Monday, January 21, 2013

The "A.A. Promises"

Here's another section from the book Alcoholics Anonymous that often gets read at the start of meetings - although it really probably shouldn't be read outside its context.

Chapter 6, "Into Action," describes in some detail the process of working through each Step.  The following  "Promises" come at the end of the description of the 9th Step, the final "clearing away the wreckage of the past" Step:
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them. (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 83-84)

You can understand why this does get read, though; it's to give people who've totally messed up their lives some reasons for hope that it can and will at some point get better.

My point in posting this here is simple:  the church should really think through and write out something like this, since at this point people are mostly completely unaware of the benefits of Christianity, and think it's only about "rules" and "morality."

Well, "morality" is and always has been only a means to an end:  human flourishing.   This is why, in Psalm 119, the psalmist can say:  "Lord, how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day."   When what might seem to be a mere duty is instead a joy, it's because it means freedom and a better way of life.

Would anybody really want to join up with a group just to follow what may seem to be an arbitrary set of "rules"?  I can't imagine anybody would.  But to learn a new a way of life that has results like those described above?   That might indeed interest people.  I actually agree with Derek when he describes "the complacent conscience" - although I would put it differently, I think.  Perhaps I'd just use the same words Derek himself uses later on in that same post:  "a yet more excellent way awaits."  The problem, I think, is that people just don't know about this.

I don't disagree with him, either, that "effort and action" are important in that process; in fact, that's exactly what the Steps are about - and that's exactly what it says up there in that second paragraph.  The Steps are indirect methods of addressing the things that block and stunt us and keep us from becoming free.  Nobody can "be more compassionate" on command or just because they want to - but we can get there by stripping away our delusions about ourselves, and thus recognizing how subject we all are to delusion and self-deceit.  We can learn to forgive others by recognizing where we've been  wrong - that we need forgiveness ourselves. 

As they say in A.A.:  it's an inside job.   Luckily, they say this in the monasteries, too; remember when we were talking about "Christian adepts"?  Here's what Sr. Heléna Marie, CHS, has to say about that in "What the Religious Life Is and Is Not" (my bolding below, in the parts I want to pick out especially):
Coming to a religious life may seem like the ultimate escape: a serene, untroubled life of continuous prayer and withdrawal from the stresses and distractions of the fast-paced worldly life. On some level, conscious or not, it may also seem like a place where one can hide out, not only from the world and its difficult people, but also from one's self and one's problems. It may seem like an ideal retirement community, or like a kind of sorority of sisters (or fraternity of brothers) who all get along and have a good time together. One may think it will be a place of solitude where the nitty-gritty of daily relationships will have been left behind, or a place of last resort: "Nothing else in my life has really worked out; maybe this will." Even in our more enlightened times, one may have the classic notion that it is the place to which you go after a failed romance: "I guess I'll just have to take myself to a monastery."

The religious life is none of these.

It is not an escape. It is a terribly realistic life in which you find yourself unable to escape from others, from the problems of the world, and from yourself. The outlets normal to life in the world are largely unavailable here, so you are up against the difficulties which surface without the ability to distract yourself in extraneous pursuits that may previously have helped you avoid them.

It is not a place to hide from others nor from yourself. Whatever you have found difficult in others in the past, you will find difficult here. Every character flaw that drove you crazy in others before you entered will drive you crazy here, too, except that here you are living twenty-four hours a day with those who have them! Nor will you be able to hide from whatever in yourself you would rather not face. The formation process in community will naturally bring out those aspects of yourself which might prefer to remain hidden. Your shadow will become apparent to you (as it has probably always been apparent to others), and you will have to face it, accept it, and eventually own it as a creative part of yourself. As Brother Clark Berge, SSF, says: "The religious life is no way to hide from problems. If you try to hide, they will find you out."

It is not a serene, untroubled lifestyle. A monastery schedule is demanding, and the day-to-day life is characterized by many of the same troubles and obligations one finds in the world: leaky plumbing, daily meals to be cooked, difficult people, short nights, the demands of ministry and daily work, and so on. It is not a place to retire. Religious basically do not retire. If comfortable retirement is what you seek, you would be better off not to enter the religious life. Members of religious communities contribute in whatever ways they can as long as they live.

