Spirituality & Recovery: Simplicity

By Dale Ryan

Banner Elements 06-15

The forms of spirituality likely to be most helpful to people in recovery are spiritualities that take seriously the need for simplicity. WATCH VIDEO

Mary, a thirty-five-year-old, married, mother of three children. had called her pastor to set up an appointment. During that appointment she talked about the increasing conflict in her marriage and about her concern that her husband’s alcohol use had escalated to a point that put the marriage at risk. The pastor knew very little about addictions or alcoholism, but he expressed his concern and prayed for her. As a kind of afterthought, he mentioned the existence of AlAnon, a support group network for spouses of alcoholics and said he knew that it had been helpful for some people in her situation. This was, fortunately, enough to get Mary to her first AlAnon meeting.

She attended AlAnon weekly for three years. It was not easy. She didn’t say much at first. But she listened and was able to identify with other people’s stories. She learned that codependency is just as big a problem as addiction to substances. But, sometimes, she left meetings experiencing a significant increase in encouragement, strength, and hope. Gradually she learned some basic skills. Sometimes people in AlAnon say that you get one second for every year you participate in AlAnon. This “one second” refers to the time between the moment when an addicted person says something to you and the moment at which you respond. After three years of hard work, Mary had acquired three seconds, and it made a huge difference in her life. She was able now to respond rather than simply react. She also noticed that her spiritual life seemed to be in transition. She no longer felt quite so obligated to be in charge of things over which she had no control. She was learning that most basic and simple of spiritual truths: “there is a God and it is not me.”

Near the third anniversary of her first AlAnon meeting she decided to go back to see her pastor and to thank him for recommending AlAnon. As part of that conversation she said “Well, it has taken me almost three years, but I think I am finally beginning to get it that there is a God and it is not me.” Her pastor was a bit taken aback by this statement. In his world this statement was transparently obvious. If you thought about it for even a few seconds, he thought, anyone would understand this. Don’t all the kids in our second grade Sunday school class already know this? Why has it taken Mary three years?

Of course Mary always knew that she was not God. This fact was never in dispute. The problem was not that she had gotten the facts wrong. The problem was that she was living life as if she could control things which she could not control—and she was unable to change this kind of behavior no matter how much she thought about it or how hard she tried to change. No amount of “thinking” or “trying” was going to fix this problem. Like any addicted person, Mary had to come to terms with the fact that “the problem” was not at the surface of things. The dynamics of the addictive process were deeply embedded in her life. Its roots went down deep. The problem—at the risk of oversimplifying neurobiology—was closer to the brain stem than to the frontal lobe.

In recovery culture, everyone understands why it took three years for Mary to “get it” that “there is a God and it’s not me.” In Christian culture, however, it can seem strange indeed. It just seems too simple and obvious to spend that much time on. But for people struggling with addictions, it is not too simple; it is not obvious; and it usually takes a good deal of hard work to really “get” this.

The simplicity of recovery spirituality has some significant implications. First, it often feels like there is little room for “advanced” spirituality. The spiritual journey tends to be experienced as “getting back to basics” and not worrying for now about moving past the basics toward more “advanced” spiritual matters. The focus tends to be on the depth of spiritual transformation made possible by very simple spiritual truths. The goal is to let simple truths sink deep within us so that there is nothing hid from the Light we have received.

Second, the emphasis on simplicity is an important guard against the grandiosity that is often part of the addictive process. If I think I am smart enough to figure everything out, if I think I have all the right answers to all the right questions, if I think I don’t need to remember the most basic of things—then there is a huge risk that I will not be able to sustain the spiritual humility that is at the heart of all spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity, at least for recovery spirituality, has more to do with the simplest truths than with the advanced ones. There is another old slogan from A.A. that communicates this well: “If you think the program is too simple, go out and drink some more. By the time you get back you’ll be simple enough for the program.”

Even though the spiritual sensibilities of people in recovery may seem entirely too simple to many in the Christian community, it is important to remember that this simplicity is not simplistic. It represents a commitment to make sure that the spiritual transformation of the recovery process doesn’t get truncated by half-measures, shortcuts or other ways of avoiding the hard work of spiritual growth. It is worth remembering that Jesus did not go about village to village passing out copies of his three-volume systematic theology. He told simple stories. Stories that, if heard well, can seed a transformation at the roots of our lives that will, over time, yield good fruit. I think it is helpful to think of recovery spirituality as being in this tradition.

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