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The Spirituality of Recovery

The co-author of Experiencing Spirituality on recovery beyond the mental and physical.

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By Ernest Kurtz

06/06/14

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Not too long ago, a colleague suggested that I might write "something about spirituality in recovery.” He later called to modify his request: “Maybe it should be on the spirituality of recovery.”  

“In” and “of”: two rather innocuous prepositions. But neither seems to me appropriate. Prepositions implicitly subordinate, privilege. So I prefer to write about spirituality and recovery. And and, here, may be more an equal sign than a connective. For spirituality and recovery are both – each – a way of life – a way of living. When we look at, examine, those ways of living, they do look an awe-ful lot like each other: each can provoke wonder, and both are undergirded by and lived out in the classic virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, gratitude, fidelity, generosity . . . . 

Perhaps the best way to approach spirituality and recovery and their relationship is by noting that both are experiences. But “experience,” like “recovery” and “spirituality,” is a word that defies definition. To experience something is, among other things, to have a kind of knowledge of it that one cannot put completely into words.  

Yet “experience” is not something esoteric or mysterious. We all have it. Every day. Have you ever had the experience of eating a piece of pumpkin pie, served warm from the oven? Describe it in words. Have you ever made love? Ever sat up overnight with a sick child? Ever turned an autumn bend on a Vermont road that opened suddenly on a seemingly endless vista of richly multi-colored foliage? Ever hit the perfect golf drive? Ever hugged a friend whose adult child had committed suicide? Ever tasted chocolate? Ever welcomed back to a 12-step meeting a fellow-member who had “slipped”?  

The most profound human experiences we cannot talk about. The “fault” of that is not that words or language “limp”: the “problem” is that our cognitive minds cannot grasp such realities in their wholeness . . . cannot really “grasp” them at all. “Problem” and “fault” and “limp” appear in scare-quotes because here, too, we are trying to convey by words realities – experiences – that essentially escape such confinement. It simply cannot be done. And so the writer staggers along, hopefully appropriating punctuation and font in an effort to convey what bare words cannot transmit.  

But the “problem” is not with words or language. The simple reality is that our minds cannot comprehend experiences: we cannot wrap our minds around experience.  

A lawyer was questioning a farmer about an accident. The lawyer said to the farmer, “Tell me what happened right after the accident, when you reportedly said, ‘I feel fine!’” 

The farmer then began, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road . . .”

At this the lawyer interrupted, saying, “Please answer my question. Didn’t you say you felt fine immediately following the accident?” Turning to the judge, the lawyer asked that the witness be instructed to answer the question.

The judge looked at the farmer and said, “Please answer the question.” 

The farmer began again, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”

The lawyer interrupted once again. “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my question.” 

The judge looked at the lawyer and then at the farmer and then back to the lawyer and said, “Let’s just allow the witness to tell his story.”

The farmer began once again. “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road. When we crossed the intersection, this big truck hit us broadside. I flew out of our truck in one direction and Bessie flew out in the other. I regained consciousness just as the highway patrol officer arrived. He went over, looked at poor Bessie lying there on the road, then he came over and told me she was injured and in pretty bad shape. Then he went back to Bessie, pulled out his gun, and shot her dead. He then came back to me and asked me how I felt. I said, 'I feel fine.'” 

And so we tell stories. Stories are made up of words, of course. But somehow, in an almost mysterious way, they are also made up of more. “More” what? Of some reality that touches not only the mind but the heart.  

“Heart,” like “experience,” is in this sense a word that tries to do more than any mere word can do. By convention and usage, it connotes “more” – more than can be captured by just a word or even by a picture. For “heart” is here more than a bodily organ or a symbol. It means . . . go ahead . . . try to finish that sentence. Oh, you can do it . . . but how completely do your words “capture” heart?  

“And so we tell stories.” Here is another one about prepositions:  

A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these holy words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”

The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

No one is as whole as he who has a broken heart.
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov 

The claim I wish to make here is that “recovery” and “spirituality” are in a very real sense one. But although both are experiences, this is not to say that recovery and spirituality are “the same.”  

Someone once observed that “Religion is for those who want to get to heaven;  spirituality is for those who have been to hell.” He was of course talking about recovery spirituality – the flavor of spirituality practiced by those who are consciously aware of “recovering” from something.  

