Sunday, September 27, 2009

Catholic Asceticism and the Twelve Steps

Although Matt Talbot is not mentioned in this article, the word "ascetic" is frequently used in describing Matt, and he may have been exposed to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius since his spiritual advisor was a Jesuit. And as noted by Fr. Morgan Costello, former Vice-Postulator of the Cause of Matt Talbot and author of Matt Talbot: Hope for Addicts (2001), Matt's conversion and recovery from alcoholism incorporated the twelve steps half a century before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The non-alcoholic author of the following article was a close friend and spiritual advisor to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. (JB)

Catholic Asceticism and the Twelve Steps

Reverend Edward Dowling, S.J.
The Queen's Work, St. Louis, Missouri
Brooklyn, 1953

I think that if our positions were reversed, you would feel as I do -- grateful to be the focus of good will. I think that is true of anybody who speaks at an A.A. gathering, or about A.A.

I am sensible, as you are, of God's closeness to human humility. I am sensible, also, of how close human humility can come to humiliation, and I know how close that can come to an alcoholic. I think that in addition to my confidence in the closeness of God to one suffering from alcoholism, I would like to invoke our Lord's promise that where two or three gather together in His Name, there He will be in their midst.

First of all, asceticism comes from the Greek word meaning the same as exercise, or better, to practice gymnastics. The concept of exercise is to loosen up the muscles to prepare them for vigorous activity. Applied to spiritual matters, it means to loosen up the faculties of the mind or soul, to prepare them for better activity. Physical exercise is gymnastics, setting-up exercises, preparing me to take steps. In the same way, asceticism is preliminary, a preparation for me to use the powers of my soul.

Christian asceticism is contained, of course, in the Gospel. All the teachings of Our Lord boil down to the cardinal ideas; one negative, the denial of self; the other positive, the imitation of and union with Christ.

One of the many different systematized forms of Christian exercises is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. There are many others, and all are efforts to apply to one's life those two principal ideas of denial of self and an affirmation of Christ. "Spiritual Exercises" indicate, of course, that the thing to be exercised is the spirit. The word "exercise" indicates a releasing of the faculties or powers of the soul.

St. Ignatius starts with a presumption that our power of faculties are bound by sinful tendencies and addictions to the wrong things. The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, work on the soul in both a negative and positive way. The first section, the consideration of my sins and of their effects in hell, is the negative part. It aims by self-denial to release our wills from our binding addictions, to enable the will to desire and to choose rationally.

The second part of the Spiritual Exercises, start in with a consideration of the Incarnation and going through the Passion and Resurrection, is an effort to see how Christ would handle various situations.

A priest alcoholic, who has written with discernment on the Spiritual Exercises, first pointed out to me the similarity between them and the twelve steps of A.A. Bill, the founder of A.A. recognized that those twelve steps are pretty much the releasing of myself from the things that prevent my will's choosing God as I understand Him.

Twelve Steps and the Spiritual Exercises

The first seven or eight steps of A.A. are quite specific as to what should be done in order to release the will from addiction to evil. On the positive side, the twelve steps are very general. Bill once stated: "It is a firm principal with us that, so far as A.A. goes, each member has the absolute right to seek God as he will." On another occasion he declared that A.A. was not concerned about the particular way a man works out his dependence on God. That depends on him and on God, mostly on God. The alcoholic's business, as expressed in the eleventh step, is to find out what God wants and to ask for strength to carry that out.

Like the Spiritual Exercises, like Christian asceticism in general, the twelve steps are not speculative ideas. They are practical steps. May I suggest some of the parallels between the Spiritual Exercises and the twelve steps.

The Foundation

The first three of the twelve steps correspond roughly with the foundation of the Spiritual Exercises. In the foundation we see man as creature. It recognizes the dependence of man on God because of the rather abstract, relatively unknown fact, creation. A.A. bases dependence on a rather concrete specific type of experience, drunkenness. The Ignatian foundation indicates that everything else shall be chosen or rejected in the light of the purpose that grows out of this dependence, i.e., sharing Him for all eternity by doing His will on earth.

The A.A. third step directs that one's life and one's will be directed by the influence of God. In it the alcoholic determines to turn his life and his will over to the care of God as he understands Him. This emphasis on the will indicates that the alcoholic should direct himself by his will rather than by the feelings that have enmeshed him. The focal importance of the will is a characteristic of the Spiritual Exercises.

Moral Inventory - Confession

In the Spiritual Exercises, the next thing is the contemplation of sin; sin in the angels, in our first parents, in others, in myself, and sin in its effects. And of course, right along the line there you have the fourth step of A.A., a fearless, thorough moral inventory of one's sins. The parallelism is rather striking.

To a priest who asked Bill how long it took him to write those twelve steps he said that it took twenty minutes. If it were twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.

