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More on Suffering

September 6, 2012

In reflecting further upon the nature of alcoholism and recovery, there are certain parallels one may make between those conditions and the plight of the sinner turning towards repentance.  In both instances, the alcoholic and the sinner are encouraged to make self-referential statements that, on the surface, appear to be negative.  In AA, once one acknowledges one’s alcoholism, that person always introduces himself to the group by stating his name and his alcoholism: “I’m Bob and I’m an alcoholic”.  The sinner, in turn, is encouraged to pray the Jesus Prayer in which he introduces himself to the Lord’s presence concluding by identifying himself as a sinner: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”.  While there are crucial distinctions between a social introduction and inner prayer, between beginning with “I’m so and so” versus beginning with “Lord Jesus Christ,” as well as other differences I outline in chapter six of my book, still it is instructive to note that the founders of AA and the ancient fathers of the Church found it a positive step in the right direction to make such identifications that many moderns would reject, because such statements do not boost one’s self-esteem.  Both AA and the Church understand the value of making such declarations, because 1) they expose the truth one has come to recognize about oneself, 2) they acknowledge the need for help, and 3) they require humility, which is the antidote to pride, selfishness, and arrogance.

In chapter six of my book, I go to great pains to capture the distinctly different worlds of cognitive therapists and spiritual fathers.  AA and the Church are also distinctly different worlds. For the purposes of this blog post, one may with very broad brush strokes liken the AA recovery program to the cognitive therapy model in terms of how to cope with the problem of alcoholism, although AA not only defies the pigeon-holes of group therapy and practical spirituality, but also expressly does not promote or endorse any psychological program, theology or philosophy.  At the very beginning of the chapter, I note, “The background in our portrayal of the spiritual father is a liturgical setting oriented toward restoring a proper relationship with God, whereas the backdrop in our depiction of the cognitive therapist is a clinical setting concentrated on symptom improvement…If we interchange the structural, personal, or situational components of these pieces, our depictions portray neither cognitive therapists nor spiritual fathers, but instead foolish borrowers turned tragic debtors who in gaining little have lost everything.  If however, we look more closely at the level of discrete brushstrokes, similarities resurface such as the importance of questioning and assigning remedial tasks in the form of penance or homework.  Without altering either depiction, some sensible touch-up is possible.  For example, the therapist’s techniques of both framing questions in such a way as to receive a maximum amount of information and remaining focused on his therapeutic aim could be serviceable for the spiritual father questioning his spiritual child.  The spiritual father’s practice of gradually preparing the confessant before asking him about his struggles could also be employed by the therapist in order to foster a better relationship with his patient.”

It is precisely within this hermeneutic of “discrete brush strokes” that I write about the potential benefits for both the alcoholic and the sinner in making such self-referential statements.  From a behavioral standpoint, the alcoholic who finds the courage to publicly profess his alcoholism brings himself to a level of conscious self-awareness and accountability that allows him to continue the struggle.  In the context of spiritual healing in the Church, professing oneself to be a sinner in prayer leads the believer to yearn for the confession of sins in the holy mystery of confession.  “Saint Ambrose encourages the person preparing for confession with this exhortation: ‘The Lord knows all things, but he waits for your words, not in order to punish you, but to pardon you.’ And that pardon opens the way for a new life that the confessant recognizes by the profound humility that enters his soul and by the grace of the Holy Spirit present in the mystery of confession.  This in turn leads to a second kind of confession, the praise of God for his abundant goodness.  Saint Cyprian’s words about the martyrs who confessed Christ can be applied to the change possible for the sinner who confesses his sins:  ‘At the confession of a single voice, adverse things give way, joyous things appear, kingdoms are opened, empires are prepared, suffering is overcome, death is subdued, life is preferred, and weapons for resistance by a mischievous enemy are broken asunder.  If there is sin, it perishes, if there is crime, it is left behind.  For someone with faith, confession can change the very order of things, for when man confesses, God responds.”

While the differences should be obvious between the nature, purpose, and goals of the Church and Alcoholics Anonymous, both recognize the tremendous benefit in making such self-referential claims as “I’m an alcoholic” and “I’m a sinner”.  And for both, these statements do not make one gloomy, but full of hope. The alcoholic who says “I am an alcoholic” at an AA meeting is in the presence of other alcoholics who are sober and joyfully so. The sinner who says “I am a sinner,” finds himself  “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” Who rejoice in Christ, the Savior of their souls.  The professions, while qualitatively different, open wide vistas of opportunity for renewal and restoration.  Respectively, the Church and AA view sin and alcoholism as chronic diseases that call for lifetime treatment. For both, the first small, but absolutely crucial step, is a humble acknowledgment of the disease that consumes one’s very life and a desire for help in restoration to health.

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