The Malvern Center hosts six meetings a day, from “Wake-Up” every day at 6:30 am to Friday’s Midnighters Meeting. 100,000-plus times a year, an alcoholic, addict or an anon-family member crosses the threshold. Its walls are laden with framed posters of the steps and traditions, slogans, and pictures of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Behind the speaker’s desk, prominent among the helpful, hopeful clutter, is a wooden plaque: “Whatever the question… LOVE is the Answer / In memory of Leonard C.” Many remember Leonard, now long passed, and his mantra encourages and inspires his successors.
Like the mute and immutable posters and pictures, the plaque fades into the background. Occasionally noted by a speaker, by and large the sign is just a touchstone for wandering attention. Yet, like water etching a canyon, its message penetrates the intellect, the emotions, the soul.
“Whatever the question…” So many questions arise in recovery. They are shape-shifters, evolving as we progress from newfound sobriety through its adolescence, adulthood and into maturity. The dragons of our addiction grow as they sleep, our character defects and shortcomings adapt with our changing stations and circumstances. As we advance, perhaps even as we stumble, our questions acquire nuance or veiled implications, or launch from new and unpredictable premises. We question our questions.
As a fledgling consultant, my boss advised: “the answer is always, ‘what is the question?’.” Presuming “love” to be the answer implies the need for sharply defined questions. We must be willing to seek, face and embrace rigorous inquiry. One of the great gifts of twelve-step recovery in combination with our faith is finding the safety to tackle ambiguous, penetrating, ugly questions. In his memoir, the actor Rob Lowe1 encourages us to “face your ugly secrets and inner conflicts.” That only happens from a foundation of trust in the setting, in our companions and counselors, and a conviction of the value of both the need and the opportunity to consider every fear, misapprehension, distortion and fantasy that lures or goads us into the dead ends of our addictions. Trust is the gateway to truths that are camouflaged, buried and locked inside. Some yield handily, but most we must pry out, and a great many we must wait out over the course of years and decades. It is solitary work that cannot be done alone. Trusted and trustworthy voices around us call out the truth within us.
When Philip summoned him to Christ, Nathaniel dismissively said, “what good can come out of Nazareth?”. Yet, trusting his friend, Nathaniel went and was greeted by Christ as “a true Israelite, in whom there can be nothing false.”2 Nathaniel, a student of Torah, an honest skeptic and trusting companion, came to believe in Christ’s power to redefine every premise, shape every question and resolve it all in the great commandment: “Love One Another.3”
Leonard’s signature maxim arises from profound questions that are courageously met and reconciled in the trusting community of recovering people. On November 13th, 1985 my first sponsor, John, inscribed my pocket-sized Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “This little book will provoke a lifetime of questions, and the answers to a lifetime of questions”. Christ, Leonard and John agree that the answer to all of them is love.
1 Love Life, Rob Lowe, Simon & Schuster 2015
2 John 1:45-49
3 John 13:34