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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Joy of Liberation

Continuing with the previous theme, the story of our sins is also the story of God's forgiveness and mercy.  We should never want to entirely escape our pasts, and while our pasts have shaped us, they do not necessarily define us.

My past took me through the 'dark night of the soul,' when I despaired in my misery without any hope.  Existence hurt.  Even death did not seem to be an escape.  I don't know if that makes sense to anyone, but that was how I felt, even though no one else saw it but me.  I was good at keeping my private world to myself, but all that did was create a spiritual pressure cooker.

This inner suffering led me to both sin and to seek God.  When I found Him, it was a great joy, but that joy was also joined with my sins.  The ugly thoughts and deeds were wrapped up with God because He is my liberator.

In the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which the Orthodox Church sings this week, God is portrayed as a judge, but also as a liberator.  He frees people... and the hymns demonstrate the various examples from the Old Testament.  When we are forgiven, we are freed.  This is a constant theme in the OT.  Read it for yourself.

Recovery is not the utter erasure of sins, but liberation from their death.  Sure, we still deal with the consequences... the scars, the impediments, the wounds that heal slowly... but they do not kill us.  In fact, the wounds of sins are directly connected to the healing of Christ.  If you are not wounded, then you cannot be healed.

The canon reminds us of this truth: God heals and liberates all mankind from the death of despair.  Yes, death is despair.  One who is despondent cannot really live, since he sees nothing but bleakness and torment.  In order to act, and by this I mean to move towards one's joy, one must have the hope that there is an attainable joy.

We are meant for joy, but joy is not found within us until God comes within us.  Despondency is utter self-concern, and so there is no joy in it.  God liberates us from hopelessness by emancipating us from sin by delivering us from our self-obsession.  Once we get out of 'self' we can receive forgiveness and be free.

The Canon reminds us of this liberation so that we can apply it to our own lives and derive hope.  Addicts more than anything need hope, which is why step groups need older members in recovery to teach the newer ones about this hope's attainment and to demonstrate how it looks.  Slaves don't know how to be free.

For us in the Church, the saints are our examples of freedom.  They show us what it like to be liberated from death and despair.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Remembering Sin and the Alcoholic's 'Drunkalogue'

Last night, the Orthodox Church celebrated (and will continue throughout this week) the 'Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,' which is a series of hymns comparing our sins to the various people of the Bible.  In the canon, St. Andrew writes these hymns to his own soul, comparing the the good works of various Biblical figures to his own lack of good works, and how also these same people sinned though his own sins are worse.

To those without hope, it seems depressing and morbid.  Why remember such ugliness?

But, then we could ask: why would veterans who experienced the horrors of war gather together, or Holocaust survivors celebrate reunions?  Would it not be healthier to 'forget' those events and 'go on' with life?

Alcoholics do something similar to this canon: they will gather together and talk about their sinful pasts.  Some call it a 'drunkalogue,' like a travelogue for those on the path to hell.  There are sometimes tears, but oftentimes much laughter.  Addiction can be rather silly at times, though very often it is poignant and even painful to remember.

Is it healthy to relive such events, even when one believes they are forgiven?  Yes, it is.  The remembrance of our falls reminds us that we are 'recovering' and not 'recovered.'  We are reminded of our own frailty.  Even if we no longer do those things, we still have the capacity to do them.

The canon acts as a means by which each person can remember his own sins by looking at the Scriptures.  In doing so, he can also see the same hope the sober addict experiences when he tells his story: he is abstinent and happy.  In the Biblical story, all of these figures ultimately receive their hope in the coming of Christ.  Yet, even within the stories themselves, we see how hopeless situations (think of Joseph) ultimately work out.  None of them die without their reward for perseverance.

While we are forgiven and ought not remember our sins as if they are not forgiven, it is dangerous to forget them entirely.  This is for two reasons: the first reason is that forgetting our sins means forgetting our weaknesses, which leaves us blinded to the pit of temptations.  If we remember our weakness, we can prepare ourselves and not be tempted.  However, if we forget, then our weaknesses will eventually be taken advantage of.

The second reason is that forgetting our sins means we will forget God's mercy.  If we constantly remember what we have been forgiven, we not only benefit from gratitude for what we have received, but we also have a vision of His love that will get us through the times when we are fighting temptation or even fail.

The 'drunkalogue' is publicly told because the other addicts can hear their own story of pain that the teller has experienced and yet has found happiness.  The hearer shares in the hope that the teller has received.  It is a means by which one person encourages another.

The Canon of St. Andrew also passes this hope along.  We sing these hymns and realize that just as God did not abandon those people, neither will he abandon us.  And, there in the pages of the Bible we see murder, betrayal, fornication, lying, stealing... and that was just the good guys!  Yet, God does not forsake them, but accepts their repentance and ultimately saves them.

So, this first week of Great Lent marks a time of hope.  Its difficulties of fasting and extra prayer are illuminated with the expectation of mercy: we ask for forgiveness because we know it is available to us for the asking.  We must remember that we have received it before, and we can receive it again. 

That's the message of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and the sober addict's 'drunkalogue.'

