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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another video: Passions and Virtues

This is a further installment from Alaska, this one having to do with the corresponding virtues that replace the passions when the alcoholic allows God to heal him.

It is critical to keep in mind that the 'fruits of the spirit' are things God does within us because we are yielded to Him, rather than acts of the broken self-will.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Another video from Alaska

Here's another installment from the presentations I gave in Alaska.  There are still a few more once I detangle some of the technical issues and find the time to format them...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Habits and Culture

To wind this topic of habits up (for now), I wanted to address some of the biggest habits of them all: culture.  In my experience of dealing with alcoholics, cultural habits are some of the hardest to break.

In some cases, we are talking here about sub-cultures of abuse.  These are the places and 'friends' of the addict with whom he has normally associated and engaged in his addiction.  Sub-cultures often dictate clothing styles, accents and slang, acceptable group behavior, posture, etc.  In order to 'fit in,' the addict usually has to engage in his addiction, which is another element the group shares, though some of its members may not be addicted and simply abuse.

In the context of a larger culture, where the abuse is acceptable, the addict must be prepared to knowingly and consciously stay sober while being uncomfortable.  A significant part of addiction comes from the desire to fit in and be accepted, but the recovering alcoholic must be willing to experience these clumsy and frightening feelings of being left out without the escape of the addiction.

A recovering addict must be willing to give up the old styles that were part of the old life.  Otherwise, there are simply too many temptations.

The problem for someone raised in a dysfunctional culture is that he often does not know any other way.  There is a difference between someone who actively chooses a subculture and another person 'born in the neighborhood.'  One has another context to fall back on, but the other needs coaching to break free.  He will need help even with simply things: buying appropriate clothing, speaking without slang, etc.

In Los Angeles, I have seen many addicts fail because they would not leave the neighborhood in which they had their addictions.  Because they would not surrender the routine, eventually they fell into temptation.  On the other hand, I have seen others who made a clean break from their old ways, and the results were almost always entirely positive.

Even if you are not an addict, you can experience how hard these habits are when you move away from your family, but return for the holidays.  Notice how at family gatherings you find yourself doing things you no longer do, just because you are around familiar people with whom you have old habits.  They resurface rather quickly in most cases!

Yet, these habits can quickly get one up on the addict and trigger a relapse.  Now, the habit is not necessarily the addiction, but are activities that lead up to it.  Around an addiction there can be hundreds of small habits that, like the fine threads of a jellyfish, draw up the addict into his addiction.  He must break free of the small habits to avoid becoming entangled in the addiction.

He must be vigilant and watchful, even over small things, until these habits become alien.  In some cases, the addict might find that he must permanently leave people and places behind in order to stay sober.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Habits and Passions

So, thus far I think it is clear that habits do have a role in the development of addiction.  The dividing line between them can appear blurry at times, but the real test can be seen when someone tries to break them.

A habit can be broken by will-power, whereas an addiction cannot.  It is impervious to the self-will.

Bad habits become addictions through a single underlying cause: inner suffering.  Addicts are successfully treated when they identify and ask God to heal their suffering, thus removing the 'fuel' that powers the fire of addiction.  Addicts fail when they try to put out the fire without removing its fuel.  That's why quitting never works.

A bad habit is a form of laziness, which we all suffer from to some degree.  When it becomes a response to inner suffering, then it becomes 'sloth' as a passion.  We all have varying degrees of laziness, in large part because we are not yet filled with the love of God as a consuming fire that energizes us to do good.  We run on human energy, and it is limited.  When we run low, we get lazy and tired.  It is natural.

Therefore, we must conserve our own energy by pacing our lives, while also seeking the inner energy of God's love to accomplish what human energy cannot.

However, when our energy becomes suffering, the bad habit becomes its 'virtue' as the natural result.  Love produces good fruits, suffering produces bad fruits.

Now, you might say, 'I thought suffering was something that even Christ went through, so how can you say it is bad?'  

True, but He went through what was bad to get to the good.  Suffering is something we must endure in order to get to what is good, but that does not make it a good.  If suffering was good, then we would not have to go through it, we could stay in it.  Even He asked that the cup of suffering not be given to Him, though He accepted it.

If we stay in suffering without hope to exit it, then it will distort and destroy us.  The addiction becomes a way to cope with the suffering without actually leaving it, and so the suffering destroys endlessly.

A habit is a means of coping with a daily routine, not just a matter of intense personal suffering.  This is profoundly different from coping with inner torment.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Short Cuts in the Mind

I'm continuing with the topic of habits, since there is a close correlation between habits and addiction.  People who develop bad habits can later become addicted to their habitual activity.

