. Yes, “the truth will set you free” as Jesus says (John 8:32); “but first it will make you miserable,” as many others have said. The medieval spiritual writers called this defeat to the ego compunction: the necessary sadness and humiliation that come from seeing one’s own failures and weaknesses. Without confidence in a Greater Love, none of us will have the courage to admit our failures. Self-scrutiny merely becomes neurotic scrupulosity about non-essential moral issues (Colossians 2:16-23) rather than mature development of conscience, human love, or social awareness. I know this from years of hearing Catholic confessions.

Shadow boxing, what Bill Wilson called a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” is for the sake of truth and humility and generosity of spirit, not vengeance on the self or some kind of victory over the self. None of us need or expect perfect people around us, but we do want people who can be up front and honest about their mistakes and limitations and hopefully grow from them.

Apparently that’s what God wants, too: simple honesty and humility. There is no other way to read Jesus’ stories of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) or the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). In each story, the one who did wrong ends up being right—simply because he is honest about it. How have we been able to miss that important point? I suspect it is because the ego wants to think well of itself and deny any shadow material within itself. Only the soul knows that we grow best in the shadowlands. We are blinded inside of either total light or total darkness, but “the light shines on inside the darkness, and it is a light that darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5). In darkness we find and ever long for more light.

I would call this dark grace. But most of us have only been taught about light and pretty grace, and so we miss at least half of our opportunities for encountering both God and ourselves.

Gateway to Silence:
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 30-33.

Image Credit: Femme assise (Melancholy Woman, detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-03, The Detroit Museum of Art.
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