Seeds of Grace: A Nun's Reflections on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymousby Molly Monahan, Molly Monahan
Sister Molly Monahan had been a nun for the better part of three decades when the misery of compulsive drinking drove her to seek help for her alcoholism. She began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and found the support she needed to stay sober. At the same time, she found something more, something that surprised her: a spirituality deeper than she had experienced in her religious community, which led to a reawakening of her faith.
How could a nonreligious group espousing the most basic of spiritual beliefs have anything to teach a nun who had spent thirty years steeped in the values, rituals, and traditions of the contemplative life? The mystery of the effectiveness of A.A. has yet to be explained In Seeds of Grace, Sister Molly Monahan approaches the question from a new perspective that will appeal to anyone who has ever marveled at the power of this movement to change lives. Drawing on her experience as a Roman Catholic nun and a member of A.A., she explores subjects of interest not only to alcoholics, but to all spiritual seekers: conversion, enlightenment, grace, forgiveness, gratitude, community, prayer, the part that feelings play in the spiritual life, and a "spiritual awakening" that brings one to peace, freedom, and service of others. Along the way, in a series of meditations, she shares her insights on why A.A. works, how it works, and how it has changed her life and that of millions of others.
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Read an Excerpt
"My Name Is Molly and I 'm an Alcoholic "
Imagine yourself coming to your first A.A. meeting and saying that sentence with your own name in it. Really, try to imagine it. For all the information disseminated in recent decades about alcoholism as a disease, coming to a meeting is not like a visit to the doctor or going to a health spa. There is still a stigma attached to the condition, and no one is more aware of it than the alcoholic herself. So, stinging shame for some, as it was for me. For others, as for some of the young Turks in the program, the humiliating admission that they can't drink the way their buddies can. Nor does one come for social reasons, to meet friends or make new ones, like joining a club or attending a singles event.
Many people come expecting to see the legendary Bowery bums there. Or worse, like me, they fear they will meet someone they know. It was an irrational fear, I know. The people at meetings would be there for the same reason I was. But just such a fear prompts some newcomers to find meetings out of town, in places where they won't be recognized. Might you do that?
No one comes to A.A. for spiritual enlightenment either. I didn't. After all, I was a nun, and had been for years. I knew I was in trouble spiritually-I could pray hardly at all-but I had not connected this condition with my drinking. I thought that I was experiencing the "dark night of the soul" described by the mystics, and reserved for chosen souls called to the higher states of the contemplative life. What could A.A. teach me about spirituality? Going to meetings did not feel like going to church, or going on a retreat, or sitting at the feet of some guru in pursuit of lofty spiritual goals. It felt like defeat to me, as it does for most.
As a matter of fact, I have found all of these benefits in A.A.-the ability not to drink and physical recovery from overindulgence in alcohol; friendship; and a solid and realistic spirituality. But I came to A.A. only from "a desire to stop drinking," the blessedly single requirement that the Third Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous lays down for membership in this fellowship of oddly chosen souls.
I am not going to tell my drinking story in any detail here. That is not the point. It is, anyway, a rather tame story compared to some, given any dramatic edge at all by the simple fact of my being a nun. I drank occasionally, socially, as a teenager and a college student. And for the first ten years of my religious life, the time before Vatican II, I drank hardly at all; wine was served in the convent only on Holy Thursday in a ritualized evening meal. After Vatican II, when things loosened up in the convent, happy hours ("preprandials," as the Jesuits call them) became customary in some of the communities I lived in, and I was a moderate partaker, but very early on a faithful one. I did not drink much but I drank regularly.
