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Heart and spirits

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Jim Harbaugh SJ (pictured here with Pat Coyle), was the keynote speaker at a conference on addiction and spirituality hosted by the Pioneer Association on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29th September. A variety of speakers shone a powerful light on addiction, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin praised the Pioneers for their work and their efforts at ongoing renewal.

All Hallows Woodlock Hall was packed with Pioneers and interested people from around the country for the two day event. From the very start it was clear it was going to be a lively, challenging time. Peter McVerry SJ began by talking about his work with homeless people some of whom were drug addicted. He said that addicts often took drugs for very understandable reasons one of which was to numb the pain of the intolerable things that had happened to them when they were young and vulnerable. He cautioned those present that if they wanted to remove drugs from such people they needed to have something strong and positive to offer them in their place.

He said that parents can set and example for their children and in Irish culture we often show them that the best way to relax is with a drink. He provoked an immediate and lively response from the audience with one parent saying they had been a life-long Pioneer but worried that perhaps they had not helped teach their children moderation. Peter McVerry responded by affirming the witness that staying off drinkg be saying that he himself, though not a Pioneer, was a committed non-drinker. “I have seen so much damage done by drink. For me it’s a statement. I don’t want to promote or give the impression that drink is something of value to society.”

Jim Harbaugh SJ was the keynote speake. He is author of a book on 12-Step Spirituality and Ignatian Spirituality. He said he was an alcoholic in recovery for thirty years. He compared and contrasted 12 Step spirituality with the Pioneer approach. He spoke of a young man on O’Connell St bridge whom he’d seen when he arrived here from the US. “He was an alcoholic with a notice round his neck which read,  someday I’ll get my life back again .” And Fr Harbaugh reflected that he was wrong on three counts.

Firstly, there is only one day not some day that the person must choose to get help, he said. Secondly, the addict is suffering from a disease over which they need to admit that they are powerless. Then they need to accept that they cannot recover on their own, but need the help of a community. And thirdly, they have to accept that they won’t get their old life back, but rather they will get a new and better life if they choose to walk the 12-Step spiritual path.

A very lively discussion followed with one person from the floor challenging his assertion that alcoholism was a disease and saying that the addicts have choices and were responsible for choosing to drink.

When asked if he would take the Pioneer pin himself since he was thirty years sober, Fr Harbaugh said that for him ‘it was thirty years sober one day at a time’ ,so to ask him to take a pledge for life was a bit like asking him to jump of a very tall building when he was happy only to step off a footpath.

In the afternoon Majella Coyle, an addiction counsellor at White Oaks Addiction Centre on the Derry/Donegal border, shared movingly about her descent into the depths of alcoholism and the struggle to create the wonderlife she has today. Her sister Pat shared the platform and spoke about how her sister’s addiction affected the whole family and how indeed addiction is a family disease. She said the addict is not the only one who needs help; the spouses, sisters , brothers, friends all need assistance too. And she spoke of how her faith and how a broad 12 Step and Ignatian spirituality had  helped her significantly along the road to wellness – an ongoing journey for both her and her sister.

This session was followed by a ceremony of healing, designed and led by Judith King, and featuring fire, water and stone. Addicts, family members and people who had chosen to abstain from any form of drugs as a spiritual practice were acknowledged and prayed for.

In the evening a young Pioneer,  Patricia Gallagher gave a powerful account of why she had become a Pioneer. She said she was so shy and lacking in confidence that she felt that if she took alcohol she knew it would readily give her a quick fix but she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to call ‘halt’. A Pioneer worker in her school was a great support to her and the more risks she took doing things the more she built up her self-esteem. This woman encouraged her by showing her  that you didn’t need to have drink have a fulfilled life and good fun too.

Barney McGuckian SJ, Spiritual Director of the Pioneers, presented her and other Pioneers present with certificates and a new ten-year pin. After which there was a most enjoyable sing-a-long concert with harpist Deirdre Seaver, followed by superb traditional playing for the young people of Ceoltas Ceoltoirí Eireann.

On Sunday Barney McGuckian gave an encouraging talk to all present not to feel daunted by the powerful alcohol lobby or the pervasive presence of alcohol abuse.He gave many examples of the power of abstinence as a spiritual practice that he had witnessed over the years.

Joe Greenan, head of HR for the Jesuits was chair for the two days and he announced a change to the Sunday morning programme. Denis Bradley from Northlands Addiction Centre could not make the even due to a famiy illness and was replaced at very short notice by Eamon Keane, musician and broadcaster who has worked for over 20 years in addiction counselling with young people.

In his talk he spoke of creating ‘spirtiual space’ where the addict can be met with dignity and compassion. That’s how Jesus met people, he said. And he stressed that addiction is not about ‘them and us’. If we want to help people, then we must realise that we are no better nor no worse than the suffering addict. He said that often people think they are coming from a place of caring, wanting to help the addict through prayer or whatever but they may in fact be full of understandable resentment. Then he cautioned that holding on to resentment is like drinking the posion yourself and expecting the person whom you resent, to die. He spoke about the need for compassion for  those addicted, and drew a distinction between compassion and ‘competent compassion’.

Irish Jesuit Provincial Tom Layden attended the closing mass which he concelebrated with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. The Archbishop gave the homily, stressing his gratitude to the Pioneers and applauding their steps toward renewal. He greeted all present personally after the mass.

The proceedings were recorded and some talks will be made available in future weeks. For further information contact Roisin Fulham in the Pioneer Office. 00 353 1 8749464.