I stumbled upon this blog entry from an Orthodox Priest, in which he describes the Baptism of a prison inmate:
Here's the quote that got my attention:
Michael’s own confession which he made before the baptism was perhaps the worst I’ve heard in more than 30 years of listening to confessions, and also the best. He had written out a serious examination of conscience, aided by the work he is doing through Alcoholics Anonymous.
First, I will say this: I sure hope Fr. Ted made sure the fellow he Baptized was OK with this information being put out there. I don't like to mention anything about people's confessions in any way. I don't even feel comfortable with revealing whether someone comes to confession or not.
Second, I do think this is really very important for Orthodox Christians to remember that we should not confine ourselves to only 'recruiting' theological dilettantes or religious gourmands from among middle- to upper-class types. Yes, they tithe better and often appear to be less complicated. But, I have found that while the poor and the marginal live exceedingly complicated lives (poverty often comes from bad decision making, either from how we are raised or our own decisions, such as entering the priesthood), yet their spiritual problems are often simple and easily understood. It is the well-heeled who are often the best at camouflaging their unacceptable behaviors and embarrassing truths, which makes their arrival at a place of honesty much more difficult.
The poor man is constantly reminded of his errors, whereas the rich man can always apply another coat of paint and thus convince himself that there's no rot underneath. Don't get me wrong, they can both be stubborn. The problem is how we get to the path of truth.
That's where 12 Step work comes in. It is all about getting to the truth, and as quickly as possible. This story shows how the man's AA work allowed him to take full advantage of what the Church offers. There are plenty of catechumens who enter the Church through this same process who simply can't get as honest as this man did, mostly because they don't have to. They have no practice at confession or even introspection.
When I bring in new converts, I know that for most of the, an honest confession simply isn't something they are capable of at this stage of life. They need time, and so I try to prepare them for that by letting them know that, as the years pass, God will bring up more things with the past, and they can handle them in later confessions.
However, what about those who have so many issues keeping them from God that they cannot bear His presence in any way? This is why the 12 Steps are so helpful, because they allow people to approach God outside the Church who would otherwise be repelled because of their defilement and sense of shame. The Steps make God approachable through the 'plausible deniability' of Anonymity: by avoiding the language of the Church, the addict can blindfold himself and go through the process of restoration to God without being overwhelmed.
It also helps us clergy who are really not spiritually and emotional prepared for dealing with addicts. I still rely on professional counselors and therapists to help folks in my parish, because I know that I'm not prepared for that kind of work. I'm a priest, and so my ordination and training largely prepares me to conduct services and teach and preach, but that does not make me an accountant or a brain surgeon or a marriage counselor. I'd have to go to school some more in order to do those things, and I'm way too busy and too tired to even think about that, so I refer people to professionals.
There are clergy who think they can handle any problem, and then jump in with both feet. I have always found that both scary and stupid, but those guys are the bishops' problems and not mine. I have enough trouble keeping my own side of the street clean. Some of them pull it off, others do not. I get emails all the time from people stuck with over-confident (and usually misinformed) clergy.
Addiction is best treated by the 12 Steps rather than over-worked and under-trained priests. Yet, the priest plays the pivotal role of receiving the fruits of the recovering addict's labor, so that these fruits of repentance can be offered up to God. It is not the priest's place to do anything other than receive these offerings, or encourage the recovering addict to make this offering in full confidence that it is acceptable to God.
The 12 Steps are preparing lots of people to enter the Church, and they are starting to come more and more. We clergy must be prepared to receive their repentance and offer them the unconditional love of Christ. We must also call out to them, but this calling must first be made by our bishops. They have the Apostolic Succession of this duty, and so we wait for them. Some are beginning to understand, though it may take a while longer.
The best we can do it pray and perhaps 'lobby' our bishops to do more. We can also do what Fr. Ted did and receive those whom God sends to us. If we march forward, eventually the bishops will figure out which way we are going and get in front.