My drinking picked up in the seventies. I had been teaching in the religious studies department at the college sponsored by my religious community. Then in 1973, for reasons that I did not fully understand, my teaching contract at the college was not renewed. I was offered a position on the college campus ministry team, but I chose not to accept it. Instead, taking advantage of the freedom that nuns had after Vatican II to engage in ministries outside of their communities, I looked for and found exciting work on the staff of an interreligious organization devoted to the place of religion in higher education. It was a high-pressure job. I did a lot of traveling; ate out a lot, joining my colleagues (all male, as it happened) in a Scotch before dinner and wine during it; attended conferences and enjoyed the bibulous socializing that accompanies such events. Then, whether out of town or not and even after I left this work, I was a daily drinker; I could not go for one day, try though I might, without drinking. And then not just one or two, but drinks before dinner, with it, at night when I couldn't sleep, and at times during the day. But "it isn't how much you drink that counts, it's what it does to you," as we say in A.A. Alcohol was doing dreadful things to me, and I began to realize it.
The drug is, after all, a depressant. And I Iived during the last years of my drinking with a pervasive, ever-growing, dull ache of sadness, like a deep wound inside that nothing could touch, not therapy, not spiritual direction, nothing. Critical by nature and by academic training, I became negative, querulous, judging others harshly while entertaining grandiose notions of myself.
With close friends I grew to be unhealthily dependent on the one hand and demanding and controlling on the other. My emotions were like an infected sore, sensitive to the slightest touch of perceived offense.
I was bewildered and felt myself an utter failure.
What had happened to the ideals of discipline and self-sacrifice that I had embraced so ardently on entering the convent? I betrayed them daily. Where was the faith that had inspired me to become a nun and that had sustained me for two decades, even amidst the turmoil of changes in the church and in vowed religious life after Vatican II?
Why could I not pray, I, who had longed above all for a life of prayer and union with God?
One reason prayer was impossible for me, I learned in A.A., was because I could not concentrate for any length of time, a direct result of the physiological effects of too much alcohol on my brain. But the malady went deeper than that, as I also learned in A.A. "My spirit was dead," I heard a man say at a meeting. I knew that he was describing me. And I knew then that alcoholism is indeed a soul-sickness which eats away at the innermost fiber of our being. As the disease progressed on all fronts and as my efforts not to drink failed again and again, I was filled with remorse, shame, and, finally, self-loathing. I had never experienced such a feeling before, and, mercifully, have not since. I felt dirty, filthy, inside; I was hopeless and helpless. I could not help myself.
In desperation, in January 1983, I secretly arranged to see a nun who was, and is, an alcoholism counselor. I told her how much I was drinking, hoping against hope that she would tell me that I didn't have a problem.
Instead, she asked me only one question: Did I want to go for in-patient or out-patient treatment? And thus it was that four days later I found myself in a twenty-eight-day rehab. I have always been grateful to the superior of my community, who arranged this for me as soon as I told her what was going on. Not only did I feel incapable of not drinking on my own, but the education I got there convinced me of what I was up against in my struggle with alcohol, described as "cunning, baffling, powerful" in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (commonly referred to as "The Big Book").
If you think that the disease of alcoholism is just a question of drinking too much and perhaps of behaving badly, even often, you are wrong. A.A. itself is careful to distinguish between social drinking, heavy drinking, and alcoholic drinking, and it makes it quite clear that only the person herself can tell the difference. No, alcoholism is, as the founders of A.A. knew decades before the body/soul connection was being made in medicine and psychology, a threefold disease: a physical, mental (including emotional), and spiritual disease, the last to our point here.
We were taught about all of these aspects in rehab.
But it was only the notion of alcoholism as a physical disease that impressed me and that I took away with me. I was not ready to deal with the other aspects. A.A. wisdom has it that the disease progresses by affecting us first spiritually, then mentally, and finally physically, and that recovery happens in the opposite order. So it took some time before I became aware of the spiritual effects of alcoholism in myself and of the spiritual benefits of the program. And longer still before I began to reflect on both as I shall do in this book.
Back then, a very shaky and confused beginner, the only thing I knew was that I couldn't stop drinking on my own. The people at rehab stressed attendance at A.A. meetings as essential for recovery. Ninety meetings in ninety days, they said, the advice given to every A.A. beginner. At first I thought the suggestion preposterous, out of all proportion, demanding too much of me and my time, and I said so. Well before the end of my treatment, I was convinced of its value, and would have gone to 180 meetings in ninety days, if that's what it took.
