(This document can be downloaded in its original form by clicking Spirituality Handout21.)
Orthodox Spirituality and the Early Stages of Recovery
In helping alcoholics and addicts, there are different views about addiction and recovery. The first of these is the professional level, which is based in medicine and psychology. From this perspective addiction is viewed as a brain disease, and the cause is genetic and neuro-chemical. Here they offer the hope that a medical prescription will help bring about a cure, or through some psychological counseling insight the patient will be cured of the addiction. Then there is the other perspective, where treatment is helping people to accept that alcoholism is a treatable disease using spiritual measures, and that the responsibility for accepting this help is with the alcoholic. This type of “treatment process” involves helping the addict or alcoholic to review their past, to accept the need for complete abstinence from alcohol or drugs, and in helping them to develop basic recovery skills so that they can stay alcohol and drug free. For most of these people, recovery will involve personal change that is spiritual in nature. There are other paths to recovery, but spiritual measures are the most proven method for most people who have recovered. People who cannot accept a spiritual path should be helped in other ways.
First of all, let’s look at some basic teachings about Orthodox spirituality. Here it is said that the main purpose and goal of life is unification with God and participation in His divine nature. The Church would also say that unity with God can only be achieved through God’s eternal Son, Jesus Christ. (John 14:6) Unity with the Son is perfected by and through the Holy Spirit. It is natural for the soul to seek this unity, and is the soul’s main occupation. Man cannot find love, peace in life or harmony without this unity with Christ, in and through the Holy Spirit. It should be remembered that from the Orthodox perspective spirituality is mostly a question of God’s action on the soul through what is called “grace” and not man’s action on his own soul, which would be more like psychology. Orthodox spirituality then is related to the origin of grace, and in finding grace. Finding grace is essential to spiritual growth, and grace only comes from God. While it can be said the grace is freely given by God, man does have his own activities in finding this grace. This is usually done through prayer, the sacraments, fasting and other common spiritual actions such as doing good works. It must be said again however that “grace” is a gift from God, and not something that we achieve or deserve. Our activities only help to prepare our souls for the activity of God’s gifts.
In order to achieve the unity with God that our souls strive for it is necessary that there exists cooperation between God’s activity, which is grace, and man’s will. It is “volition” or “will”, and not “intellect” or “emotion” that is the primary element in man’s effort at unity and harmony with God. This implies man’s surrender of “self will” and an “acceptance” of God’s will in his life. Man is dependent upon God for grace, and cannot achieve unity with God through his own efforts, no matter how great they are. It is only through divine grace and intervention that man achieves this unity. However, man’s own efforts and willful consent are necessary to the plan of salvation. When we select that which is good, through seeking and doing God’s will, then God gives us grace for accomplishing the soul’s desire. This is a willful act of “cooperation” with God on man’s part, and a free gift of grace on God’s part. We are always free to choose to do His will, and He is always free to give His grace. All good that we have comes from God, even our own volition. How we use the gift of our own free will is always our own personal choice.
Alcoholism at its most basic level is spiritual, in that it implies a separation from God, which is our most unnatural state. The mistaken use of volition which leads to addiction separates the alcoholic from God’s grace, and then the addiction overwhelms the alcoholic spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. The addict essentially becomes “powerless” over the addiction. Spiritual recovery is necessary because the alcoholic needs to move in the direction of reunification with God. This spiritual direction and motion was lost through the misuse of volition, which is related to the alcoholism. This change in spiritual direction can only be achieved through spiritual means, both through the use of our own volition, and through God’s freely given grace. The alcoholic must regain the God given direction of his soul, find his true value system”, or “belief system”, and regain the peace and harmony with God that was lost through the drinking or drugging.
Said in a different way, addiction occurs at the spiritual level when a person loses the ability to use their “volition” or “will power” in a normal and healthy way. That is, they consistently make self defeating decisions regarding their addictions that harmfully affect both themselves and others. Their choices are against their God given instincts and their souls desire to unite with God. They have plenty of “will-power”, but it is misused or misdirected willpower. Inner turmoil is caused by the conflict that they have with their own value system. Isolation occurs because of the lost relationship with others, God and himself. The alcoholic becomes lost in his own delusion and confusion and does not recognize his own condition.
Recovery occurs at the spiritual level when the addict regains the ability to make right choices in his life, and finds peace with his or her self and with God. The addict begins to use his “will-power” to work a program of recovery. This does not mean the addict can drink or drug normally again. That choice is lost forever. Recovery implies acceptance of this fact. He or she will no longer fight to regain control of the addiction and will trust that God will restore his sanity about drinking. He will become “God Dependant” and will begin to trust in God’s grace and help. He will lose the desire to drink or drug as a way of dealing with his problems, and begin to rely on God’s help in all of his daily affairs.
The “Bridge” between addiction and recovery is not an easy one to cross. In the extreme confusion of active addiction it is almost impossible for the alcoholic or addict to get honest about his condition, and to accept the fact that he needs help from others in order to recover. Actually, most people who do recover either report a “spiritual experience” or “enlightenment” which is closely related to a life changing event such as divorce or near death experience, or they have an intervention made by some outside person such as an addictions counselor. The help comes from outside themselves.
Of course belief in God and having faith that God can and will help him through his difficulties is certainly a good thing. The problem usually comes when the alcoholic confuses belief with quality of belief. Even the devil believes in God, but it does him little good. To recover from addiction, there needs to be a quality change in the relationship with God, and it must come from a genuine desire to change for the good, and to have harmony with God’s will. This requires humility before God, and surrender to God’s will in all areas of his life by giving up his own self will and ego. Having an open mind about recovery principles which are based in spirituality will help him to find that relationship that is missing.
There are people who do not recover from their addictions. Usually these are people who cannot be honest with themselves about their addiction or alcoholism. These are people who only want to escape the immediate consequences of their addiction. They may have certain organic problems related to their alcohol or drug use. Also, forcing people into recovery is generally not helpful, although under certain circumstances they can be helped if it is done correctly and with professional help. There are also heavy drinkers who are not alcoholics that do not accept that they have a problem, and who refuse help. These people are known by their lack of guilt over their drinking behaviors. They simply don’t care about the consequences to themselves or to society. And lastly, people who are unwilling to accept the concept of God, or who are unwilling to live by spiritual principles will usually not find relief from their alcoholism or addiction. However, many of these will recover if they develop the capacity to be honest with themselves, and become willing to grow along spiritual paths. It should be noted that just attending church is usually not enough. There must be a change of attitude towards their addiction, and there must be willing to grow spiritually. Personal honesty and a willingness to change are the two key elements of recovery.