12 Step Recovery: Illumination

  1. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Some say that the Eleventh Step is the least attended in the whole program. Once you’ve passed the Ninth Step, you may be restored to sanity, including emotional sobriety. Then the Tenth and Twelfth Steps appear to be the ongoing practice to hold on to your gains. Perhaps I might have reversed the last two steps to get the most natural ordering, but that would have just made the Eleventh Step even easier to ignore. Why is this step so vital?

The Good Samaritan Window (panel 4), Chartres Cathedral

The Good Samaritan Window (panel 4), Chartres Cathedral

The Eleventh Step is the doorway out of the Twelve Steps and into the broader spiritual journey. In the ancient Christian tradition (and in the Perennial Tradition, I would say), this path was described as having three stages, states or “ways:” purgative, illuminative and unitive. Recovery is mostly about the purgative way – the purging of the demons of addiction (all kinds). To move fully into the illuminative way, we need “prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.”

Much ink has been spilled throughout history describing the illuminative way. I will not attempt a coherent synthesis of the traditional sources but instead give my own intuition. First I note that illumination is a word close to the Buddhist word, “enlightenment.” That might be a coincidence or a clue that by this point we have to get out of our doctrinal forts, hence, “as we understood Him.” For me, illumination starts by leaving the dualistic mind (all or nothing thinking) and learning to see “what is,” … and keep seeing, delaying any judgment or self-interested evaluation. Then illumination continues by seeing, and seeing some more, God-in-all-things. In everything and every situation, something of the goodness of God is revealed, and the more I look the more I realize that God is better than I ever thought.

This step ends with an intention to desire only God’s will for us. The discernment of God’s will is a topic for a whole other series of blogs. Personally, I do not think that divine will is a specific and predetermined script for our lives. If I can be cryptic, I would say that God’s will for us is God’s will, period, in this particular situation, using our particular set of gifts and wounds. How to get this specific application of God’s general will is the matter of discernment. For now, I will just end with the Ignatian Suscipe (Receive) prayer, one of my favourites.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.


12 Step Recovery: Dependence is Freedom

  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  2. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

The more we depend on God, the more we are free. When I first heard this statement from a wise teacher, I could not get my head around it. Independence equates to freedom, I thought, not dependence. The way to think about this freedom, I eventually discovered, is as an unburdening from the impossible task of earning my worth. When your dignity depends on an infinite source, the problem is solved. You have nothing to prove to anybody, and all of your reassuring yet futile habits for happiness (defects of character) can fall away.


These two steps are a repetition and elaboration of Steps 2 & 3. Other common expressions of radical dependence are “letting go and letting God” and “turning it over.”

It might be easier if you did not think of these steps in a transactional, petitionary manner. It is not “6 – prepare oneself to make the big request; 7 – make the request; 7.5 – check to see if the request was granted.” Depending on God is a rinse and repeat process. All of your character defects are not going to be wiped out in one pass through Step 7. The ego does not give up suddenly or easily.

The worst thing that can happen is for your life to go so well that you are satisfied with your separate, independent self. You almost need a failure or a crisis that God can use to turn you around from alienation to participation (Step 1). Then the next two steps (2 & 3) can tell you who you really are and the Fourth and Fifth Steps can purge you of your secret demons. Now you are “entirely ready” to live differently, depending on God rather than your defective habits. The Seventh Step is the definitive “Yes” to this new way of being.

God not only tolerates and forgives your defects of character, but he even uses them to convert you into a person who is plugged in to (dependent upon) the Spirit with everybody and everything else, actually participating in the life of God. This conversion is not merely some moral improvement. Just becoming a nicer person is not the point. You want a whole new identity and vision. Moral behavior follows naturally.

You really do most of work, which should placate you agnostics. However you cannot do it alone. You can only do it in the Presence, Faith, Hope and Love of your Higher Power.

12 Step Recovery: Higher Power

  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  2. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Some people struggle with the Higher Power in the 12 Steps. For others it is a deal-breaker that excludes them from the program. I’ve heard of some other recovery programs described as “like the 12 Steps but without a Higher Power,” which is an oxymoron. The whole premise of the program is captured in the first three steps: I do not have enough power; something or somebody else has sufficient power; I am willing to let go of the steering wheel and let the Higher Power drive.


Yggdrasil – Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847

“How we understand Him,” is actually the first obstacle. If we can only imagine Him objectively, categorically, as “Him over there,” physically as matter or energy, then we are in trouble. Any such Power is dubious at best and intellectually insulting at worst. God – He (pardon the old but convenient language) has to be transcendent. He has to go beyond subject/object divisions, all categories, time or space. After that, you can understand Him any way you want. The Perennial Philosophy says that He is the “ground of all being,” but all language and concepts necessarily fall short of capturing God’s essence. Perhaps the most honest description can be borrowed from quantum physics: “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.

The “who God is” is directly tied to the “how God is.” How does God “restore us to sanity?” God does not zap us from on high to cure us of alcoholism or anything else. In a paradoxical way, we effect our own sobriety when we give up our illusion of autonomy and begin to participate in the cosmos and the divine-human community. What a relief it is not to be struggling for our private self-worth and happiness-amidst-chaos on a moment to moment basis! How you position yourself is everything. If you are a self-sufficient island, your life becomes unmanageable. If you are participating, connected, even dependent in some kind of Ultimate Reality, then overall management is no longer your headache. You are “saved” by your deeper identity.

