God’s Mercy in Alcoholics Anonymous

A few weekends ago I walked into the dining room of our retreat center and was welcomed by the laughing and greetings of a large group of women who were making their annual spring retreat.  This group, and another group that gathers every November, have become very close to me over the many years I have been associated with the Center.  They are truly sisters to me: they are members of Alcoholics Anonymous.  They are one of my ministries in many years of retreat work, individual direction, and group spiritual direction. I am blessed to know them and befriend them because they teach me more about God’s mercy and love than all the theology I have studied or all the sociology of addiction I have encountered over the years.  They are real.   They are blessed.  And they are happy.

When I first became director of the retreat center, I was told that if a group came in and settled in the assembly room and were laughing with such an abandoned joy, they had to be one of the Alcoholics Anonymous groups!!  Other groups come reserved, often silent, and timid, even a bit fearful.  But not the AA groups!  They were happy to be alive!  They knew what it was like to have slipped into street gutters or lonely rooms hoping not to be found, not to be exposed.  They knew—in the case of the women—what it was like to lose children because they inoculated themselves with the drug that softened their pain or poverty.  They knew what it was like to drink secretly so spouses wouldn’t notice until the chemistry wore thin the veneer of deceit.  All of them—all of these almost helpless human beings whose bodies were ripped from their souls—were now joyful in our Center.  How could this be?

One of the women had given me a Christmas gift a few months back which has helped me understand a little more of the background of AA and its spiritual pillars.  I live only a few miles from where it began in Akron, Ohio, at St. Thomas Hospital in 1935 led by Dr. Bob Smith along with the kind and clever Sr. Ignatius, CSA, who served as receptionist at the hospital.  Sister Ignatius was a friend to Dr. Bob, a surgeon at the hospital himself a recovering alcoholic and co-founder of AA.  She was a co-conspirator of healing, hiding alcoholics who were brought to the hospital, mistakenly, because alcoholism was not considered a disease and then placing them in linen closets or storage rooms until she could get them into a bed.  That’s another great story. 

The story I am currently enamored with is the subject of the book, Father Ed, by Dawn Eden Goldstein.  Edward Dowling entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1919 after college and after working as a journalist for a Missouri newspaper.  His time in the novitiate (where Jesuits become novices and begin their rigorous training in spirituality and academics), was austere and without human interaction.  He once confessed to his sister in a letter that “there were weeks in the novitiate when I felt I could not honestly remain a Catholic.”  Many years later he confessed at an AA meeting that, “I am not utterly unacquainted with atheism.  I know and respect agnosticism, and I have been a bedfellow of spiritual confusion.”  I believe this core of Father Ed’s life is what made him so helpful to the growth of AA.  When he met Bill W., one of AA’s co-founders, Ed was able to identify with what an alcoholic experiences: the dark night of the soul, the caverns where depression digs tentacles deep into the psyche.  Like the alcoholics, he had not yet acknowledged a ‘higher power.’  Eventually, by 1941 when he had become involved with a fledgling AA group in St. Louis, Fr. Ed met Bill W. and a deep, spiritual bond took place reinforcing the basic tenets of the organization then growing throughout the country.  Father Ed had become Bill W’s lifelong personal spiritual advisor and the AA organization as well.  His influence on AA was immense—as it was on everything else he did in nascent justice programs.

Father Ed suffered all his life from a disease which attacks the joints and skin of the body bringing on severe arthritis as one ages.  As a result, he was often carelessly dressed and mistaken as another ‘alcoholic bum.’  Though he never drank, he liked not being distinguished from his suffering brothers.  He was a humble man and Goldstein writes that he eschewed the academic career that many Jesuits enjoyed.  He was satisfied in working for labor unions, counseling married couples, aiding in the fight for civil rights.  He and Bill W. devoted themselves to surfacing the tenets of the spiritual life as outlined by the fifteenth century saint, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, demonstrating the connection between Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises with that of the 12-steps of AA recovery.  Dowling pointed out the similarities noting that God is there with the suffering person and God works through the companionship and support of fellow sufferers to achieve the wholeness of both. He once said, “The AA program is a slow seeping of God into the thirsty soul of the alcoholic.” 


There is something like 28 Jesuit Retreat Centers in the United States and each offers weekends for recovering alcoholics.  It seems to be in the DNA of our centers to offer this kind of compassionate care for the soul, perhaps a recognition of that connection between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and the innate spirituality of the 12-Step Program.  And, perhaps in recognition of the Jesuit who was Bill W’s spiritual guide spreading the life-saving mission of Alcoholics Anonymous.

For this week, can you reach out to someone who may need help in their addiction?  I strongly suggest you contact an AA member you might know or a local chapter which you can locate through Google.  It is best, most of the time, not to intervene yourself at first.  Praying for persons who are addicted is another way to help. 

Pray not to be judgmental—to anyone—but especially to an addicted person.  Addiction is beyond simple choices we can make to help ourselves.  We are all possessed of certain traits and leanings we would not want anyone to witness.  We can sin this way too.  Never consider yourself ‘above’ any person so afflicted.  My favorite description of Fr. Ed’s holiness is that he considered himself, as a non-alcoholic, “underprivileged.”

4 thoughts on “God’s Mercy in Alcoholics Anonymous

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  1. Such a beautiful ministry! There is an AA house in the former convent across the parking lot from a community garden I ran for 10 years. Building and maintaining the garden would not have been possible without their help. I am always impressed by their willingness to do for others. Occasionally cooked a meal for them so we could break bread together. Another AA house is across the street and the guys there help maintain a. Community green space, picking up trash, mowing lawn, spreading mulch, etc. Each of them is a gift to the community.

    We need programs of support for other addicts and for LGBTQ individuals. Dr. Bob, D’r. Ignatia and Fr. Ed helped change societies attitudes regarding alcoholism. We have many more attitudes to change.


    1. So true, Pat. We need to change many more attitudes about our brothers and sisters locked in addiction and other issues that place them on the margins. So happy you look for opportunities to help them.


  2. Dear Sr. Mary Ann,
    Thank you so much for this history of AA and the influence of Jesuit spirituality. I now understand more clearly the beauty and power of the 12 steps of AA and the principles and slogans through attending Al-Anon. My dad was a recovering alcoholic for 30+ years and my hero. My mom introduced me to Al-anon and gave me my first books and I am forever grateful. The 12 step program has saved my life in many ways. Peace and blessings.


  3. Rita: What a courageous man your dad was–and your mom was courageous as well. You know how important support is in this journey with a person in need. Thank you for your honest sharing. Thanks for sharing. S. MAF


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