Monday, February 27, 2012

Great Lent Begins

Last night was Forgiveness Vespers, which is the first step in Great Lent.  It is a reminder that Great Lent is about repentance for our sins not only so that we can receive forgiveness, but so that we can forgive others.  There is a mutuality in the rite of forgiveness that, even if taken lightly at the time and somewhat awkward, still teaches us about the power of both asking for and giving forgiveness.

The 12 Steps teach the power of both giving and receiving forgiveness, beginning with the former (Steps 4 & 5), and then the latter (Steps 8 & 9).  So, we begin Great Lent by attempting to forgive, even if weakly, knowing that much more will come up as the fast progresses.  This first, formalized step towards forgiveness is like knocking the tip off of the iceberg... soon, more will rise up out of the murky waters of the heart.  We will then chip away at that part until it is gone and even more comes up.

If we were to see within ourselves all at once, we would despair.  This is why the Steps are steps and not 'all at once.'  Alcoholics and addicts despair when they look within themselves and see so many problems.  The Steps pace the progress into smaller steps that can more easily be handled without overwhelming the addict and launching him into despair.

The same is true for every Christian who seeks God's forgiveness, seen in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We start off forgiving, and end with forgiveness.  The premise of the Lord's Prayer is fulfilled.

The problem of the Addict and the Christian is exactly the same: while he is troubled by sins, his real problem is despair.  He does not believe God really loves him and forgives him, largely because he knows he is unworthy because he holds on to so many offenses and so much guilt.

"The devil has no greater weapon in his hands than despair; we also give him less pleasure in sinning than in despairing." (St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Repentance I, 2 quoted in Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing [Jean-Claude Larchet], p. 99 ).  Despair finalizes the effects of sin, and leaves us in the mire of our suffering.  Sin is curable, but despair bars the cure.  It is a death sentence to those who accept it, and so the real fight in the Steps is not with what we have done or what has been done to us, but with our despair.

The premise of Great Lent is hope.  There is no reason to be despondent, since the end point of Great Lent is the celebration of Christ's resurrection.  The alcoholic has hope in much the same way, having seen others get free from the burdens that addiction fed off of, he has a vision of a future without hopelessness.

That's what we are striving for. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Richard Dawkins 'Repents'

Yes, the "world's most renowned atheist" now says he isn't entirely sure God doesn't exist.

Why did I post this?  Well, Dawkins is usually rolled out when discussing atheism, and atheism is a major issue when talking about recovery.  Even if you are not an Orthodox Christian, the 12 Steps require a belief in a loving God.  No God, and you are on your own.  You must get out of your troubles by yourself, perhaps with a few people cheering you on or coaching, but you have to do it yourself.

The sad thing is that Dawkins talks theories while people literally die drunk because they refuse to participate in a program that confesses God.  I have known many addicts who simply refuse to go to meetings because they can't stand to even hear the word 'God.'

Dawkins is entitled to his opinions, and he is free to espouse them however he likes.  But, what is sad is how many people use his words, or perhaps more accurately -simplified characterizations of his words- to make significant life decisions.  They base their decisions on theories rather than facts.

The fact is that recovery from addiction is far more successfully treated with the 12 Steps than any other method, and these steps require belief in God.  Putting aside all else, it seems the most reasonable conclusion would be that belief in God is a positive influence on humanity and should not be rejected by someone looking for a means of escape from addictive behavior.

The evidence of faith in a loving God as a positive, healthy influence is right there in front of everyone, and yet many people will reject this in favor of a theory for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  Atheism is trap: Dawkins admits that he is guessing

Would you go to a doctor who guesses what your disease is?  That works on TV, but even then the actors pretend like they are looking for evidence.  

Atheism has no evidence: atheistic societies have been responsible for over 100 million murders in the 20th century (Communism and National Socialism are both related ideologies which also shared a common rejection of religion, the latter only less militantly so).  Atheism does not make societies better.  Just as much as we have seen religious wars, we have also seen atheists engaged in organized massacres and mechanized murder.

Belief in a loving God does have evidence, but we must ultimately look to humanity for that evidence.  I specify 'loving God' because there are horrific mis-characterizations of God that, while using the word 'God,' are so far from loving as to be bestial and worthy of scorn.  A loving and merciful God is what I am talking about, and faith in Him has been demonstrated time and time again to have a positive effect on the human person.

Here's just a snippet example:

This article focuses not on the effects of prayer of one person to another, but rather on the person who is praying.  many atheists love to point out that many studies indicate there is no substantial evidence that prayer effects the outcomes of events for which intercessions are made, but this is an artful dodge: the real issue is how prayer effects those who pray.

This is the real evidence for belief in a loving God.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sleep Disruption

There is a common problem with recovering addicts: sleep disruption.  Many alcoholics endure countless hours of insomnia in early recovery, and panic over their inability to either fall asleep or stay that way.

Many monasteries operate on a two resting period schedule: sleep after Compline (from somewhere around midnight and ending very early in the morning), then a second period of rest during the day.  For some monks, it isn't enough: I've visited monasteries where some monks doze off during services, and I recall several Orthros services punctuated by a snoring monk in the litia.  I certainly would have a difficult time with the schedule most of them keep.

