One of the problems I always had as a child was that I wanted to be good and I wanted to have faith, but I never knew how. I would go to church and they would say “Be Good” but never give me suggestions as to what “being good” looked like. They would tell me to “Have Faith” but never tell me how. I never felt like I had faith, and it was not because I did not want to have faith. I wanted faith! But telling me to “Have Faith” without giving me steps or concrete suggestions how to have faith (or how to be good) was as helpful as telling me to “Speak Chinese” or “Fly a Jumbo Jet.” What it was really like was like telling a starving person to eat something without the presence of mind to realize that if the person knew how to find a way to eat something, the person would be eating, not starving!
And the Bible did not really help either. I read the Bible as a child and as a teen, and as a young adult, looking for answers – looking for a series of steps or suggestions that would let me do what it was telling me to do. Saint Paul told me to have faith but did not tell me how. He told me to rejoice, but did not tell me how. He told me to endure suffering and hardships, but did not tell me how. Maybe I was just thick. Maybe everyone else instinctively knew how to do these things without instruction, but I was not one of them.
I needed help in these areas, and when I asked people in the church who told me to have faith, how to do that, they usually stuttered and stammered and suddenly had to be somewhere. It dawned on me later that maybe many of those people who just told me to “Have Faith” did so because they had no idea how to have faith any more than I did, but they felt as if they should, so they tossed a religious sounding solution my way that was along the lines of “I’ll pray for you” in response to a very real and tangible need – like when they tell a hungry person on the street “I’ll pray for you.” How exactly is that hungry person going to cook that up? The person needs food, not prayer. And the spiritually hungry need steps to find spiritual nourishment, not empty suggestions.
That is why I have always been attracted to the teachings of Saint Ignatius and The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They provide a spiritual course of action that anyone can use to get started on a spiritual path and to continue to grow along spiritual lines.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were written by Bill Wilson circa 1938 and they were his adaptation of the practical guide to spiritual action taught by a popular Christian movement at the time called The Oxford Group.
The Twelves Steps are a good bite-sized summary of Spirituality for beginners, even if a person is not an alcoholic or addict. This is because the premise is that Alcoholism is a “Spiritual Sickness” and drinking is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. Therefore, a spiritual solution, even when not focused on alcoholism will treat the symptom by treating the disease that causes the symptom.
I have not met anyone who was not spiritually sick on some level. Some people are sicker than others. The spiritual sickness that we all endure may take many forms. We name the sickness from the symptoms, much as we name a tree by its fruit. Therefore, alcohol addiction is alcoholism, but anyone can take out the word “alcohol” (which only appears in the first step and replace it with anything else — including “sin”).
What a spiritual sickness is really about is a Thinking Problem regardless of whether that translates as a Drinking Problem. Human beings often think wrong, and that wrong thinking leads to trouble. We think wrongly, and then we act on those thoughts, hurting people along the way, who in turn are thinking and acting wrongly. They are responding to our hurting them wrongly and they hurt others as the result of their own Thinking Problem.
The Twelve Steps are:
1. We admitted we were powerless over ______—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
To me, The Twelve Steps are about Peace — real peace. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but it is the presence of wholeness. The first three steps are about PEACE WITH GOD. Steps Four through Seven are about PEACE WITH MYSELF. Steps Eight, Nine, and part of Ten are about PEACE WITH OTHERS. The remainder of Ten plus Eleven and Twelve are about KEEPING THE PEACE.
If I am not experiencing peace in my life, then I can go to the steps and see where I am “spiritually” and begin to apply that (or those) steps in my life. I figure out which step I am on and then I apply the step (or series of steps) before it.
I am not at peace. The first thing I have to figure out is where my lack of peace is centered. Is it a lack of peace with others? Is it a lack of peace with myself? Is it a lack of peace with God? Is it just a sort of generalized lack of peace akin to a spiritual anxiety or malaise? If I am not at peace with others, it is because I am not at peace with myself; therefore, I have to look at those steps that help me to find peace with myself (4 – 7). If I am not at peace with myself, then it is probably because I am not at peace with God; therefore, I have to look at those steps (1-3).
