Discernment begins with a dilemma. What should I do? What is the next step, the big picture, the right thing? What would God have me do?
Discernment is also the way out of the dilemma, a method for discovering the way forward. This discovery process is never ending, so practical methods are valuable.
For people in Twelve Step recovery, discernment is so important that an entire Step has been devoted to it. Step Eleven says:
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
In some ways, Step Eleven is the entire program compressed into one sentence. Let’s look at the keys to unlocking its meaning.
Seeking is an action. The initial word “sought” suggests a certain restlessness and desire. It indicates an underlying dissatisfaction or discomfort. I am seeking because I don’t have what I want, or I don’t want what I have. We are restless like Augustine, who said “our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, I bring myself back to God, and away from the emotions that roil my heart.
If I’ve made it through the first ten steps of the program, I have found some level of emotional sobriety and I have begun to gather up the loose ends of my life. For example, I have written a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” I have shared it with a trusted individual, I have brought humility to bear on my character defects, I have made amends, and more. But graduation is not possible in recovery, and on reaching Step Eleven, I find an instruction which I can’t complete. I am told to keep seeking.
The word “improve” is a gentle admonition. Step Eleven assumes that my conscious contact with God needs improvement, and I need to pay attention to my spiritual practice. Whether I have a fixed idea of God or something more ephemeral, whether I am religious or agnostic, whether I’m fallen away or observant, the Step assumes that my conscious contact with God needs improvement. The Step presumes this connection is not only possible, but expected. For some people, this may seem extraordinary, but it is part of the shared experience of recovery. It is part of what it means to “work a program.”
Prayer and Meditation
The Step’s suggestion is general in its method. People in recovery have traditionally been encouraged to make time every morning for prayer and meditation. We get up earlier than we might otherwise and carve out ten or twenty minutes. We create a space for grace. We might begin by reading a favorite devotional, scripture or daily meditation book, and then sitting in quiet contemplation. Whether we are in a time of sorrow or contentment or challenge, we recall that God is present. We remember the directions: “like little children” … “come to me, and I will give you rest” … “my burden is light.” (Cf. Mt. 18:3 and Mt.11:28-30)
If we have very little time, we might put our shoes under our bed at night, so we have to get on our knees in the morning. Here we are in the proper position to ask for guidance and protection. This brief moment of prayer, repeated daily, has saved the lives of countless alcoholics.
Making time for prayer might not bring spiritual fireworks, but it does make an important readjustment. It puts God first, instead of ourselves. On dark days, our worries can quickly collapse into depression or anxiety. But sacred reading and prayer can lift us up and remind us of God’s nearness to us in travail. Silent meditation calls us into possibility and a quiet awareness. We are living on the doorstep of eternity, and we can sense the words of Jesus, as written down by Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Meditation can also be separated from formal prayer and quiet time. It can be brought into the world and into the “we” of recovery. For example, I might listen closely to the surprising words being spoken at a Twelve Step meeting. Perhaps another person is opening up about their pain and difficulties, or about their hard-won epiphany, and their sharing has broken through my consciousness and illuminated my current dilemma. God often works through people, so active listening during a meeting may be just as important as active listening during quiet time. Can I hear the counsel of the Holy Spirit through the channel of my neighbor? Am I open to hearing the message? I may need to take a risk, and make myself available. How many people took the trouble to find Jesus, to wait on the hillside and listen to what he had to say? How many stayed home instead and tended to their own business?
Before Alcoholics Anonymous had its name, before the Twelve Steps had been conceived, the founders practiced an informal lectio divina every morning, without using that term.
Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne (a non-alcoholic) used to sit in their living room with Bill Wilson, read a passage from the bible, and then sit quietly in prayer and meditation. After about thirty minutes they would talk about the passage, and what they had received in reflection. Their observations tended to be concrete and focused on the their still-tenuous journey of recovery. The alcoholics were particularly frank in talking about their character defects. More importantly, they would discuss how to support the next person who needed help. This last point was key, as Bill Wilson had discovered by hard experience that he could not stay sober without actively trying to help another alcoholic. So, their dialog tended to focus on action. It is an interesting fact that AA almost had a different name. Early members wanted to call it The James Club, in honor of a favorite scriptural passage from the book of James, paraphrased: “Faith without works is dead.” So, the practice of sitting in the living room, reading from the bible, meditating, and sharing their thoughts with each other became the cornerstone of every day. Prayer and meditation always led to practical action: How can we help the next person in need?