Due to the adjustment of biochemistry that goes on when addicts abandon their chemicals, insomnia and other problems naturally occur.  It should be no surprise.  In dealing with the newly sober, it is important to prepare them for this phenomenon and to let them know that it will eventually settle down.  However, we should also prepare some of them for having to deal with an ongoing 'irregular sleep pattern.'

This article was posted yesterday on the BBC, which gives insight into pre-modern sleep patterns:

Rather than a long, 8-hour sleep, earlier European peoples usually slept in several segments.  This is still done in the Mediterranean.

Many addicts get anxious about waking at night, and the article discusses the problem when this anxiety kicks in and the fear of not getting enough sleep ends up keeping us awake.  We ought to embrace this waking period.  Certainly, we should not get upset about it.

One of the problems with our society nowadays is that it is overly structured: humans are forced more and more into absolute rhythms that deviance from has immediate repercussions.  If you are late to work or school, there are consequences.  Certainly, this is understandable.

But, it is also the cause of a great deal of anxiety, and it is this anxiety that very often causes people to turn to chemicals for help in 'regulating' their bodies (we've all heard the motto: 'Living Better Through Chemistry') when the body refuses to fit into the social structures of work, family, and school.  Many addicts begin their journey trying to shut off their heads with a bottle of whiskey or a few pills so they can catch those ever-necessary 'forty winks.'

So, part of the problem is cultural: our high-stress lives coupled with unhealthy living habits (too many relationships and communications means, like cell phones, chat, and email) leads to excess anxiety, which again impinges on our sleep.  In addition to accepting the fact that sometimes our bodies don't want to fit into the schedules our minds have decided upon, we should also realize that a high-emotional-activity lifestyle will also effect sleep.  This is what is happening with teens who can't stay off their cell phones and computers, then don't get to sleep  until after midnight.

We do need to slow down and stop living in unhealthy lifestyles, and this includes chemical dependency.  We would do well to better understand our bodies rather than constantly trying to 'treat' them so that they will fit into patterns that perhaps they are not suited for.  Sleep patterns should be included.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Accepting Blame

Before I can really discuss contributing factors to alcoholism without leading anyone astray, it is important to underline an important concept of Christianity which is fundamental to the 12 Steps:

We must be prepared, under any and all conditions, to accept the blame for our actions and their consequences.

This does not mean we should agree to accept blame for what we have not done or what is not true.  This would be a prideful act to accept credit for actions we have not taken.

But, we also should not seek to minimize our own responsibility for what our thoughts and actions have caused.  We cannot blame others for 'making' us do something: we chose, and so we must accept our blame for making the choice.

There are rare instances where we are forced to do something or risk a worse outcome, but even in these cases we often feel regret because we know in our hearts that we participated in something awful.  It does not matter: we still share in the blame.

This sounds insensitive, but only if one does not believe in God.  If we believe that God is watching and thus permitted our situation to occur, then we should also remember that His mercy is great and that He can repair what we have broken and forgive us for what we have done.

The only way to receive this forgiveness is to accept the blame, to proclaim our guilt.

If we are tempted, then we cannot blame the temptation or even the tempter.  We must blame ourselves and so be forgiven by God and be healed from the wounds we have caused ourselves or others have inflicted on us.  More especially, we should pray that God heals the wounds we have caused others.

By accepting blame, we receive mercy and grace.  This path is set in motion, however, not by our own 'strength' to accept blame, but our belief that there is a loving God who will accept our repentance no matter what we have done and can heal any evil that could ever have been perpetrated.

So, if we are to discuss the temptations of demons, cultural influences, bad friends or even worse relatives, we always do so with the understanding that the recovering addict accepts full responsibility for his decisions.  He must be completely will to accept all the due blame, and this is impossible without belief in God's love and healing justice. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Devil and the Drink

One of the other areas I have studied is essentially called 'demonology,' though to say that I consider myself a 'demonologist' or 'professional exorcist' is quite inaccurate.  It is a subject that I have been exposed to, involuntarily at times, in part through my experiences in dealing with alcoholism and addiction.

In modern Russia, there are numerous cases where demonic possession has been linked to alcoholism, and very often part of the treatment for alcoholism ends up involving exorcism.  This should be no surprise: alcoholism is a type of debauchery that demons would feel quite at home with.

We must be careful not to blame all our problems on the 'devil,' because even if he is active against us, it is only through our own availability to be tempted.  Yet, we cannot ignore that sobriety involves a spiritual war in which we will certainly be attacked.  There is more to addiction than mere psychology.

If one says that it is improbably that the demonic would have any existence or influence, one can only wonder why, then, that anyone would believe that God and positive help is not improbable.  If one is possible, why not the other?

AA and other 12 Step groups have steered clear of the topic of demonic temptation, in large part because AA is not a religion.  Furthermore, in the hands of a heretic, such discussions of demons quickly degenerates into the avoidance of accepting responsibility and repenting.  Even among Orthodox in confession, we must avoid the fallen temptation to blame other for our sins (i.e. "_______ made me do it.").

The 12 Steps are less about the influences on our decisions as it is about accepting personal responsibility for them and breaking the self-destructive cycle that comes from our broken will.  External affairs are generally handled by either professional counselors (here, you can think of marriage counselors as an example) or religious figures.  For an excellent exposition on the differences between religion and spirituality, read Fr. Meletios' Steps of Transformation.  Religion defines our external world, and so demonology is naturally best understood in that context.