This is in large part because both activities allow the will enter into an 'automatic' activity.  Addicts often describe a trance-like state they enter into while engaging in the habit, as they go through ritual motions which take them through the addiction.  habitual activities are often done automatically, like a 'muscle-memory' reflex that can often surprise us in its speed and how effortlessly it is achieved.

Therefore, the most dangerous habits are the subtle ones.  We now have a whole modern science devoted to studying human behavior and looking for 'tells' that indicate whether someone is lying or not.  Paul Ekman has pioneered this field in recent years.

Essentially, we all have small habits that change based on our contexts and perceived comfort/discomfort.

A habit is a short-cut, a way for us to response quickly and without exerting much effort to regular situations.  There are lots of short cuts.  We even take them in the Church.  For example, when we say, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us" we do not mean that she is the Savior.  Rather we mean, "Help us through thy intercessions to thy Son, with whom thou hast a profound relationship and motherly affection!"  Of course, that's a mouthful.  We even say "Lord, have mercy" to mean any number of things.

Short-cuts are not bad, but we must understand what we are doing.  And, we must make sure we are not falling into a habit that is not appropriate for the situation in which we find ourselves when the habit is initiated.

Habits can be good, but they must be done with awareness.  We must be vigilant and keenly aware of our surroundings and, most especially, our own perceptions regarding whether we are in a place that is comfortable or threatening.

What does that mean?  In a simple way, it is this: am I comfortable with my surroundings?  When I am comfortable, it usually means that I can predict what will happen and engage in more habits, which in turn means less stress on the mind.

This is why a child, when taken from an abusive home and put in a loving, caring, home, will often act out and even run back to the dysfunctional home.  The pleasant surroundings are totally alien, and the child's mind overloads.  He can't cope with all the new surroundings that don't line up with his habits.  he can't ignore them.  Whereas, adults are better at 'tuning out' their surroundings and engaging in habits even though their surroundings are a poor fit to what they are doing.

Here is the addict: one who has mostly tuned out reality and how he may fit into the real world around him.  His short-cuts have cut him off from other people and the world.  He is 'all habit' and no perception.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Habits and Abuse

Generally-speaking, not all abuse is addiction, but all addiction is abuse.

When we abuse something we are improperly using it.  Addiction is a misuse of something, both a misuse of the subject of the addiction and a misuse of the addict's life.  For example, alcohol is not made to be drunk in excess, and neither is the human body designed to consume mass quantities of alcohol.

Habits can also look like this same mutually-distorted behavior.  Many people are racked with bad habits (check out our prisons if you have any doubts).  Drug and alcohol abuse often begin as 'bad habits,' but then go beyond.  Here are some ways to discern:

1) Habits are often 'thoughtless,' done without a great deal of thinking.  Addictions usually engage a great deal of thought to excuse the behavior or make the addiction possible.

2) Both habits and addiction inhibit impulse control (or are caused by it, which is why young people are the likely candidates for both), but habits can be 'unlearned.'  Addictions cannot.

3) Habits are usually conditional, only happening in certain circumstances.  Addicts, however, obsess about the addiction regardless of circumstances.

4) If a person begins to break a habit, he will feel discomfort if in the 'trigger condition' in which he usually engages in the habit, but will overcome the anxiety if he does not give it.  The addict will not only feel the discomfort, but will not feel alleviation until he engages in the addiction or a replacement addiction.  

5) A person can often catch himself in a habitual act and break it, whereas an addict cannot stop his addiction once he starts.

As with all things, this is an over-simplification, and the human condition is often complex.  But, one should not be too quick to call someone else an addict.  Lots of people have bad habits these days, and so we must be certain that the abusive behavior really is an addiction... and not just a bad habit the other person is willingly engaging in.

Monday, January 23, 2012

I found this question posted on and thought I would respond here.

“I wonder if there is any comparison between what Orthodoxy considers to be a "passion" and one who has become enslaved to his drinking habit in the teaching from the Father in this blog?

“I guess I'm thinking about the stages of progression of a "passion" like we see in the Philokalia as compared to one from the time he has his first drink to and thorugh the point to where it becomes a habit.”

A habit is different from an addiction.  A habit can be likened to laziness, since it usually is a mental ‘short-cut’ that we often take to avoid having to deliberate over every decision.  This is why we can talk about ‘good’ habits and ‘bad’ habits.  We try to develop good ones, like regular prayer or acting in a virtuous manner, while avoiding bad ones.

As much as a habit seems to be an ‘auto-pilot’ activity, it is a willful decision.  We decide to keep a habit, and though it may be difficult to break, a habit can be broken by a strong desire to end it.

The same is not true of addiction.  Yes, and addiction is a form of a passion, but it goes beyond a mere ‘bad habit’ since it is a breaking of the will and also extends beyond the particular behavior.  For example, if you have the bad habit of yelling at your spouse when he/she annoys you, this behavior does not necessarily mean that all of your human relationships are affected by this habit.