The Twelve Steps also provide an effective and practical way to “Let Go and Let God.” Just as well-meaning people in my church used to tell me to “Have Faith” but never tell me how, I have often run into well-meaning people who tell me to “Let Go and Let God,” or to “Turn it over to God,” but never tell me how to do that. If I knew how to turn it over to God, don’t you think I would do that? I have learned that the Twelve Steps are the most efficient and effective way I have to turn anything over to God.
A few years ago, I rescued a dog and the dog immediately became ill to the point of death. He developed Kennel Cough in the shelter and he had been through so much and was so weakened, the Kennel Cough quickly turned into Pneumonia. He was unconscious for about a week. I had to force feed him water and chicken broth and antibiotics mixed in water with a syringe. After a few days, my whole life and will and emotional status was focused on trying to get this dog well again. After about a week of this, I was running late for a meeting. I decided to stop by a Dunkin Donuts along the way for a cup of coffee (as was my custom) and when I turned into the parking lot, the line for the drive-thru was abnormally long and would make me even later. My response was to have a complete melt down in my car in the Dunkin Donut parking lot.
It was at that moment that I realized that obsessing over my sick dog was making me spiritually sick. I was trying to control something that was out of my control. I was trying to control reality by the sheer power of my will. So in that parking lot, I took a deep breath, and ran that dog through the steps. I was powerless of that dog’s illness and trying to control it was making my life unmanageable. It was making my life unmanageable because it was making me unmanageable, which affected how I related to everyone and everything around me. I believe in a power greater than myself that could restore my dog to health, so I made a decision to turn my dog and his illness over to the care of God as I understand God (which is Love). I examined what about myself this was affecting: was it affecting my ego, my wallet, my pride, my self-esteem, my fear that nothing works out for me no matter what I do? I admitted to God and myself those parts of me that were being affected, and made the commitment to myself to tell someone else as soon as possible (which I did at the meeting when I arrived). I was willing to let those things that were being affected within me be removed, and I asked God to remove them. I had not harmed anyone so I did not have to make amends for my behavior, but if I did lash out at others because of my frustration and fear, I would make amends to those people. I asked for God to give me the power to get through the situation, trusting that God wants what is best for my dog, so I can let God’s will be done. And I use this experience to help others whenever I can because whether or not the other person accepts my help or the benefit of my experience, strength and hope, it helps me to remind myself of it.
I was trying to control something that was beyond my control. And the more it resisted being controllable, the more I tried to control it. The more I tried to control it, the more out of control it became, and the more I tried to control it, until I was just as sick and crazy and emotionally drunk as any alcoholic who is active in his disease. In my experience, the common manifestation of our common spiritual illness is the need to control what cannot be controlled, to change what cannot be changed. It is playing God instead of trusting God and that playing God creates an imbalance in my life that makes my spiritual illness manifest.
The easiest way to determine if something is out of your control is if you are trying to control it. if it is in your control, you don’t have to control it, you just do it. The fact that you are trying to control it is all the evidence you need that it is out of your control. I am in control of my car most of the time while driving down the road. I am in so much control that I hardly think about driving. I just do it. I only think about controlling my car in those rare moments when it is out of my control. I hit a patch of ice and skid or spin out – when the care is obeying physics and not me – that is when I attempt to control my car, and I can often make it worse by trying to control it.
So the Twelve Steps are a good starting place to find a spiritual remedy to a spiritual illness. I, like Bill Wilson, believe these steps are “Spiritual Kindergarten” – they are the starting place, but not the whole of spirituality. They are especially a good method for those who have become jaded or distrustful of spirituality or religious groups. I had to move on to other spiritual methods such as The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and even the teachings of Saint Alphonsus. As someone who has spent a long time studying Jesuit teachings and methods, I can ask myself “What am I feeling and what is God trying to communicate to me through my feelings?” and then go to the steps and find where I am on a spiritual map
I guess that is a good analogy for the Twelve Steps – they are a spiritual Mall Map. The Mall Map is a simple design to help me figure out where I am and how to get to where I want to be. I can go to them and see “You are here” and then see where I want to be. I then take the corresponding steps to get from where I am to where I want to go.