This place of self-positioning has always been there. It does not “happen” when you decide to work the steps. You only start to benefit by opening yourself up to what has always been available. This is how T. S. Eliot can write:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Higher Power is latent inside of you, where you started, but it is not you – wholly other. Expand into it (“turn our will and our lives over to”) and you will see yourself as if for the first time.

12 Step Recovery: Powerless

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

All great spirituality is about letting go. Indeed you have to start this way. Otherwise spirituality or religion is just one more ego accomplishment, as if you have God in your back pocket, so to speak. Recovery begins with a true surrender.


Boy Cutting Grass with a Sickle – Vincent van Gogh, 1881

Surrender is a very unappetizing word. Little wonder that we resist it past the point of denial. Strength, resilience, toughness, determination all employ the rallying cry, “Never surrender!” Adult success is synonymous with independence. You can take care it. You’ve got this!

So little and yet so much needs to be let go. This first step is not an abrogation of responsibility nor a switch to total passivity. It is a breaking of the ideal of self-sufficiency, a movement out of oneself. The accompanying feeling is humility, a word from the Latin humus, meaning ground, as in being grounded. Sobriety happens on the ground, not when you are “high.”

The added difficulty with the primary addictions (to the core programs for happiness) is that our lives do appear to be manageable – if only other people would behave and cooperate with us. It takes long, hard introspection to recognize that you have a problem. Folks will notice that you are insecure, or grandiose, or a control freak, but everybody has “defects of character,” right? This blindness is why the alcoholics et al are kinda fortunate. They are already attuned to the addictive process.

Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun of the late 19th century nicknamed “The Little Flower,” is a good role model for humility. A teenager with little education, her spiritual intuition became known as “The Little Way.” She somehow knew that her divine daughtership was nothing to be earned or won through perfection.

“I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have elevators instead. Well, I mean to try and find an elevator by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.”

Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

Admitting that we are powerless is a defeat of the ego, not the soul. Indeed, the soul needs this posture to continue maturing into the second half of life, a time not only of sobriety, but of wonder and wisdom.

Solution Talk: The 12 Steps

What do indigenous mythologies, gospel music and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous all have in common? They are three spiritualities native to America, and, I believe, the three most historically significant. In the first you have a reverence for Nature, God’s first bible. In the second you have a form of communal contemplative prayer. And in the 12 Steps, you have a program for the Purgative Way, the first stage in spiritual maturity across many faith traditions.


Haiku Stairs – Oahu

Spiritual discipline or treatment plan for substance use disorder? The 12-steps are both at once, demonstrating that spiritual and psychological wellness are the same endeavor. When one is purged of egocentricity and its attendant “defects of character,” life flourishes and God rushes in. (God, like Nature, abhors a vacuum.) Alcohol is mentioned in the first step but is apparently forgotten thereafter. Nowhere does it say, even indirectly, when and how one will stop drinking. Instead the focus is fully on emotional sobriety, the real project.

The 12 Steps and the companion 12 Traditions are very practical (i.e. American) spirituality and not weighed down with theological headiness. It has no purity codes or barriers to admission. “The only requirement … is a desire to stop drinking.” This attitude is closer to the Christian Gospel than mainstream Christianity, I’m afraid.

Luke’s version of the Gospel has a cluster of parables of something lost and being found, then rejoicing in the recovery (sheep, coin, son). An AA birthday meeting, where members celebrate milestone recovery periods, feels very much like this kind of celebration. There is something very special to God about recovery, without diminishing those who were never lost. The personal, the communal and the transcendent all come together in one moment as each birthday alcoholic comes forward. I would dare to guess that nobody ever relapsed soon after such a gathering.


Solution Talk: Divine Therapy

One reason why addictions are seductive and self-reinforcing is that they sorta, kinda work, in the moment. In the long term they are a growing disaster, which you experience in the moments afterward as a growing sense of futility and self-hatred. Emotional addictions are even more insidious. With a substance, you know at some level that it is a cheat – a fake comfort. Our programs for happiness, (security, esteem and control), however, feel like honest, clear thinking.


Canopy Walk, Mulu National Park, Malasyia

Yet they can not and will not work. Although we are designed for happiness, we are looking for it in the wrong places, says the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating.¹ Only a transcendent and infinite source can completely secure you, reassure you, steady you. To the extent that these needs are neurotic, their roots extend to the unconscious mind and only a divine light can find them all in that darkness.

Keating notes that we don’t turn to the divine therapy initially because we develop our wounds in childhood before a spiritual experience is really possible. Babies come into the world in divine and maternal fusion, a unitive though undifferentiated experience. As the child develops a Self, a private ego, that unity is lost and s/he has to respond, alone, to any deficits or defects in the caring environment. During this time, the self-reliant programs for happiness are invented.

It is also human nature to depend on yourself as much and as long as possible. A lack of this instinct is considered to be a disorder in the mental health world. How ironic that full sobriety requires a radical form of dependence on the Other.

Keating advocates a method of divine therapy called contemplation, an ancient form of thought discipline and attentiveness. Very, very simply, contemplation means to see the situation without getting caught up in it. In a focused period of contemplation, every thought is noticed and let pass (you are sitting down, inactive). Painful feelings and old memories can come up, be observed and let go without deploying any of the usual defenses. Wounds buried in the unconscious have to pass through the conscious in order to be relieved.

In the Christian scriptures, you can see why Jesus’ first word is “metanoia.” The word is usually translated as “repent,” but it literally means to change or go beyond your mind, your usual way of thinking. Nothing less will suffice for emotional sobriety, for healing, for salvation.

  1. Keating, Thomas. The Human Condition: Contemplation and transformation. Paulist Press, 1999.