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Drink talking

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“There, in the middle of the O’Connell Street bridge, was a man who, unknown to either of us, was there to shape my stay… He was sitting on the bridge with a cardboard sign on a grey and chilly day: his sign read “Thank you for your kindness. Some day I hope to get my life back.” Dr Jim Harbaugh SJ wrote those lines in a recent article reflecting on his first visit to Ireland last September, in the thirtieth year of his recovery from alcoholism.

The author of books and articles on Twelve Step (AA) spirituality and Ignatian spirituality  was the keynote speaker at the Pioneer Association sponsored conference on the role of spirituality in recovery from addiction. His article gives a profound insight into how thirty years on, his Higher Power (God), is still teaching him about real freedom, one day at a time. Read the full article below.

The Brother on the Liffey Bridge

I: The O’Connell Street Bridge: the Problem

I arrived in Dublin on a Tuesday morning. They only allowed us two hours to sleep between “supper” and “breakfast,” so even if I could sleep on planes, I wouldn’t have been out for long. At the airport, Pat Coyle, my contact, met me. She had invited me to speak at a conference on alcoholism on the strength of my book, A 12 Step Approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I had only known Pat via e-mail: she turned out to be the vibrant and gracious Director of Communications for the Irish Jesuit Province, with a background as a journalist for the B.B.C., including work in dangerous parts of Northern Ireland. She took me to get an Irish breakfast (I didn’t know how to count the meals on the plane with all the changes in time zones), and then dropped me off at the Jesuit residence in Gardiner Street.

I took a brief, shallow nap, and then decided at 3:00 in the afternoon, Dublin time, that I needed to explore. I wandered away from Gardiner Street, and quickly found, two streets away, O’Connell Street, pretty much the main street of Dublin. On O’ConnellSt I followed the contour of the land downhill to the River Liffey, which, as anyone who has made a stab at James Joyce knows, divides north Dublin from south. There, in the middle of the O’Connell Street bridge, was a man who, unknown to either of us, was there to shape my stay. He was young, as street people go, perhaps in his 30’s, with sandy hair and light beard. He was sitting on the bridge with a cardboard sign on a grey and chilly day: his sign read “Thank you for your kindness. Some day I hope to get my life back.”

My mother was pure Irish, a Brennan on both sides. Of the many gifts she gave me for which I am grateful, the particular Irish gift of word intoxication is perhaps the one I love most. Sure enough, the bridge man’s words stayed with me for the rest of my stay, and became the beginning an end of my talk at the conference, the body of which I had written in Tacoma weeks before my trip.

As I continued to wander the heart of Dublin, along the river and back up O’Connell by the grand classical buildings dating in many cases back to the British ascendancy, I mused on my alcoholic brother’s sign. In the light of what I have learned after a long time in recovery and from many wise recovering friends, I would say that he had gotten hold of half the truth. He began his plea with gratitude, and that’s at the core of recovery from addiction. It comes as a gift, or as grace; it cannot and need not be earned, but it does have to be accepted and cherished.

At the same time, like any alcoholic, he was also holding on to some old ideas that were blocking him from recovery and keeping him sitting on the bridge. I spotted three of them. First, he wanted things to change—but not today. As St. Augustine said of his sex addiction centuries before, “O God, make me chaste, but not today.” If recovery is going to happen, it has to be embraced now, today, this minute. We addicts think that we have all the time in the world to take the needful steps, and meanwhile there’s no need to rush things. Second, he wanted his life back—that is, he wanted to continue to call the shots for his life.

It hadn’t yet dawned on him that his best thinking and choosing, his choices in shaping his life, had landed him on the Liffey Bridge. He probably blamed other people or unlucky circumstances for his fate; at any rate he wanted to have another go at his life, but on his terms. Third, he wanted his life back: he wanted his old life, perhaps his life before he started using. At least as of September 24th of this year, he hadn’t realized that his old life led inevitably to the bridge, and that what he really needed was a new life. Nor did he believe at this point that there was a way to that new life that he could walk from the bridge.

 What many friends and I have found in recovery is a new life, conducted with regular input from other people and Other Powers, that has to be chosen each new day. This belief is especially contained in the Third of the Twelve Steps: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Perhaps the reason why this Step particularly came to mind as I reflected on the message on the bridge is that for the past year especially, my 30th in recovery, I have been trying to take it seriously, after the belated recognition last year that I’ve been a control freak, before and during recovery.

It may seem odd that someone whose drinking has been out of control is a control freak. But consider an essential insight in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: alcoholics are characterized by our endless vain efforts to control our drinking. Just because we lack control doesn’t mean that we don’t think about it and long for it all the time. Even if we let a Higher (or just Other) Power work in us to help us to maintain sobriety, we may still lust after control in other areas of our lives. And this despite officially embracing the Third Step in which we claim to surrender this lust.

