The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023

Spirituality is a way of staying alive

Spirituality is not a style, manner, set of conventions and practices

Spirituality is a way of staying alive

(Photo by Michael Swan)

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    Michael Swan
    The Catholic Register

If spirituality is anything at all, it is a way of life. It’s not a style, a manner, an agreed-upon set of conventions and practices. It’s not a political party or strategy. It’s not a philosophy. It’s not an experience of the holy that will validate or reinforce your culture, your class, your education, your experience or your status.

Spirituality is a way of staying alive.

Of all the spiritualities on offer in bookstores and chapels, retreat centres and the Internet, the 12 steps pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous are the spirituality most clearly, directly and inexorably focused on survival. For 85 years, A.A.’s pitch to every drunk is, “Do this and you won’t drink. Do this and you won’t die.”

Joe was 80 years old when the idea he might die a drunk pierced the fog of his routines and compulsions. He fell into a conversation with his doctor about what he was doing for Christmas. The doctor stopped him to ask, “Do you think you will be here at Christmas?”

“Oh yeah, I got no plans,” Joe said. “I thought he was asking if I was going to the Caribbean or something.”

“No, do you think you will still be here?” said the doctor. “The way you’re going, I don’t see it.”

Joe had been drinking pretty steadily and pretty heavily since he was in his 40s. The only thing that kept him from completely sinking into 60-ounce plastic bottles of whiskey every other day was his other addiction — work. He put in 12-hour days, 15-hour days, 20-hour days running a variety of businesses — some successful, others disastrous.

The workaholic years put a lot of distance between Joe and the extreme poverty he had grown up with in an island outport off Newfoundland. Born in 1930, his earliest memories weren’t just of the Great Depression. In 1929 Newfoundland’s inland fishery collapsed after a massive tsunami altered both land and sea. Between 1928 and 1934 Newfoundland’s colonial self-rule tripped into insolvency and the English colony became a sort of failed state.

Support Group
The point is to get sober, stay sober -- and live. (Photo from iStock)

By the end of the Second World War, Joe was one of the few, in fact the only one from his island, who managed to pass Grade 11. His ambitious and educated mother sent him to St. John’s to learn Latin and gain a Grade 12 education for the purpose of entering the seminary.

The precariousness of Joe’s upbringing never left him, even as, in St. John’s, he discovered the great variety of pretty girls swirling about the city and his own unsuitability for the priesthood. He married at 25 and in two years he and his wife had three children. He struck out for Labrador and started a business, then another, then another. The hard work paid off. He became an investor and moved to Toronto.

He shielded his family from the poverty that had scarred his own early years, but also from himself. He worked and worked and worked — and drank. The family had its own separate existence.

“I wanted to give up drinking. I knew it was wrong from the time I was 30,” he said. “It became part of my life. It was like having dinner, or like doing anything that we all do.”

Joe was a high-functioning alcoholic.

“I would never be viewed as a drunk,” he said. “I never lost relations. I never beat my wife. I never failed to make a mortgage and I paid my bills. I went to church. I was a respectable citizen… managed to behave myself.”

At 80, Joe was the oldest guy in the room when he showed up for his first A.A. meeting 12 years ago. He knows now how important it was that he did show up.

“I would be dead. I would have been dead within a year (without A.A.),” he said.

To honour the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous Joe insisted The Catholic Register keep his true name and identity secret. The anonymous part of A.A. is important, he said.

Without A.A., Joe had in fact quit drinking a few times — sometimes for a month, even for a year.

“The craving always remained,” he recalled. “And Christmas would come, or a special occasion would come.”

He thought he could have one drink to mark the occasion, to join in with colleagues and friends. For an alcoholic, there’s no such thing as one drink.

“There were times when I used to feel so, so sick of myself,” he said.

At 92, Joe begins and ends every day reading from Daily Reflections — an A.A. volume of collected and collective wisdom about living the 12 steps. He calls the thick, battered paperback his prayer book. The meetings, Daily Reflections, his own opportunity to mentor younger A.A. members have become precious to him.

“My biggest asset is my sobriety,” he declares, ever the entrepreneur.

The 12 steps work, not just for Joe but for millions of alcoholics who have confessed that on their own they are powerless over their addiction (step one). In 2020 a medical research consortium called the Cochrane Collaboration analyzed 27 studies involving 10,565 participants, comparing the results of A.A. to results from other treatments for alcoholism — from cognitive behavioural therapy to naltrexone and acamprosate. A.A. was twice as effective. Other treatments resulted in approximately 15 to 25 per cent of study subjects maintaining abstinence from alcohol. With A.A. the result was somewhere between 22 and 37 per cent, with variations depending on the study.

A.A. isn’t a medical treatment. There’s no reason for any A.A. member to exclude other treatments. Since Bill Wilson, author of the Big Book, convened the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1935, A.A. has always insisted that if alcoholics find something that works, they shouldn’t hesitate. The point is to get sober, stay sober and live. For members of Toronto’s newly formed Catholic in Recovery, the 12 steps are very explicitly a spirituality that embraces life. For the little group that began meeting in St. Roch’s Parish in Etobicoke in 2022, it’s also an explicitly Catholic spirituality.

“What we offer is a place for Catholics to come to a meeting, to grow in their recovery, continue to have relationships in recovery, but also to discuss their Catholic faith,” said George, one of the group’s Toronto founders. (Again, George is not his real name. The Catholic Register has agreed to protect his anonymity.)

To George, the Serenity Prayer just sounds Catholic:

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.

The prayer has been attributed to St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi, but that’s untrue. The earliest written version has been traced to a 1932 diary entry by YWCA teacher and activist Winnifred Crane Wygal and popularized by the great 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It worked its way into A.A. circles as early as 1941. Versions of it have appeared on mugs, t-shirts, posters and Internet memes.

With just a half-dozen regular members, Catholic in Recovery, mixes different kinds of addiction — sexaholics, gamblers, alcoholics, drug addicts. The two categories are substance-use addictions (alcoholism, drugs) and process addictions (pornography, gambling). What unifies them is the stories they share and the capacity of those narratives to break the isolation which traps every addict.

'My biggest asset is my sobriety'

-- Joe

“We don’t seek to replace A.A., or replace other things,” said George. “To attend multiple groups, it’s very normal. We don’t seek to replace anyone so much as to just offer a space for people to express their faith.”

Catholic in Recovery is a larger and better established network of 12-step groups in the United States established in 2016 by Scott Weeman, author of the 2017 book The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments: A Catholic Journey through Recovery. The Toronto group is the only Canadian meeting. It has been recognized as an approved lay association by the Archdiocese of Toronto. For Al, a Catholic in Recovery regular, the meetings, the steps to recovery and the stories they share are a commitment.

“It’s not just, you know, 45 minutes of sharing and talking and then socializing and leaving the room. You have to live it,” he said.

“The point is to continue focusing on prayer, meditation, service to others and an inventory or examination of conscience,” said George. “So key is living the Christian life, in a sense.”

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