Some people do just that.
My commitment to meetings was tested while I was still in rehab. I received a call from a former colleague at the interreligious organization, asking me to be part of an evaluation project involving certain colleges and universities in the Episcopal diocese of Virginia. Grateful for his confidence in me, I accepted, with the humiliating proviso that I could attend A.A. meetings while there.
He didn't see any problem with that. So, several weeks after I left the rehab, very newly sober and very scared, I flew to Virginia, rented a car, and spent my first day at a prominent Southern university. I was to stay overnight with a young married faculty member, and was warmly welcomed by him and his wife into their lovely home. It was simply furnished with polished hardwood floors, and strains of Bach were floating through the house from the stereo.
I don't know what they were thinking when I got up from dinner to leave for my meeting, which, at the request of my colleague, they had located for me in a nearby town. I was prepared for this humiliation, carried it off with some bravado, and found my way in the little red rented car to the small church. I wasn't prepared for what happened next. The first person I saw when I entered the meeting room was a man I had met that day at the university, a highly respected professor in the law school, a dedicated teacher and committed Christian. I lost my breath, felt as if I had been stabbed-with hot and piercing and shocking shame. I sat through the meeting with my face burning, worrying about what I would say to this man afterwards, and didn't hear a thing that was said.
But Marcus came up to me as soon as the meeting ended and said, "I knew there was something about you that I liked," such a graceful and understanding greeting that it soothed my shame and established an immediate bond between us. As I found out from him then, in that locale they allow relatives of alcoholics to attend meetings-A.A. and AlAnon together, as it were-and he was there with and because of his wife, and had found his own spirituality there. In the years since 1983, our mutual interests have brought us together at several conferences, and we have talked on the telephone a half dozen times.
The bond is always there, a subtext of trust and affection to whatever business matter we are discussing.
Why, you may ask, all of this emphasis on meetings?
What is it about meetings that made it possible for me to stop drinking, made, and makes, the impossible possible for millions of alcoholics? There is no full answer to that question. It remains something of a mystery. But for a first inkling of what it might be, we have to go back to the very beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous. There, I believe, is a story that reveals a deep truth not only about alcoholics and alcoholism but about all of us in our various woes.
In the first chapter of "The Big Book" entitled "Bill's Story," Bill Wilson, who, with Dr. Bob Smith, was cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, tells us about him-self. He was a bright man, successful on Wall Street-and a disastrous drunk, who lost everything more than once because of his drinking. He had been hospitalized, more than once, for the disease of alcoholism; had been intermittently dry for longer or shorter periods but, inevitably, it seemed to him, he always began drinking again.
During a long visit with an old friend, an alcoholic who credited his newly found sobriety to the power of God, Bill came to his own understanding of a God personal to him. He began to believe that this God could help him stop drinking. Then, in the hospital where he had gone for treatment of delirium tremens, Bill was separated from alcohol forever. There too, with the help of God and his friend, he entered into a process of spiritual and moral conversion, culminating in a "sudden and profound" experience of God. "There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had ever known." Filled with gratitude for what had freely been given to him through the intervention of his friend, he realized that to stay sober "it was imperative to work with others as [his friend] had worked" with him. This realization crystallized for him in the event that is taken to be the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.*
*Bill does not tell us so in this chapter, but it is well known that his friend was a recent convert to the Oxford Group, the name that the movement in the United States adopted for itself in 1928. A twentieth-century non-denominational evangelical fellowship, it stressed the principles of self-examination, admission of sins, restitution for them, and the service of others, just the principles that Bill embraced in the hospital. They are contained in modified form in the Twelve Steps of A.A., as we shall see. A.A. began its life within the Oxford Group, and after several years diverged from it in disagreement over the group's insistence on absolute ideals of behavior and practice. It was found that absolutes just didn't work for alcoholics.
Reprinted from Seeds of Grace by Sister Molly Monahan by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Sister Molly Monahan. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.