This is a little late in coming, but when I wanted to write, superstition did not allow it. Let me explain. This post is based on a lead* I gave at an AA meeting a little while ago. I was tumbling it around a week or so before the lead and I really wanted to write, but alas no. My silly rule about giving a lead is that it can’t be written down. Somehow it makes it less genuine. Like I said superstitious, but here it is.
*A lead for those you who don’t know is a testimony at an AA meeting, discussing one’s sobriety, how it happened and what part AA played in that process.
First off I should say this is going to be a discussion of faith. More precisely how my faith has evolved, especially while I’ve been sober. It wasn’t what I bargained for to say the least. I kind of missed it the first few 100 times I read the Big Book, but it clearly states on page 45, “the point of this book is to get you in touch with a higher power.” To be completely honest I walked into AA looking to stop hurting, not to mention the drinking and drug use. The discussion of faith however, starts before I entered AA.
I came of age as a post-Vatican II Catholic. I mention that because it was a Catholic school experience very different than a generation before me and it’s why I take with a grain of salt anyone my age or younger who talks about the brutality/sadistic/horrible experience of Catholic school. That’s not to say abuse and horrible things didn’t (and still) occur to my fellow parochial alums, but that just wasn’t my experience. This was the time of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. I had a lot of guitar playing nuns who constantly told me how cool Jesus was and that He and God loved me, unconditionally. And there was the sticking point. I never was told about a vengeful God, an angry God, any of that stuff. I got to listen to “Day by Day” and contemplate a loving, personal God and I couldn’t believe it. That’s what it came down to, really. I just didn’t believe in a God that loved me without any conditions. By the time I reached high school I had no faith, no belief that God was there. Ultimately it came down to the feeling that since I wasn’t really worthy of this grace, since I was an awful person who was undeserving of such grace I simply gave up on the whole business of religion and faith.
The feelings of self-loathing and the poor self-image that I held of myself only intensified while I was in college. The lack of any faith was occasionally troubling, but I didn’t do much about it. I also didn’t get the correlation between my spiritual void and my drinking that intensified greatly during my college years. Once in a while I tried to get in touch with a more spiritual experience, but it usually involved smoking a great deal of pot, listening to the Beatles (only the heavy sitar stuff) and falling asleep. I also spent a few afternoons on Bong (no really) Hill (stoned, drunk and sober) looking for some kind of connection to something greater, but even more poignant a greater connection to my friends. Not that it should come as a surprise, none of this worked. What made this even more ineffective was that the social aspects of drinking and drug use weren’t effective anymore. I tried to keep the party going, but in reality I just didn’t feel the same. More to the point if I’m being completely honest, the reasons why I was drinking and smoking pot had changed. It wasn’t an attempt to fit in any longer; it was about turning off my mind. I was completely miserable. From the time I woke up until the time I passed out, all I wanted to do was take the edge off, to get to a place of numbness. More than anything, again being completely honest, the main reason I quit drinking was that it wasn’t accomplishing that task anymore. Even when I couldn’t remember, others would remind me (more like inform me) about the night before. Calling people in a rage or a depressive stupor is not a place of numbness maybe for me but definitely not for the people on the other end of the phone. The ultimate end came when I had alienated all of my friends, continued to try and use drinking and drugs to find some peace and couldn’t, and ruminated about suicide, day and night, drunk and (rarely) sober. I literally walked into AA not wanting to die, either by my own hand or something stupid like choking on my own vomit. Considering I vomited every night I drank (with or without knowing it) it was a real possibility.
That first meeting is shadowy and in focus all at the same time. I got to the church basement and saw two guys talking. They were having what seemed to be a pleasant conversation. When I listened a little closer, I was certain that I was screwed. Actually, I remember my exact thought, “I’m fucked.” These two gentlemen were talking about being born-again. By this time my feelings toward organized religion were pretty harsh, particularly when it came to evangelicals and born again Christians. I remember sitting there just feeling hopeless, frightened and a little pissed off that this was what AA had to offer. A few more folks came into the basement and the meeting got started. The chair asked if anyone had a topic. One of the born-again guys raised his hand and thank God he did. It may have saved my life. He said, “Since we have a new comer I think we need to talk about AA and all this god bullshit.” Two minutes ago he was singing the praises of being born again, now it’s god bullshit? OK, got my attention; and that is about all I remember from that meeting. That born-again guy, who’s name is Fred, became my first sponsor in AA and has been one of the greatest blessings I’ve had in the program. We didn’t talk a lot about God after that first meeting, but when it came up I never felt put upon to believe a certain way or think a certain way; as a matter of fact Fred usually only referred to God as HP.
