At my weekly AA gathering it is customary, after hearing the daily readings and instructions for our time together, to go around the circle and introduce ourselves and share our experiences and/or reflections on the literature, etc. This is pretty much standard practice in most meetings, I suppose. Last week I especially noticed how many participants began their allotted time by saying something like: “my name is _______ , and I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic, and thankful to be at a meeting tonight…”
Grateful. Thankful. What important words these are. Even more, what an important attitude. The Psalmist encourages and challenges us to offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in every situation: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” (Psalm 34:1) St. Paul advises the congregation in Ephesus: “Do not get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit…giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-20)
And the apostle Pauls’ parting words in his first letter to the Thessalonian believers seem to settle the matter: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)
At all times? For everything?
This has indeed been a struggle for me as I continue in recovery. What am I to do with all the wasted years given over to addiction, when my life, it seemed, was spinning out of control? Should I be thankful for all the grief and loss my family and I have endured in the past? And what about the present? Should I be grateful when there is a temptation to relapse? Should my first response to challenging circumstances like these really be to simply give thanks, or to fight- to make holy war on the disease that has robbed me of so much? I must confess my first inclination is to fight.
Here’s where Step One of the AA Twelve Steps can be a source of wisdom and encouragement to us:
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
I have a pastor friend, a mentor, whom I’ve known for over thirty years. He concludes all his letters to me not with a “sincerely yours” or “be blessed!” but with the command, “stay weak!” This is truth that is counterintuitive; none of us wants to be weak. We want to be capable, self-reliant, powerful, certainly not weak. Yet this is exactly what Christ became:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Father Richard Rohr, in his thoughtful book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, observes: “What humiliated and wounded addict cannot look on the image of the crucified Jesus and see himself or herself? Who would not rush toward surrender and communion with such a crucified God, who against all expectations, shares in our powerlessness, our failure, and our indignity? Who would not find himself revealed, renamed, and released inside of such a God?”
A suffering Savior? Inconceivable to the first-century mind. A scandal, and utter foolishness to most, says St. Paul; the majority prefer their deity to be invulnerable, powerful.
Yet those of us who have been slaves to addiction are continually invited to fall into the arms of the one who himself became a slave; the one who gladly gave up his privilege and position in order to forever redeem us from the powers of sin and death – and addiction.
I’m convinced, too, that giving thanks and daring to rejoice in our powerlessness is a spiritual discipline. It’s a valuable thing to go around the circle at meetings and echo the words “I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic…” It’s like the words of the liturgy; you hear it, and repeat it enough times and eventually it seeps down into your soul and ultimately you believe it. This is important work. Gratitude is an attitude, yes; but it’s also something we must practice. If you really want to learn something, you practice. As a musician, I know this. Scales and arpeggios. Arpeggios and scales. Played over and over until they become a part of you, until they are literally hardwired. Continually acknowledging God’s care for us and his presence, even in the midst of our pain, reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles. Moreover, giving thanks also reminds us that even the most hopeless circumstances and wounds are redeemable, and can be occasions for grace. Julian of Norwich wrote:
“First the fall. Then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God.”
Be grateful. Give thanks. It won’t always be easy.
And stay weak!
Fr. Richard W.