But addicts and alcoholics do not have a monopoly on “recovery.” Ask a cancer or heart attack survivor, or someone waiting on the mending of a broken leg or of a compoundly fractured arm, or the healing of joint-replacement or spinal surgery. I sort of think that, at least after a certain age, just about everyone is experienced in “recovery.”  

In fact the experience need not be medical or health-related at all. Have you ever “lost your balance” and tripped? And perhaps fortunately then caught yourself just in time, able to grab the bannister, perhaps, or some other stationary object? That is, in its own way, an experience of “recovery.” How is it “spiritual”? Can you imagine not being grateful for your “lucky” grab? A tiny example, but therefore perhaps one around which we can get even our cognitive mind: in that brief experience, “recovery” and “spirituality” are one: relief and gratitude come connected, however briefly.   

But as the examples attest, not all recoveries are life-long.It is the recoveries that are – or should be – life-long that most clearly are also spirituality – a way of living rooted in acceptance of one's not-God-ness and lived out in the practice of virtues that Aristotle and many after him described as characterizing human flourishing.   

How much more, then, in our larger recoveries.  

There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged.The son ran away, and the father set off to find him.He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. 

The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.  

On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. 

What, then, is/are Recovery and Spirituality?  

Let's begin with “way of living.” Not especially separate, discrete acts, then, but rather a sort of habitual bearing, posture. How do we “carry ourselves” in the world? One form of posture, mental posture, we call “attitude” – a disposition or state of mind. And perhaps another word/image/idea that comes to mind is “open.” There is something negative about images of closedness, grasping. And so not only “openness,” then, but a reaching, and a reaching that gives rather than clutches.  

Related to “open,” a spiritual or recovering way of living is honest.Honesty flows, in a way, from “open”:both are related to truthful – truthfulness with both self and others, and the former of course comes first.  

Pursuing the image of open we come to giving, generous: the open hand, making available what we have, rather than the grabbing, clenched hand, oriented to taking. A facet of open, willing, honest generosity is the gift of self that is presence. And perhaps the most glorious manifestation of presence is the ability and openness and willingness to listen. A somewhat gruff instruction sometimes urged on some who approach Twelve-step meetings for the first time is to “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Ouch!  But it's a beginning. The most fulfilling friendships, I sometimes think, are those that seem to be competitions about who can be the better listener. It is good to be invited to that practice.

Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov learned to love when he went to an inn and heard one drunken peasant ask another, “Do you love me?”

“Certainly I love you,” replied the second. “I love you like a brother.”

But the first shook his head and insisted, “You don’t love me. You don’t know what I lack. You don’t know what I need.”

The second peasant fell into sullen silence, but Rabbi MosheLeib understood: “To know the need of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow, that is the true love of men.” 

Another facet of open is the ability to be surprised, especially in the sense of being open to awe and wonder. Those who pretend to command or demand to control miss out on this. And the tragedy is that however polished and sophisticated they may be or think themselves to be, this closedness prevents their ever really appreciating any form of art. To art, as to any other true love, one must let go. And this also characterizes recovery and spirituality.   

And then, as our earlier examples of even such mundane experiences as losing one's balance and tripping illustrated, characteristic of recovery – and of spirituality – is gratitude.Because we are not perfect, not infinite, not God, we err, we make mistakes, we goof, we slip, at times we fall.And if we survive those mishaps – those experiences – at least a tad of gratitude tends to peek out.Sometimes in the virtually unthought exclamation, “Thank God!”At other times in a barely spoken “Whew!”And for most, at least in more serious situations, in a heartfelt “Thanks!” to we-may-not-know-what/Whom, but to some reality in some way larger than ourselves. 

Finally, to clear up any lingering confusion, I think it is safe to say that recovery and spirituality are a lot like joy and love. For example: 

A believer approached Rabbi Moche of Kobryn and asked: “How should I best use my days so that God will be contented with my actions?”

“There is only one possible option: to live with love,” replied the rabbi.

Minutes later, another follower approached him and asked the same question. 

“There is only one possible option: try to live with joy.”

The first follower was taken aback.“But the advice you gave me was different!”

“Not at all,” said the rabbi. “It was exactly the same.”

Ernest Kurtz is the co-author of Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling (Tarcher/Pengiun), alongside Katherine Ketcham.

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