In the case of addiction, the addict affects all aspects of the addict’s life.  All of his relationships are colored by the addiction.  The addiction comes before all else in life.  Therefore, the passions are a fuel for addiction: the addiction runs on these underlying passions that must be cured in order for the addiction to cease.

This also means that treating addiction without touching the passions is an impossibility.

So, there is an important different between habits and addictions, and we will discuss this more as we continue.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Healing Outside the Church?

I spent this week at a Roman Catholic retreat center our Diocese rented for a clergy meeting.  The nuns there were wonderful to us, and it was very clear that they are Godly women earnestly seeking after the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some Orthodox maintain that there is no God, no life, no hope outside the Orthodox Church.  They would say these women are bound for eternal damnation because they are heretics.  This same thinking also condemns Orthodox participation in AA and other 12-Step groups.

This is something I posted on the forum on this topic:

Theosis is the transformation we have when we encounter God.  We cannot encounter God without being transformed by Him.

God is a Person, and so this encounter with God is an encounter with His Person: the Uncreated energy of God, the Body and Blood of His Son, etc.

He is also The Truth, which we begin to approach through truth.  Therefore, wherever truth is found, then we begin to approach God.  Truth changes us, it makes us better.  'Healthy people' are people who spend the most time in the truth.  They do not believe in false images of themselves (therefore they are humble and kind, etc.) nor do they live in emotional chaos driven by fear.

Therefore, all people to some extent experience Theosis as they seek spiritual truth and find it.  They encounter the True God in small glimpses, and they are changed as a result.  Those faiths closer to the Orthodox Faith (Orthodox being a replacement adjective for 'True') are naturally going to bring adherents more of these transformative opportunities.

In a AA, just like the nuns in the convent, we encounter God as we encounter the truth about ourselves and earnestly seek after Him.  God is not going to punish us just because we get it wrong, though getting it wrong prevents us from fully experiencing Him.

As for myself, I know that I do not perfectly practice what I preach and believe, and in my failing I deny myself the opportunities to grow that others, with more limited opportunities, take better advantage of.  These nuns might very well be closer to God than I will ever be, if only for the fact that they take better advantage of the opportunities they have, whereas I do not.

We should not judge others, but look for the fruit.

I knew an Orthodox man who refused to go to AA because it is 'not Orthodox.'  The AA member speaking with him said, 'Yes, but they don't drink and you do.'  Eventually he got the message and his transformation has been miraculous.

We must take advantage of the truth wherever we find it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Second Video

Here is Part 2 of the same lecture.  The third part will go up next week, once I work through some technical issues with the length.  Eventually, I will post some of the other presenters, though a few videos were spoiled because they simply would not stand anywhere the camera was pointed!  Oh, well.  Duct tape was not conducive to good lecturing, so they wandered and lectured and I just don't have any good videos to share with you.

As I said before, there are lots of stumbles and misspeaks... it is hard to say one thing at a time when everything is competing to come out as once.  If you have any questions, please let me know and I will do my best to clarify what I've presented.

I also have audio recordings from a one-day retreat I gave that weekend in Wasilla, AK.  Hopefully I can get those up in a reasonable time as well. 

Quick Note

I will be internet disconnected for the next few days and will resume posting after Thursday.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

New Video from St. Herman Seminary

Here is the first part of the first lecture I gave in Kodiak back in December (2011).  As I get them edited, I will post them here and on YouTube.

I apologize that is isn't the highest quality, but I hope that you can make out most of what I'm saying (and writing).

This is not an academic lecture, so there are not a lot of Patristic quotes and Scriptural exegesis examples.  I do stumble a bit with what I'm saying, but I hope you can get past all that and see the general approach.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Revenge and Recovery

When we talk about forgiveness and resentment, we are talking about a major stumbling block to sobriety.  Many people become addicted when trying to drown out the memories of what was done to them rather than letting go.

Christ commands us to forgive: why?  Because only by forgiving can we ourselves receive forgiveness, but also because holding onto resentment is poisonous.  So, why do we want to hold onto the sins against us?

Most of us really are holding out for revenge.  We want to get back at the other, to 'settle the score.'  Most of our popular movies are about revenge, and it is a theme that runs through even our view of manhood: real men don't let others 'get away' with doing harm.  We all harbor in inner 'Dirty Harry.'

But revenge does not heal, and very often those who avenge themselves find little comfort in it, because it does not erase the sin.  rather, it just adds one more.  In the end, the person who sins against us not only victimizes us, but controls our thoughts and actions.

