A God Who Cares?

By Harry Healy 12/20/15

AA says that not only is there a God, but there’s a God who is occupied with my well-being, who cares whether or not I’m wearing somebody else’s clothes, sleeping under a bridge, or eating out of garbage pails. 

A God Who Cares?

I’m writing as a guy who’s been sober in AA for a long while, but there’s no point in waving the flag of my sober time. In the first place, it’s obnoxious, and number two, I genuinely don’t think it means that much. I’ve managed to stay with it, one day at a time, thanks to the help of many others. 

But one of the central sticking points for me is and always has been maintaining a faith in a Higher Power who cares about me. Not a belief in God; I have no problem with belief, mine or anybody else’s. It’s this idea that there’s a God who is actively concerned with my life. 

The second step of AA’s program states: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." They’re saying that not only is there a God, but there’s a God who is occupied with my well-being, who cares whether or not I’m wearing somebody else’s clothes, sleeping under a bridge, or eating out of garbage pails. 

My early days in AA were horrendous. In the dead of a miserable winter, I was holed-up in a hovel where the slumlord didn’t pay his oil bill. Heat and hot water were sometime-things, and I used to go to bed wearing a hat and a coat. No stove, no refrigerator, but I did have a coffeemaker that sputtered out a single cup at a time. I subsisted on rotgut espresso, bananas and cigarettes. Here I was, not drinking and going to meetings. I needed my life to get better. Now. 

Living an enforced, if ersatz, monastic life anyway, I was doing a lot of praying. You would have, too. Notice I didn't think God didn’t exist. I just couldn’t imagine that he cared a whit about me.

The spiritual world is forever treading on the temporal one (or maybe it’s the temporal world elbowing in on the spiritual) but outside of Greek tragedy, Deus ex machina—literally, God from the machine—is not an occurrence we’re going to see in our everyday lives. God, as has been repeated a zillion times inside AA and out, works through people. And it was the people I met in AA who held me up, the blown-out drunks and the busted-up junkies and the thrown-away kids who were turning themselves around. I was bearing near-daily witness to it, and there was no denying some force was at work reanimating these people for the better. In my case, I was pretty sure that was never going to happen.

I couldn’t claim anything much like faith, but there was a God I was familiar with, the God who expressed himself through the tenets and rituals of the Catholic Church. He seemed about as good as any other God. He might not help, but He couldn’t possibly hurt, and so during that same winter I became a regular congregant at a church I once slept in. 

They were looking for help, and I accepted an assignment as a lector, that is, I did a few of the readings at mass. Not that big of a deal. I can read, and I think I speak clearly. Being up in front of people doesn’t bother me. 

Whatever the scriptures were on this particular Sunday is gone past all recall, but there is a quote from the Book of Chronicles that also appears in a psalm. Seek the Lord and his strength, it advises. Seek his face continually. I had heard versions of this enough times that it didn’t make any special impression on me. Right. Seek his face. Got it. I went about the rest of my day, which involved lazing around with a disinterested eye toward a football game. Perhaps, a hazy snooze.

Having been partially restored to sanity but also to the rhythm of earning a living, by that time I was working as a bartender at a flashy restaurant. That Sunday night the place was closed to the public for the staff Christmas party. Free food, free drinks—I distinctly remember being charged up on coffee—live music, general merrymaking.

My turn at the grab bag came up. The sack was pretty full and I dug around in there, picking over one box and another until I reached a giftwrapped item that fit neatly in the palm of my hand. Good things, I reminded myself, come in small packages. 

I opened the box and there was a smiling Buddha fashioned from emerald-colored glass. Cute. But a second item, so slight I nearly overlooked it, remained: a scapular. Often the likeness of some saint rendered on cardboard or metal, it’s worn on a chain around the neck. I peeled my eyes at the images illustrated on two tiny beads; one was of the Blessed Mother, and the other was none other than the founder of the Catholic Church Himself, Jesus Christ. Pawing through that grab bag, I was quite literally seeking his face. I sought it and I saw it. Heavy duty.

By this point, I had a sponsor and a service commitment. I was familiarizing myself with the literature. It was working, that is, I was staying sober but I was hamstrung by an anger I would never have admitted to. I was disappointed, and there was always something gnawing at me (still true to some degree, alas). What made it worse, I found few sympathetic ears for my bitching. 

I was entertaining myself with some desultory moaning before a meeting when a woman I didn’t know said, “Time for therapy.”

What headshrinker, I reasoned, was going to offer me more insight on my personality than I already had at my command? Who knew me better than me? What a stupid thing to say. I responded in the way that I did to everything that frightened me, anything I didn’t understand. I dismissed it. 

Scant days later, I was tending bar on a night where there wasn’t much action, chatting with the customers as the spirit moved me, if the spirit moved me, whiling away the minutes until I could get my money and go home. And then I found myself eye-to-eye with an olive-skinned brunette who was smiling at me with brilliant, perfect white teeth. The only thing she wanted was a drink, but I swooned. 

Now meditation meetings are wonderful and the church thing is fine, but the God of my understanding insinuates Himself into situations where it wouldn’t seem, intuitively, that He has much business. He does not limit Himself to the sacred. He lives where I live, and so He must, to some degree, involve Himself in the profane.

I marshaled every scintilla of charm I could muster, and laid it on that brunette. Turned out she was a shrink, so I essayed some tap dance on psychoanalytic theory, derived from the Freud I didn’t read a decade before, but her dining companion arrived and her reservation came up. She handed me a card and said, “I think I can help you.” 

Here was a girl you fell in love with. Here was a girl you married. It was going to take some genuine effort to reconcile her Jewishness with my Catholicism, but our love would find a way. I called her and made an appointment.

Her first order of business was to demolish my romantic delusions. “What kind of shrink would I be if I were sleeping with my patients?”

“A not very good one?”

“Exactly. Look, we’re going to move past this, and if these feelings come up, we’ll talk about them.” They did, and we did.

My manipulations burned out. She started talking in the language that I spoke. Blunt. I didn’t expect her to sit there and nod her head. I solicited criticism, confrontation even, because I developed real respect for her, and I cared about what she thought. The more honest I got, the more painful and bitter the sessions became, but I lowered my shoulder and muscled through. I was determined to get better. Lo and behold, I did.

“You’ve already done the hard work,” she said. “You’re sober. Keep reading, keep thinking, and keep writing. I have absolutely no doubt that you’re going to get to where you want to go.”

An indifferent God might have let her pass me by, to flounder in confusion and fear and arrogance. But this God of my understanding knows how to capture my attention. He didn’t send me some tweed-clad pipe-smoker. Brilliant though he may have been in his Persian-rugged study, his elbow patches and his beard would only have provoked my contempt. Instead, God delivered a Prada-suited Jewish chick—not that that mattered, I like them all and I still do—who was something else all together. This woman was an indispensable help to me, an enormous influence, the lifeline I needed at precisely the right time. Past a certain point, it’s impossible to write off events as mere orders of circumstance. 

I’ve come to believe (yes, I said that) my first brutal year in AA was more instructive than any other in my life. I own a fixed point—a crumbling room without heat or hot water—to which I never want to return. If I keep doing what I’m doing, I won’t have to go back there. 

The Ecuadorian busboy that put Jesus in a grab bag, the anonymous woman who made an offhand remark about therapy, the dazzling lady shrink who helped orient my thinking, all of them were important, all of them. God was working through those people, because He cares, no matter how slightly, no matter how His concern may seem to come and go, about me.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a newspaper columnist, author and a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about being a sober bartender, as well as a sober Catholic, and about the reason AA is anonymous.

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