Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why AA Works! The Value of Non-Sacramental Confession and House Groups, Part 2: AA and the Methodists

This posting is in two parts. In the first, which appeared on Tuesday, I considered the value of regular detailed confession, both outside and inside the Catholic Church, as evidenced by my own experiences. In this second part, I consider the value of the process of confession in others such as addicts and alcoholics in 12-step fellowships, and alcoholics in England in the 18th century whose reform came through the influence of the spiritual method of John Wesley and the Methodist Church. Then I consider why, given the effectiveness of these personal and lay practices of confession, we Catholics need to go to confession in the church at all, and should Catholics consider creating home groups of the sort seen in protestant churches today?

Confession in AA and the Methodist Church
I know that such an approach to confession is effective because of the transformation in my own life that occurred even before I became a Catholic, and the change in the lives of others who are not part of the Church but undertake a daily review of conscience. For example, I have seen people going through the Vision for You process report dramatic relief and change in their lives as a result of this. Also, I have met others - addicts and their families - who go through a similar process of what is called “moral inventory” in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and who experience similarly dramatic changes in personality. The AA “moral inventory” process recognizes resentments and fears, and attributes them to self-centered impulses called “defects of character”. The vocabulary may be different, but it is a process of the recognition, repentance, and confession of sins nevertheless. The benefits of the AA process are so profound that the alcoholic or addict stops drinking or taking drugs.

To illustrate, the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the instructional text for the organization published in 1939, says (page 86) that the alcoholic who wishes to recover should do the following:
When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God's forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.
A typical AA meeting with the book, Alcoholics Anonymous in the foreground. The organization does not own venues, but typically hires space weekly which is paid for by the contributions of the members who attend. Many take place in the halls of Catholic churches!
A similar malaise and solution were seen in England in the 18th century, when the country was undergoing an epidemic of alcoholism.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, English, 1750. The gin house at bottom left has a legend over the door: Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, clean straw for nothing.
The influence of the Methodist Church, founded by John Wesley, is credited with stemming this epidemic. It is worth remembering that the Methodist Church of this time still practiced the spiritual “method” for which it was named; Methodists met weekly and were expected to observe weekly repentance, confession, and accountability to each other. According to the Methodist Rule of Band Societies, published in 1738, they met “(t)o speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.”
John Wesley Preaching to Native Americans, 18th-century engraving. 
Given this, why should Catholics go to confession in the church at all? 
These examples of the profound effect of personal and lay confessions raise the question as to why we should bother to participate in the formal Sacrament of Confession offered by the priest at our church? Perhaps it’s not necessary? The Church, of course, tells us that we must at least once a year, but is this always necessary theologically?

I will leave it to the theologians to answer this question precisely, but I offer some thoughts as to the value that I have been aware of. First, I have always felt that the power and effectiveness of personal and lay confessions is due in part to the presence of the Church on earth. At a personal level, participating in the Sacrament reinforces my sense of this, and helps inspire greater clarity and care in looking for sin in myself, and greater contrition. But I think it goes beyond this: regardless of whether or not those involved acknowledge the fact, they are participating in that sacramental process. One AA member who is a friend of mine once told me that he thought that Christ was present in an AA meeting in a special way. Referring to the fact that Jesus told us that whenever two or three gather in his name, He is there also, he thought that Christ was present in a meeting in the same way, except because it was AA, He was anonymous!

This being the case, my participation in the Sacrament does not only benefit me personally; it also helps to maintain the presence of the Sacrament on earth, and thus benefits others as well. This is a sacrificial act by which I participate, as a member of the Church, in the mystical body of Christ, in the work of the restoration of the kingdom, and the creative work of God. I personally am not necessary to this, but I can choose to participate in it for my greater joy.

Another benefit is that while Confession in Church is discreet, in that only confessor and penitent know what is said, it does take place secretly. We line up in church as visible signs of people acknowledging their need for forgiveness. Especially when this was done prior to and during Mass, it that emphasized for me the point that, even with all that I was given by God’s grace prior to being received into the Church, there is a greater joy and happiness available to me by participation the ultimate Sacrament, which is the Eucharist.

One reason why I began to investigate the Church in the first place was the desire for something greater, on seeing people lining up for Confession; the message was transmitted to me that what I had already been given was seen by the Church as mere preparation for something even greater. I understood as a result of my catechesis that I should go to Confession before taking Communion, but the point was made so much more profoundly on the rare occasions that I saw people in lines before the confessional before and during Mass itself. This is the consummation of all that had gone on before.

Creating fellowship and community that directs people to the Church
One of my motivations in writing The Vision for You book was the hope that it might inspire lay groups to take the exercises in the context of groups of the sort that has already been proven to change society - as evidenced by the 18th-century Methodist Church and 12-step fellowships. It is written so as to connect explicitly such spiritual exercises, which offer community and fellowship and a life-changing encounter with God, to the Sacraments of the Church. Why not replicate this in such a way that engages people from all backgrounds, which primes them psychologically for reception into the Church?

Home groups of lay people are common in Protestant churches, but don’t seem to occur in Catholic groups, which seem to rely on the presence of the priest for everything. How much more profound would the effect on society be if we could offer such groups that are more connected to the life of the Church! I have tried to create such a group in my own home. My small group meets at my house regularly to sing Choral Evensong, in accordance with the form used by the Ordinariate, and to discuss the practice of the Vision for You process. It is attended regularly by people of a variety of backgrounds. We have one who does not attend church regularly, a Southern Baptist, an Anglican, several Presbyterians and myself, the only Catholic. I have invited them to attend my church as a result of this contact and so far, some have dipped their toes into the vivifying Catholic water, so to speak. They know why I invite them, and I always try to do so in a way that makes it easy to say no so they don’t feel pressured.

When the Catholic Church makes apparent that it gives us what we desire, through signs - the images, the liturgical practice, the music - that speaks to our desire for a union with God that all people feel, then we can see something more powerful and dramatic than either the change in British society in the 18th century or in addicts today. This is driven by a mystery that all these component parts direct us to if we wish to make them apparent. They speak of a profound unity that is the fulfillment of our faith. We are part of a unity that is from above and is closer and more intimate than any fellowship of man, but certainly does not exclude such fellowship . It is the mystic unity of the Holy Trinity, which we are admitted to by the Eucharist, and which illuminates all aspects of fellowship and unity that it transcends.
Tents house the homeless in Portland, Oregon; the modern version of 18th-century London’s Gin Lane? If it is true, as often claimed, that many of these people are homeless because they are mentally ill or addicts, perhaps the answer to this problem is as likely to be spiritual as it is social or political? Unfortunately, outreach projects, even by churches, have policies of avoiding offering any sort of spiritual guidance.
People must see Jesus if they are to choose Him

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