Unconsciously, most people hold onto resentment because they are holding out for revenge.  They feel that by forgiving, so how the other person will escape punishment.  They will remain whole, and we who were sinned against will remain less than due to the sin.  Something has been taken from us, and ultimately it is a loss of power.

We must accept the reality: we have no power at all.  Only God has power.  Therefore, our real need is not to take revenge but to be healed.  The other person is not part of that healing.  It is only between ourselves and God.

Once we see this primary relationship between ourselves and God, then the need to exact revenge and told onto resentments becomes meaningless.  We see that God permitted us to be harmed, but only so that He could heal us.  This healing, however, does not make us a weaker, scarred version of our old selves.

We believe that Christ heals us with His humanity.  We become something renewed.  But, this can only be accomplished when we give up the resentment.

This is why hoping for revenge is pointless: it does not heal us, and it keep God from healing us.  We must give up on this delusion, and turn all of our hope to God.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Forgiveness and Silence

If we want to attain inner peace, then we must first rid ourselves of noise.  It is simple principle: the more noise you have, the less silence you have.  The quest for peace means turning off the noise.

Forgiveness is a tool for attaining inner peace, since there is no other more powerful 'inner noisemaker' than resentment (with the exception of fear, but we can get into that later).  A lack of forgiveness can rob us of all joy, peace, and inner stillness.

For this reason, forgiveness is main element in sobriety.  No amount of therapy or medication can take its place.  Addicts 'medicate' their noises with the objects of their obsessions, something everyone does to some degree.  This is why death renders its own judgment: in death we enter into a place of silence, when we have our memories but none of the distractions we had in life.

When we become intentionally silent, then we discover the sources of our noise.  The process of recovery is one of repeatedly entering into the silence to discover what it brings forth.  When we are silent, we see that forgiveness is not so much for the other person as it is for ourselves.

If we cannot have peace, then we cannot have God.  Christ promises peace to those who are united with Him, and so when we are not peaceful, then we are not part of Him.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More on Thoughts

I very much appreciate Ioan's comment on the previous post and his own struggle with thoughts.  I think this underlines the connection between addiction and mental illness, which share many of the same characteristics.  The question becomes: is addiction a mental illness?

My own sense is that addiction manifests as a type of mental illness, but it is not the same as having an organic mental illness such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder.  The reason I say this is that the organic component of addiction (i.e. the change in brain chemistry and operation) only take place after the behavior has been in place over a period of time.

This is also witnessed by the medical communities limited effectiveness in treating addiction without 12 Steps.  Even a treatment center with the latest anti-anxiety medications and trained counselors will still encourage discharged patients to seek a group.

However, the effects on the mind that addiction exercises is often similar and even indistinguishable.  This makes treatment difficult when someone becomes addicted while using chemicals to self-medicate mental illness.  This is why we would be foolish to kick medical professionals out of any treatment program: they have a lot of wonderful insight into the human person and can discern medical problems much better than us 'laymen.'

Some addicts do benefit from pharmacology in the beginning, especially if their minds are severely disrupted by the effects of addiction.  Some addicts experience overwhelming panic attacks, rushing thoughts, confusion, and other problems that medications can help with.  Prescription medication can help with these problems to speed up the recovery process.

Counseling professionals can also aid addicts with severe emotional problems stemming from events either contributing to or occurring within the addiction: trauma, grief, anger management, etc.

This is why the discerning of thoughts and treating their origins is much more important than trying merely to stop the thoughts.  Addiction comes largely from people trying to stop their thoughts, which is why sedatives and depressants are usually popular.

What recovery is about is healing the sources of the thoughts, so that they become healthy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dealing with Thoughts

Alcoholics and addicts share a common 'symptom' that many non-addicts can share to some degree: rushing thoughts.

The mind of the addict is often awash in thoughts.  They overwhelm reason and flood the mind to the point where the addict becomes utterly isolated in a 'stream of consciousness' that is neither awake nor a nightmare.  It plagues us, and the addiction served as a means of regaining focus.

Addiction is an escape from thought, a return to a place that does not exist.  The problems are never cured, simply avoided for a moment or two as the addict indulges in his 'distraction.'  The problem is that the distraction is also a type of intense focus.

The symptoms of these rushing thoughts are obvious: nervousness, inability to pay attention, confusion, conflicting ideas, and so on.

Now, many normal people also experience these as well, but the addict experiences them regularly and predictably: he only feels 'normal' when he is in the addiction and thus focused.  When the addictive behavior ends, the thoughts come rushing back.

The cure for these thought is not in the will: we cannot stop thinking.  Thinking is part of what we are created to do, and when the brain 'stops,' just like the heart, it is a form of death.  We even call is 'brain death.'