As we understood Him
Throughout the literature of the Twelve Steps there is a frequently recurring phrase: “God as we understood Him,” with its traditional italics. This marvelous expression leaves each individual free to work out their own conception of a higher power, either through their own faith tradition, or through their lack of faith. Indeed, the phrase urges a leap of faith. It says, in effect, ‘we believe if you reach out sincerely, God will be there for you.’ By avoiding all direction on specific religious practices (or rather leaving them to the individual), Twelve Step groups have helped countless people build or renew their relationship with God.
The importance of this construction cannot be overstated. Many if not most people coming into recovery have become estranged from God, whether they are outwardly religious or not. In this raw state, they are often allergic to religious discussion. In their addiction or codependency, everything has fallen apart, prayers have seemingly gone unanswered, and faith has withered. They will not be told what to do. The founders of AA realized that people seeking help would come from many different faiths or none at all. By continually using the construction, God as we understood Him, they nullified the arguments around theology and turned the question back on the individual.
In the chapter “To Agnostics,” in Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson wrote: “We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.” People who are rigidly dogmatic may be horrified by this language, but in practice it is simple and effective. God is not a nitpicker.
In my own case, I had adopted the ironclad armor of atheism. Though I’d been raised Catholic, had attended parochial school and had a real belief in God; I discarded all of it for the intellectual fashions of the day. Moral relativism was more amenable to a drinking and drugging lifestyle. It was easier to keep God closed up in old books than to keep him alive in my heart.
As my addiction progressed, I was forced to play god. Friends and family tried to pull me back to sanity, but I recoiled from their efforts and retreated into the cave of my drinking. There I could rule my kingdom without the fetters of faith or human connection. My rationalizations and justifications were impervious to the concerns of others. I made my own rules and cheerfully ignored the consequences.
Years passed, and I descended into the hell of addiction, very nearly losing my life. At the last moment, a small family intervention broke my fall. Medical detox and residential treatment followed, and I began to regain my strength. As my mental fog began to lift and I tried to grasp the Twelve Steps of recovery, I was put off by the allusion to God. I was too smart to go back to those ideas. The counselors ignored my resistance, as though it were an expected part of the journey. Their implicit message was unexpected: “You have to figure it out for yourself.” I would have preferred an argument, but I was left with my own reflection in the mirror.
As the initial days in treatment flew by, I realized my own thinking was flawed. While I was drinking, my rationalizations had been an effective catalyst for my illness, accelerating its awful efficiency and speeding my descent. My thinking, in fact, had almost killed me.
As the time for my discharge from treatment drew near, and my future plans seemed doomed to failure, I became desperate to find a better solution. I was privately terrified, because my addiction had caused a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon and transient neuropathy in my legs. I was only twenty-six years old, and I had been all but homeless and unable to support myself. Now, in the last days of my residential treatment, I knew I couldn’t survive a relapse. Yet something told me I would drink again. My mind raced over countless possible solutions, but the god I had relied on—myself—had no answers. I became desperate to find a solution, and I paced my room back and forth in a fruitless attempt to find a way out.
In the middle of the night, this unrelenting anguish finally drove me to my knees, and I cried out: “God help me.” I was in the very pit of despair. But in the darkness, there was something like a spark, then a waterfall of light and a torrent love. I was in the presence of Christ and my heart was renewed and filled to overflowing. Every doubt and fear was washed out of me. In those joyful moments I knew He would protect me. There was no question I could stay sober, because it would not be me alone. I was no longer afraid.
In the days that followed, the simple toolkit provided by the Twelve Steps began to make sense. The first three Steps were like the three legs of a stool, supporting my fledgling sobriety. Step One: I needed to admit I had a problem, and it was making my life unmanageable. Step Two: I had to come to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. These two were obvious, but a real commitment was required. The solution was Step Three, which states: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Now, I understood Him, and He was love.
Most people don’t have the white-light experience I had, but rather a gradual awakening. In my own case, daily reinforcement was still necessary. This meant going to meetings, getting a sponsor, working the Steps, and trying to be helpful to others. This last point was important, because it was the only concrete way to show my gratitude to God, and to all the people who were helping me.
His will and power
Even before I completed all the steps formally, I was drawn to Step Eleven. The last part of the step provided focus: “…praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Like most people, I had many dreams and desires, and it was easy enough to convince myself that my desires were somehow congruent with God’s will. My penchant for rationalization wasn’t entirely extinguished by my recovery. Here was where the “we” of the program could be most beneficial. Step Eleven counsels us to pray only for knowledge of His will, but following this path alone can be treacherous when personal desire is involved. I needed to bounce my bigger ideas off my sponsor or trusted friends in the program. I remembered a wise priest saying: “Good discernment will withstand the reasonable judgments of other people.”