HP was about all I could handle and in its most basic sense. I’ve known a lot of people who have used the group as their higher power and I was no exception. I did, however, take it to an extreme. Basically, not only did I think there was wisdom in the group that I couldn’t come to on my own, but they were a power greater than me because there was no way that I could beat them all up. Yes, believing that twenty guys could kick my ass kept me sober for months. Of course “the group can kick my ass” method of faith wasn’t exactly the most fulfilling of spiritual avenues so something eventually took its place. I wasn’t quite ready for organized religion or God in any traditional sense but I did feel a pull toward something outside of myself, a tree. After about six months of sobriety I prayed to a tree outside of my window. To be fair it was one big tree, about six stories high and really it served an important purpose, I was praying.
Praying to a tree worked out pretty well. I wasn’t drinking, I was pretty connected to AA but that spiritual longing was still there. Probably the biggest shift to occur during this time was that feeling of worthiness that I had always lacked was beginning to surface. I can’t completely say that the tree managed that trick, but it didn’t hurt. What really made me feel like a child of God were my friends in AA. Quite frankly, my friends in the program wanted me to stay sober, helped me stay sober and were a part of my life in a meaningful way. It was from that core of people, young people in AA around East Lansing MI, that coming to believe, not only in a power greater than myself, but in a being that actually cared for me happened. They were proof that there were beings that cared for me. I remember walking across campus one night after coffee and I just started talking to God. It was the easiest prayer I ever did and I repeated many times across Michigan State’s campus during my time there. By the time I left Michigan I definitely felt a connection to something beyond my understanding yet as close as breathing. (Thanks to Lord Tennyson via Jimmy Hodges for that last one.)
I was five years sober when I left Michigan and made my way to the great midwestern metropolis, Chicago. Prayer was still working but toward the end of my time in Michigan I began investigating organized religion, or reinvestigating. I wasn’t going to go back to Catholicism. It just had too much baggage for me and there were so many things about the church I just didn’t agree with. So, I looked into Judaism, Greek Orthodox, Baha’i, and I did wander back to a Catholic mass. Nothing seemed to fit though. I was trying to find that place like AA where I felt comfortable, where I felt home. Slowly the conclusion came to me that home was in a Catholic church, but not the modern-style church that I went to in Lansing. Nope the first mass I attended in Chicago was about as high church as you could get, Christmas at Holy Name Cathedral. After that mass I knew a traditional looking and sounding church was a key to the whole experience for me, but I still had my doubts about the Church and how exactly I belonged.
It was at this point a touch of fate took place. I moved to my current neighborhood of Edgewater and I was two blocks from a great old church, St. Gertrude’s. I started attending mass there and was immediately taken by the Pastor, Father Bill Kenneally. Father Bill was beyond liberal in his thinking but was such an obvious man of faith that it was amazing to see how he put his beliefs into words and as I investigated the parish, I saw those beliefs put into action. I decided I should talk to Father Bill about my faith, my reluctance to fully commit to the Church and what exactly I should do. We met in the living room of the rectory and much like my first AA meeting it is clear and hazy all at the same time. The most important thing Father Bill told me that evening is something that I still think about when I ponder my faith. He said that faith is the belief and feeling that God holds you. To this day I have this image of simply being embraced by God in the most loving and tender of ways. Everything else Father Bill said, was just practice and community. It is great to share one’s faith, but as long as that feeling and belief are there it doesn’t matter how one expresses it. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I guess I was expecting more of a “Church is a necessary part of faith” kind of talk and instead it was a simple and profound message that was more welcoming than even the kindest greeting at the doors of a church on Sunday.
Since that time I’ve become a more devout Catholic than I could have ever possibly imagined. I’m a Eucharistic minister, I attend faith meetings, I volunteer at parish functions and I feel like a part of the community. I know a lot of member of the congregation and something that still surprises me, they know me (and my kids!) I’ve explored the Gospel and can honestly say that my life has been enriched by my relationship with and understanding of Jesus. I have become that born-again guy before the meeting. Even so, that simple message of faith that feeling of being held by God has never left me, even in some very trying times.
I don’t make as many AA meeting as I once did, and sometimes a big breakfast with the family wins out over going to mass, but I still feel connected, I still have a faith that is stronger than I ever thought possible. I don’t preach or talk much about it, but it is my earnest hope that I’m living a life of faith and that is in some way helpful to my friends and loved ones. If I am an example of a sober, faithful person, a person who brings God’s presence into the world, even in a small way, then I’ve done more in my life than anything I imagined while I was drinking. I’m humbled and grateful to AA for giving me the gift of faith. I hope I continue to share it with everyone, especially those that I love and care about. May God bless and keep you my friends.