Thoughts must be channeled, and this can only take place once the source of the thoughts is found and cured.  This is the process of recovery.  Rather than fighting the thoughts, the addict must trace them back to their sources within himself.  It is like swimming upstream to the origin of the river.  Once the pollution is removed from start of the river, the entire river becomes clean.

Recovery comes when the addict discovers the pollution within himself and asks God to remove it.  The fears subside, and thus the rushing thoughts also decrease, or at least become healthier.  Many addicts will never be 'calm' people, since their minds do not operate that way.  But, they can acquire the gift of peace.

Calm is a pace, but peace is a manner.  We can suffer and have peace.  We can work hard and have peace.  We can even run and be at peace at the same time.

We are not called to stop thinking, but to think with the spirit of peace.  It is not what we think, but how we think that really counts.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Four Stages of Spiritual Development

If we in the Church today have one failing when it comes to addictions and recovery, it is usually one of over-estimating the spiritual illness of the addict.  By this, I mean that we assume the addict is ready for high-level spiritual activity when the very foundations of the addict’s soul are rotten and decayed.

By the time the addict asks for help, the whole building is in danger of collapse, and so the work must begin at the foundations.  Unfortunately, most amateurs want to start by painting the walls and replacing the windows.  We read the Fathers of the Church and books written to those who are spiritually advance, and assume that the addict must do things ‘the way the Fathers teach’ not realizing that the addict is totally unprepared to engage in, let’s say, the Jesus prayer, since he hardly believes that Jesus would even help him to begin with!

Recovery begins at the very bottom, the basic assumptions of the human mind.  The first thing that must happen is that the self-destructive impulses must be harnessed through a very elementary form of obedience.  The 12 Steps require an addict to ‘surrender,’ and by this he must learn to listen and take directions even when these directions don’t entirely make sense to him.

From there he ‘grows’ through the later stages.  St. Paul described this in the Book of Ephesians (4:11-32):

And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.  
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
But ye did not so learn Christ; if so be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, that waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.
Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear. And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye were sealed unto the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and railing, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.

So, St. Paul is talking about growing out of sinful behavior in four stages: 1) the unity of the faith, 2) and of the knowledge of the Son of God, 3) unto a fullgrown man, 4) unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

The ‘unity of the Faith’ means that we as the Church come together as the Body of Christ, with all the various ministries and authorities that Christ provides us with in order to help us grow in Him.  This is the first stage, where we learn to take divinely-inspired direction and become ‘faithful’ to God in the sense that we will follow Him where He directs us through others.

This is the very basis of 12 Steps: addicts must first learn to take direction, and they are not going to do so willingly at first.  This does not mean that you can force an alcoholic or addict to obey, nor should you try.  He must find within himself the desire to be faithful to God and the Church.

However, it is only once that he has begun to learn openness to those trying to help him that what he is doing will make sense (i.e. knowledge of the Son of God).  You can spend a lot of time trying to explain recovery to an addict, but it never works.  He must experience it first.  This is why the Apostles were recruited simply with the words ‘Follow Me.’

Next comes emotional maturity (full-grown manhood) and finally inner peace (the fullness of Christ).  Any approach with a new addict that requires either of these is simply too much for him: he must be repaired at the first two levels in order to progress.  Because of conditions as they are, most of our spiritual literature and monastic admonishments approach topics at these levels, thus they are ‘over the heads’ of addicts.

We must learn to approach significant spiritual problems at the very lowest level, which is often difficult in a parish setting, which is why we need to think about larger ministries encompassing dioceses and metropolitanates, providing a refuge for addicts to go through those painful first stages in a safe place provided by the Church.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reality versus Modernity

When we talk about healing the human soul, particularly when it comes to the approaches ‘traditionally used,’ the word ‘modern’ or ‘latest’ does tend to pop up.  We like to think that the newest must be the best: the 2012 model of a car is going to be better than the 1978 version, right?  Surely, technology has changed in the intervening years, and so material objects have improved (except in those cases where ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ is invoked).

So, this means that ‘modern’ is better, right?  Well, not necessarily.  A great deal of what we think of as ‘modern’ is more or less a ‘fashion.’  The idea of what is modern is different from era to era, even year to year.  I remember in the 1980’s when everyone shaved off their sideburns and cut their hair to sport the new ‘preppie’ style.  If you had long hair (the fashion of the 1970’s for those too young to remember) you were ‘behind.’  Outdated.  Not as good as those who were keeping up with the latest trends.

Collect enough of these trends, and you have a definition of modernity.  Right now, its all about computers and the internet and cell phones.  Music is synthesized to the point that our entertainers rarely can record a record with their raw voices: they need computerized reprocessing of their voices in order for us to better enjoy their music.