It is also not a place to come for physical care as the body begins to wear out. Of course we care for our older members, and for those who have physical ailments, but most orders are careful not to admit members who either seek this kind of care from the outset or show signs of needing physical care soon.

It is not a college club. We do try to get along, but it would be a mistake to join a religious community for the purpose of finding acceptance within a community of men and/or women.

It may not be a life with long, uninterrupted periods of prayer. In fact, you may be surprised to find that you seen to have less time for individual prayer and meditation than before you entered. The demands of community and ministry make a constant schedule of long periods of prayer in solitude impossible. We do have much prayer in our lives (several periods of corporate prayer a day, an hour or two for individual meditation, and silent prayer undergird our actions throughout the day). However, if you are looking for hours on end of private time for prayer, you will not find it in most religious communities.

It is not a place of last resort. It is a common notion that women (in particular) join a religious order because there are no other options available; that they cannot find a life partner, cannot succeed in a career, do not have the intelligence and competence to do anything other than come to the monastery. On the contrary, the religious life is full of women and men who are highly competent and intelligent, and who bring extraordinary gifts to community and to the service of God. Similarly, it is not a good idea to join a religious community because you feel that nothing else in your life has worked and that the religious life is your last viable option. One joins to give all that one is and has, from fullness rather than from lack of other choices.

It is not a place to come on the rebound from a failed romance or marriage. It is necessary to work through the emotions generated from a failed relationship before entering the community. The religious life is not a salve for a broken heart (nor a punishment for having failed). The religious life is the ultimate form of surrender. One brings all that one is and all that one has to God in a gesture of complete giving. It is a way of "coming to the desert". Like the desert mothers and fathers of the early Christian era, joining a religious community is a countercultural move away from mainstream culture and mores, to a radical lifestyle that flies in the face of societal values.

It is a way of saying that your life is now devoted to the One Thing (however you would define this; Jesus called it "the pearl of great price"). It is a life centered in prayer; this basic orientation is one of the ways in which we are countercultural.

It is community with all that means: difficult people, the "sandpaper effect" of challenging relationships, having to change when the impulse is not to change, and the joys of relationships and corporate life. It is a way of life designed to help one transcend the ego, which does not willingly go. This path involved intense struggle. The religious life is itself a vehicle of radical transformation.

It is a form of service to God and the world. Through worship and our different forms of ministry, we seek to serve. It is a combination of the ancient and the modern. It is an evolving organism. Most communities are in a state of constant evolution; one is best served knowing this before entering.

It is a place wherein one grows in the ability to love—the heart of the religious life. Brothers and sisters are a prophetic voice within the church, calling the church out of complacency and adherence to conventional wisdom and practice, and into a more challenging and radical living out of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

This section is the one that's key, to me:  "It is a way of life designed to help one transcend the ego, which does not willingly go. This path involved intense struggle. The religious life is itself a vehicle of radical transformation."

And so:  "the complacent conscience" has plenty of work to do.  A hankering after "The Promises" - whatever they happen to be for the church - combined with a path that "involves intense struggle"-  are quite enough to occupy a person for a lifetime.

But I do think that "the Promises" need to be fleshed out and enumerated, because it seems to me that people are unaware of all of this now.  Most people aren't seeking "mystical experience" for its own sake anymore - because, I would imagine, the church doesn't let people know it's available or possible.   They're not seeking "enlightenment" for much the same reason; nobody's aware anymore that it's an option - and rules for rules' sake seems just plain nuts.  Which of course it is.

The spiritual life and mystical experience are, though - as Evelyn Underhill wrote - available to anybody.  Whatever the church works out may not be quite the same as what you find in the monastery - but it does exist.

And it's all about the inner person.  The church needs to make people aware that this is its remit;  that "the Promises" exist, and that everybody can seek after them.

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