In the days that followed my encounter with the man on the bridge, I had the opportunity to float these ideas at the conference at which I had come to Ireland to speak. But I also, through Pat Coyle, was given a “brilliant” (to use a currently popular Irish word) rejoinder to my alcoholic brother, a response I didn’t grasp until after I had returned to the United States. But before I give the solution, I want to put the problem in a larger context by describing the conference and what I observed there.

II: The Man on the Bridge and the Pioneers: An Irish Context

I was invited to Dublin by Pat Coyle to speak at a conference held by the Pioneers. Pat was involved because the Jesuits have been involved with the Pioneers from the first. This group was founded in 1898 by a Jesuit who, as it happened, lived in the Gardiner Street community. He wanted to address a perennial problem of Irish people, in Ireland as well as in the world-wide diaspora of the Irish, caused in part by centuries of oppression and specifically by the Great Famine of the 1840’s. The problem, of course, is alcoholism. Most of my Irish uncles, by birth and by marriage, were alcoholics, as was my grandfather, who died at the poor hospital in St. Louis before I was born. Alcoholism brought to my family early death, including suicide, for the men, and rage and depression for the women.

The Pioneer Movement tried to solve this problem by persuading people not to begin drinking, and then to remain abstinent for long periods, even for life. From what I heard at the conference and what I read on the Pioneer web-site, the pledge not to drink was often offered as children prepared to receive the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. This sacrament, which at some times and places has served as a rite of passage to adulthood, was conferred in Ireland at about ages 10-12.

The purpose of the pledge not to drink was not just to secure a brighter future for the pledger; the theology of the pledge also stressed that the Pioneers were doing this as a prayer of petition for their alcoholic loved ones, as well as an act of “reparation.” This last notion was especially tied to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the idea is that the Pioneers would by their austerity “repair” the damage done by alcoholism, including the offense that God was believed to take at alcoholic misdeeds.

The Pioneers, in other words, were strongly shaped by Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, as of the date of their founding in the late 19th Century. Over the years since, the movement grew dramatically, and at one point, I believe in the 1920’s and 30’s, was thought to number in the hundreds of thousands. However, I think I have also learned from modern Irish fiction that many people who took the pledge as pre-teens later found that they were unable to keep it. At the conference I attended, there was also concern about recruitment in the past few decades; a glance at the audience would suggest that those present, not all necessarily Pioneers, of course, were mostly older people. And while some members are not Roman Catholics, most still are.

The Catholic connection at present is not necessarily a selling point. Most observers have remarked on a significant exodus from the Catholic Church among Irish people, spurred in large part by revelations of sexual abuse and gross abuse of power in Catholic orphanages and homes for “wayward” girls during the long period when the Church was strongly supported by the Irish government. The closing Mass for the conference was said by Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, who is widely considered to have been unusually outspoken about the Church’s derelictions, and just as widely thought to have been punished by the Vatican for his views.

 In the light of this complex history, I came to the conference hoping to be discreet; I did not, and do not, feel that I have deep insights into the Pioneers’ history or their present needs. And in any event, I was not asked to speak on these topics: Pat had asked me to speak on spirituality and the 12 Steps, topics on which she knew I had published books. Nevertheless, the topics selected and the speakers whom Pat invited to this conference were apparently different from those at previous conferences.

The difference was apparent from the first speaker (I was second). He was a Jesuit, Peter McVerry, widely known and esteemed for his work over 30 years with street kids in downtown Dublin. I was impressed both by his accounts of his work and by his command of facts about drug use among the population he has devoted his life to serving. At the same time, as someone who taught Addiction Studies at Seattle University during the 1990’s, I was not at all shocked by his information.

In the United States and Canada, younger and for that matter older people in the inner city have used the same drugs and for the same social and psychological reasons as young people in downtown Dublin, including, I presume, my friend on the O’Connell Street Bridge. When I went on next to talk about the recovery from addiction that many people in North America have found through practice of the spiritual principles of 12 Step programs, I was happy to cross-refer to many of the point raised by Fr. Peter, the priest who has offered shelter and support to young people in Dublin.

 It was only after Fr. Peter and my talks that there was a question and answer session; he had had to leave, so I was the only person at the podium. I was glad that I had for my part focused on the topic on which I had been asked to speak, because many of the responses were emotionally charged, mostly with anger and grief. I remember especially two members of the audience: one was an older woman who reminded me of the character that Imelda Staunton, the accomplished British actress, creates in just one scene at the beginning of Another Year, a remarkable British movie that I saw with Tom Weston and Mary Cross about, in large part, ordinary, everyday alcoholism.