When it comes to religion, nowhere is this thinking more prevalent than in popular religion.  Americans have religious fads going back to the circuit preachers of the 18th century and tent revivals of the 19th century.  Modernity is exciting!  It gets people whipped up.

The problem with modernity is that it keeps aging.  Like I mentioned before, the long hair of the 1970’s was a modern movement during that time, but time progressed and fashions change.

Even modern medicine goes through ‘fads.’  Consider the leech: once used to cure all kinds of ailments, they fell into disfavor and were expelled from ‘modern medicine,’ only to find their way back.  Psychology and counseling has always had its fads.

But, humanity is humanity.  Our DNA does not radically change from one decade to the next, and neither do our problems: this is why the Ten Commandments are still ‘relevant’ in our society.  They speak out against a reality: man tends to sin, and sin has not changed.

Sure, modernity has given us all kinds of new ways to sin (think about the internet), yet it has not really changed the underlying causes.  The reality of humanity is something which is not susceptible to modern fashions.  It runs far deeper.  This is why modernity and reality are often two different things: temporary versus permanent.

So, in tackling human problems, modernity is only helpful so long as we want to understand the context of one’s acting out.  But, the reality of human spiritual illness is something that can be approached with something ‘ancient’ or, more accurately I believe, something ‘timeless.’  We do not need the latest fashion trends in medicine or psychology, though these may be helpful in small ways, since the one thing for sure we can count on: these modern approaches will soon change and be replaced by newer data and discoveries.

Science and medicine is in constant upheaval, in large part because we like to think of them as facts when most of the time scientists are still guessing.  They have some things pretty good, but other topics are still in flux.  When it comes to the treatment of addiction, the scientific community is still guessing (see my previous posting on the DSM-5).

The approach of the Orthodox Church is a timeless one.  Repentance is not a fashion, and neither is the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy.  Fashionable people have a new trend, called atheism.  It is relatively new, and all the rage in Europe (particularly in the northern reaches).  The latest fashion demands an approach to sobriety that does not involve God.

The 12 Steps are relatively ‘new’ in their present expression, but their principles came from this timeless approach of the Church.  Repentance, conversion, and healing are nothing new to humanity.  The Old Testament has spoken of them for thousands of years.

We must be cautious about not confusing modernity with reality, nor tangle up passing theories for known quantities.  Modernity is often a passing fad, but what is real endures.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Problem with Sympathy

Fr. Meletios Webber gave a talk in our parish a few years ago (I tried getting an annual conference on addictions in the Church, but soon realized that people who like the concept aren't necessarily going to bother to show up) in which he stated rather directly that sympathy is one of the worst emotions we can show another human being.  Most of the people who attended were shocked he would say such a thing.

Why did he say that?  Well, his reasons were clear, sympathy and pity are not the same as empathy.  Empathy is when you actually relate to the suffering someone is going through because you yourself have gone through it.  Pity is a condescending act, in a way demeaning the humanity of the other.  They are less than.

What makes sympathy worse is that it acknowledges that the other person has a right to feel sorry for themselves.  The encouragement of self-pity is more deadly than a gunshot wound: by pitying one's self, one is no longer able to do anything else.  Self-pity means that one has acknowledged that there is no hope.  For example, we do not pity a man in pain if his pain is from too hard of a workout in the gym, but if the same pain is from fibromyalgia, they we ooze sympathy because there is hopelessness behind the pain.

Pain that has no meaning brings about sympathy from those who have no meaningless pain.

What's more, self-pity engendered by sympathy leads to a shut-down of any efforts to get one out of one's pain.  It is an insurmountable roadblock to growth. If you feel sorry for yourself, you can't get up and do something about your situation.

So, we can paralyze people by showing them sympathy.

This is why 12 Step groups are so effective: the people involved have NO sympathy.  They have empathy.  They know what the newcomer feels like the moment he opens the door because everyone there has experienced it.

Jesus Christ Himself has empathy for our situation as fallen humans because He experienced it.  This is one of the most powerful aspects of the Incarnation.  He does not pity us, nor does He sympathize with our plight.  He knows our suffering and points a way out, which is Him.

This empathetic strain in Christianity and the 12 Steps is the reason that those who honestly follow both of these paths find their way out of meaningless suffering.  Notice that I did not say 'out of suffering,' because there is no way in this life to escape suffering.  Suffering is the beginning of existence, and points the way towards the fullness of life.

But, we are not meant to sit in our suffering and stew in our misery.

Empathy says, 'Yes, I was there where you are and I know how much it hurts.  Follow me and I will show you how I got out.'

Sympathy says, 'You poor thing.  Here's a box of tissues.'

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

We are all sick

If our communities within the Church are going to live up to our calling to preach the Gospel, teach the Tradition and heal the sick, then we must first live out what we preach.  Our parishes must be places of healing, and we ourselves must be in the process of healing.