I'm debating how much of this topic would be helpful to discuss here, which explains why I have not posted until now (that and lots of things going on recently).  However, I do think that understanding spiritual warfare is an important aspect of genuine recovery.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Self as more than Me

In response to the previous post regarding self-hatred, a comment was posted:

If the most shameful aspects of our lives are to have meaning then surely it's not so much serving others or carrying the message that cures self hatred but our ability to be honest about who we are and to live an authentic life no matter in what capacity? 

I responded with this:

Why do those things have to be separated? All of us have the capacity to serve in one way or another, and an authentic life means serving others. If we are honest, then we realize that we are all meant to love and serve others, and it is this discovery that fulfills the realization of self. 

Honesty about who we are is very difficult for most of us because we have been taught to think of ourselves in absolutely individualistic terms.  Our notion of humanity is either utterly philosophical or biological: we are either thinking beings (thinking is a solo activity since no one else is in our heads with us) or biologically isolated 'quantities' of human material.

'Me' becomes an absolute.  But, this is not the case.

As far as sciences are concerned, it has been psychology that has make the most advances in recognizing that isolated humans break down.  The other sciences have not, generally because of their materialistic limitations, picked up on this.

Part of humanity is the interaction of humans with the same substance, the same ousia to use the technical language of the Church.  We are meant to be with one another and to relate with one another.  In early development, this is a one-way relationship of need.  Yet, in every society up until now, the passage into the fullness of humanity, adulthood, has been the establishment of one's ability to serve.

Even marriage was seen not just as a couple serving one another, but the couple's role in serving the community.  To not serve was to not be human.

What is worse, because we have deleted this important aspect of humanity from our intellectual discussions of the topic, we have decapitated our definition of humanity.  Relations with others and the ability to serve them is a primal drive.  We are made to be more that creatures of desire and anxiety.  We are made to love, and in loving we serve.

The most profound type of service we can render to others is to rescue them.  Christ died on the Cross so that He could be resurrected and save us through the renewed humanity He received.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. [Isaiah 53:5]

If we follow Him, we are going to be wounded, but the fullness of the healing we receive is not for the 'self,' but for the whole of humanity.  We are not called merely to experience our own goodness given to us by God, but to share it.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. [John 15:13]

Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. [1 John 3:16]

To be fully human, we ultimately must lay our lives down.  It is not an exotic act reserved for a few select people, but the daily calling of all those who follow after Christ and who want to experience real humanity.  If you want to know God's love, the love with which He loves you right now, it is by loving others in a self-sacrificial way.

We cannot separate service to others from the honesty of who we are, and it is only when we see the wounds of our lives not as just ours, but as belonging to all those around us, that we can also share with others our healing.

Thanks, Maussy, for your comment.  I appreciate your participation in this blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Most addicts classify themselves as 'egomaniacs with an inferiority complex.'  We aggrandize ourselves while, at the same time, feel as though we are less than others or even worthy only of disdain.  

The problem is that both positions hold just enough truth to be plausible.  God has made us good and given each of us reason to appreciate what we have been given.  There is also a great deal that needs to be fixed.

We must walk the middle way, realizing that we must be grateful for our gifts and yet mindful of our shortcomings.

Too often, we resort to self-hatred when we see our true selves.  The problem with this hatred is that it can be so overpowering that it compels us to deny its existence through the construct of a false self.  We make 'masks.'

Addiction thrives in the tension between the mask and the fear of the real self.  It leaves us lonely, paranoid, and exhausted.  It is false and therefore weak, and so we constantly need to reassure ourselves through 'over-engineering' our defenses.  Thus, the ego goes up.

Repentance is the only real truth humans can reliably experience.  By this, I mean that it is extremely hard if not impossible to falsify.  While some can mimic aspects of it, the entire denuding of the self that repentance is so profound that even a Hollywood actor cannot keep it up for long.  It is a shattering of the false self, the mask.

Repentance is the encounter with the self, since we renounce the falseness of the mask and the avoidance of who we are as God made us and as we have fallen.  The pain of seeing our own potential for beauty and goodness devastated by our sins and resentments, our anguish and our malice, is so profound that nothing less than it can be duplicated and passed off as the real thing.

Only through repentance and the encounter with one's self is one prepared to meet God.  The truth of God only comes through the truth of the self, and self-hatred with all of its avoidance of the self impedes our experience of God.

How does one cure self-hatred?  Once one has repented and begun the path of healing, the Steps reveal that it is through service to others, either carrying the message or serving others, which cures self-hatred.  We must offer ourselves to God, and allow Him to use us as vessels of His mercy.  Then we will see the purpose for our wounds.  No longer do we need to hate ourselves, because even the shameful aspects of our lives have meaning.

We come to gratitude, and give thanks to the God who made us as we are.  here, there is no room for self-hatred.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Self-Esteem as a Lie

We are often told to have 'good self-esteem,' to 'forgive ourselves,' to 'take care of ourselves,' and the like.  While these sound good at first, they are based on a dangerous premise that the human person is self-referential.  By this, I mean that the human person is most content, and thus most happy, within himself.

