What is the meaning of insatiable craving? How does drunkenness seem to be an experience of the divine? How is it different? How can Catholicism make sense of the joys and sorrows of the drinking life? What, if anything, can an alcoholic in recovery offer to the Church?The first three questions are addressed in the 2012 documentary film “Bill W.
” about the life of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) co-founder, Bill Wilson. The film discusses Bill's friendship with Fr. Ed Dowling - a non-alcoholic Jesuit priest and an early proponent of the fellowship of AA - who served as Bill's spiritual director. It recounts a conversation that Bill and Fr. Dowling had once, in which Bill asked Father whether his thirst would ever be quenched. Father replied that, no, Bill's thirst would never be quenched, because we are meant to thirst; what matters is where we aim what we thirst for.This understanding of a profound thirst, an emptiness sometimes described as a “God-sized hole,” is the beginning point of recovery for many. In the 12 Steps of AA, it is described as an admission of powerlessness and a recognition of unmanageability in one’s life. Though this is a good beginning, one needs more for recovery; one needs to “come to believe”, to encounter God and to begin to set aside self-will for God’s will.By our Catholic faith, we see that God has created us for happiness - for union with Him - and that He has instilled in us both a capacity and desire for Himself so that we might seek to do His will and to draw ever closer to Him. This desire and capacity seems to have two dimensions or aspects, which I call "unitive" on the one hand, and "infusive" on the other. The "unitive" aspect is one in which we desire and seek after unity or oneness with God, with other people, and with creation; it could be characterized as contemplative, peaceful, quiet, or restful. The "infusive" aspect, as I call it, is a desire to be filled with and transformed by the Holy Spirit; this aspect could be characterized as charismatic, active, or apostolic. This twofold capacity and desire for unity and for infusion I call the "mystical impulse."Although this "mystical impulse" can be found in each one of us, the effects of sin and concupiscence often direct our desires away from God throughout our natural lives. Alcoholism - the habitual, chronic, and compulsive use of alcohol - is one of the ways in which we see sin express itself in the world. While alcoholism has been described in many ways, one of the most illuminating descriptions of it can be found in the beginning of "Alcoholics Anonymous": the so-called "Big Book," from which the name of the fellowship of AA is derived.In the section entitled "The Doctor's Opinion", written by addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth in the late 1930s, one sees alcoholism described as the operation of a type of allergy to alcohol within the body of the alcoholic. Dr. Silkworth notes that the alcoholic experiences a "phenomenon of craving" that is triggered when he takes a drink. In addition to this physical craving, he experiences a mental obsession with drinking that defies reason or willpower. He seeks after a sense of "ease and comfort" that becomes ever more elusive over time, even in the face of a relentless and fatal progression. If he is fortunate, the alcoholic will come to discover that: a) once he takes the first drink, he is unable to stop, and b) that he has no effective mental defense against the first drink. So why does he do this? The best way to explain is for me to recount my own experience of drinking and recovery.One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father showing me the coin he received upon his reaching 90 days of sobriety in a Minneapolis alcoholism treatment facility; I was perhaps 5 years old at the time. For as long as I can remember, I was aware of and obsessed with alcohol. On the one hand I was afraid of alcohol knowing that my father had problems with drinking and I did not want to end up in a hospital; on the other, I wanted to experience release from a painful self-consciousness and fear that mounted all throughout my childhood. I recall watching with rapt attention the TV commercials which depicted the Budweiser Clydesdales pulling their fully-laden coach through bucolic, snowy landscapes, wishing for their promised good cheer to break through the sad fog of familial strife that unfailingly settled over my house from mid-November to mid-January every year.As I entered adolescence, I became aware of a shyness and awkwardness with others that impeded me from forming relationships with my peers, and also of a mental obsession with alcohol and drinking. The knowledge of my father's alcoholism, along with that of his father and other relatives, gave alcohol a dreadful power over my imagination. It is of little surprise that I experienced a thrill when, at the age of 14, I had my first drink; I experienced a release, an instance of what the American psychologist William James described as alcohol's "power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him, for the moment, one with truth." (James, William,
The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York. Modern Library, 2002, p. 421.)When I entered college, I immediately took to drinking; with a beer in hand, my self-consciousness and dissociation from others, particularly members of the opposite sex, melted away to reveal a convivial, affectionate and uninhibited young man who could easily and boisterously joke and talk with seemingly anyone. Seven years later, living in New York - where I was unencumbered by familial obligations and Midwestern business hours - I found a city made for drinking: the bars were open until 4 am (not counting the illegal "after-hours" clubs); the subways and taxis went anywhere at any time; the city was teeming with the lonely and the adventurous; and its citizens were remarkably tolerant of erratic and inappropriate behavior.There I blossomed in misery; the very thing I consumed to allow me to escape loneliness - to overcome anxiety and self-consciousness - was also causing daily hangovers, nausea, vomiting, bad decisions, and "blackouts," such that I would wake up not knowing where I had been or what I had done the night before. The thing that had taken away the fear, trauma, and memories of non-contact childhood sexual abuse
