It Still Outranks Them All Part 4: Spirituality and Alcoholism

By Fr. Bogdan Djurdjulov

Alcoholism may begin in numerous ways and develop as part of a person's total life system and style. Alcoholism erodes an individual's ability to function, physically, emotionally, and spirituality. Alcoholism is not only a major medical problem, it is also a spiritual one. However we may view alcoholism, we in good conscience cannot pass by on the other side as did the Levite but must, like the Good Samaritan, be ready to help heal the wounds of anyone who is suffering.

Spirituality has to do with meaning and purpose and integrates all other aspects of life. To understand spirituality more clearly, a look at the word itself is necessary. It comes from the word "spirit" which means "breath of life." In the Hebrew and Greek, the word holds two meanings and stand for both "wind" and "spirit." This is more than an appropriate description for the breath of God. When God made man He breathed into him and made him a living soul (Gen 2:7). We were then invited to share the "spirit;" to have it within ourselves.

Each of us has this spirit within us, this very power of life. Each of us has the capacity (sometimes more and sometimes less), ability, and even a responsibility to project some of our own life and energy into others. Each of us is gifted with the power to literally "inspire" or "breathe into" others. Spirituality has to do with becoming a person in the fullest sense of the word, a journey very much a part of any person's spirituality quest. St Irenaeus said that the "glory of God is a man who is fully alive." For the active alcoholic, being fully alive is in too many cases a distant dream. Such a person's inner resources and sense of well-being have degenerated to a dangerously low level.

Spiritually Bankrupt?

Some in the field of alcoholism describe alcoholics as being "spiritually bankrupt." I don't see it so much as a bankruptcy, as a temporary inability to "see" a way out by one's self. Spirituality has to do with "seeing." Alcoholism, by its very nature blinds a person from seeing reality. It's a disease of denial. The alcoholic is taken over by fear, self-pity, guilt, shame, depression, and other destructive and self-defeating behavior. The fact that an alcoholic has become dependent on a mood- and mind-altering drug like alcohol, leaves little room for trust, faith, and reliance on God and other people. The "bankruptcy" exists in the mind of the alcoholic. All around are people who are trying to help alcoholics see what they can't see on their own. Hope, in my opinion, is one of the last things to go before people abandon ship.

The Scriptures carry the theme that where there is no vision the people perish. Where there is no vision there is also no hope. We have to look beyond ourselves. Alone, we are limited.

Spirituality has to do with Relationships

Spirituality has to do with relationships. Each of us has many relationships. I would like to draw your attention to four broad areas.

  1. A relationship with myself (self), me with me.
  2. A relationship with others, me with others.
  3. A relationship with nature (environment), the world I live in, and
  4. A relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the most important one

We live in a spiritual system of sorts; each relationship affects the other. A person achieves spiritual growth and wholeness through relationships; each relationship affecting another. Growth and action in one area will very likely stimulate growth in another area. Likewise inactivity or apathy in one will probably constrict growth in others. Nothing we do is done in isolation. It does have an effect on other areas of our lives whether we know it or not.

In the alcoholic's world, relationships are at best "dysfunctional." Alcoholics are persons with sizable life problems. Their lives are unpredictable and unstable. Active alcoholics are not clearly aware of what they are doing and how it affects others. There is a general tendency towards self-deception, and often this disease has been called a disease of "delusion." At one time professionals said that alcoholics were "sincerely deluded" -- that they really believed that what they were doing was alright and everything was under control. Others, however, could see the real picture of the chronic and destructive nature of the disease of alcoholism. Whenever alcoholics drink, they have given up the freedom of choice.

Blocks to spiritual growth

Spirituality sits at the heart around which all other aspects of our lives center. All other values revolve around a spiritual manner of living. Spirituality transcends the physical and material world.

Alcoholism encircles and controls an individual and often leads to a lifestyle of self-centeredness and rationalizations resulting in a lonely and painful life. A false pride sets in that prevents a recognition of the fact that they are powerless over alcohol, that their life is dominated by alcohol. A "non-spiritual" lifestyle develops, one that is characterized by a movement away from what is moral and ethical. It robs a person's ability and the capacity for values and beliefs. Because the alcoholic is not able to control what is going on around him or her, fear, worry, and anxiety set in; and hope slowly but surely dwindles.

Healthful and productive ways of thinking are replaced by fear, anger, resentment, dishonest thinking, shame, and guilt. Self-worth is greatly replaced by suspicion and fear. The belief that there is meaning and purpose to life becomes a mere daydream.

