Saturday, June 16, 2012

"All may, none must, some should...."

When I first started going to church, a little over 10 years ago, I decided there were two possibilities for me:  Quaker Meeting and the Episcopal Church.  To explain a little:  A.A. encourages its members to return - or go for the first time - to regular worship in church (or temple, or mosque, or whatever your tradition is or is to be).  A.A. is really designed primarily to help the newcomer - as it most definitely should be - and while the Steps are good for a lifetime, A.A. recognizes that the spiritual lives of its long-time members need tending in a different way.  That's how I read the suggestion, anyway - and besides that, A.A. has one "primary purpose:  To stay sober, and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety."  It was never designed to be anything else - and it never lets itself get distracted from that primary purpose.

Gay folks at that time had only a few options, if we really wanted to be in church for the sake of our spiritual lives.  I'd known a gay Episcopalian who'd told me that "conscience" was important in her church, and that gay people were not hounded; I had remembered this.  And, I had a few gay friends who belonged to a local Episcopal Church where there was an A.A. meeting I went to sometimes.  BTW, the immediate impetus for my return to church was 9/11; I'm one of those who went back to church in those days, and one of the few I know who stayed long-term.

Quakerism made immediate sense to me; meetings look pretty much like any A.A. meeting you'd see anywhere - well, except for the long silences!   But I understood that, too; I was perfectly happy in silence, partly because I was used to  meditation.  I didn't know what people were supposed to feel or think as they shared a "leading," and I never did share one myself.  I still don't know the answer to that question, in fact.

I had more trouble with the Episcopal thing; I didn't know any of the theology (even though as a child I went to Methodist services, and was even confirmed in that church - although I never went back after my Confirmation).  I had never heard of the Trinity, for instance - or at least, it had never penetrated my consciousness.    I didn't know what the Council of Nicea was, or when it had happened, or why it was important.  I knew nothing about the history of the church at all, let alone the Anglican church.  I'd always been moved by the story of Christ, though - every part of it that I knew about, that is.  The Nativity story had always impressed me; it was clear to me even then that it was a tale about God being "in the midst of us," - and coming to world in utter lowliness.  I had always been terrified - in a mystical, mysterium tremendum way! - by Good Friday; it seemed clear even to somebody who never, ever went to church and didn't even know what Christianity actually taught that something of earth-shattering importance had happened on that day.

Anyway, I hung around Anglican/Episcopal websites and chat boards so that I could learn more about what was going on.  (I hung around Quaker chat boards, too - and met a Catholic guy there who loved Quaker meetings.  He was frustrated, though, that nobody ever shared a leading about Jesus; it was always about war.  People join the Quakers because they are pacifists, of course - and it was right after 9/11.)

One thing I heard on the A/E websites and boards was this, about Confession:  "All may, none must, some should."

Now, coming from my background in A.A., it was immediately clear to me that many,  if not most, people will, in our usual self-justifying modus operandi, look at that third clause - "some should" - and assume it's simply referring to "somebody else."  (A.A. puts it this way, in the Fourth Step:  
We also clutch at another wonderful excuse for avoiding an inventory. Our present anxieties and troubles, we cry, are caused by the behavior of other people--people who really need a moral inventory. We firmly believe that if only they'd treat us better, we'd be all right. Therefore we think our indignation is justified and reasonable--that our resentments are the "right kind." We aren't the guilty ones. They are!')   
 We, that is, cannot possibly be the people referred to in the "some should" clause; we clearly belong in "none must."

But this the natural way to react to that statement, I think.  A.A.'s Step 1 asks, rhetorically:
Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.'s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn't care for this prospect--unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself.

"Staying alive" is, certainly, pretty important.  But then you become aware that there is much, much more going on than that.  Living "one day at a time," for instance, turns out to be a spectacular idea, just by itself - one that for some reason is really rather difficult, and one from which everybody can benefit.  In fact, it turns out to be an important and basic idea for living - one that mystics from all traditions have discovered on their own.

And the real truth is:  this is the way.  "Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery...."  This is the way to the subjugation of the ego - and thus the surprising, indirect way to a "spiritual awakening":
It is when we try to make our will conform with God's that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation. Our whole trouble had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God's intention for us. To make this increasingly possible is the purpose of A.A.'s Twelve Steps, and Step Three opens the door.

Once we have come into agreement with these ideas, it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done."
There may, actually, be another way or ways - but I don't know anything about them.  I know this way, though; I know the Steps are, at least, a way - and that they are a great way.  I know that the Steps derive specifically from religious practices - and that we can, in fact, point to Christian religious ideas and practices that line up with each one, too. 

It's a good thing to remove compulsion from religion, I think; that's what "All may, none must, some should...." is an attempt to do.  It eliminates the possibility of empty, hollow practice devoid of real meaning; it eliminates the problem of resentment towards the institution that demands certain practices and behaviors.

The problem is that it doesn't take human nature into much account; it doesn't account for our very ordinary tendency to self-justification.  It assumes that we already understand the value of Confession, and will eagerly participate in it, if we should.   I don't see that happening, though - and honestly, I don't know why anybody would do these things on their own.  After all,  who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done?  Practically nobody.

They need to be offered as a way to a far better way of living.  I don't think we can do much more than offer them  - but I think we should absolutely do so.   I think we should talk about these things far more than we do; the Book of Common Prayer exists to help us, not to constrain us (although sometimes it's a help to be constrained!). A.A.'s fifth Step says:
This practice of admitting one's defects to another person is, of course, very ancient. It has been validated in every century, and it characterizes the lives of all spiritually centered and truly religious people. But today religion is by no means the sole advocate of this saving principle. Psychiatrists and psychologists point out the deep need every human being has for practical insight and knowledge of his own personality flaws and for a discussion of them with an understanding and trustworthy person.
In A.A., the Steps are pointedly called "Suggestions"; they are "suggestions," though, that alcoholics, sooner or later, learn we really need to take, since staying sober without them is just an unpleasant, difficult, "white-knuckle" experience - if it succeeds at all.   And even if it does - it's merely "staying alive," rather than "living."

If we want to offer something to people that simply doesn't exist elsewhere, we're going to have to start pointing these things out, and encouraging their use.   What we offer is a system that people can make use of for their own health and benefit - because we believe that "bringing our wills and lives into agreement with God's intention for us" is a benefit to us, because it's a source of joy, and the true telos of human existence.  This system is based on a particular set of ideas and understandings about the world, and we have a 2,000-year-old tradition that elaborates and expands upon these ideas, and how these practices work within it.   

It's true that professional therapy can be, in fact, very valuable, too.   So how about if we point to the process itself, and explain its value?    "All may, none must, some should...." in practice leaves people right where they are, without the chance for healing, or spiritual progress, or an attempt to move towards "Christian maturity," or much of anything else.  (Never mind that it sounds more like an invitation to a society event than like a spiritual discipline or practice - or, as it is in A.A., a lifeline to sanity and health.)

Is leaving people on their own spiritually, without a chance to move to something more and better, what we're about?  I sure hope not....

No comments: