The Addicts and the Mystics: Lessons from the Twelve Steppers for Christians Who Would Pray

“As thou art in church or in cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.”

–Meister Eckhart.

For the Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Jesus.

“One day at a time.” As I have written in these blogs, this is such a profound idea for the recovering addict and, at least for people I know in recovery, wholly transformative.  No one I know who has gotten sober from addiction has done so without learning how do one day at a time. And, as I recently wrote about, beyond the days of early recovery, practicing this habit is the only way that, even now, twenty-plus years clean and sober, I can meaningfully respond to profound sadness, such as the family tragedy of a terminal illness. So “one day at a time” is both a practical tool and a spiritual truth for getting and staying sober, and for living life on life’s terms, at least for this addict.

But recently I have come to see another way in which this idea of consciously dwelling in this day only can transform the spiritual life. It is the simple idea that, when it comes to the inner life of prayer, “one day at a time” and the discipline and practice that it implies, is exactly what the great teachers of prayer have been saying all along.

I have tried for three decades now, at least tried intermittently, to pray. Now by “prayer” I here mean some sustained and intimate meditation or contemplative prayer, some awakening to and dwelling in the inner places of the heart, where God is to be found, such that I may take those profound mysteries with me into the world of busyness and madness, hope and despair.  Sometimes I have begun to make progress, but like a novice skier who picks up too much speed and then sits down on his skiis lest he lose control, I have sat down on my momentum out of fear of what comes next.  I simply have not had the guts to press on, daily, habitually, through the scary places.  But I have spent enough time reading great mystics, and very occasionally doing what they suggest, to know that there is a deep and sacred place to which I may go at any time, to abide there in Love and Peace, and that this place is utterly transformative of my entire world. After I have centered there and been touched by Mercy itself, I see differently, I love more deeply, I understand more, I am more alive and conscious—all as opposed to my more normal and prosaic plodding through the day, half-seeing, poorly loving, confusion and understanding in equal portion.

So this transformative practice of the presence of God is what I mean by prayer.  And it is worth pursuing.  It is the purpose of our being, of that I am convinced. It is, in the words of Jesus, the pearl of great price.

By the way, the mystics I have read and would heartily recommend include Thomas Merton, the Catholic Trappist monk who was so prolific (New Seeds of Contemplation, Thoughts in Solitude, Contemplative Prayer), the Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (Beginning to Pray), Fr Henri Nouwen (Clowning in Rome, Genesee Diary, the Wounded Healer), Richard Foster, the contemporary Quaker writer (Celebration of Discipline), the old professor CS Lewis (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Psalms), medieval Brother Lawrence, [Practice of the Presence of God], and the anonymous Russian classic The Way of the Pilgrim.  I have also tried to dwell with the some of the other, more ancient teachers of mystical prayer—Meister Eckhart, Thomas A’Kempis, St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, among others—but at least at the time I read them I was too much the toddler, too feeble and too scared to dwell very long in the depths of their teachings. But all of these, too, talk about the incremental process and the firm resolve it takes to learn to pray deeply.

Recently I picked up the readily accessible Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, and in just the first few chapters I was struck by this wise Quaker’s approach to prayer. It was in the early pages that I discovered that he, too, is a proponent of prayer in daily portions. He insists that we only reach the deeper, quiet union with God which we so desire by humble and persistent effort, repeated over and over again, habitually, incrementally, and—surprise, surprise!—one day at a time.

Before I set out what Thomas Kelly has to say about the daily way of prayer, I should quote his description of the natural response of our hearts to contemplative prayer, the reason that we are drawn to it, why it is worth all this effort:

flamesBlog“The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.  The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop…. In brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyper-aesthesia of the soul, we see all mankind tinged with deeper shadows and touched with Galilean glories.  Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and overwhelming love toward time-blinded men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.  We are owned men, ready to run and not be weary, to walk and never grown faint.”

“Owned men” (and women, obviously). Well now, there’s a phrase that once would have sent me running (“NO ONE owns me, by damn…I am master of my own destiny and no one is going to tell me otherwise”…yada-yada-yada). To my surprise, though, the phrase now accurately describes what I most want: to be owned of God.