A corollary seems to exist that the more a person is feeling shameful and guilty, the more difficulty it is to approach God because of what has happened. Shame has to do with what kind of person the alcoholic has become. Shame is a difficult area to deal with because of its deep roots. Reconciliation is much needed.

The alcoholic's journey is much like the prodigal son's. While the alcoholic may think he or she is going it alone, others -- family, spouse, children, and friends -- are also affected and undergoing a parallel experience.

Spiritual growth

"Spiritual growth is the key to all human growth," says Dr. Howard Clinebell, a noted professor of pastoral psychology and counseling. This is not a new concept, but it needs to be said again and again. John Macquarrie, a noted theologian, says that "the whole creation is the domain of the spirit." Our Christian spirituality would be virtually empty without Jesus Christ at the head. It would be like a sail luffing haphazardly in the wind as if it were lost and looking for some direction.

The alcoholic, for whatever reason, has become powerless over alcohol, yet tries ever so hard to keep it under control, not wanting to admit that he or she is truly powerless over its grip. The Alcoholic's Anonymous Program, which began in the 1930s, understood that first there must be an admission of powerlessness over the drug. This is Step One and the second step is that a "power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" (see Appendix for the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA). It was very clear to the early founders of AA that there was a way that worked, and it meant having a power greater than ourselves. The philosophy of Alcoholic's Anonymous and the 12 Suggested Steps of AA are deeply spiritual and have helped thousands upon thousands into a recovery program. The 12 Steps are equally important to family members and other concerned persons. The spiritual dimension is as important to them as it is to the alcoholic. They, too, are in need of healing.

While the 12-Step Program is not a religious program, it is a program that draws from Judeo-Christian teaching. Individuals are left to choose and decide who their God is. Often people involved in the 12-Step Program refer to God or a greater power as their Higher Power or H.P. It is meant with the deepest of respect.

The Twelve Steps and Relationships

Integration of the 12 Steps is a "process." It is "both/and" rather than "either/or." Each aspect of the 12 Steps overlaps other steps. Each day is a new learning, and the familiar jargon in AA circles clearly identifies that it is "One day at a time." Slogans like, "Easy does it," "Let go, Let God," "Turn it over," "Keep it simple" and others point to a positive philosophy of living. It is a philosophy that involves others. It is not something to be done alone. Listed below are what steps relate to which relational aspects.

Steps related to God: 2,3,5,6,7,11 (Notice 6 of the 12 Steps use the word God.)
Steps related to others: 5,8,9,12
Steps related to self: 1,4,5,10

All of the 12 steps are either directly or indirectly related to the world we live in, our environment, the community we live in.

The need for a moral inventory as found in Step 4 and the expressed need of Step 5 "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs," are foundation steps in the recovering process. Notice that Step 5 includes three very clear relationships. These steps are certainly similar to the steps we take in preparing for our own confessions. It helps us to move forward -- to grow and to see what it is we are working with. A fundamental beginning.

Spirituality is unlimited

One of the things that profoundly influenced me and caused me to learn more about what it meant to be spiritual was my early involvement in the 12-Step Program. As a professional, I have been in the alcoholism field for 15 years. Alcoholism, like other serious illnesses, confronts us with looking at our total existence. Those caught in its grips ask a lot of questions. "Why" is probably the most often asked. It asks us to look at ourselves, and it tests the limits of our faith. One of the things that is clear to me in the "recovering community" is that the nature of spirituality is seen as unlimited in its scope and breadth. Perhaps it is not stated in those terms, but it is clearly evident. Spirituality is at the same time very clear and yet very obscure, it is always present and yet imperceptible. Sometimes it is taken for granted, yet without it, we are left with a hollow. Spirituality is a paradox. The AA Program echoes some similarities. (See in the appendix an excerpt from the chapter in the Alcoholic's Anonymous, Big Book, Second Edition, "The Professor and the Paradox.")


The magnitude that one's spiritual life plays in the recovery from alcoholism is hard to measure. Yet without it, recovery is often no more than just putting the cork in the bottle with little lasting effect. There is no cure for alcoholism, but the disease is treatable. There is hope. A "spiritual awakening" as suggested in the 12th step of Alcoholics Anonymous takes time.

