Friday, February 3, 2012



We have exchanged the astonishment of the Gospels for a set of rules.
-- Pope John Paul II  

When I came into the Church fifteen years ago, I wasn’t friends with a single practicing Catholic, much less a Catholic who’d been a hopeless alcoholic, like me. I was still full of residual guilt over my bad track record in the bars. I still tended to try to get straight A's on some cosmic report card. I knew I'd found my home in the Church, but I wasn't sure whether I would ever find even a single other friend there.   

Terry: To be a drunk and get sober is one of the ultimate death-and-resurrection experiences. When Christ said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," some of the people he must surely have been thinking about were alcoholics and addicts. It’s a wonderful gift to see, left to your own devices, the depths to which you’re capable of sinking. Sometimes I don’t know how people come to a relationship with Christ without hitting bottom with some kind of addictive, obsessive behavior...

I’d lived my whole life in fear of judgment. The first time I heard Terry,  he talked about how—when we get sober, or we come into the Church, or we come back to the human race in whatever way we’ve come back—we are in fact judged. We're judged…welcome.

Terry: We welcome you and we also recognize you as a child of God with the dignity of any other person on earth. We’re judging you to be a person of high standards, a person who will not be satisfied with acting from a heart that’s anything less than entirely free. And we have some principles of loving, honest, responsible behavior that we suggest you follow. You’ll stay welcome even if you don’t follow them, but—here’s the thing: you won’t care. You won’t care that you’re welcome; you’ll miss out on all the wonder, the love, the growth. 

Though I'd begun to accept I wasn’t in charge of my spiritual “progress,” I was still looking to be transformed in a certain way. It helped to hear Terry talk about how resurrection never looks anything like we think it’s going to.

Terry: Some of us have a deeply misguided desire to be saved through excellence: we want to be spontaneous yet profound, highly intelligent yet down-to-earth, well-balanced yet passionate, dignified but self-deprecating, physically fit, good-looking, calm in the face of tragedy, suave in the face of heartbreak, and with really, really good skin. And then, through the Incarnational mystery of being broken open by our fellow alcoholics and addicts, we forget about all that. We become what we really wanted to be all along: we become human. We realize the only point of any of it is to get in good enough shape to help another alcoholic…
Still, old habits die hard. Who would I be, I still wondered, without my perfectionism? My need to control? My accusatory self-talk?

Terry: Implicit in all self-justification is accusation: one of the names for Satan in Catholic theology, in fact, is The Accuser. That’s not God talking to us, it’s ourselves. There’s no accusation in authentic spirituality—only invitation.
In his capacity as Director of Alcohol/Substance Abuse Ministry for the Archdiocese of L.A., Fr. Terry has been directing alcoholics and addicts to AA, and observing what happens to them once they get there,  for years. 

Terry: Two things happen when someone comes into into AA. The first is the way you’re talked to, the way you’re greeted. Right away people trust you—they trust that you have it in you to respond to the invitation.  

There’s a kind of unspoken joy in the people who welcome and greet you, and then you feel the joy yourself in being respected and loved and staying sober. The way you’re talked to, the way you’re greeted. Right away they trust you—that you have it in you to respond to the invitation of the program. You don’t get the bum’s rush. No-one swarms you. They’re mature.

It’s not in the mind of anyone who walks through the doors: "I wish someone would see my goodness, my inner essence." That thought isn't conscious. But what we need so much is to be welcomed and trusted and honored as free children of God. And when that happens, some real change can occur.

That’s one part. The second part is that then you carry the message and treat other people the way you’ve been treated.

We have an inborn need to love. And in AA you’re drawn and you find yourself identifying with the other. The “yeah!” to other people's brokenness, escapades, sense of humor, remorse, willingness to make things right is a profound spiritual experience. You have joy at someone else’s coming to life; you're triggered into identification. People who stay sober in AA tend to have a little bounce to their step....

My first spiritual director after I got sober, Mark Kennedy, used to say: “There’s only one unforgivable sin. And that’s to avoid God until you’re in good enough shape to fool him.”

That broken people can help other broken people. That in the worst darkness, there’s  light.  That we can laugh about it, too: now that’s astonishing.

Father Terry very kindly took me to a Bach concert given by the Da Camera Society at the California Club, L.A.'s oldest private club, Wednesday night (he gets tickets from Kelly, the organist at his parish). He picked me up at quarter past seven sharp, as promised. Halfway through, he insisted on changing places with me so I could have the better view. At the end, he whispered, "Get ready to walk fast" and hustled me down to the valet area, avoiding what looked from the folks who quickly piled up behind us like about a forty-five minute wait.

In short, a prince of a man, a priest--monsignor, actually--and a driver. Thank you, Father Terry!

we'd both been in worse places!


  1. A beautiful post, Heather. Sounds like you have found a good friend and spiritual guide.

  2. Pity, I'd like to attach some photos as a comment on this beautiful, meditative article...I'll try anyway...this is a quote of a (to)day from the website of Croatian priest fr. Zlatko Sudac: "It is not all the same where you live, it is not all the same to whom you live with, it is not all the same the way of your living, because everything and everybody pervades everyone."

  3. Heather...I've referenced my son, a recovering alcoholic several times. He's sober now for about 3 months I a halfway house in upstate NY and sounds good when we speak to him. I cut/pasted this into an email as I think your words may touch him far more than ours ever could....

    I would only add 2 words to those of your first spiritual director to read;

    There’s only one unforgivable sin. And that’s to avoid God until "you think" you’re in good enough shape to fool him.

    Since we never will be, it's just one more illusion of self sufficiency.
    God Bless,

  4. Funny, sometimes, the workings of grace -- a priest mentioned something along a similar line to me in confession yesterday. You would think God was trying to tell me something. :)

  5. Oh, I love this. I understand why it is that the more I read this blog, the more honest I want to be, and the more free I feel about being honest. There really is something wonderful about what Monsignor Richey said. It should be required reading for all Christians/people. I think AA members have a priviledged, and unique insight into the spiritual life, and how to begin as Christians (or not). I like what he said, "... a misguided desire to be saved through excellence". I wonder if, if you haven't been an alcoholic, you can EVER get away from that misguided impulse? It seems ever with us. I'm gonna print this one out and stick it on a wall.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  7. ...We become what we really wanted to be all along: we become human. We realize the only point of any of it is to get in good enough shape to help another...

    Heather, I think you just described the essence of this Faith, for me. I've not had the (privilege?) of struggling with alcohol, but have faced my own, other demons and ended up at the bottom of myself, looking up. In the end, the gift of grace gains its deepest meaning as its offered in turn, freely and joyfully.

    and Jane, I love what you observe!:
    "the more I read this blog, the more honest I want to be, and the more free I feel about being honest". Exactly! I believe that's why your blog, Heather, is the one I visit first, hungry and thirsty...

    thank you for judging us welcome, and inviting us in.

  8. What a radical concept: that we are judged WELCOME (when the Accuser is whispering to us otherwise, often if not always). And Carie,you are right on: most of us have demons of one kind (alcohol) or another, and end up on the bottom. Then, grace, redemption, abundance. More real the resurrection from alcoholism, but nevertheless real the resurrection from torment by other demons as well. It is a privilege to read all these comments!!

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  9. I'm reading your books now, and coincidentally, I had just read the chapter on Fr. Terry in Redeemed about a day before reading this post. What a great friend.


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