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Fr. Michael Kelly SJ
The Alcoholics Anonymous founder and the Jesuit
New film features their inspiring relationship and explores craving
Picture: Will G./page124.com
- Colin O'Brien for Aleteia.org
- February 6, 2014
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.