Ignatian spirituality, Alcoholics Anonymous and the inspiring ministry of Father Ed Dowling
When 21-year-old Edward Dowling entered Florissant—or St. Stanislaus Seminary, as the Jesuits’ novitiate in Missouri was officially named—on Sept. 23, 1919, he hoped to find the peace of mind that would come from the certain knowledge of whether or not he was called to the Jesuit priesthood. But what he actually found was quite different.
Crossing the threshold of Florissant’s venerable Rock Building marked the start of the greatest spiritual crisis the young man known to friends as “Puggy” would ever experience. The next two years would see him spiral downward to a point when, just prior to professing his first vows, he felt utterly bereft. In the very place where he had hoped to find his path to heaven, he descended instead into a personal hell.
Yet in years to come, as Ed Dowling, S.J., immersed himself in ministry to alcoholics, he would refer to his time in the novitiate as “the most important months of my life.” For it was there that he had his own personal experience of what his future friend Bill Wilson would call “deflation at depth...a cornerstone principle of A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous].” From then on, for as long as he lived, the memory of that experience would ground the deep sense of empathy that empowered his ministry to alcoholics, drug addicts, spouses in troubled marriages, people with anxiety disorders, the incarcerated and anyone with a problem. More than anything else—even more than the crippling arthritis that would calcify his spine—that memory would enable him to speak with authority about how God awaits us in the depths of our suffering.
His duty now was to submit his personality—and indeed his whole self—in all humility to God under the judgment of his superiors, so that the Jesuits’ formation process might transform him into the priest he hoped he was called to be.
Not My Will, but God’s
A week after Puggy entered Florissant, he saw someone using his prized silk shirt—the one he had worn upon his arrival—to polish wooden floors. The image would remain with him, viscerally impressing upon him that, as a member of the Society of Jesus, his life was no longer his own. Whatever qualities he possessed in the outside world that made him stand out among his peers—be they his athletic prowess, his journalistic talents, his debating skills or his gift for friendship—none could define him anymore. His duty now was to submit his personality—and indeed his whole self—in all humility to God under the judgment of his superiors, so that the Jesuits’ formation process might transform him into the priest he hoped he was called to be.
Almost certainly unbeknownst to Puggy, at the same time that his Jesuit formators were helping him learn to become small, the Society of Jesus was telling the world it had reeled in a major catch. On Sept. 27, the very day he was clothed in his novice cassock, the Missouri Province’s press office sent an item to Catholic newswires about the Society’s accomplished new recruit. Dozens of newspapers throughout the world picked up the story: “Edward P. Dowling, Jr., former member of the [St. Louis] Globe-Democrat staff, has entered the Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Mo., to study for the priesthood.” The story also noted Puggy’s achievements as “an athlete of some local prominence.”
Indeed, the onetime reporter had left behind an exciting life in the world for the austere life of a Jesuit-in-training, and no one was more cognizant of the contrast between his old and new living situations than Puggy himself. For starters, he had to forsake his nickname for the duration of the novitiate. He could no longer be called Puggy, nor even Eddie or Edward. Until he reached the juniorate level of formation, he was to be addressed under a Latin title: Carissime (“Beloved”) Dowling. To an Irish populist like Dowling, the aristocratic-sounding honorific was embarrassing.
The greatest challenge Dowling faced in the novitiate arose not from external rules but rather from his own internal fears.
Even as Carissime Dowling’s title placed a layer of unwanted formality between him and his fellow novices, the unforgiving schedule at Florissant—and the plethora of rules that governed it—militated against his having anything resembling a normal social life. All his life, his greatest pleasure had been the warm companionship of his friends. But at Florissant, he and his fellow novices had to maintain silence, save for two hour-long recreation periods each day. And even those recreation periods could not be taken entirely as free time; they were subdivided into smaller periods when novices had specific tasks to fulfill.
Dowling also had to keep “modesty of the eyes,” which had a wide meaning in the Jesuit understanding. It encompassed not only avoiding looking at women (not that there were any to see at Florissant) but also avoiding making eye contact with men if possible. As if that weren’t constricting enough, the Society’s rules barred physical contact of any kind between novices. They could not even shake hands or pat one another on the back. For a man as gregarious as Dowling, it must have felt isolating to be surrounded by “brothers” and yet forbidden from making friends.
Even so, the greatest challenge Dowling faced in the novitiate arose not from external rules but rather from his own internal fears. When he considered his fellow novices, he assumed they were confident in the knowledge that they were called by God to belong to the Society of Jesus. But he himself felt no such security. In February 1922, five months after his novitiate ended with his profession of vows, he wrote to his sister Mary from his new quarters in Florissant’s juniorate:
I came here pretty nearly convinced that I would not stay for a few weeks. In a sense I came to satisfy myself that I did not belong here. Even to this day, I have not a trunk here, as for nearly two years I still could not bring myself to believe that I belonged here.
