I know a number of individuals who belong to Alcoholics Anonymous. They include men and women who are priests, nuns, and lay people. I have long been an admirer of A.A. I have also concluded that the Church could learn a lot from this organization.
First, a little background. Alcoholics Anonymous is a world-wide organization for individuals who have a problem with alcohol. It was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio. Wilson and Smith learned that people could get sober basically by coming together regularly and by believing in each other and in the strength of the group. A.A. has a simple statement of purpose for its members: “to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Over time Wilson and Smith devised a Twelve Step Program that transcends gender, age, culture, and religious beliefs. Though A.A. rose out of the Christian tradition, it has proven effective for non-Christians and even for agnostics and atheists. (The phrase “Higher Power” used in A.A., for example, can mean different things to different people.) Current literature sets worldwide membership of A.A. at over 2 million. A recent survey of members in North America found that the average member of A.A. had achieved sobriety for 10 years.
What could the Church learn from A.A. ? Let’s begin with some words from Frederick Beuchner, a minister and author of Telling
Secrets. He says: “I believe that what goes on (at A.A. meetings) is far closer to what Christ meant his Church to be, and what it originally was.” He points out that A.A. has no buildings, no official leadership, and no money. It has no preachers, no choirs, no fund raising, no advertising, no proselytizing. Buechner says, “They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its building burn down and to lose all its money.” If this happened, Says Buechner, “Then all that the people would have left is God and each other.”
God and each other. That phrase lies at the heart of what A.A. is and what A.A. can remind the Church: the essence of our faith is not our buildings, creeds, or hierarchy. It is God and each other. (For Christian churches, of course, that word “God” includes Jesus—his life and teachings.) I am not saying we should get rid of our churches, our dogmas, or our leadership. But I am saying we must remember that these components of our faith are secondary, not primary. Someone described A.A. as a “fellowship of mutual aid.” That also seems like one definition of “church” to me.
Why is A.A. so effective? One reason is, it brings people together who share a common pain: the pain of addiction. A member of A.A. told me once that A.A. is “for people who have been to hell—or at least to the rim of hell.” A.A. demonstrates that pain and sorrow have the potential to unite us as nothing else can—not even our joy.
At A. A. meetings nobody lectures the members nor do they lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories—where they went wrong and how they are trying to get better day by day. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another member by being available 24/7 if the need arises. There’s not much more to A.A. than that. Yet healing occurs and miracles happen. So effective has A.A. been that it has many “spin-offs” such as Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous. (A.A. has its critics, of course. Some claim it is a cult, yet A.A. lacks a chief characteristic of most cults. A.A. does not force its members to stay.)
A.A. meetings often end with the reciting of the “Serenity Prayer,” written by American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930’s. It seems only fitting to conclude this reflection with that prayer:
Is there anything else the Church can learn from A.A.?
Have you ever shared your own story with others and listened to others tell theirs? If so, what was that experience like for you?
PS: Thank you for your many responses to last week’s blog on “Mottos and Slogans.” Your comments enrich my blog tenfold! Thank you too for your prayers for my retreat last week at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA. I had a group of prayerful, attentive, and fun-to-be-with women!