Now, lest we get carried away in some kind of grandiose fantasy that any of this will happen quickly or completely, Kelly gives caution. “The light soon fades, the will weakens, the humdrum returns. Can we stay this fading? No, nor should we try, for we must learn the disciplines of His will and pass beyond this first lesson of His Grace…. Continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine touch, lies at the base of religious living.”

And he makes clear that the way of “continuous renewal” is a daily, habitual, exercise of the will towards God in prayer—not some stupendous, dazzling, once for all transformation:  “What is here urged are [daily] internal practices and habits of the mind. What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being….What is here urged are inward practices of the mind at the deepest level, letting it swing like a needle to the polestar of the soul.”

Not only daily increments does Kelly emphasize, but also the enormous commitment that such a practice demands.  Referring to John Woolman, a Quaker mystic, we are told that Woolman “resolved so to order his outward affairs, so to adjust his business burdens, that nothing, absolutely nothing would crowd out his prime attendance upon the Inward Principle.” 

I have to say that as I read these words, my mind was drawn first, not to my Christian friends, but to my friends in recovery, surprising as that may be. This is surely not because all recovering addicts are great mystics—though some are.  But I thought about my brothers and sisters in recovery as I read Thomas Kelly because for the recovering addict or alcoholic, nothing—absolutely nothing—takes a higher priority than the spiritual and practical business of recovery. The recovering addict knows she or he must be fierce about making sure that he or she takes care of first things first, day by day, for unless that happens, sooner or later, he or she will drink or use again, and then lose everything that matters: family, friends, work—everything. This we addicts know better than any other fact in the world, like a child who has been badly burned knows not to touch the stove anymore, and this we are fiercely determined to remember—of course remembering it every day, one day at a time.

So it was that as I read these words of Thomas Kelly’s about the life of prayer, I was reminded again of first priorities, practiced daily, incrementally, habitually.  As the recovering alcoholic lives one day at a time—and, before she knows it, celebrates a year of recovery, or five, or twenty—so Thomas Kelly is here saying that only incrementally, habitually, humbly, daily, do we progress in the life of prayer, but that the peace and joy of the great sanctuary of the soul is absolutely worth the daily effort and discipline.

fountains-laybrothersrefectory-sNow, in one way, this way of building the habit of prayer is really not too surprising.  Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit or put on a new one knows the tremendous “liftoff energy” that it takes.  Whether we are trying to get into physical shape through exercise, to stop procrastinating on work commitments, to stop swearing or gossiping—or to break a fatal addiction—it is apparent that it all must begin by making a definite decision and then taking the necessary action for today.  Then, tomorrow, we re-make the decision and do the action again.  And again the next day. And again.  Over and over until the decision and action are such a part of what we do and who we are that the decision and action are like second nature. They are like a habit. They are a habit. And we have donned that habit and it has become a part of us and we a part of it, and it defines us and we define it, over and over again on a daily basis.  We are “owned” by it.

Of course it takes a long, long time of daily, incremental work, of one-day-at-a-time practice to become owned men and women. And by “practice” I do not mean “trying to get better at” but, rather, praxis, as in the Greek, meaning a practical application of a theory, doing that which we have previously only theorized about.  We only develop habits by doing them, not by talking, reading, thinking or—(NOTE TO SELF)—writing about them.

So it is that Thomas Kelly—and our friends the recovering addicts—are telling us that if we would pray, if we would know the inner joy and adoration that Testament to Devotion and so many other great works of prayer describe, we must begin with a simple, humble, decision: “today I will pray.” That decision is then followed by equally simple, humble action: to pray as best we are able, with whatever light we have.  We do our best to pray honestly and listen deeply.  And then, when we are finished, we go on about our day, hopefully lit from within, seeing, understanding, loving.  And then the next day we do it all again.  One day at a time.

 

 

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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10 Responses to The Addicts and the Mystics: Lessons from the Twelve Steppers for Christians Who Would Pray

  1. Tamarah Jane Pringle says:

    I was, years ago, impossibly, inexplicably blessed by a mystical encounter. The zenith of this event lasted for hours; the residual for months and months (well, years- if you consider how profoundly this informed me). I have never written or talked much about it. My attempts to communicate the experience with others were met with mixed (and not very encouraging) results. Sometimes it feels as though I were just a wistful former traveler to some enchanted country and even I doubt the veracity of such a place. But I am here to say that it is real and possible: a feeling of utmost peace and loving-kindness, the beneficence of the world, the absence of worry and strife, the absence of fear of death– in fact– the knowledge that death really is an illusion– there is no such thing. That we are truly safe in the universe and nothing– NOTHING– can harm us. The feeling of isolation we seem to all be born with is an illusion; we are never alone– we never take one step on this earth alone. That everything in the world is held together by a beautiful gossamer, making us a part of All. What we talk about here is not just talk. It is more real than anything. Pray without ceasing!