This is a falsehood.  Within the self we find loneliness and isolation.  Yet, we are told this message so often that we believe it without critical thinking.

Humans are not happy by themselves.  We surround ourselves with people and even things because we hate to be alone.  Yet, we tell people that happiness is found within the self?  Why would we believe such a thing when it is so obviously untrue?

If we sin and regret our sins, the bigger question is why.  Sometimes we regret what we have done because it costs us something we value.  Most of the time, we regret what we do because it humiliates the image we have constructed to ourselves (to cope with our fears) and to others (to impress them with our goodness).

What we really need to do is not forgive ourselves, but let go of the prideful self-image that is the cause of the pain.  Of course I have sinned... I am a sinner!  I must accept who I am, and, more importantly for my own happiness, the negative way people will look at me as a result.

I must accept that I will do stupid things and disappoint others.  This is not to say that I will give up trying to be good, but I must realize that my shortcomings are obvious and I cannot reliably avoid them.

But, I also need others, the same people I will always sin against and offend... except for One.  This is why we need God: we need someone who will always be with us even when we are completely isolated from other humans.  Happiness begins when we are confident of one relationship that cannot be broken, and therefore it must be beyond human strength.  It can only be divine.

If I come to believe that God loves me beyond my own strength to repel or break, then I can esteem His love rather than myself.  I can receive His forgiveness rather than my own or even others.  I can care for all of His gifts, even my own body and mind, because they are His.

To help anyone, we must liberate them from the notion of happiness within the isolated self and teach people how to live in communion with God.  He will then heal us and give us the sense of belonging and protection that we so desperately crave.

We must emerge from the lie of self-esteem, and rather esteem the good God who loves us even at our worst.  If we become aware of this love and accept it, then we will experience true happiness.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is thinking you are 'good' healthy?

Human nature, that is, our natural humanity not imprisoned by the fall and its fears that give birth to passions, is inherently good.  We are inclined to good, but are distracted by what is false.

The question remains: can we actually go about thinking this way?

Yes, but it is dangerous, because we often are not living according to our nature.  Many of our actions are not from our true nature, but rather from the distractions we fall under.

This is why it is important at most times to remember that we are subjected for the time being to this fallenness, and must be constantly vigilant.  In fact, we often must go the opposite direction from always thinking we are 'good' or 'doing good' and rather assume that everything we are doing is, to one degree or another, bad.

Sounds overly negative?  Only so if you are on your own.  This only works if you trust not in your goodness, but in the goodness of God.  If you see that your good nature, the gifts you have and the blessing you have received, come from Him, then you can pound away on your fallenness and not lose hope.  You can honestly say you have done nothing good, and it would be true: all good comes from God.

When we focus on the self, we are focusing on something unreliable.  The self sometimes acts according to its nature, but other times we depart from it.  However, God never departs from what is good.  If we rely on Him, even our worst failures actually mean nothing, because He can and will save us.

We should not get into the business of 'forgiving ourselves' but receive the forgiveness of God.  We must never assume that our own judgment is sufficient as to whether we are doing good or evil, but rather receive this confirmation from God through His servants (those who love us enough to be honest).

If you assume you are doing good, and presume that you are sufficient to pardon your own deeds, then you have no need for God.  But, that also means there is no rescue when the ship hits the rocks.  You'll have to swim out on your own.

If we want help, then we need to renounce our self-affirmation of our own goodness seek rather the goodness of God.  We are made in His Image and Likeness, and so that goodness comes from Him anyhow.  Why would you presume it is yours alone?  Give credit to the One who gave it to you.

By giving glory to God, we lose the delusion of pride and selfishness that leads us to evil.  We also share not only in our 'own good,' but an eternal good.  A limitless good.  A good that transcends all boundaries and all circumstances.  Sobriety, which seems so impossible, is possible with God's love rather than our own fickle attitudes.

So, to wrap it up, it is better to see your own good as coming from God, share yourself with Him, and you can be healthy.  To think you are good is the same as thinking you are bad... these are both assumptions that you can exist apart from God.  This is the most unhealthy thinking there is.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Are we inherently good?

If we are to have hope for recovery, then we must first accept that humanity is ‘repairable.’  After all, if humanity was bad, then repairing it would be useless: it would require complete replacement.

Orthodox Christianity teaches that mankind’s nature is inherently good.  The fall created a rift within our persons, separating us from God and leaving us susceptible to imprisonment to the passions.  We suffer without God.
This is both the hope and the affliction of the addict: he is made to be with God, and he suffers because he is apart from Him.

Human nature is not inherently neutral, nor is it naturally inclined towards evil.  Infants, for example, are not known for their wickedness.  Most children, unless they are abused, have little interest in real evil.  That comes later, from the examples of others. 

In Genesis 8:21, God proclaims:

And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

This is not man’s nature, but the thoughts that the broken mind produce.
At our most primitive level, we do not know ‘good and evil,’ but rather ‘desirable and repulsed.’  There are things we want as good, and there are things we reject as bad.  This has little to do with higher definitions of morality and virtue.  Even when we do bad things, it is quite often because we want something ‘good.’  We want tasty food, entertaining and appreciative companionship, physical comfort, etc.  These things aren’t bad in and of themselves.  What is bad is when we desire goodness, then reach for something that isn’t good.  This is the core of man’s fallenness.

