The Eleventh Step of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
In previous posts, I noted the urgency to be saved that is present in the rooms of Twelve Step fellowships, that unconditional surrender and plea for help that accompanies every addict’s “surrender.” I described how complete and total is the desire of an addict at the bottom of his life to be free from the slavery of addiction. What this translates to, I have suggested, is a fierceness and earnestness to receive help, to go a different direction, to change everything that must be changed in order to find freedom from addiction. “Tell me what to do and I will do it,” is the essence of what we often hear from the newcomer who is truly ready for help.
Of course, AA and the other Twelve Step programs describe themselves as “spiritual paths,” and one needs only sit through one meeting of such groups to begin to see what they mean. Almost all Twelve Step meetings commence with the Serenity Prayer—“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Most meetings end either with a repetition of this prayer or else with the Lord’s Prayer. It is deeply poignant to be in the midst of a group of people—and to be one of them– who have spent years living the coarsest and most worldly of lives, toughened, hardened even, by the ugliness of life in addiction, having seen and done things that most people have never seen or done, now bowing their heads in humility and gratitude and saying these powerful words of prayer.
But the spirituality of the Twelve Steps is not limited to formal group prayers in meetings. As the Eleventh Step above makes clear, one of the Twelve specific intentions of the recovery programs is a life of conscious prayer and meditation. Very early on in recovery, most addicts are told by their sponsors to pray about specific problems in their lives, even if they don’t know how to pray, even if they say they don’t believe in God. In response to one young alcoholic who was complaining about the idea of God and protesting that he “has a real problem with the whole God and prayer thing,” a friend of mine who was this man’s sponsor responded with brutal frankness: “Get over it. Get over it or die, knucklehead.”
Indeed, the concept of a Higher Power, all loving and all encompassing, is so central to every piece of recovery: the idea of surrendering one’s life to a God of our understanding (Steps 1-3), the rigors of a personal inventory of our wrongs and character defects (Step 4), the intentional vulnerability that comes with sharing the details of those wrongs with another person (Step 5), all are examples of the spiritual basis of recovery under the Twelve Steps. Likewise, becoming willing to be changed (Step 6) and asking God to remove our defects of character (Step 7), making amends to those we have harmed (Steps 8 and 9), and continuing to take personal inventory and making amends for new mistakes (Step 10), all show that the life of the Spirit is integral to recovery. So it is not surprising that Step 11 insists that we endeavor to grow in our personal spiritual lives through prayer and meditation.
What is surprising, however, at least to me, is how serious most recovering addicts are about their prayer lives, how central is prayer to the entire life of recovery. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous spends many pages discussing prayer, and encourages those in recovery to seek out spiritual direction, both from within and outside of the AA Program: urging them to find ministers, rabbis, clerics who can guide them in prayer: “be quick to see where religious people are right,” says the Big Book. And my experience in the rooms of recovery confirms that most recovering addicts practice these directions consistently and intentionally. I do not hesitate to say that I generally hear far more in recovery circles than in church circles about prayer and meditation, people offering suggestions, practices, books and resources on prayer to help each other out. After all, we are people who have admitted that we don’t know how to do that which we most need to do in order to stay sober and sane, and so we are people quick to ask for help, and quick to accept it, to do whatever is suggested, lest we return to our former lives of insanity and despair.
Not that any of this is any easier for addicts than for people of religious faith. In fact, I would suggest it is even harder. Many folks in recovery consider themselves not at all the kind of people to pray: many have had very bad experiences with organized religion, many have experienced religious coercion or even abuse, many—like the young man mentioned above– cannot fathom themselves doing something as unfamiliar or uncomfortable as praying. One man I know described his first attempt at prayer like this: “I went into my bedroom, I locked my door. I walked around for fifteen minutes before I could finally bring myself to get down on my knees to try to pray. Even then, I felt so self-conscious that I got up again and again, fearing that I had left the door unlocked and that someone would walk in.” “Well,” replied his sponsor, listening to this tale, “That’s not all that unusual; I mean, a lot of folks are worried about someone else seeing them pray.” “Yeah, I guess so,” replied the man, and then laughed: “But I live alone!” So prayer is no easier for an addict than for anyone else.
But what seems to be different for people in recovery is that sense of urgency that I described above. We know we are but one drink, one drug, one sexual escapade, one trip to the casino, from relapse and a return to our former demonic lives. And this desperation—it really can only be described thus—fuels the unconditional commitment to pray. As we often say in recovery, there are no atheists on a sinking ship, and we are clear that one false choice and we will again find ourselves going down.
Now, perhaps I run with a crowd of Christian slackers. Perhaps I am one myself. Because I don’t often hear this kind of urgency amongst my Christian friends when we talk about prayer and meditation. Despite that we have an incredibly rich tradition of literature on prayer and meditation—from the New Tetament itself with Jesus and Paul stressing the need for constant prayer, to the spirituality of the desert fathers, to St Francis, St Ignatius, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, to the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Prayer of the Heart and contemporaries like Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, to Thomas Merton, Carlo Carretto, or Henri Nouwen–we do not seem to access this rich heritage as immediately as we might. It is if we—perhaps I speak only of myself here, but that is not my impression— sometimes think that we are beyond all that, that we know enough, we understand enough, we know the Scriptures well enough, we have the right doctrine, such that prayer is, well, a nice addition, but not essentially necessary to our salvation.
Or perhaps it goes even deeper than this. Maybe we are afraid to change. To me, this is the most dreadful aspect of prayer and meditation—that it forces me to change. I often wonder why I spend so little time in prayer, given how powerful it is in transforming me. And I often know the answer: that, at my core, I am still a stubborn and willful man who doesn’t want to yield my will and my life to anyone, even to God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christ bids a man to follow Him and die.” Or CS Lewis, “I don’t pray because it necessarily changes things; I pray because it changes me.” Still, being changed is often painful, and we don’t want pain from God, we want comfort. “Pardon us from the presumption of coming to this Thy table for pardon only, and not for renewal, for solace only, and not for strength,” says the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer. So in this spirit I must remember that all of the saints and sages and martyrs in Christian history have given witness that a voluntarily chosen sacrifice always leads to resurrection and new life. And when I remember this, and yield myself to God in prayer, then I am transformed and renewed; I am resurrected.
But I have to get to my knees first, and here is where our friends the addicts can serve as a helpful reminder to us of our deep need for God in prayer. Because if we go back to basics– that we are broken sinners who have missed God’s glorious vision for our lives, that we are doomed to a death of unconsciousness and apathy, that our only way out is by following Jesus, day by day, step by step, following his example and his words precisely– if we go back to these basics, then nothing ought to get in the way of our spiritual life. Nothing: not a busy calendar full of good and noble work, not family commitments, not church attendance or involvement itself. Like the addict who knows that, without what the AA Big Book calls “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” then he is destined to his former life of self-absorption, grandiosity, addiction and chaos, like the person on the sinking ship frantic to grab a life preserver, we must persevere in this difficult task of prayer and meditation. We must get over ourselves and our reluctance and resistance. We must “get over it or die, knucklehead.”