Expressions of Divine Love — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Expressions of Divine Love

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part Two

Expressions of Divine Love
Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Step Eleven: 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 (1940–2005)—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 we no longer experienced communion, connection, and compassion; 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). Timothy McMahan King writes: “Addictions represent finite answers to infinite longings. But adding up the finite over and over will never equal the infinite.” [2] We want to attach to something that will never let us down, something all-powerful, all-nurturing, truly liberating. But of course, with any addiction we need more and more of it because each time we experience the emptiness afterward. It’s never enough to fill the God-sized hole inside of us.

Prayer and meditation allow us to reconnect with our true source of power. 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 Western Christians would have thought that was a practice from “Eastern religions.”

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 die away. King again: “Grace points to the possibility of a redemption that is not just recovery but the opportunity to grow deeper and become stronger than we were before.” [3] May described the outcome of contemplative practice: “As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become expressions of divine love.” [4]

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

[2] Timothy McMahan King, Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us (Herald Press: 2019), 209.

[3] Ibid., 248.

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

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), MP3 download;

How Do We Breathe Under Water? The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CDDVDMP3 download; and

Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2011), CDDVDMP3 download.

Image credit: La Soupe (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-03, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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. —Richard Rohr
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