Sunday, July 4, 2010

Step 3: The abandonment of will (Last post on this, I promise!)

It seems as if I really can't shut up when it comes to Step 3! Here it is again:

"3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

I searched on my own keywords above - "abandonment of will" - and found some pretty interesting and varied references: to the mystic Marguerite Porete; to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; to Epictetus; to "critical literary thinking"; to St. Clare; to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Here's the reference to Porete, from a 1994 book titled Mystical Languages of Unsaying by Michael Anthony Sells:
The first relation between the performance of apophasis and its context centers upon will. Porete's Dame Amour speaks of the soul-annihilated-in-love as giving up her will entirely. She no longer wills to do or refrain from doing anything for God. The context of that statement is the transition from the fourth stage, the stage of works, to the fifth and sixth stages of mystical union. The seven-stage pattern of ascent is kataphatic and directional. Each stage leads to a higher stage, and no stage can be skipped. The abandonment of will takes place in the context of the striving to do good works and to follow the divine will. It is from within that striving that the soul realizes the apophatic aporia of desire, that even the desire to do good works or follow the divine will contains an egoism that must be given up in order to arrive at the fifth station of annihilation. At the moment of abandonment of the self, of will, and of works, Dame Amour tells us, the deity (as trinity, Dame Amour, or FarNear) will work within the soul.

I've posted before about Porete on this blog; she was a Flemish mystic - perhaps a "Beguine," a lay sister - born in the 13th Century, and burned at the stake for heresy by the Church in 1310.

"The soul-annihilated-in-love"! Well, maybe it's a good thing that this Step is only about "making a decision," then; my soul at that point was in a state of annihilation, all right - but definitely not from love! Interesting, actually, that the "abandonment of will" for A.A.s comes very soon in the Step program - and quite far along in the "seven stages of mystical union" (where one would actually predict it might come, in fact). I'm sure that's because A.A. can't afford to be just messing around; it's an emergency situation, and "abandonment of will" is not something that can be allowed to just "happen" someplace down the road - a start has to be made right away.

IOW, we have to come to a decision about this fairly soon in sobriety, and begin the process of "turning our will and life" over to God.

Here's the introduction to the "long version" of this Step, from the little book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions":
Practicing Step Three is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still closed and locked. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness. Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself, and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: "This is the way to a faith that works." In the first two Steps we were engaged in reflection. We saw that we were powerless over alcohol, but we also perceived that faith of some kind, if only in A.A. itself, is possible to anyone. These conclusions did not require action; they required only acceptance. Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God--or, if you like, a Higher Power--into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing. We can have faith, yet keep God out of our lives. Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in? Step Three represents our first attempt to do this. In fact, the effectiveness of the whole A.A. program will rest upon how well and earnestly we have tried to come to "a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." To every worldly and practical-minded beginner, this Step looks hard, even impossible. No matter how much one wishes to try, exactly how can he turn his own will and his own life over to the care of whatever God he thinks there is? Fortunately, we who have tried it, and with equal misgivings, can testify that anyone, anyone at all, can begin to do it. We can further add that a beginning, even the smallest, is all that is needed. Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more. Though self-will may slam it shut again, as it frequently does, it will always respond the moment we again pick up the key of willingness.

Clearly, clearly: "Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God--or, if you like, a Higher Power--into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing."

Self-will is the problem, and willingness is the solution. Developing willingness, that is; action. The next part of the Step (you can read the whole thing here) is this:
Maybe this all sounds mysterious and remote, something like Einstein's theory of relativity or a proposition in nuclear physics. It isn't at all. Let's look at how practical it actually is. Every man and woman who has joined A.A. and intends to stick has, without realizing it, made a beginning on Step Three. Isn't it true that in all matters touching upon alcohol, each of them has decided to turn his or her life over to the care, protection, and guidance of Alcoholics Anonymous? Already a willingness has been achieved to cast out one's own will and one's own ideas about the alcohol problem in favor of those suggested by A.A. Any willing newcomer feels sure A.A. is the only safe harbor for the foundering vessel he has become. Now if this is not turning one's will and life over to a newfound Providence, then what is it? But suppose that instinct still cries out, as it certainly will, "Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence. Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep on turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else, what will become of me? I'll look like the hole in the doughnut." This, of course, is the process by which instinct and logic always seek to bolster egotism, and so frustrate spiritual development. The trouble is that this kind of thinking takes no real account of the facts. And the facts seem to be these: The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are. Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.

So: can the church learn something from all this? It seems to me that accommodation has been made here especially for alcoholics; abandonment of will needs to come quite early in the process, because otherwise the alcoholic will die. It's an extreme measure for people who are sick; for mystics, it's a "stage" on the way to "union."

Which says something, doesn't it?  First, that "abandonment of will" is possible earlier than mystics may suppose; second, that A.A. makes this a matter of conscious effort - something on which the alcoholic must "take action."

I don't think the Church says much about this at all, in fact - let alone making it a key part of the life of faith.  We are told, instead either that the Christian life is about "good works" or that it's about being "justified by grace through faith."  Neither of which really addresses the issue that Step 3 attempts to address, which is (in A.A's memorable phrase) the problem of "self-will run riot."  And both of which actually may encourage the Christian in her "I'm the center of the universe" thinking - exactly the problem in the first place!

Suppose the church did start to discuss "abandonment of will," though?  It's a thought, isn't it?

No comments: