Richard Rohr and the 12 Steps: Going out to 'the inner room'

by Rich Heffern

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By Richard Rohr
Published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, $15.99

A quarter century ago, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr gave a series of talks in Cincinnati that linked the wisdom of the Twelve Steps Program to what St. Francis called “the marrow of the gospel.” “I was amazed at how obvious and easy a task it was,” he said.

Now he’s updated those talks in his new book. Breathing Under Water.

He reflects about his earliest experiences with such programs, when "the people dealing with their addictions in the church basement thought they had left the church for the Wednesay night meetings in the basement, while many upstairs in the sanctuary presumed that their ‘higher’ concerns were something different from ‘those people with problems’ down below."

The reality, he says, was that we were dealing with a common inspiration from the Holy Spirit and from the collective unconscious of the human race.

The Gospel message of Jesus and the Twelve Step message of Bill Wilson “are largely the same message, even in some detail, as I will try to show in this book.”

He critiques organized Christian religions for turning the Gospels into a “worthiness contest.” The Gospel message is too often preached as an achievement contest, wherein the one with the most willpower wins. At that level, organized religion is no longer Good News for people, but bad news indeed. “It sets us up for the massive atheism, agnosticism, hedonism and secularism that plague almost all formerly Christian countries.”

On the other hand, the Twelve Step Program, he points out, has too often stayed at the problem-solving level, “and missed out on the ecstasy itself –- trustful intimacy with God, or what Jesus calls ‘the wedding banquet.’”

Rohr argues for going to a deeper level in both spheres.

He cites an observation made by Bill Wilson in his later years, that most of the alcoholics he had seen in Twelve Step Programs, though successful at sobriety, were still childish, emotionally sensitive and grandiose in personality and thinking.

We give people “fast food” religion and addiction therapy, without any deep transformation of the self. “It is my experience after over 40 years as a priest, that we could say the same about many well-intentioned Christians and clergy. Their religion has never touched them or healed them at an unconscious level where all of the real motivation, hurts, unforgiveness, anger, wounds and illusions are stored., hiding – and often fully operative. They never went to ‘the inner room’ where Jesus invited us…”

So his book is about deep communion and deep compassion, both in Twelve Step Programs and in Christian life and spirituality, formed in deep pain. Only people who have suffered in some way can save one another, he reminds us. To survive the tidal wave of compulsive behavior and addiction Christians must learn to “breathe under water” and discover God’s deep love and compassion, the awful grace of God.

“The suffering creatures of this world have a Being who does not judge or condemn them, or in any way stand aloof from their plight, but a Being who hangs with them and flows through them, and even toward them in their despair. How utterly different from all the greedy and bloodthirsty gods of human history. What else could save the world? What else would the human heart love and desire? And, further, this god wants to be loved and to love rather than be served (John 15:15). How wonderful is that? It turns religion on its head.”

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