Guest post from Friend of Bill W:
“Of course there will always be those who seem to be offended by the introduction of any prayer whatever into an ordinary A.A. gathering. Also, it is sometimes complained that the Lord’s Prayer is a Christian document. Nevertheless this Prayer is of such widespread use and recognition that the arguments of its Christian origin seems to be a little farfetched. It is also true that most A.A.s believe in some kind of God and that communication and strength is obtainable through His grace.“[emphasis added]—Bill Wilson, “Letter to Russ“
While searching through a documents folder for a local 12 Step men’s group, I ran across a copy of this letter. (It was in the course of business; I’m the group leader—no upper case.) Reading the letter started me to think about 12 Step spirituality and how it meshed with my Catholic faith—how, in fact, it led to my conversion.
Before that discussion, a minimal bit of autobiography is in order.
THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE 12 STEPS
A little over thirty years ago I was introduced to the 12 Steps as part of a rehab program. The detailed circumstances that led me to this program are not all that relevant. Suffice it to say here that I was on the downhill slope of a more than mid-life crisis and that I was an agnostic without any faith in God. Before I tell the story of how the 12 Steps led me to Catholic faith, a very, very brief account of 12 Step spirituality is in order.
- STEP 1: We admitted we were powerless over ______—that our lives had become unmanageable. (For AA, fill the blank with “alcohol,” for other 12 Step programs use drugs, food, codependency, gambling, sex, …)
- STEP 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (This “power” is the “Higher Power” of The 12 Steps.)
- STEP 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (That italicized phrase is crucial in understanding how AA tried to bring in agnostics and atheists by making the concept of God unspecific.)
A good, down-to-earth summary of these three steps is
- STEP 1: I can’t;
- STEP 2: God can;
- STEP 3: I’ll let Him do it.
Please note that one very often encounters “Higher Power” rather than “God” in AA and other 12 Step literature. (More about this alias below.) Nevertheless, AA grew from Christian roots.
THE CHRISTIAN ROOTS OF AA
Before the 12 Steps, there were The Four Absolutes of The Oxford Group. This movement (not to be confused with the Newman’s Oxford Movement in the late 19th century) was a Christian Renewal Program started by Frank Buchman in the early 20th century. The early involvement of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith with the the Oxford Group in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s is summarized here. As the linked article puts it:
This “mainstreaming” was to accommodate those agnostics and atheists who did not want to fake a belief in a supreme being.
Those non-believers were told they could identify the “Higher Power” as anything that made sense to them. For example, the Higher Power could be Human Spirituality, Nature, Love, the 12 Step program, the members of your 12 Step group, whatever would float your boat.
WHY A HIGHER POWER WAS NOT ENOUGH FOR ME; HOW I CAME TO BELIEVE
The first six months of my 12 Step Program went well. I was going regularly to two or three meetings a week (didn’t do the 90 and 90), had a sponsor, had gone through 8 of the 12 Steps, and was on the Recovery Road. At the rehab I had attended, 12 Step meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. At the group meetings I attended after rehab there was a prayer, but not the Lord’s Prayer. (it was a college community).
The program had convinced me I needed a Higher Power and that I should put myself in the hand of that entity. However, I began to wonder what this “Higher Power” really was. Was it God? Whose God? What kind of God that it (or He) should be concerned with me? The term “Higher Power” became just Orwellian doublespeak for an agnostic world view. I wasn’t satisfied with the ambiguity. I needed something more definite to latch onto. A God to whom I could relate.
So I assumed my academic, scholarly persona and began to read about the origins of AA. I learned how Bill W and Dr. Bob were involved in the Christian renewal Oxford Group. I found out about Bill W’s “white light” vision: when he had reached bottom, a white light vision turned him from atheism to a belief in God. Reading about other conversion experiences led me to explore historical works about Jesus and the early Christians and that most important historical work, the New Testament. (I was, I now realize, impelled by the Holy Spirit).
And so I was gradually led to the belief that accounts of the Resurrection were true, that nothing else but a Christian God could have given ignorant farmers and fishermen the skill to debate the scribes and rabbis, the courage to suffer the persecution of the Romans and Jews. And all that happened at a very special time and place: when travel through the then civilized world was peaceful, when there were two common languages (Greek and Latin) to spread the Good News, and when, like today, belief in self and material things were not sufficient for “the good life.”
In my top down journey to faith I concluded that since the New Testament gave a true account of the Resurrection and miracles wrought by Jesus, I should also believe that Peter was given “the keys to the kingdom” (Matt 16:9). Accordingly, there would be one Church, the Catholic Church, to which I should turn. A fortunate choice, since my wife is Catholic and and thereby I avoided a certain amount of domestic discord.
Now let’s turn to the Lord’s Prayer and its place in 12 Step meetings.
MY DEPARTURE FROM AND RETURN TO THE 12 STEPS
I left the 12 Step Program several years later. The vague spirituality I encountered in those group meetings available to me did not provide the spiritual support I needed. I could not subscribe to the vague spirituality of a “Higher Power” in meetings, when it seemed to be a violation or contradiction of my new found Catholic faith. And so I became what AA folks call a “dry drunk.” This is someone who doesn’t drink (dope, gamble,…) but is not engaged with his/her 12 Step program. (And it is supposed to be a continual program—you don’t go through the 12 Steps once, you keep doing the cycle again and again.)
What brought me back to the 12 Steps was a family crisis and a coincidence.* The nature of the family crisis is irrelevant here, so no more of that. The coincidence: I was doing volunteer work at a local hospital and ran into an acquaintance from one of the meetings I had attended some 17 years ago, who was also doing volunteer work with his therapy dog. He asked how I was and when I told him there were problems, he said “there’s a men’s group meeting (time, place), why don’t you drop in?”
I thought “it’s worth a shot…one meeting; why not.” And it did turn out to be worth a shot.
THE LORD’S PRAYER AND 12 STEP SPIRITUALITY
Which brings me to the title: “The Lord’s Prayer and 12 Step Spirituality.” The men in this group are a diverse group in education, professions, and religious faith. Some are practicing Catholics, some are fallen-away Catholics, and some don’t have a specified religious faith. But all believe in God. The language is rough in meetings: more than a few f-bombs. But the language masks a deep faith in a Higher Power that is not impersonal, but cares for each of us.
Meetings end with the Lord’s prayer: the group leader asks “Whose Father?” and in a circle, holding hands, we respond “Our Father.…” The first time I was there I automatically stopped after “…but deliver us from evil” while everyone else continued with “for thine is the kingdom, …” and was chided “this isn’t a Catholic service” (in good humor). And after the Lord’s prayer, the final word: “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”
Here’s my final thought on this. There is in logic and math what are known as necessary and sufficient conditions for a proposition to hold. A necessary condition must hold if the proposition is to be true. If a sufficient condition holds the proposition is true, but it can also be true if the condition doesn’t hold. (See here for some examples.) Saying the Lord’s Prayer as the closing prayer in a 12 Step Meeting is a sufficient condition for a meaningful “Higher Power” spirituality but it is not a necessary condition for everyone. However, it is for me.
*”Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Attributed to Albert Einstein.