This means that we are not ‘utterly depraved,’ but held ‘captive’ to our brokenness until we can be healed.  Sin is not the be all and end all.  It is a small problem compared to the glory of God and the beauty of human nature when it is repaired.  If you can see the blessedness of man, see the beauty amidst the wounds and suffering, it becomes much easier to forgive and accept forgiveness.

There is much goodness in the world, despite the darkness of evil.  Each day more good happens than evil: plants grow, animals thrive, men work… there is much more order than disorder.  We are not living in an utterly depraved world.
Some use the Scriptures to argue this desperate vision:

But look closely: it talks about man’s thoughts from his ‘heart’ (read ‘mind’ in the modern vernacular).  Yes. Men struggle with their thoughts, but it is not an ontological problem encompassing the whole man.  Otherwise, how could Christ become a human?

Western Christianity eventually developed a strange notion that the Virgin Mary’s conception had to be different in order to make the Incarnation possible, but that’s a new teaching.  The Church has always understood her humanity to be exactly like ours.

Yes, the sinfulness of man is a problem, but it is not the definition of who we are and who we are supposed to be.  If we think we are meant to sin, then there is no escape.  Recovery means becoming something other than human, and this is not the case.  Recovery is about becoming human, and the General Resurrection is when all mankind is renewed to be fully human.

Our thoughts are not inherently good, but we are.  Fr. Meletios often says that we musts remember that we are not our thoughts.  If we identify with our thoughts, then we have a big problem.
We are inherently good, and we are loved by our Creator.  This is the hope of recovery.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Dangerous Life

All spiritual work is, by its very nature, dangerous.  This is because spirituality is not governed by empirical standards of measurement (i.e. you can't weigh someone's spirituality).  It is entirely subjective in its experience, and even the results can be questionable.  After all, there are plenty of people who think that Mother Theresa was a madwoman, that monks are deluded for wanting to pray all day (and night), and that people in AA who stay sober are tricking themselves into recovery by believing in God.  Even results are not enough to convince some people of the reality of the spiritual experience, let alone its degree.

In the previous post I discussed the 'safety model' of our society, and nowhere is this more obvious that in the rampant materialism that exists in this age.  If we reduce all of life to measurable standards, then all we are stuck with is the material.  But, if we are also going to govern people's actions and make life 'safe' for them, then we must also reduce life down to a more governable condition.

Ideas are hard to govern, since they are both powerful and fluid, and nowhere is there a more powerful idea than the idea of God.  This is why oppressive regimes always either have to take control of religion (theocracy) or deny it altogether (militant atheism).

When we begin to explore religion, it is usually through the material: be it the art, the liturgics, the 'look' of the people who practice it, etc.  While we may toy with its ideas, the decision to live out these ideas only comes when one makes contact with this material expression of the spirituality.  This material component gives us something to measure and to 'grasp.'

Once you get past that stage, then you must move into the danger zone.  You must begin to adjust your perceptions and become willing to honestly experience things you have not experienced before and make judgments about their relative goodness or badness based on fluid standards that are hard to quantify.  It becomes, to some degree, an entirely personal experience which cannot be shared with anyone else.

This dangerous place in the heart of man is filled with great joy and also profound pain.  Its secrets terrorize us, and we are often repulsed by what we find.  Yet, it is here in the deepest part of us that is where the work of sobriety, the spiritual work of recovery, must happen.

If we are not honest, then we will turn to falsehood rather than the truth, and the danger becomes a reality.  We can trick ourselves.  To avoid such self-delusion, most people stay out of their hearts and stick with the material: money, sex, food, substances, vanity... there's a long list here.

But, the 'safe world' of ignoring the heart really isn't safe at all.  It is an excuse to let the truth fester within is (if it is a bad truth).  What is worse, we often have many good truths within us that we ignore.  Even a profoundly selfish person is tormented by his guilt, but he doesn't know how to go within in order to deal with it.

We are more than the small, restricted space of the 'safe world.'  There is an inner yearning for that connection to the Profound that is missing when we cut ourselves off from our own hearts and ignore our inner lives.

That is not to say that all spiritual work must be done in isolation.  This is not so.  To avoid delusion while entering the heart, we must have a 'line out.'  It is our connection to other spiritual people, who hold the other end of the 'rope' as we explore ourselves, which is critical in avoiding delusion.  If we get into trouble, they can pull us out.

While spirituality is dangerous, we can build for ourselves a team: spiritual advisers, sponsors, counselors... others whom we trust and bear the fruits that we ourselves seek to bear.  One cannot get sober alone, and neither can one encounter God without help.  After all, the goal of all self-exploration is to prepare a place for Him to dwell within us and illumine us.  The inner exploration ends up being a cleaning party.

If we make room for the inner light, then we can truly experience Him.

The danger comes when excuse the presence of those things that prevent the light from entering.  If we refuse to let go of the debris that takes up space within us, then our explorations merely become fantasy.  We enter ourselves only to deny what we find.  We design rationalizations and live in denial.