In the first year of my recovery, all my big plans fell apart. But surprisingly, by the end of that year my life was better than I could have imagined. I realized my plans had to fall away for God’s plans to arise. I was beginning to learn something about acceptance and patience.
I was also learning something about His power, and it usually came subtly. He gave me just enough impetus to get to the meeting, just enough to pick up the phone and call my sponsor, just enough to do the next right thing. I may have felt I couldn’t go on, that I couldn’t do one more thing, but I remembered the words of Paul: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) I didn’t need to have the power myself. I just had to have faith and begin the effort. He would supply the rest. A real, living faith cannot be abstract. Making a beginning was the act of faith, to move past fear and uncertainty, to take the risk of embarrassment, rejection or failure. God gave me just enough strength to begin the action, and if I was in the flow of goodness, more power was added to my efforts.
People in recovery are fond of saying, “Keep it simple.” As I tried to discern God’s will on a given day, I came to realize that some of his will for me was obvious; and not just for me, but for anyone in recovery.
For example, it was undoubtedly God’s will that I keep working my program and stay sober (and emotionally sober). It was probably equally obvious that I should keep doing the things that had worked so far, like going to meetings, talking to my sponsor, and trying to be helpful. There were some other obvious things, like keeping my temper in check, doing my fair share at the workplace and at home, trying to be thoughtful instead of putting myself first. Many things were so obvious that the only thing I needed was the power to carry them out; the power to overcome my own self-centered fears, my own indolence, my blame-shifting and self-pity. For many of us, returning to the simple norms of society was like discovering a forgotten country. Rising out of the mire of addiction, we found solid ground in community.
Working with a sponsor requires humility and demonstrates a willingness to follow direction. Listening to the experience, strength and hope of a person who has overcome the same difficulties is more helpful than reading a book about it. Any good idea should be able to withstand scrutiny, and if we don’t want to trip over our pride, we bring our brainstorms, consternations and doubts to our sponsor, so we can get direction. We don’t live in a vacuum, and our sponsor and trusted friends test the mettle of our plans. Discernment without humility is self-justification in disguise.
Some things we know to be universally true. God wants us to help one another. Jesus summarizes the gospel in two familiar commandments. Love God and love your neighbor. (cf. Matt. 22:37-40)
The concept of service is essential to recovery. “You have to give it away to keep it,” is the well-known AA slogan. The old timers always said: if you can’t solve a problem, if you’re upset about something, throw yourself into working with others. Be of service, and help the next person coming in the door. Your problems will shrink into insignificance, if only for a few hours.
Service is also the heart of the final step (Step Twelve), so we won’t go too far into it here. Yet it is impossible to explore Step Eleven and discernment without considering other people. For example, how should I discern my vocation in the world? Will I be a faithful spouse? A vowed religious? A hard-working parent? A dedicated professional?
No matter what that vocation, I will be bumping up against my fellow humans, which won’t always be pleasant. There are billions of people living on the earth, most of whom are striving to overcome selfishness, fear, pride, and every other obstacle in this spiritual boot camp. How will I comport myself to them, and how will I interact? People in recovery have long used the Prayer of St. Francis as a guide. “Lord, make me in channel of your peace.…” Without quoting this well-loved devotion, we might skip to the enigmatic ending: “It is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.” How can I die to my self-centered fear, and how does that raise me? The Prayer of St. Francis offers a deep well for meditation.
God wants us to be grateful, grateful for the journey of our lives and for the world he has given us. God wants us to be grateful for struggle and for the opportunity. He wants us to be grateful for his grace, which sustains us through each moment, and makes good discernment possible. But if we can’t be grateful for all he has done for us, he wants us to be grateful for each other. We can’t give back to God a fraction of what he has done for us, but there are limitless opportunities to give back to our fellow travelers.
Catherine of Siena, in her “Little Talks with God” (or “Dialogues”), quotes the Lord as talking about the infinite love he has given each of us, and the impossibility of ever repaying that love. So, he says to her: “To me, in person, you cannot repay the love that I require of you. Therefore I have placed you in the midst of your fellows, so that you may do to them that which you cannot do to me. That is, I give you the opportunity to love your neighbor of free grace, without expecting any return from him.”
In recovery from control and codependency, from addiction and compulsion, we can find no greater opportunity for gratitude than service. We can find no greater example of prayer than action. Jesus did not pray us into salvation, he got on the cross.
This article was originally published in Human Development Magazine, a publication of Guest House. Jeff Jay is the author of Navigating Grace, a solo voyage of survival and redemption (Hazelden).