The spiritual healing from God begins when we confess our sins and repent, the latter meaning that we ‘turn around’ and seek genuine change in ourselves.  That means we need to have our ‘covers blown’ and be confronted over our own dishonesty with ourselves.  This usually means we need someone from the outside to come in and ‘counsel’ us by seeing our situation with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.  That’s counseling in a nutshell.  Accountability means that we agree to receive that counseling and make changes accordingly.

The difficulties we face in our parishes is that because we tend to identify as individual parishes, rather than the larger community of the eparchy/diocese, our parishes focus more on the ‘needs’ and demands of the ‘locals.’  And, most of the time, those ‘needs’ actually have little to do with real spiritual healing, but rather tastes and preferences.  By being isolated, we avoid that fresh perspective and can preserve the status quo.

Should we really want to be healed, we first must ensure that our parishes are accountable to the bishop and the greater community, which can call us to account for our unhealthy acts.  We have to look at the ‘big picture’ of the Body of Christ and see that each parish has a role in healing the entire community rather than just a few members.  When we become aware that there is more to the parish than just ‘us’ and our desires, then we can see how we are accountable to our fellow Christians for what we do in our parish, but we also become more aware that there are many people outside the parish that need to be brought in (or at least invited).

With this accountability come some hard words.  Sometimes we have to be told ‘no,’ while other times we must be told we are wrong.  In many circumstances I have encountered, the community refused to hear hard words either from the bishop or the priest.  The members became indignant when they were told that they needed to change even in minor details.  All too often, we have seen small changes trigger schism and rebellion.

People will often equate the permissiveness of the priest with his compassion, and the same is true of bishops.  The more he leaves us alone, the better off we are.  We want distance, and the more distance we have, the less he knows about us and that’s just fine.  We can fix ourselves.

If anyone wants to be sober and work the 12 Steps, he must be prepared to hear lots of hard words.  He needs the truth in order to be healed, because healing starts with honesty.  You cannot confess and be healed of things that hurt if you are not willing to be hurt to begin with.  If you are afraid of change and of pain, then you will go nowhere.  Things will stay the same and you will remain addicted.

The same is true in parishes: often we must hear hard things.  I know of a case where a parish was really struggling, in large part because their liturgical music was horrid.  It drove visitors out, but they liked it and took pride in it.  They had been doing it that way for decades.  But, it was also killing them.

The priest tried to tell them, gently at first, that they needed to change in order to survive.  His warnings led to an insurrection, calls to the bishop, and lots of drama.  Finally, the priest fired the choir director, tossed the old sheet music in the trash, appointed a new director and started over.  Things got worse.  The only thing the priest had going for him was the support of his bishop, who refused to budge in hopes that after years of neglect and letting them make their own rules, perhaps they could change with a hard-nose approach.

They did change: the parish had a rough first year, but in the next year visitors stayed and became catechumens.  Now, there are no more complaints and the parish is healthy, though the priest paid a great price.  Just for music!

Imagine if the priest had to confront the people about their pride, their stinginess when it came to alms and supporting the Church, their irregular attendance, their neglectful or over-protective parenting… how long would he last before the community would be up in arms?  This is because our common expectation is that priests lend a ‘sympathetic’ ear to what we want to complain about and keep their mouths shut about the rest.

This pastoral approach kills addicts.  They need to hear the truth about their errors because they have utterly lost their way.  They need help, and someone has to tell them the difference between right and wrong.  A sponsor does this by saying the truth, even the offensive and unwanted bits, in order for the addict to see it for himself, reject it and ask God for help to change.

If we are going to help addicts in our communities to change, or if we are going to invite recovering addicts into the Church, they we ourselves must remake our parishes into places where change is welcome and encouraged.  No, this does not mean inventing new services or painting the walls orange or strumming a guitar.  Those kinds of change are external.  They are not challenging.  Real change goes on within.  We must be willing to repent, to acknowledge our sinfulness and weakness, and to serve others rather than ourselves.

We must look and see our own sickness first before we can help others.  People in 12 Steps help each other not by examining the other person, but looking into themselves and repenting.  This inward examination leads to empathy, where we can relate to the suffering of another person because of our own suffering.  Thus, we are no longer alone and we receive hope, the hope that our pain, if share, can be lifted with the help of others.

So, if we can see others in our parish in an empathetic light, seeing in them our own suffering, then we can truly be their brothers and sisters in Christ.  We can help one another on the path to healing.  Even Christ has empathy for us, having endured our own humanity.

If we can see our own sickness, then we can offer fellowship to addicts even when we ourselves are not addicted.  That’s because we can see our own sickness and hear the unflattering truths about ourselves.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sobriety: less bureaucracy, more ministry

After my post yesterday, I came across this passage from the conclusion of Fr. Michael Oleksa’s book, Another Culture, Another World.

