New Wine: Confessions of a Catholic Alcoholic
If the church that hosted my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting had been Catholic, I wouldn’t have gone near it. The religion I had been brought up in made me so angry in those days that I boycotted it in any way I could. But since the church was Presbyterian, I condescended to take a rear seat in its dingy basement auditorium and listen grudgingly as three fine speakers told of finding sobriety by turning over their wills to a power greater than themselves. It all sounded like claptrap, but after countless failed attempts to control my drinking, I was willing to try anything.
I walked home through the balmy June streets that night, ruminating. Before becoming such a problem, alcohol had been a rapturous solution. For years it had dispelled my shyness, my anxieties, my self-hate like a wizard’s wand. How could I bear to face life without it? Preparing for bed I fell to my knees (my boycott of Catholicism did not extend to prayer), begging that this A.A. thing might work. Then I heard an inner voice: You’ve been wanting God to do everything all your life. This you’ve got to take the responsibility for. The next evening at dinner with friends I slogged down all the alcohol I could get my hands on. It had no effect. The following day I decided to pay another call on A.A. That was over 30 years ago. I have not had a drink since.
My first three years in A.A. were the most difficult of my life. I kept feeling that I was waking out of a long, anguished sleep, and I did not always like what I was waking up to. Life without sedatives, as I had anticipated, could be a pretty dreadful affair.
It could also be a pretty delightful one, and that was a continual surprise. One afternoon I staggered giddily out of an Impressionist art exhibit, convinced that the worldblack and white till that momenthad suddenly blossomed into Technicolor. And I remember leaving a meeting one night and breaking into a Gene Kelly soft-shoe shuffle on Lexington Avenue. To my fellow alcoholics backing away in embarrassment I said, You don’t understandthis is the first time I’ve ever really been high!
After a few years I checked the date of my first day sober and discovered that it had been the feast of Pentecost. On a whim I looked up that day’s Gospel, and read about the Holy Spirit descending on the cowering Apostles in their upper room, and their dashing out joyously into the streets, so that the townspeople thought they were reeling drunk. Said one onlooker: They’re filled with new wine.
This was exactly what I was experiencing. A.A. had filled me with new wine!
But I still found much to complain aboutall the God-talk at meetings, for example, which conjured up the Catholic Church of my childhood.
Why did that church fill me with so much hatred? I had been an almost pathologically devout child, transfixed by the pageantry and magic of the Mass. I even brooded about one day becoming a priest, and to that end invested a quarter (not an insignificant amount at the time) on a glass goblet in a thrift shop, which I used to transform Pepsi-Cola into the blood of Christ.
When adolescence began working its black magic on my nervous system, I did what the nuns at St. Gregory’s had trained me to do: rushed to confession. In that lightless, squeaky box I listened, stunned, as my favorite priest announced that, unless I altogether repressed my sexuality, I was condemned to hell.
I tried. But repressed sexuality, I quickly discovered, has a way of twisting the body into infinite knots, not to mention what it does to the mind and spirit. I detested myself to the point of contemplating suicide. My affection for the church, I began to see, was a lot easier to repress than my hell-inspired yearnings. I began to dislike, then hate everything to do with the church. I seemed, in fact, to be hating everything my eyes lit on, until I stumbled upon a new source of spiritual strength.
Alcohol, a psychiatrist once determined, saved my sanity. It became my elixir, the chrism of a religion that brought the kind of solace and inspiration Catholicism had once provided. Carl Jung told A.A.’s founder, Bill W., that the craving for alcohol was the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness. Expressed in medieval language: the union with God.
I was fortunate enough to find in A.A. a mental, physical and spiritual experience powerful enough to take the place of the religion of alcohol. I was able, paradoxically, to combine A.A.’s key third step (We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God) with my newfound determination to take responsibility for my own life. So effective did I find the A.A. program, in fact, that I was getting fixated in a way Bill W. expressly warned against. A.A. meetings had become my whole life. I was making a religion of A.A.
A big change took place when I had been sober around 10 years. From early childhood I had loved to writeletters, poems, fictionand in the drinking years I had spun that love into a successful advertising career. Then came sobriety, and with it the awful discovery that I could not write at all. It is normal for recovering alcoholics to pass through such a period, and before long I was writing better from a deeper place than ever before. But I was discovering that I had a great deal more to learn about the art than alcohol had ever permitted me to realize.
