Recently a lovely friend of mine, Margaret Martin, gave me this book as a gift. Margaret knows that I am an advocate of many 12-step programs and thought I might like Richard Rohr’s take on it. Like any good friend she knows me well and I really loved this book!
First of all Mr. Rohr is a wonderful writer. His prose is beautiful and captivating. He weaves religious writings into his own thoughts in reference to each of the original 12 steps of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. For those of you who are not familiar with 12-step programs, most other 12-step groups take their “steps” from AA so this book also applies to other “fellowships” such as Al-Anon, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Adult Children Anonymous, Over-eaters Anonymous and so on. While the spiritual aspect of 12-step is sometimes a thorny issue for people Rorh has a wonderful way of not preaching or evangelizing but rather speaking as a religious scholar familiar with many religious texts and traditions. He opens the 12-steps up in a way that I found to be very rich and thought provoking.
Let me take a moment to clarify that while I enjoy reading religious texts from various traditions (Jewish, Christian and Islamic to name a few… as well as Buddhist, but that’s not really a religion…) I am not dogmatic about religion with clients. Research does suggest that spirituality is helpful to folks and as a psychologist I often encourage people to consider that fact. However I am not of the mindset that a psychologist should be pointing people in any particular spiritual or religious direction.
That said I do think that if you are not adverse to religious writings and furthermore if you are open to the 12-step approach to things you may enjoy this book. One of the first things that Rohr points out is that, to him, one of Jesus’s central messages was to become enlightened in such a way that one can enjoy the wonders of this life while still in it. In Rohr’s opinion, sometimes that message gets changed to putting off the joy until the life hereafter. Rohr equates this with the recovering alcoholic who focuses simply on not drinking (abstinence) while failing to fully “live a life of recovery”. In this sense, truly living “in recovery” opens one to the daily joys and miracles of life without blunting oneself to the pains of life through addictive behaviors or thought patterns. In AA language this is the difference between a “dry drunk” (i.e. abstinent) and someone practicing recovery.
While Freud once said that the goal of psychotherapy was to turn neurotic sufferings into ordinary sufferings, I also feel that the goal of therapy can be to open us up to the daily miracles and even ecstasies of the human existence. I have seen many people find this through the 12- steps and also through spiritual practices such as prayer, mindfulness, loving kindness (metta) meditations, yoga and psychotherapy. In my opinion as a mental health provider, however you get there it is a great gift to give oneself. To be fully present in the moments of life and to fully participate in the joy (and yes, the grief and pain as well) is to live life to the fullest. Which calls to mind the quote by Shaw:
Another profound comparison that Rohr makes between the teachings of Jesus and the 12 steps is the idea that only once a person has “hit bottom” spiritually, emotionally or physically (or all of the above!) can they experience true transformation. He references a conversation Jesus had with one of his disciples in which he talks about needing to be “ground like wheat” and then recovered before one can be useful to another human being to help in his or her healing. Rohr goes on to say that “Those who have passed over [had a profound and transformative experience] eventually find a much bigger world of endurance, meaning, hope, self-esteem, deeper and true desire, but most especially, a bottomless pool of love both within and without.” (p. 124-5).
I am a person who loves contrast, who loves unexpected parallels between seemingly unrelated things. So for me this book was a treasure trove of similarities between two traditions that, on the surface, don’t seem to have much in common. While spirituality has always been an important part of the 12-step programs, I have not seen direct comparisons of the 12-steps to the words of Jesus as written in the bible. So I enjoyed seeing Rohr sew these two traditions together along the points where they truly do seem to be saying the same thing.
If you have had painful or distressing experiences with organized religion, or find it a concept that is simply not useful to you I completely respect that. Each person’s life is their own journey. But I do think that looking for the deeper meaning in things, whether that is along traditional religious lines or more spiritual or metaphysical lines, can provide a source of inspiration, empowerment, hope and peace in those times where life breaks you open.
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