Like Ms. Staunton’s character, the woman in the audience seemed at once emotionally shut down and fiercely resentful of the alcoholics in her life. Her question was not really a question; it was a challenge to the disease concept of alcoholism/addiction. While in my answer I tried among other things to talk about some of the semantics of the term, I think that she couldn’t hear me because in her anger she was convinced that the alcoholics in her life had, unlike her, chosen to be alcoholic and thus to cause her and others great pain.

Another questioner was also enraged, but more overtly than the woman. His non-question was a statement that this conference was a perversion of Pioneer beliefs and activities. It should have been like previous conferences, talking about the theological foundations of the movement, and especially offering tactics to improve recruitment, particularly among young people. A large framed picture of the Jesuit who founded the Pioneers was leaning against the front of the podium during the conference: when it fell over at one point, this gentleman, or one like him, read this as the Jesuit’s protest from the grave at the travesty of this conference held under the auspices of the movement he founded.

Later in the conference, the Jesuit currently involved in the governance of the Pioneers gave the kind of talk that this gentleman loudly preferred: this Jesuit, who was unfailingly gracious to me before and during the conference, explained to the audience that the temperancia to which the Pioneers aspire consists equally of abstinentia, modestia, sobrietas, and castitas (I presume my English-speaking readers will discern without difficulty the meaning of these Latin tags). This is certainly more decorous than statistics about which street drugs are currently most popular among Dublin street kids or the rates of HIV infection in this population.

The grief was naturally expressed more quietly. Some surfaced in the questions—brief stories about the pain of watching one’s child or grandchild succumb to addiction—but more of it came out in one-on-one interactions during the conference, or so I was told. Some participants, like a Presbyterian pastor from Northern Ireland, thanked the speakers for broaching painful topics. In any event, I didn’t have much trouble in spotting, beneath the bitterness of the woman opposed to the disease concept, a great sorrow.

Once again, I was neither asked to shape a future for the Pioneers nor do I know enough about their past to do so with any competence. But in the course of the conference I felt it was providential that, on my first evening in Dublin, after my meeting with the Man on the Bridge, I attended an Al-Anon meeting at St. John of God Hospital. The principles of Al-Anon are another reason why I would neither assess the past or present state of the Pioneers nor prescribe Al-Anon for them. But I believe I felt the grief and anger of many of the people at the conference, and I think I have felt the same feelings for the same reasons. And Al-Anon has been a great help in bringing something productive out of those feelings and experiences.

Two more notes on the cultural context surrounding the conference—Jesuits love cultural insights. First, the conference was held at All Hallows College on the north side of Dublin. All Hallows was founded in the 1840’s to train clergy who would go out to work in the Irish diaspora, in the United States or Canada or Australia. The furthest back I can reliably trace my Irish heritage is my great-grandfather Brennan’s marriage in St. Louis in 1863. Perhaps he came over with the great migration of the 1840’s.

In any case, he brought along, culturally or genetically or all of the above, the Irish qualities I have inherited, including eloquence and a fondness for “the creature.” And I am glad that I had a chance to bring back a solution to the problem of alcoholism generated in the diaspora. As I told the audience at the conference, the Pioneers’ approach, like the D.A.R.E. program in the United States, is an attempt to practice prevention, stopping alcoholism before it even starts. I was in Dublin to describe a way to deal with alcoholism after it has taken hold.

A second cultural note: the conference took place all day Saturday and Sunday morning on a lovely fall weekend in Dublin (the rest of my stay Dublin’s weather was much like Tacoma’s – grey -as I noted to a fellow-tourist from Portland, Oregon, whom I met on the tour of Trinity College). The conference was intense, but there was a break in the late afternoon of Saturday, when a large-screen TV was rolled into the auditorium.

It would have been unreasonable even with such devout folks not to provide an opportunity to watch the all-Ireland hurling finals, which were taking place before 80,000 people at the Croke Park stadium, not far from All Hallows. From my brief glimpse, I think hurling looks a little like lacrosse. I can confidently state that County Clare defeated County Cork. But I marvel to note that one of the Jesuits in Gardiner Street said in all seriousness that if he were to die that night, he would die happy, because he had seen the greatest hurling match in history. As it happened, I wandered back from All Hallows to Gardiner St. right after the match, and everywhere there were families in yellow or red jerseys who had been at Croke Park. Curiously, the families sporting the losing colors seemed just as excited as those in the winning. Even with all the sadness of Irish life and history, there is still an enormous capacity for joy and celebration.

