Remember you have been in the ditch.
(Principle 17, The Women of Magdalene)
In their book Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart, the women of the Magdalene community, led by founder Becca Stevens, share some of their joy and pain. These are women who have survived lives of trafficking, prostitution, violence, abuse, and addiction. Inspired by the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, they have written down 24 principles to live by. Magdalene women support each other in many ways, including their shared work at Thistle Farms, a non-profit business run by them and other recovering women.
After my twenty-plus-years of recovery from alcoholism, these women's stories - their experience, strength and hope - have inspired me anew. Some have come to speak at churches I've served as a priest. Others have simply "loved up" on me when they see me. They are my sisters in recovery. (I've learned I can't have too many sisters or brothers in recovery - and in life.) Their meditation on Principle 17 begins, We do not share the same experiences, but we all have been in need sometime in our lives. We stay grateful for when someone lifted us out of the ditch and offered us food, clothing, or shelter. A Magdalene woman writes:
"My sister was rescued from a ditch. Her bus crashed while crossing over a bridge in Cameroon, Africa. She was going there to help teach and ended up being pulled from death by a kind stranger who happened to be traveling behind the bus. (I hope) I will never forget how quickly she went from being there as a helper to desperately needing the help of others. If I let myself have the luxury of contemplation, the image of my sister being pulled from the ditch leaves me forever grateful" (pp. 79-80).
I remember how my first sponsor saw me in an ecclesiastical ditch, pouring too much wine into the chalice for Communion. He knew about ditches, so he symbolically climbed down beside me and asked, "Do you have a drinking problem?" Over the years my sponsors, spiritual advisors and companions have, from time to time, seen me in a ditch, stopping to join me and to help me understand what kind of help I need.
Recently, I came to see how I need help, one more time. It happened after I retired from full-time ministry to my home town, living again near my father and other family members. Six months after I came home, Dad died. I realized soon afterward that I was angry for all kinds of reasons and with all kinds of people, places, and things. I asked my recovering friends which meetings they attended. But I didn't just get up and go to one. I was in a ditch, and I guess I felt fine, staying there for awhile.
Eventually, two of my biological sisters asked me to join them and our brother at an open AA meeting. (The four of us had never been to a meeting together.) I decided to get up out of my ditch. At that meeting I heard ditch stories. I heard people talk about times they had been in the ditch. I knew it was time for me, once again, to take
Step 3: to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, who gets into the ditch with me, if and when I ask - and sometimes, even when I don't.
Two other recovering women, in their devotional booklet Depending on the Grace of God, speak of Step 3 this way: "Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, we...become stranded beside the road, hoping and waiting for help to come along. Now we must ask God for roadside assistance" (p. 6).
To be honest, it's time for me, a professional helper, to ask for some roadside assistance. Again. And when I'm in a ditch so deep I can't seem to see my way out, hoping and waiting for help to come, I thank the God of my understanding for my sisters and brothers who give me help, even when I don't want it or think I really don't need it. I thank God, who helps me remember, again and again, how important ditches can be.