I relocated to Paris, where I began the painful process of trying to break into print. One day a Catholic A.A. friend suggested I tackle a story for a Catholic magazine about the changes going on in the French church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. I scoffed at the idea, but couldn’t drive it from my mind.
I went about the ancient churches and rectories of the city conducting interviews with eminent church figures. The one who most stirred me was the great Dominican theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu. Then 86, bent and feeble, he had gone through a painful time in the 1950’s, when the Vatican placed his classic treatment of the theology of labor on the Index of Forbidden Books. After Chenu was gloriously vindicated by John XXIII, he authored the splendid message to the world document of Vatican II. The crash course I got from him in modern Catholic thinking set my brain spinning in a way that has not stopped since.
He made me see, for example, that it was less important for our faith to question the changes going on in the world than to use those changes to question our faith. (I was a long way from catechism lessons in St. Gregory’s!) We’ve got to get rid of the magic! he insisted. As if to illustrate this point, an ex-priest speaking at an A.A. meeting around that time told of his disillusionment, in the early years of his ministry, when he realized he was unable to work miracles.
For the same magazine article, I interviewed the young chief of the Jesuit order in France, Henri Madelin, who, far from being the pursed-lipped mandarin casuist I had envisioned, had the magnetism of a film idol as he spoke in depth about the difficulties of the faithful in the modern church. I get the strongest sense that you’re searching for something, he told me at the end of our interview. I think I know where you can find it. I should visit a Jesuit retreat house, he suggested, and ask to be given the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.
If he had recommended my joining the Penitentes and whipping myself bloody three times a day I could not have been more surprisedor more appalled. Still, it was not very long before I found myself timidly approaching a Jesuit retreat house. The Spiritual Exercises proved a turning point in my sobriety, and in my life.
Returning to the church has never felt like going back to the religion of my childhood. You might say that, in a certain sense, I have found a new religion, in the same way I found that new wine 30 years ago. It happens to go by the name Roman Catholicism, though it is a far cry from the small-minded sect of that name I was brought up in.
At the time when I was trying to resist religion’s new allure, I delved into various Protestant sects, looking for one that might agree with my views. I finally decided to return to Catholicism just because it did not agree with my views. I have come to admire the way the church, in all its idealism and all its shabbiness, is a microcosm of the wide wacky worldjust as A.A. is. And I have come to accept the way it makes room for bigots, crooks, tyrants and fascists, along with the rare perfect specimen like myself.
We alcoholics are taught that we do not have to like each other, only love each other, and I apply that same reasoning to the church. I love bearing witness that people with little in common ethically, ethnically or politically can get along, can even affectionately coexist, at least for an hour of liturgy.
I love knowing that the man in the pew alongside me may find my philosophy of life despicable, yet is willing to share a handshake as a sign of peace, which I hope is as meaningful for him as for me.
But I am certainly not blind to the intellectual and ethical dilemmas that confront the practicing Catholic. And I would like to propose that, just as A.A. learned a lot studying the growing pains of the church, the church could learn much from A.A.
A.A. is entirely democratic, and as a result we sometimes have to support leaders who do not work out very well. Most of us in the program have seen the lust for power affecting the way some group leader operated. But the problems always seem to rectify themselvesand quicklyrather than grow worse, which has certainly not always been the case with the church.
So far A.A. has resisted the siren songs of money and success in a way the church has too often failed to do. Of course, A.A. is not yet 70 years old. When the church was our age, it had no structure, no dogmas, no excommunications. Who knows what rutted roads A.A. has yet to turn upon?
I don’t go to many meetings these days. Just as I had to relinquish the magic of drinking, I have had to give up the idea that I could stay tucked away safe in a corner of A.A. till kingdom come. I believe that the hard work of explaining the program to beginners is best performed by people in their first to tenth years in A.A. Newcomers have difficulty identifying with anyone sober longer than that (I certainly did). And I do not like being regarded as one of the Wise Old Men of A.A., particularly when I don’t feel very wise or, for that matter, very old.
I am trying as best I can to accept Bill W.’s dictum that we have to move into the mainstream of life. But I still tell my story two or three times a year, to show that the program really can work over the long haul. As for religion, I seem to be turning more and more to those Catholic churches in which I wouldn’t have gone to an A.A. meeting 30 years ago.