turned me into a voluptuous pleasure-seeker, unable to truly love the lonely and broken women I ended up with. Infused with false spirits and falsely united to friends and lovers, I chased after sensations without joy.In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the entire city seemed plunged into the darkness and despair that I had felt for about a year. The autumn and winter months were all a blur of smoke, ash, tears, heartaches, illness, and pubs filled with boisterous firefighters and cops in their dress uniforms hanging out after their colleagues' funerals. And suddenly, on my 28th birthday the following August, I heard a voice say with an unfamiliar clarity and authority that I was about to have my last drink; the unreal and false began to give way to the Real and the True. I was suddenly imbued with a previously-unknown desire to stop drinking, and to believe the message I had heard.That experience was precisely the type of spiritual experience that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous describe as being at the heart of recovery from alcoholism. Bill Wilson saw in his own life, and in the lives of the alcoholics that he sought to help, that alcoholism was a mental, physical, and spiritual disease; recovery from alcoholism was dependent, not on medical or psychological treatments, not on moralistic arguments, but rather on an encounter with God. Why is this? Why does a spiritual program of recovery work in ways that incarceration, temperance movements, lobotomies, shock therapy, exercise regimens, and countless other approaches do not?I would suggest, as Fr. Dowling did to Bill Wilson all those years ago, that we have a profound thirst that can only be satisfied by God. The alcoholic drinks in order to experience something of the divine, as William James discussed. This theme of thirst for God recurs throughout Sacred Scripture, such as in Psalm 42 (which begins, "As a hart longs/ for flowing streams,/ so longs my soul/ for thee, O God./ My soul thirsts for God,/ for the living God.") and Psalm 63 (where the Psalmist says, "I seek thee,/ my soul thirsts for thee,/ my flesh faints for thee,/ as in a dry and weary land where no water is."). Qoheleth, in the book of Ecclesiastes, recounts how he "kept from [his] heart no pleasure" and yet "all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun." And yet, God did not create us to be unsatisfied; we see in the fullness of revelation that Jesus promises to give us living water: "whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14).When he comes to drink of this living water, the sober alcoholic can show the world and the Church in a particularly dramatic way the transformative power of God's love. Where once he sought joylessly and compulsively after a false and fleeting sense of ease and freedom in drinking alcohol, he can experience true peace, unity, and joy in Christ. To encounter Christ, and to be infused with the Holy Spirit, is after all, an intoxicating experience. The Apostles appeared to be drunk when the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost; the Heavenly Kingdom will be not, as many fear, a place filled with the grim, the self-righteous, and the moralistic, but rather an eternal wedding banquet, where the saints behold their Creator and where the wine will never run out.Spiritual masters throughout the centuries have described the relationship with God as a type of intoxication: the
Anima Christi prayer implores, "Blood of Christ, inebriate me"; Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Dominic's successor as master of the Order of Preachers, likened the Lord to a friend who wants to sit down and have a drink with us, hoping that we become drunk on the "new wine" of the Gospel. In being filled with that new wine, one then begins to overflow, to share that new wine with others in the hope that they, too, might become intoxicated by it.Fr. Hermann Cohen - a 19th century Jew who became a Carmelite priest after years of drinking, gambling, promiscuity, and associating with the rich and famous - preached this very thing when he said, "I am overflowing with joy. Yes, I am so happy that I come to offer it to you. … Faith brings us to happiness in God and in Jesus Christ his Son. … [T]o find Jesus Christ, one must watch and pray. … So pray, ask, and you will receive this intoxicating wine of immortality which flows from the winepress of prayer." (Schoeman, Roy,
Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ. San Francisco. Ignatius Press, 2007, p. 52.)In coming to know Christ and in becoming "drunk" on this new wine of the Gospel, the alcoholic comes not only to experience the unity and infusion that he has always sought, but he also is given the chance to testify in an explicit way to the truths of the faith that might otherwise seem too remote or abstract to be believable. An example that comes to mind for me is that of the resurrection and glorification of the body; in becoming sober, I was able to witness in a profound way the healing power of God's love, and yet I can also see that my condition as an alcoholic abides with me. I can foresee, with hope and faith, a time when that ailment of mind, body, and spirit will be healed and I will be made new.Beyond this, however, the alcoholic discovers that, in the light of sobriety and washed clean in Christ's love, his entire life can serve to give hope and encouragement to others. Hermann Cohen preached about this when he baptized one of his Jewish friends, saying: "Do you believe, my brothers, that God converted us just for our own benefit? No - a thousand times no. It is for others as much as for ourselves, that they may avoid the reefs against which we were shipwrecked. Yes, He has nailed us as signposts before the gates of Hell to say, 'Don't go this way.'" (Schoeman, p. 53.)This insight is taken up in the Big Book to good effect. The alcoholic comes to see, paradoxically, that his recovery is contingent upon his remembering the past and being "willing to turn the past to good account." In doing so, he can help bring encouragement and hope to all who suffer, be they alcoholics or not. One of the most hopeful passages of the Big Book describes the culmination of personal transformation resulting from the long-sought relationship with God: "Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God's hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have - the key to life and happiness for others. With it, you can avert death and misery for them." (Alcoholics Anonymous. New York, 2002, p. 124.)In laying down his life in such a way for the good of others, the alcoholic is given the grace to enter into a deeper unity with Jesus and with the Church by speaking from an abundance of the Spirit. In this, and in the Sacramental life of the Church, he finds the mystical impulse beginning to be fulfilled, filled with hope for a future at the wedding feast of the Lamb.Colin O’Briencurrently works in the Communications Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir.
Colin is a native of Minneapolis and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area.