The purpose of this blog, of course, is to see what Christians and churches can learn from the Twelve Step Recovery programs: what analogies, examples, ideas and practices occur in those rooms amongst the addicts that might help us Christians see our faith through new lenses. Much as we might learn something of what it means to be faithful Christians if we were to observe, say, a devout and orthodox Jewish community, or if we as the Church were to take inspiration from highly committed Shi’ia Muslim communities, so also we Christians can learn much about the nature of brokenness, surrender, mutual love and support, and outreach in service to others, by observing our friends the recovering addicts.
Now, of course, Twelve-Step Recovery, being a program grounded in deeply spiritual principles, is usually a thing of hope for millions of addicts and their friends and families. And yet, as this remarkable little parable of the alcoholic monk shows us, sometimes, and for some addicts, sobriety, as most of us commonly understand that idea, simply never happens. The fact is, some especially tortured addicts seem to struggle more to achieve even short term sobriety, they seem to relapse constantly, they get worse and worse over time, and eventually the disease of addiction kills them—as it did this little monk. For, as every recovering addict knows deeply, alcoholism and addiction are fatal diseases, and un-arrested over any serious length of time, they will surely kill us ugly and dead.
Now the second point worth noting in this parable, aside from the brutal reminder that addiction kills, is the reaction of the other monks to their brother’s struggles: they are scandalized, upset, confused. For when someone we care about cannot live clean and sober, we imagine all kinds of reasons why: she must not really want to get sober, he isn’t working the steps, she hasn’t trusted in her higher power, he is still dishonest about something in his life, and on and on it goes. We—we on the outside looking in—get angry, we get hurt, we get embarrassed, we lash out, we withdraw, we threaten, we leave, we come back, we leave again. None of this, of course, does any good, for the great mystery of addiction is that the key to sobriety lies within each suffering addict, having been placed there by God himself. But, as with so many other mysteries about how God works in the lives of suffering people, we do not know how or why some people are able to turn the key and some not, why some are able to get sober, some not, and some, like our friend the alcoholic monk, make progress known to God alone.
These struggles and mysteries are really not all that different from the kinds of questions that thinking Christians have always asked about sin, grace and salvation– why some people seem naturally to be more deeply flawed than others, why some seem to be able to receive grace and redemption so completely while others struggle two steps forward and one step back, what it means when a man or woman opts to walk away from a life in the Spirit and chooses a life without God, and in the end, what it means to be redeemed and—always more difficult—what it means to be lost. Of course, in our age of radical secularism and societal ignorance about deep religious faith, no one really knows how to talk about this anymore, or else we are too afraid to be labeled by the keepers of political correctness as harsh, judgmental, impolite, a social outcast, ever to talk in terms of someone being “saved” or “lost.” And so we don’t talk about it: even in the churches, we don’t talk about it, and we never talk seriously—I mean theologically—about it.
But our friends the addicts know how to talk about it. And they do. They have to, for it—life and death, both spiritual and actual—goes on all around them all the time, and they must have a language to describe their experiences. For—to say again the hard thing—the rooms of recovery are regularly ravaged by death from addiction. So recovering addicts talk about those who have been saved and those who could not be, those who were found and those still lost, about those who find themselves redeemed through no apparent merit of their own, and those who, equally for reasons no one except God can understand, don’t, and so end up in that state of existence that can only be called hell.
For those in recovery or those in the churches, these are great and hard mysteries, no doubt, but they are ones that we can contemplate without fear, for we believe in a loving and compassionate God.
And, to that end, there is one more way in which this story of the alcoholic monk can open our eyes: for in this story we see that not all questions of spiritual progress are black and white. The brother monks, of course, assume that, since the alcoholic monk has not been able to find continual sobriety, his soul must be wholly forfeited. Only the abbot has the wisdom to see more deeply what is going on. Only the abbot sees with the heart of God. Now those who have read AA Big Book will remember a similar idea there. For we are told in those pages that alcoholics in recovery “claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection….We are not saints.” Once that spiritual elephant is out of the room, we can strive for spiritual progress, one day at a time, even if God alone can see it.
And so the story of the alcoholic monk teaches us that addiction kills, and so does sin. Some are saved and some lost, and no one except God alone knows why. And some progress—whether freedom from the twentieth drink or freedom to draw closer to the heart of God—is known only to God.