Those on the other end of the rope can shout advice and instructions, but they cannot remove the clutter.  They cannot force us to abandon our fantasies and cleanse our hearts.  We must do that ourselves, with their coaching.

Thus we have the danger: the spiritual world requires us to use our own willingness to be healed and cleansed.  We cannot be forced to the way the 'safety model' forces us to do things a certain way.  We cannot be compelled to be healed or accept reality.  This is why, despite great advances in mental health medicine, our inner-city streets are crowded with the insane.

The danger is that we might choose to be insane, and no one can stop us.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Learning to Live

If we consider the problems associated with impulse control and addiction, it becomes apparent that the inability to govern impulses is a critical issue.  The question then becomes one of how to teach someone to reign in their whims.

The most obvious solution is the one that has come into vogue, the 'safety model.' well, that's what I call it.  Safety is an issue everywhere, be it in the workforce, the streets and even in the schools.

What this model involves is not an improvement of the individual's ability to govern his impulses, or to have the right reflexes in a given situation, but rather to make impulsive activity literally impossible.  So, we don't criminals, but make better alarms.  We don't teach better tool safety for workmen, but put devices on their tools to keep them from mutilating themselves when using the tools incorrectly.

So, the assumption is that in a perfectly safe environment, even the completely incompetent person will not bring harm to himself.  Yet, each year, people find new ways to harm themselves.  If you get on YouTube, you can see teenagers do horrifically stupid things that bring pain and injury.

Why do they do these things?  It is because with these constrictions comes several problems.  First, we know that we are losing freedom, and human are meant to be free.  Even cultures that are very restrictive provide means of blowing off steam, be it alcoholic rampages (such as beerhalls in Germany or Japanese after work bar-hopping) or mad crowds (such as Islamic protests).  Humans like to build fences, but like to be kept in by them.

Second, these 'safety' restrictions don't give people the opportunity to perfect their wills.  They become dependent on restrictions, and cannot function without them.

Here's an interesting case study:

Teenagers are having problems maturing because they are afforded so few opportunities to be mature.  This is feeding into addiction, because a great deal of addiction's beginnings comes from a lack of maturity.

It is said that a person stops emotionally maturing once an addiction kicks in, but it is also true that schools also prevent maturity from occurring, because the students have no responsibilities for themselves.  The less they mature, the greater the opportunity for addiction to take hold, because the impulse controls are not developed.

This can even be seen in the Church: look at the number of people who come to services casually dressed.  Men of the previous generation wore a coat and tie, and now most people come dressed for the park.  There are a growing number of young adults who may own ten pairs of sneakers and no dress shoes.  There is no need for dress clothing because nothing important is expected of them.  They are permanent children, and their emotions reflect this problem.

So, they come to services looking for a handout rather than to serve.  They want to offer nothing, not even praise of God, but rather entertainment and stimulation.  They come 'needy,' but once their needs are met, they head out the door.  They don't stick around to serve, and they certainly resent any restrictions on their freedom.

Addiction is over-diagnosed so often because of the rampant problem with poor impulse control and immaturity.  Addiction impedes emotional development, but so does our society.

We must learn to live without the 'safety model.'  We must learn to live without the guard rails.  It is difficult, and at times dangerous, but it is in keeping with our humanity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Being Intentional

I've already talked about the mental noise associated with addiction, and Fr. Meletios' talks almost always get into the topic.  Inner stillness and peace is a great challenge even for non-addicts.  'Pure prayer' in an undistracted, continuous flow is virtually unknown: even great men of prayer speak of their experiences of intrusive thoughts.

Focus is what we need.  Addiction provides such a focus, but that focus is often not on reality, but rather the constructed reality of the addiction.  It is personal and false.

What we need is a focus on the moment, to be in the present with God rather than in our imaginary worlds all by ourselves.  We must act not out of habit, or some pre-programmed auto-pilot, but with intention.

By intention, I mean that we must conduct each action in each moment with focus on that specific action, rather than thinking of something else.  It means staying in reality than the alluring world of the imagination.

In order to be in the present, the present must be tolerable, and so our work begins with cleaning our present so that we can be in it with some degree of comfort.  If we are angry or ashamed, then we must first resolve these forms of suffering so that we can be present without the distractions of suffering.

The ultimate form of being present is the awareness of God's presence with us, which is why prayer, even the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer, is so important.  Many Fathers counsel monks to be constantly mindful of God's present, even if it is to say something unimportant, like, "I am going to walk into the other room."  If you are speaking to God, then you are present.  You are intentional.

The unintentional person is blown about by impulses, reacting to the shifting world of his shifting mind.  Yes, the mind shifts, and it was born to do that so that we would be vigilant to exterior threats.  We should not utterly ignore the outside world, but we should also not live only to react to it, particularly if the distraction has nothing to do with us.

The mind churns out thoughts as well.  Will you react to all of them?  Again, being intentional does not mean having no thoughts, but rather choosing which thoughts to engage and which ones to let go of.  We must discipline ourselves, and bring the mind into the present.  Stillness does not mean 'no thought,' but it is a matter of degree.  It means that we engage the thoughts we want to.

