Spirituality Of Recovery by George Merrill


In the sixties I served as the Chaplain at Blue Hills Hospital, Connecticut’s cutting edge facility treating drug and alcohol dependent persons. I was a young priest and had recently completed graduate studies in psychotherapy and family counseling. I knew little about addictions, but I learned – I mostly began understanding spirituality.

I led groups. We’d sit in a circle. The chairs were hard, the folding ones commonly found in parish halls. One day there were fourteen of us, all men. Some members were new admissions, others recidivists. A third of the group suffered drug addiction. The others were alcoholics. (alcoholism is drug addiction, the substance of choice being alcohol.)

The discussion groups provided safe space, acceptance, and a forum for patients to air concerns and confront “stinkin’ thinkin’,” the chronic attitudes of resentment, self-denigration and/or grandiosity that feed the addictive process.

On this day, the subject settled on “relapses.” Frenchie was the center of the discussion. For years he’d been readmitted off and on for detox. Frenchie was a likeable guy. People took to him. He had a kind face, gentle eyes, and seemed shy and awkward – like an adolescent boy. He worked at lumbering in the Canadian forests. He made good money. He might stay sober anywhere from six months to a year.

One drug addict in the group, a street smart and perceptive young man, asked Frenchie a question in a friendly way. “Why, after almost a year sober, did you ‘fall off’?” “You had it made, man,” he went on, pressing for Frenchie’s story.

Frenchie smiled sheepishly, and told us he’d indeed been doing well. One night, on his way home, he walked by a bar and saw two or three people he knew. “I just went in to talk with them, I swear,” he said with a pleading look.

The cagy drug addict looked at Frenchie kindly, but skeptically and said: “ Hey, Frenchie, ain’t nobody goes into a whorehouse because he just wants to talk to the girls; know what I mean.”

The comment however confrontational was insightful and caring. Frenchie was being taken seriously and his denial challenged in a humorous way, from a peer – someone from whom he might be able to hear what he couldn’t from critical moralists.

Founders of AA had learned long ago that those whose lives have known brokenness, could be the most effective instruments in healing the brokenness of others. In so doing, the broken heal themselves.

Christian spirituality has two best-kept secrets: it seems they’re kept from most Christians: one is how in our weaknesses we find our strengths. The other is how God has deeper compassion for losers than winners. Consider how Jesus befriends Peter, who betrayed him; how St. Paul, a religious terrorist, becomes a Christian advocate; and how the thief on the cross crucified next to Jesus, Jesus promises to welcome in paradise that very day. Jesus did not schmooze the rich and famous. He had a feel for the people on the streets.

St. Paul discovered his strengths by facing his weaknesses. For me, and I suspect others, this is not always a welcome notion. Who wants to face their weaknesses, parts of their personalities that they find ugly (if we can even identify them)? A confrontation like that may drive us in either of two directions: deny the shortcomings and blame others for the alienation we’ve created among friends, family, spouses and employers. The other is to openly acknowledge whatever defects of character we have that are defeating us. Then undertaking the hard work to remove them. AA calls this step “taking a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The 12 Steps can serve as a universal guide to anyone interested in developing a spiritual practice. In my view, the 12 Steps touch most all the bases.

I’ve known fiercely religious people whose piety is hard-edged and critical. They’re always right and will grumble about “them” and “those” who may see things differently. We all know this as the “holier than thou” attitude. Recovering folk have a perceptive description of the man or woman who is now sober but just as insufferable and unreasonable as any drunk can be. They’ll say he’s a “dry drunk,” meaning that even though he’s stopped drinking, he’s the same unreasonable, defensive and self-defeating guy that he was when drinking.

I befriended a man about twenty years ago – I’ll call him Sonny. He’d been severely alcoholic and lost jobs and almost lost his family. He earned his sobriety slowly but steadily and was now actively working the 12th Step, reaching out to others to offer hope or help to anyone ready to receive it.

One day Sonny and I drank coffee. We talked about our lives. I shared some of the changes I’d seen in my life since the days at Blue Hills. Sonny looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, but straight faced he said, “George, it’s too bad you didn’t know me thirty years ago when I was drinking. I knew everything then and all you needed to do was ask me. I’d always have answers for you. Damn shame,” he mused as he shook his head mischievously; “I guess I’ve just lost my edge.” Humor lends a light touch to painful memories.

It’s been my experience that humorless people are often the least self aware, like many well meaning but self-righteous folk who once gave moral lecture’s to people desperately seeking help for their addictions. A sense of humor indicates the capacity to change where the situation warrants it. It reveals the capacity to live with loose ends without trying to precipitously tie them up to force conclusions. Humor is the reed that survives the storms because it is able to bend no matter from what direction the wind blows.

I studied spirituality in seminary. I discovered it at Blue Hills. I saw a spiritual practice that helped broken lives mend while offering hope to the hopeless. I also witnessed what for us Christians can be a hard truth to take on: that our strengths will be made perfect in our weaknesses.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Martha Suss says:

    Lovely observations. Thank you

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