Reinforcing his sense of being out of place were the many opportunities the novitiate gave him to discover his faults. Like every novice, he was assigned an “admonition partner”—a fellow novice who would meet with him briefly once a week to advise him on how to correct his behavior so he might better follow the rules. One admonition partner passed him a note that included the following:
Don’t rest your chin upon your breast.
Keep erect and keep your eyes lowered.
Don’t play with anything on table.
See what you can do for others. Be alert.
Don’t eat anything that has fallen from your lips, especially if it has fallen on your cassock.
Be more careful about your hair. Rearrange your underwear so that it is not visible, especially over your trousers. This is inexcusable.
Dowling evidently placed great value in the admonitions he received, for he preserved them for the rest of his life.
An Unstained Holiness
Why did Dowling find it so hard to believe he belonged at Florissant? From his correspondence and personal papers, this much at least is clear: Dowling envisioned the Jesuit priest as possessing an unstained holiness that was, humanly speaking, all but impossible to attain. Just prior to entering the novitiate, he wrote to his friend Tony Harig, “The end of every Jeb’s thought is a high one, the highest possible, or our belief is a sham.” He could maintain such an elevated view of the “Jeb,” or Jesuit, mind as long as he felt he was merely trying out the Jesuit vocation. However, once he began to realize God truly was calling him to be a priest of the Society of Jesus, he was faced with a crisis of faith.
The things he had enjoyed in the world—reporting for a newspaper, playing baseball, tracking the minutiae of local and national politics, and hanging out with friends in all-night diners—none of these were sinful in themselves, but they were incompatible with the Jesuit priesthood. If he were truly called to the Society of Jesus, he would have to sacrifice his hopes of being able to do those and a thousand other things he enjoyed. Yet here he was in the novitiate, longing for the things he left behind. How, then, could he truly be called to the Jesuit priesthood if “the end of every Jeb’s thought” was “a high one, the highest possible”? Under the limits of his own logic, he was forced to confront the possibility that Catholic belief was “a sham.”
Dowling would carry his experience of the via negativa into his work with A.A. One of the first pieces of spiritual guidance he gave Bill Wilson the night they met in November 1940 was, “If you can name it, it’s not God.”
Dowling refrained from revealing the depth of his anguish to his family at the time. But later, both in personal correspondence and in talks, he often reflected upon the years when he doubted his vocation and even faith itself. To him, it was the critical growth period of his life. In April 1944, he gave a talk at an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering in which he likened the interior conflict he endured during the novitiate to that of alcoholics who struggled with the notion of surrendering to their Higher Power:
But here, tonight, [I am] discussing a problem to which I am not entirely alien. Up to about the age of twenty-one, my spirituality, my religion, my faith was a comfortable, unchallenged nursery habit. And then, over a course of some twenty-four months—the most important months of my life—I saw that faith, that religion, drift away. It began to make demands. And when it ceased to be comfortable and comforting to big, important I—when it ceased to “yes” my body and my soul—I found I moved away from it. I am not utterly unacquainted with atheism. I know and respect agnosticism, and I have been a bed-fellow of spiritual confusion—not merely the honest, sincere kind but the self-kidding kind.
Only his novice master, William Mitchell, S.J., was privy to the extent of his sufferings. Dowling later described to his sister Mary how a gentle word from Father Mitchell provided him with the beginnings of the hope that he was seeking:
One night, things came to a crisis and the Spiritual Father told me I would have to stop going to the sacraments unless I could throw off the ideas I had. I told him it was hopeless and he let the whole thing hinge on my answer to one question: “Do you believe in God?” I told him that I could not actually say that I did, but I was afraid to say that “I actually did not believe.” In other words, I doubted the existence of God, but I wasn’t ready to say that “I was sure there was no God.” The priest told me to keep praying and, in view of my nervous and confused condition, that my answer was satisfactory.
Gradually Dowling opened up to the possibility that God was not truly absent but rather was patiently awaiting his “yes.” In this way, his journey to a mature faith began through what theologians call the via negativa—that is, the negative path. He had to develop the wisdom to recognize the dark places where his own mind and will had excluded God, and gain the humility to ask God to illuminate them.
Dowling would carry his experience of the via negativa into his work with A.A. One of the first pieces of spiritual guidance he gave Bill Wilson the night they met in November 1940 was, “If you can name it, it’s not God.” The same sentiment would underpin Dowling’s address at the 1955 Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention, when, commenting on A.A.’s use of the phrase “we agnostics,” he said:
There is a negative approach from agnosticism. This was the approach of Peter the Apostle when he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”... I don’t think we should despise the negative. I have a feeling that if I ever find myself in Heaven, it will be by backing away from Hell.