After a moral inventory of one's life, all spiritual exercises, Catholic anyway, demand the confession of sins. It is specifically required in the Spiritual Exercises. In the A.A. fifth step, you have that general confession admitting my sins to myself, to God, and to another human being.

Reatus Culpae and Reatus Poenae

There are two liabilities when we commit a sin: one, reatus culpae, the guilt of the sin; the other reatus poenae, the obligation of restitution. The A.A. sixth and seventh steps cover the guilt of the sin, and the eighth and ninth steps the obligation of restitution.

I think the sixth step is the one which divides the men from the boys in A.A. It is love of the cross. The sixth step says that one is not almost, but entirely ready, not merely willing, but ready. The difference is between wanting and willing to have God remove all these defects of character. You have here, if you look into it, not the willingness of Simon Cyrene to suffer, but the great desire or love, similar to what Chesterton calls "Christ's love affair with the cross."

The seventh step implements that desire by humbly asking God to remove these defects. The alcoholic sees one defect go as a bottle of beer is taken away. And so, that continuing detachment which goes along in any ascetical life holds true in A.A. As one grows in A.A., the problems seem to get bigger, the strength bigger, and the dividends greater.

Then comes the reatus poenae, the obligation of restitution or penance. God's forgiveness is sought in the sixth and seventh steps. In the eight and ninth steps one makes restitution. In the eighth step the alcoholic makes a list of those people he has offended and whose bills he hasn't paid. In the ninth step he pays off these obligations, if he can do so without hurting people more.

The Positive Side

The eleventh and twelfth steps give a rather limited parallel to the positive asceticism of Christianity. The eleventh step bids one by prayer and meditation to study to improve his conscious grasp of God, asking Him only for two things, knowledge of His will and the power to carry it out. Now, that is a true and accurate description of the positive aspects of Christian asceticism as well as of the second, third, and forth weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Then, the twelfth step. Having had a spiritual exercise or awakening as a result of these steps, we carry this message to other alcoholics and practice these principles in all our other affairs. In our apostolic work we should be an instrument in God's hands. The A.A. steps before this twelfth step are to improve by instrumental contact with God this dependence of work for others on my growth toward Christ-like sanity and sanctity has significance to an alcoholic priest. Often such a one will say, "If I could only get a little work, I feel that I could stay sober." Gradually he finds out that if he approaches sobriety through work, the work isn't going to come and the sobriety may not come either. But, as soon as he says, "Once I become sober, work will come," the hope of success is much greater.

No Humility Without Humiliation

A.A. has helped me as a person and as a priest. A.A. has made my optimism greater. My hopelessness starts much later. Like anyone who has watched A.A. achieve its goals, I have seen dreams walk. You and I know that in the depths of humiliation we are in a natural area, and, rightly handled, especially is the inner spirit of that sixth step, I think we can almost expect the automatic fulfillment of God's promise to assist the humble. Where there is good will, there is almost an iron connection between humiliation and humility and God's help.

A.A. helps the priest in other matters than alcoholism, as the twelfth step indicates. I had a little exercise which will illustrate this point. It is a very small thing in itself, but I feel that it is a clear example of how A.A. work can help personally even a non-alcoholic priest.

Learning Not To Think About It

To obtain a greatly needed help which prayer alone didn't seem to bring, I thought of giving up smoking. I had failed to give it up, even though in retreat after retreat I had tried various plans to break off the habit. None of them seemed to work for long.

Then, thinking of A.A., I realized that I had seen men in that same boat who couldn't give up drinking. I realized that A.A. does not directly cause a man to quit drinking, but rather it causes him to quit thinking about drinking. Well, it seemed easier to give up thinking about smoking; but I didn't think I could do even that. I thought of A.A. novices saying, "I can't do it all my life. I can't do it all day. I can do it for maybe ten minutes." Inspired by the humble example of A.A. men, I said at that point to myself, "I won't try to quit smoking but I will, with God's help, postpone the thought of smoking for three minutes." That is a humiliating admission for a priest who tells others to give up much harder things.

From A.A. I learned to respect the little suffering of denying self the thought of a smoke and to pool that suffering with the sufferings of Christ, in the spirit of the sixth step. At that moment, like a breath of fresh air, came the thought of the widow and her mite and the importance which love can give to unimportant things. With humiliation came humility, and with humility came God's promised help. It is three or four years since I thought of myself smoking, and I have learned that you can't smoke if you don't think about smoking.

That is a little instance from among hundreds of the applications of A.A. principles. I have watched the most difficult personal situations which a priest faces yield to the A.A. twelve steps approach, even though no alcoholism was involved. Of course, Christ and His Passion came in encouragingly through the third and eleventh steps.

The remainder of this article (that addresses "Priest Membership in AA") can be found at