Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 1
The Power of Powerlessness
Monday, November 16, 2015
I think the Twelve Steps are inspired by the Holy Spirit and that they are the most successful programmatic teaching of the true Gospel.  Bill Wilson and the other founders of Alcoholics Anonymous rediscovered the spirituality of imperfection and powerlessness, which was relegated to a subtext once Christianity aligned with imperial thinking, beginning in 313 A.D. Once we looked out at society from the top instead of the bottom, the Church focused its moral program on a path of ascent instead of descent.
When you are aligned with Empire, you are forced to prefer a spirituality of achievement, performance, worthiness, and willpower, and surely not any talk of “all people have sinned” and “fallen short of the glory” (Romans 5:12, 3:23). There is no longer room “for the last to be first and the first to be last” (Mark 10:31). Conformity to cultural virtue becomes much more important than love of littleness itself or love of any outsider (read “sinner”).
It’s as if Christianity has been saying, “We have the perfect medicine for what ails you: grace and mercy. But the only requirement for receiving it is never to need it!” Jesus called himself a physician and made his case clearly: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Bill Wilson recognized this truth and understood that the only way to give everyone equal and universal access to God is to base salvation/enlightenment on woundedness instead of self-created trophies. If we are honest, this utterly levels the playing field. Julian of Norwich, my favorite English mystic, understood the great turn around and said proudly: “Our wounds are our very trophies!” They are the “holes in the soul” where the Light and the Life can break through.  Exactly as Leonard Cohen’s Anthem puts it: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
The way of the Twelve Steps is remarkably similar to Jesus’ Way of the Cross, St. Francis’ Way of Poverty, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way. These and many other saints and mystics teach the power of powerlessness either directly or indirectly. It was never totally lost in mainstream Christianity, although it was a minority insight.  Many did recognize that it is the imperial ego that has to go, and only powerlessness can do the job correctly. If we try to change our ego with the help of our ego, we only have a better-disguised ego.
Until you bottom out and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel. Why would you? You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as inadequate to the task. In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources utterly fail you. 
None of us go to the place of powerlessness on our own accord. We have to be taken there. Sad to say it, but it is largely sin, humiliation, failure, and various forms of addiction that do the job. Sometimes, having ruined your marriage, your children, your job, or your sterling self-image, you have to say, “My way isn’t working.”  Maybe there is another way, maybe I really do need to change. That is very often when you are finally ready to begin a sincere spiritual journey. At that point your religion morphs into a living spirituality. 
Gateway to Silence:
Breathing in—receiving mercy; breathing out—letting go
 For more on the Twelve Steps and the Gospel, see Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011).
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), MP3 download.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 115.
 Ibid., 3.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), MP3 download.
 For more on the theme of spiritual development and growth, see Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011).