"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....
We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves."
The Big Book
As I examine the events in my life over the past few years, I find that it is hard to give a proper accounting. So much has happened in such a short period of time and my memory these days is like the box of threads I keep in my sewing kit. Over time, and through neglect, the contents have become tangled and jumbled, and picking them apart is no small task. Some threads are brighter than others, however, and today I'm going to pull them out and try to explain what they mean to me.
Recovery is where it all started. I am a member of a 12-step program which has a strong tradition of anonymity. This means that I am not to "out" myself as a member or discuss anything that happens in the meetings. Nonetheless, from what I have said, I am sure that many of you are familiar with the program and know more or less how it works.
How did I end up in such a group? Well, I had struggled to control my drinking for many years. Whatever my best intentions, it always seemed that I would start drinking at a pot (cocktail) or in a lovely Parisian bar with friends, and couldn't stop. "Just one (or two)" didn't seem apply to me and I always drank more than I intended to with predictable results. This went on for years as I exercised "control" by setting limits and not drinking at all for long periods. This allowed me to function and I was able to progress in my career and raise a family. But it was a struggle and a lot of my energy was wasted in those little games we alcoholics play with ourselves to justify our drinking. Then something changed (and I have no idea what made me tip). Not matter how often I resolved not to drink that day, that weekend, that week, I would inevitably find myself with a glass of wine in my hands well before the sun was over the yardarm. I could not not drink to get through my day, and when I realized that, I was terrified.
To make a long story short, I tried to stop and couldn't. I could not imagine a life without wine, the magic potion that made me (I thought) witty, smart and fun to be around. It gave me confidence and fueled my creativity. How could I think and write, I thought, if I can't drink anymore? Such is the grandiosity and confusion of the alcoholic. In my fuddled mind, I seem to have confused myself with Hemingway or Hitchens.
It was only when I finally came to a point of such deep despair and desperation, and realized that I might actually die if I didn't stop drinking, that I finally contacted that organization in Paris and started going to meetings. The support, the tools, and the experiences of other alcoholics made it possible for me to stop for good. I'll be picking up yet another chip (a small coin that indicates how long a person has been sober) at a meeting in late June.
In the Big Book of this organization, there are what we call The Promises: serenity, peace, freedom and happiness. So, it seemed like a great cosmic joke when, after having struggled to overcome one life destroying illness, I was diagnosed with fairly advanced breast cancer. Two large tumors and one small one. Worse, it had spread to my lymph nodes (never a good sign). I had a few moments at the beginning when I shook my fist at the universe and said, "This is my reward? Took me awhile to realize that they did come true. Would I have gone to see my doctor immediately about that pesky lump I felt If I had still been drinking? And what if I had still been in a state of active alcoholism when I was diagnosed? Would I have survived the treatment - the surgery, the chemotherapy, and radiation?
The move from anger to acceptance was, thanks to my program, relatively quick. Life is in session. Stuff happens. Surrender. How to explain to you that I felt more at peace, more serene and happier this past year then in all the years when I was out at sea, so far from God, trying to quench that unquenchable thirst with salty water?
When I started my recovery I was in the middle of one of my periodic flirtations with agnosticism/atheism. I avidly read "The Four Horseman of the New Atheism": Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. And after spending many hours reading and watching videos, I started to be very, very bored. They seemed to be repeating themselves ad nauseum: there is no God, organized religion is bad, religious people are delusional. Not the sort of people I would like to have over to dinner - not because they are uninteresting, but because once you've heard the spiel and the 'Hallelujah's' of the like minded, than what more is there to talk about? The only thing that intrigued me at the end was that the Horseman felt so compelled to beat their steed long after it had expired. I so wanted to say: Let it go, the beast is dead, my dears. Bury it and move on.
In recovery I came to another conclusion after I'd been sober long enough for me to start having brief moments of sanity. Their spiel was unsatisfactory to me because in my heart was a guilty secret: part of me did believe and craved a sign that there was something more. I just hadn't been courageous or honest enough to admit it. But I did not see the depths of my cowardice and intellectual laziness until I read Lapsed Agnostic by the Irish journalist, John Waters, and found the words that cut me deep because they were so true:
"When I was young I used to ask the most fundamental questions all the time. What am I. Who made me (sometimes, though not always, in the sense of Who is this God Who made me)? What am I doing here?"
"When I became what I in retrospect describe as an 'agnostic', these questions vanished from my consciousness. Occasionally I would trot them out in order to argue with someone who asserted a belief in God, but for myself they were no longer live questions. This suggests to me that my 'agnosticism' was never an actual position, but an evasion. Reacting to the dark spectre of Catholicism, I withdrew, not into a new and convinced philosophical position, but into a kind of self-constructed box which shut out questions that seemed, to my consciousness then, irrelevant."People react in interesting ways when their friends or family are faced with life's challenges and turn to religion. "Of course," they say, "It's because of the drinking or the cancer or the death of a loved one." Fascinating that such an act seems to require excuses for our madness. Putting aside the mildly condescending attitude that this implies, may I ask instead that we all consider another view?
I humbly suggest to you that the recovering alcoholic and the person stricken with cancer who seek a deeper union with God are not delusional people. On the contrary it is the active alcoholic who is, by definition, insane and much of what he or she says as the disease progresses (in my experience) can never be taken as their last word. Ask them these things again when they get sober. Sanity usually starts to shine through at about month three of sobriety and all the effects of alcohol abuse (mental, physical and spiritual) can linger for years.
As for the cancer patient, nothing kicks one into lucidity faster than that diagnosis. It can provoke a radical re-examination of one's life to date and, not surprisingly, deep reflection on the question, "How shall I live now that I know my time here is limited?"
For me the secular world does not have satisfactory answers or a coherent approach to offer in the face of tragedy that comes out of the blue and is no one's fault. There is no comfort to be had, no meaning to be found, no guided discovery possible in the New Atheism or in Agnosticism 'lite". If there is delusion to be found here, I think it comes when we avoid deep fundamental questions with all our might. In the modern secular world we like to pretend that we are immortal. Some even insinuate that those who turn out to be very mortal indeed have somehow 'sinned' and that is the cause of their suffering. Perhaps this shows that many of us are closer than we know to a secular belief system based on the faith that if we simply avoid overeating/drinking/smoking/unsafe sex/pesticides/pollution that we will live forever.
This did not escape the notice of the Dalai Lama: “What surprised me most with westerners is that they lose health to make money and then spend that money in order to get it back. They think so hard about the future that they forget to live the present; that way they don't live the present, and not the future either. They live as if they should never die, and then die as if they had never lived.”
It is the awareness of death and the return to sanity that sends many of us (not all) back to those questions we asked as children. That is what led me back to the Church. Believe me, it is not my purpose here to convert anyone - if God wants you, then I am sure He'll let you know - but I do feel compelled to share that experience because it is the underlying current under all that I say, do and write now. In My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman expresses it far better than I ever could with words that sing to my heart as I read late into the night:
"In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous."
"How do you answer the burn of being? What might it mean for your life - and for your death - to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?"
"And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it."