After more than a hundred years of assimilationism, the contemporary Native population continues to suffer from violence dealt to others and to themselves. At this stage, the government intervenes with “help.” For suicides we need a hotline. For drugs we need counseling. For bootleggers, we need more police. To stem the tide of anti-social behavior, we need stricter enforcement, bigger jails, tougher sentencing. The government appropriates millions of dollars. Social workers, medical care providers, counselors, all sorts of preventative programs and interventions have flooded into the region. As these new "outside" professionals establish their presence, they offer their expertise to the locals. But the more external, non-reciprocal help that is imported, the more dependent, depressed, confused and frustrated the population becomes. The more others try to help, the worse the problems get.

It has taken more than a hundred years to put this cycle of dependence, confusion, frustration, anxiety, anger, bitterness, guilt and grief into operation. It has produced an overwhelming sense of nihilism (“nothing matters, I don't matter, you don't matter, no one matters”) that provides the context for the widespread use of drugs and alcohol.

A population suffering depression, as the dominant culture did during the Great Depression, will resort to pain-numbing anesthesia, the cheapest form of which is alcohol. No one can understand drinking as a problem without first understanding alcohol as a solution. This “solutionmay have a very short effect and may even produce a new level of problems, but people get drunk to forget, to have some relief from the pain and strain of being alive. And then, under the influence, all the anger and pain and guilt and sadness they keep carefully concealed when sober, erupts in a torrent that often harms, destroys, kills.

The way out of this tragic cycle lies within the Real People themselves. No temporary hired professional can really change the dynamics of the dependence cycle. No one from outside the community can transform it, make it a better, happier, healthier place. The United Nations cannot pass a unanimous resolution declaring that a particular Alaskan Native village will be much improved in two or three years. The U.S. Congress, the state legislature, these institutions lack the power to transform a town or a neighborhood. Only its residents and citizens can change the situation, and no one else. “We cantis a lie that is literally killing Native people today.

A reawakening, a revitalization of the traditional culture, the Way of the Human Being, lies at the foundation of a new chapter that is beginning to emerge in many regions. Young people are reaffirming their belief in themselves, in their communities, in their people, and rejecting the false dichotomies that have created the old either/or dilemma. They are embracing both identities and claim both as legitimately their own. We can be who we are, and we can live successfully in the modern world. We can do both. We must do both. That is how we become Real People. We adapt. We change, but we also hold on to all that is good, true and beautiful in our story, in our way of life, in our culture.

That is not only a challenge and task for Alaska Natives, but the essential need of every Human Being on the planet today. As Alaska Natives have always known, after the long, cold, dark night, if the Human Beings do what they should and must do, there comes, inevitably, a new dawn and a never-ending day.

What Fr. Michael is describing is happening in more than just Alaskan villages.  Nihilism, the ‘Emo’ movement, and addictions are rampant in our culture.  Sure, people are not dying in the streets, but society is breaking down.

What our present problems trigger in us is a response which has, thus far, utterly failed.  Anti-drug campaigns do little to stop drug use.  We fund more ‘programs’ and enrich bureaucrats who have nothing to show for their work.

No matter where we are, we need to find ‘the Way of the Human Being.’  This is the core of sobriety AND the root of Christian mysticism: to become real in Christ, with Him and through Him.

What this also means is that the Church’s work in Alaska has ramifications for the entire Church, just as the steps being taken in Romania are beginning to be noticed in the rest of the Orthodox World: when the second-largest Orthodox community takes on a major societal problem like alcoholism and institutes curriculum in the seminaries, the other Churches will soon take notice.  Floyd has mentioned that other Orthodox churches are starting to contact him.

The establishment of the St. Dimitrie Program in Alaska ( is not simply for the benefit of the Alaskan Native peoples, but the entire American Orthodox community.  Our social programs run by government agencies are not working, either for us or for the rest of society.  More than ever, people are depressed, angry, and unhappy.  This is why we see more and more people clamoring for ‘services’ rather than attending services.  Everyone ‘wants’ because we are all ‘victims’ in need of government benefits and entitlements.  Yet, as the number of these services grows, our unhappiness seems unabated.

It is time for our community to take back the responsibility for healing souls.  We have depended long enough on our government to provide alcoholism and addictions treatment for our members (that’s why our parishes and dioceses really don’t do anything about education or counseling in this regard).  We must now take up this ministry, not only to heal the people already in the Church, but to evangelize and bring healing to all our fellow citizens.

If sobriety is about becoming a real human, than recovery simply isn't a proper subject for a government program.  It is a task for the Church.