Being intentional means being free from having to engage every thought.  It is a state of spiritual liberty.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Pitfall of the Disease Model

One of the most dangerous aspects of identifying as an addict is that some people can become complacent with their development and healing.  By this, I mean that the scrambled thinking, poor impulse control, and other problems associated with the disease are simply accepted and the addict makes no effort to direct his life in a positive direction in these areas.

I have known a number of people in recovery who do just this: when they get caught behaving poorly and acting in an immature or inappropriate manner, they immediately 'blame the disease.'

The postings I have put here about brain scans and genetic susceptibility ought not give the reader the false impression that such conditions are hopeless.  While a person might not fully recover from alcoholism, those problems can often be so reduced that one becomes, in those areas, undifferentiated from 'normal people.' After all, the problems of the addict are the problems all of us face, and the sins of the addict are just that... sins.  We all suffer from them, addicted or not.  It is usually a matter of magnitude.

While these problems are common to addicts, it does not mean that the addict is permanently unable to do anything about these problems.  The only condition of the addict that is permanent (in this life) is his inability to control his disease.  If he engages in it, it will take him over.

But, the associated behavioral problems are treatable and are recoverable.  This may take many years, but there are people who do recover from many of the behaviors they engaged in as part of the disease, though certainly not the disease itself.

The Big Book of AA mentions this (Forward to the First Edition) in passing when it says:

We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.

Notice that is says 'recovered,' which would seem to violate the principle that addiction is incurable.  Yet, here, the past tense is used.  Why?

If you read closely the rest of the book, you will see that the behavior of the alcoholics that started AA radically changed as they engaged in the recovery process, though none would claim to be healed.

This is also something to keep in mind as Christians: we are never without sin, but we ought not never surrender to it.  We are called to be healed of our behaviors by being healed of the passions, but that does not take away our ability to be captive again to those passions (or even new ones).

Christianity is about being transformed, as is addiction recovery.  In both cases, we must never surrender to our temptations and assume that they will never be healed.  They can be healed, and there are plenty of examples to be found among the 'Old Timers.'

In this day and age which exults immature behavior and it repulsed by the self-controlled adult, we might have to look harder than we did a few decades ago, but the examples can be found.  There is evidence that healing is possible, and we can be freed from our 'bad habits.'

Friday, February 3, 2012

Brain Anomalies: a family tradition?

Here is another fascinating study on the brains of addicts:

This is the observation that caught my eye:

Scientists at the University of Cambridge compared the brains of addicts to their non-addicted siblings as well as to healthy, unrelated volunteers and found that the siblings shared many of the same weaknesses in their brains.

That indicates that the brain vulnerabilities had a family origin, though somehow the siblings of addicts -- either due to environmental factors or other differences in brain structure -- were able to resist addiction.

"Presumably, the siblings must have some other resilience factors that counteract the familial vulnerability to drug dependence," said the study led by Karen Ersche of the University of Cambridge, published in the journal Science.

These resilience factors are what we as Christians are most interested in.  After all, are we not interested in the healing of the mind?  What is it that steers one person into addiction, and how can we not only find it for ourselves and share it with others?

This is rather controversial in the world of science, because so much of the human mind's operation is unscientific.  Perception and reality are often two separate things.  What is a proper perception in one culture is improper in another.  The world of the mind is difficult for scientists to understand because their methodology relies on mechanics and material manifestations.  Basically, if you can't 'measure' it, it does not exist.

Spirituality delves into a world that cannot be measured.  You can't hook a 'soulometer' to a person to determine if they are alive or dead, neither can one really measure such common experiences as happiness or sorrow.  Even physical manifestations such as beauty are hard to quantify, and anyone who has watched the Olympics knows that physical performance is subject to lots of non-empirical standards.

Yet, the subjective and the objective reside in the same world.  We must deal with them both. 

For Christians, these resilience factors are found in communion with Jesus Christ.  It is His strength, our faith in Him, and His presence that make sobriety possible. This divine grace can even overcome 'hard wiring' issues that we all struggle with.  This is why we see ascetics constantly struggle against impulses that are even healthy and normal, such as hunger, thirst, and even sexuality (these days, the latter seems to be the hardest).

The world we are in, however, is suffering from the problem of materialism.  And, as such, those impulses we are told science cannot utterly measure and adjust must therefore be acted upon.  Modern business has latched onto this message and pushes us to give in to our impulses.  So, the bikini model and the torque wrench work together: you have a sexual drive that cannot be contained, and neither can you contain your desire for bigger, better tools.  You can have them both, if you give in.  Or, at least, that's part of the message.

Addiction is on the rise because we are losing this divine connection to the non-material.  Humans are just another form of ape with no redeeming qualities other than some different chromosomes.  Religion is bad.  God has no place in the modern world.  Why not be free of piousness and things that hold back our impulses?

And, so, the world is coming apart.  Societies, mostly in the West, are deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Addiction is rampant.  The world has always been a violent place, but now something more profound is happening: the world is becoming a more unhappy place.

Impulses rarely lead to a happy conclusion.  They are usually the source of great sorrow, especially for the addict whose impulses lead him to the gates of death, and many times shove him through.  Understanding how impulses come about is helpful, and this article provides some clues.  But, for us, the most important question is to find these resilience factors that scientists have not yet quantified.