III: The Monk in the Chapel: A Solution

I got an excellent answer to the riddle proposed by the Man on the Bridge and seconded by the events of the Pioneer Conference between the two events. Both the Man and the Pioneers seemed to me baffled by their inability to control drinking and using, his own for the Man, someone else’s for the Pioneers. The solution—a familiar one, as it turned out–came to me, like so much else on this trip, through the good offices of Pat Coyle.

 Shortly after we met on Tuesday, she asked if I would like to accompany her on Thursday to a Benedictine abbey near Limerick. A monk, a dear friend of hers and of many others, had died, and she wanted to attend his funeral. As she noted, this would also give me a chance to see a bit of rural Ireland. I gladly accepted, and the trip turned out to be about scenery and a great deal more.

We drove from Dublin past Tipperary, whence my Brennan forebears are supposed to have come. I had been assured by a computer in the bookstore at the Trinity College Library that the Brennans were reputed to be “outlaws and horse-thieves.” That’s as may be; Tipperary looked like most of the country between Dublin and Glenstal Abbey, green and fertile, wooded and watered. I didn’t feel any particular pull in Tipperary, to tarry or to steal a horse.

The Abbey is in a beautiful spot, on a hill above the village of Murroe. It was built in the 19th Century by a British family to look a bit like a medieval castle, a tribute to the Gothic revival, perhaps. In the 20th Century it came to the Benedictines, who turned it into a boys’ boarding school—Pat says it’s the “poshest” in Ireland. The monks live in their own separate quarters, next to the abbey church.

The monk we gathered to honor was Fr. Ambrose (christened David) Tinsley. I gathered his story from what was said about him, privately and at his funeral. He had been a monk for more than 55 years. He had mostly lived, as Benedictines do, at his abbey; unlike Jesuits, who (have to) move a lot, Benedictines take a vow to make their abbey their home for life. However, at one point he had gone to Nigeria to help found a daughter abbey. While there, he had been in a car accident and was not expected to live the night. But he did, and later returned to be guest-master at Glenstal.

The post of guest-master is very important in Benedictine life; another of their central values is hospitality. Recall that abbeys were one of the few safe places for poor people and manuscripts during the Dark Ages. And Fr. Ambrose was by all accounts a superb guest-master. Pat and many other people, including a lovely diocesan priest from Dublin, Fr. Jim, who also attended the funeral, described his ministry thus: he would listen and listen to people’s troubles, saying nothing. Then he would quietly speak a few words that went straight to their hearts and brought healing. I gather the only other time he left the abbey was at the very end of his life. He went to a Hospice facility nearer Limerick as his cancer worsened. It was a bit hard for him to let go of his life, since it had been such a gracious one; but in the end, as the monks and his family both testified, he found peace and release.

 A Benedictine funeral is all about home and hospitality. Fr. Ambrose’s body, in an open coffin, was brought into the abbey church in the late afternoon. There his brother monks and any visitors chanted the evening and night prayers of the Catholic office. During the night they took turns staying with his body. In the morning, just before dawn, they sang the morning Office with their brother there. During the Office of Readings, part of morning prayers, a monk read from a devotional book that Fr. Ambrose had written.

The current Abbot (chief superior) presided at the funeral Mass later in the morning. After the Mass some monks and some family members took Fr. Ambrose’s casket on their shoulders and bore him to the abbey cemetery where the rituals concluded with his burial on the land he had loved all his life. He had wanted to reach 80 years, but didn’t quite; but he died on the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

At the time all I knew was that I had received the great gift of knowing and honoring what Jews call a mensch—an upright person who treats everyone as they should be treated. He may even have been a tzaddik, one of the 36 just people who in Jewish thought are holding the world together at a given moment. The Christian term is “saint.”

After the funeral we returned to Dublin. The next day was the conference. So much happened then, and up to my last evening in Dublin, when Pat and Fr. Jim took me to an Italian restaurant near All Hallows, that I didn’t grasp the depth of what Fr. Ambrose had to teach me. That only came through after I had returned to Tacoma and had time to think about my trip.

Dublin was only Part Three of this adventure; Part One was a 50th year reunion with five Jesuit class-mates in St. Louis, and Part Two was a wedding at the St. Thomas University chapel in St. Paul for two of my parishioners—the groom had just returned from an army tour in Afghanistan.

What Fr. Ambrose had to teach me—and it also neatly sums up what I have learned in 50 tumultuous years as a Jesuit—is that it’s good to turn your will and your life over to the care of a Power smarter and kinder than you. I wish such wisdom to my brother on the bridge, and to everyone to whom addiction has brought pain. And today, the eve of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to have been taught this, by Fr. Ambrose and a cloud of 12 Steppers.

Jim Harbaugh SJ, 27 November 2013