    • Kelly Clark says:

      Tamarah, what you describe here is a beautiful and rare event, and obviously one that has affected you deeply. What Thomas Kelly is saying is that this kind of remarkable intimacy with the divine is open to us all, though I think he would caution that such a powerful transcendence is not often given us and should not be “sought.” Rather, it is the daily effort of becoming quiet and open to the still, small voice of God, that we are to make. After all, we have no control over how often or with what force we experience God’s presence, and it is likely not “experience” that is the goal in any event, but rather the love that drives the effort and habit of prayer. Thanks again for your lovely comment. Kelly

      • Tamarah Jane Pringle says:

        Kelly- Yes, the bottom line is love, the event a gift from God. My theory (and it is only a stab in the dark) is that He knew what devastating losses were in store for me. And He blessed me with a powerful dose of love and peace and perspective in order to contend with them. I do not have the secret for connecting or creating a recurrence, no matter how hard I’ve tried. You are right; trying is not the answer. It would be like running after a wild animal in hopes of taming it.

  2. mjean says:

    I pray and pray. Tho my drinking has yet to cause a life problem…..and I feel sure it won’t…I do not want to drink anymore. Why? I guess because it makes me feel guilty. For what? For weakness. I love the way a few drinks makes me feel. I don’t overdrink when I am out. Only when I am home and tucked in for the night. But, I want to quit. I talk myself out of it because “I can handle it”‘ hah! If so, I would not drink everyday. GOD, please help me……I beg you! I love you so very much. I thank you for a beautiful life….and I fail to understand. Please come to me and help!!! Thank you! Bless me please!!!!

    • Kelly Clark says:

      Thank you for your honesty here. I will pray with you that the compulsion to drink will be lifted from you. Of course, I have nothing to offer you except to urge you to go dwell in the midst of other alcoholics in AA. Go there and look for the similarities not the differences, ask for help, do what is suggested, and keep going back. If you are an alcoholic of the type I am, the answers are there in those rooms. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in any other way. Kelly

  3. Tom gerlach says:

    The path is your life….The foundation in recovery that strengthens that archway…..for many years in recovery life was getting so much better. I have a most wonderful understanding sponsor..We both decided to take a look at step 11 closer…He went his way and I mine…mine lead me to the East…Understanding this word meditation…A long story shorter, this was the Capstone..Understanding beyond anything I had ever imagined and still it unfolds daily…May I suggest, adyshanti…j. Krishnamurti, Toni packer, Sailor Bob adamson, Joan tollifson…An open mind will produce a transformation…peace.

  4. Christy says:

    Prayer works, it is hard to commit but when you do, you see Gods hands working everywhere.

  5. Daniel L. Luce says:

    I have prayed, for the 20 years, that I stayed sober! But recently, I have , shall I put it, tested God with some answers to my life, his refusal to help me, left me feeling hopelessly discouraged by Gods presence in my life, I now started drinking again, and still live each day “one Day at a Time”, but expecting answers to those prayers is probably where I went wrong, but just because you pray…. Don’t garentee that he is real, or that he or she will listen and respond, even if it’s not to your liking…. I do believe, if you pray and have faith you can do much, because it had worked in my life…. But at some time, I believe God should respond to that faith…. I am lucky, I haven’t gotten into any trouble drinking as of yet…. But my faith and continued prayer, has left me cancer ridden and unable to speak, nor walk regularly, without a cane or wheelchair, I even had a stroke, and my wife left, not due to drinking, because I didn’t start until I was already gone, but because her unability to deal with the health issues, I called my minister, and asked for a ride to church, or a possible member to give me a ride, and cannot seem to get help…. I live in a small town with no bus or cab service, and my unability to talk doesn’t help matters, but if these are answers to everyday prayer, then I’ve come to a conclusion that it is proven useless to this alcoholic……
    Sincerely, Daniel

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