The most hopeful message that can be given is that our Lord is continually present whether you are the alcoholic or a person concerned about him or her. Restructuring lives is not an easy job, but can start as easily as it did in the beginning of AA with one alcoholic sitting with another alcoholic over a cup of coffee and talking.

Accepting alcoholism as a disease may not be that easy. Accepting another human being with a serious problem who needs help may be less difficult. We are asked to love others as we love ourselves and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We are asked to love God. The Bible explains it very simply and clearly.

Suggestions for the Priest and the parish community

    1. Start a study group on alcoholism and other drugs. Explore what it means to have a disease. Read and discuss books on the subject. Rent a film from your local Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and discuss your impressions.
    2. Visit your nearest Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. If there is not one in your area, contact the National Council on Alcoholism at 12 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10010 or call +
    3. Volunteer to help your local Council on Alcoholism. They are always in need of help. See #2 for further information.
    4. Attend a number of "open" Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Any interested person is welcome to attend the open meetings.
    5. Attend an Alanon meeting. Alanon is a self-help group that serves families and friends of the alcoholic. Insights are shared freely.
    6. Attend an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting. This group serves people who have grown up in an alcoholic or drug-dependent family or system.
    7. Many AA and Alanon groups meet in churches. Consider opening your doors to these groups. Contact AA World Services at +1.212.686.1100 or Alanon Family Group Headquarters at +1.212.683.1771 for information.
    8. Sponsor a workshop on alcoholism. The Department of Lay Ministries has a Task Force on Alcoholism and other Drug Dependence. Contact them for a group leader or suggestions.
    9. Discuss how the 4th and 5th Steps of AA and Alanon are similar to our own sacrament of reconciliation. Seven of the twelve steps of AA are devoted to a restoration of the alcoholic's ethical and moral life.
    10. Give moral support and encouragement to programs addressing alcoholism and other drug dependence.

Twelve Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. 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.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous

    1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
    2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority -- a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
    3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
    4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
    5. Each group has but one primary purpose -- to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
    6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
    7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
    8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
    9. AA as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
    10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
    11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
    12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Excerpt from "The Professor and the Paradox" Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) 2nd ed, pp. 304-342.

"... Our program and procedures seem to be in many ways contrary to normal opinion. And so, in connection with this idea, let me pass on what I consider the four paradoxes of how AA works. (A paradox, you probably already know, is a statement which is seemingly self-contradictory; a statement which appears to be false, but which, upon careful examination, in certain instances proves to be true.)

  1. We SURRENDER TO WIN. On the face of it, surrendering certainly does not seem like winning. But it is in AA Only after we have come to the end of our rope, hit a stone wall in some aspect of our lives beyond which we can go no further; only when we hit "bottom" in despair and surrender, can we accomplish sobriety which we could never accomplish before. We must, and we do, surrender in order to win.
  2. We GIVE AWAY TO KEEP.* That seems absurd and untrue. How can you keep anything if you give it away? But in order to keep whatever it is we get in AA, we must go about giving it to others, for no fees or rewards of any kind. When we cannot afford to give away what we have received so freely in AA, we had better get ready for our next "drunk." It will happen every time. We've got to continue to give it away in order to keep it.
  3. We SUFFER TO GET WELL. There is no way to escape the terrible suffering and remorse and regret and shame and embarrassment which starts us on the road to getting well from our affliction. There is no new way to shake out a hangover. It's painful. And for us, necessarily so. I told this to a friend of mine as he sat weaving to and fro on the side of the bed, in terrible shape, about to die from some paraldehyde. I said, 'Lost John' ... that's his nickname ... 'Lost John, you know you're going to have to do a certain amount of shaking sooner or later.' 'Well,' he said, 'for God's sake let's make it later!' We suffer to get well.
  4. We DIE TO LIVE. That is the beautiful paradox straight out of the Biblical idea of being 'born again' or 'in losing one's life to find it.' When all that goes with it, gradually dies, and we acquire a different and better way of life. As our shortcomings are removed, one life of us dies, and another life of us lives. We in AA die to live."

*The "Third Legacy" of AA is Service. ("In service is perfect freedom": The words "obligation" and "religion" both come from the same Latin word, ligare, meaning "to bind".)

Fr Bogdan Djurdjulov is a Certified Chemical Dependency Practitioner and Health Care Management Consultant in private practice.

He is Associate Pastor of St Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH and Principal of Creative Edge Consulting which is dedicated to recognizing, inspiring, and promoting optimal relationship skills.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries