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Friday, April 6, 2012

Entering the Church versus Beginning the Steps

One of our readers sent me this comment:

Perhaps in a future blog you would consider addressing the following issues for those of us who are not (yet) Orthodox Christians but have extensive experience with 12-step programs. Would redefining "How It Works" as "How Repentance Works" be reasonable (i.e., do the steps accurately operationalize the process of repentance)? It appears that people are usually received into the Orthodox Church by confession, baptism and/or chrismation, and the Eucharist in rapid succession. Would it be fair to conclude that one is not ready to be received until one is abstinent/sober (i.e., willing to go to any lengths to avoid sin, and especially the besetting sin that drove one to a 12-step program) and has worked the steps through the restitution, amends, and reconciliation of the ninth step (i.e., one is reconciled with those who have something against one)?

This is a tricky topic, but I think our friend has a good sense of the connection between the Steps and the Church.

To address part of her question, the Church, like the Steps, does require a willingness to be sober and change one's behaviors.  However, both the Steps and the Church concede that it is impossible to demand 'restitution, amends, and reconciliation' as a condition before starting.

The Church makes an effort to educate catechumens as to what lies ahead, just as the addict will read ahead in the Big Book before he starts the steps.  Both Church and group pull no surprises, and there are no secrets.

They both also require a gradual introduction to God as a prerequisite to change. The first three steps are:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
In the Church, that's largely what Catechism is about.  Through education and exposure to the Church's life and people, the inquirer makes the decision to take up the spiritual struggle.  As a catechumen, the person then is on track to start some of this process, but the Church assumes that, without God's grace given through the Sacraments, one is not able to make 'restitution, amends, and reconciliation'.

So, the Church, like 12 Step groups, does not demand utter abstinence as a precondition to membership: you are a member when you demonstrate the willingness to be abstinent.  This is what Baptism enacts: the death to the old way of life so that one can be born anew (albeit gradually).  Some do it better than others.  Like the groups, there are also plenty of people who show up still in the clutches of sin, and we make room for them hoping that, when they change their minds, they will be able to recover.

So, the Church does not demand perfection 'up front.'  The problem for many outside the Church is that their preconceived notions of Christianity prevent them from exploring it for what it really is.  They assume that, because the Church preaches against sin, that they must be sinless.  Nothing is further from the truth: sinless people don't need Church.  If you could stay sober before joining a group, you would not need the group, either.  It is much more the same than you realize.

The Steps preach sobriety to people who cannot stay sober on their own, and the Church does the same thing.

The first Steps gradually take the alcoholic through the process of healing, and the Church does the same by starting one off in the Sacraments.  The Sacraments are not a reward for continence or abstinence, but tools to help accomplish them.  We do not Baptize people to recognize their purity, but to make them capable of being purified to begin with.

Just as you don't make amends until you have been part of the group and worked the preceding Steps, the Church also requires people to get into the Church and begin the spiritual process before one can expect to have repaired all of one's relationship.  The first of those relationships that must be healed is one's relationship with God.

The critical difference between the Church and the Steps is that the Steps are very organized and methodical.  In the Church, the same tasks are accomplished, but in a very personal and often 'disorganized' way.  Each person charts his own progress, with assistance from the Church and with the same goal.  Yet, the how the goal is reached can vary from person to person.  The Steps are very fixed, where as the Church has common tools (i.e. the Sacraments), but the methodology can vary.

Yes, 'How Repentance Works' is 'How It Works.'  Recovery is repentance, and visa versa.  Repentance is abstinence, but it is also the awakened man in union with God.  It is transformation and healing, just as sobriety is.

12-Step groups do not use the same terminology as the Church, but that is to their benefit: most people think they understand who Jesus Christ is, though their concepts are often formed by unhealthy experiences with people we Orthodox would call 'heretics' (by the way, there are Orthodox Christians who have heretical beliefs... not every one of us is a saint!).  Both 12-Step groups and the Church require participants to drop their preconceived notions and enter with a mind (technically, we would say 'heart,' but in modern American lingo 'heart' is limited to emotions rather than deepest thoughts and experiences) open to God.

The virtues, which are central to the manifestation of Christianity, are not tolls to be paid in order to enter God's presence.  They are fruits of that relationship:

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Galatians 5:19-26)

We see in this passage that what is considered good are those things preceding from our union with God.  This is not unlike the 11th and 12th Steps.

As this blog motors on, we will return again to this topic, because it is so much a part of this blog's purpose: to bridge the terminological gaps between Orthodox Christianity and the 12 Steps. 

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