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Center for Action and Contemplation

Step Eleven

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2

Step Eleven
Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. [1]

In his book, Addiction and Grace, psychiatrist Gerald May—who was a personal friend of mine and a true holy man—pointed out how addictive behavior uses up good desire and drains away spiritual desire. May was convinced, and I am too after my years as jail chaplain, that many addicts in their younger years were people with spiritual insight and desire. In spiritual direction, addicts will often admit to early youthful moments of “unitive consciousness.” These were moments when it all made sense and we knew we were good, God was good, it was all good. We were in touch with our true source of power, our spiritual desire, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When this incipient spiritual yearning was frustrated; when communion, connection, and compassion didn’t happen; when we were instead met with religions’ legalism, exclusivity, and ritualism—there was a great disappointment. Some then try to maintain an experience of communion through substance abuse or a process addiction (for example, shopping or gambling). We attach to substances and processes the way we first wanted to attach to God. We want to attach to something that will never let us down, something all-powerful, all-nurturing, truly liberating.

Whatever your attachment might be, it gives you the feeling that this will always be here to control your moods. Maybe it’s a superficial meaning, but somehow buying a new thing takes away the emptiness for about ten minutes. Of course, like any addiction, you need more and more of it because each time you experience the emptiness afterward. It’s never enough to fill the God-sized hole inside of you.

Prayer and meditation allow you to reconnect with your true source of power. Bill Wilson recalled that the new experience of spiritual vitality he felt in his recovery was exactly what he felt years earlier after visiting Winchester Cathedral in England as a young soldier. He writes, “The real significance of my experience in the Cathedral burst upon me. For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God. There had been a humble willingness to have God with me—and God came. But soon the sense of divine presence had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly those within myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been.” [2]

Alcoholics Anonymous, the first Twelve-Step program, was developed before Thomas Merton reintroduced contemplation to the modern Western world. Although the “prayer and meditation” described by Bill Wilson and his friends was not exactly the type of contemplative prayer we teach today, it was indeed focused on surrendering to God, seeking God’s will, and relying on God’s power. It was amazing that Wilson used the uncommon word “meditation” in the 1930s, a time when most would have thought that was a practice from “Eastern religion.”

A contemplative practice, done over time, actually rewires our brains so that we can detach from our addictive patterns of thinking and feeling and our unworkable programs for happiness. Now many neuroscientists affirm such very real change and call it neuroplasticity: chosen neural pathways gradually grow stronger; unused pathways actually die away. Contemplative “practice” works!

Nobody describes the outcome of such contemplative practice better than Gerald May: “As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become expressions of divine love.” [3]

Gateway to Silence:
Thy will be done.

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit (Harper San Francisco: 1982), 238.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (CAC: 2007), MP3 download;
How Do We Breathe Under Water? The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), disc 1 (CD, DVD, MP3 download); and
Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (CAC: 2011), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

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