“I used to be Catholic, But I’ve Seen the Light”

last supper

This is Jacopo Bassano Last Supper but it made me think of an AA Meeting for some reason.

If you attend a lot of 12 Step Recovery meetings, particularly in the South, you’ve no doubt heard some one share, “I used to be Catholic, but I’ve seen the light.” I’ve even heard someone say, “I’m a Recovering Catholic,” as if being Catholic was its own disease.

Usually the sharer will then pause for effect as the room chuckles with knowing nods and grins. Yikes!

As a traditional and practicing Catholic attending meetings and trying to stay sober, this always makes me cringe a little. But I usually ignore it, keeping in mind “some are sicker than others” (ha–this is AA jargon for excusing all sorts of tactless behavior in meetings).  And remind myself to place “principles before personalities” (this is AA-speak to say we don’t have to like everybody we meet in meetings) as it instructs in the 12 Traditions.

If I’m PMSing, like today (aka, “hyper-sensitive, looking for a fight), and it’s one of those meetings where, to my hormonal brain it seems the entire theme of the meeting gets stuck on, “Yeah me too–I used to be Catholic too!” Where person after person after person chimes in about how awful being Catholic was, how they’ve seen the light and found spirituality, which of course is OH SO MUCH BETTER than religion; and they each seem so gloriously happy about this–then I usually just walk out of the meeting pissed off and make my way to the nearest Adoration chapel.

But, let’s be real here. There are a lot of baptized Catholic alcoholics–whether we still practice our faith or not–the stereotype is there for a reason.  Irish Catholic alcoholic, especially. We like to drink.  We drink at weddings, funerals and baby showers.  Heck, Husband and I had a big cooler of beer for our son’s first birthday party.

Since there is usually a lot of alcohol around growing up Catholic it’s no wonder a few of us liked it a little too much and became alcoholics.  Most of us didn’t, but enough of us did to take up a lot of seats in AA meetings.

Add a couple of decades of drinking too much to a cradle Catholic’s under-catechized faith, and there usually isn’t any Mass attendance or sacraments in the picture anymore. So, we share we “used to be” Catholic, but we wised up. Sadly, instead of blaming our breaking away from our faith on alcohol, we blame it on the “punishing, judgmental God” we grew up with.  You know, the one that made nuns hit us over the knuckles with rulers.

No, it wasn’t alcohol that separated us from God, it was the horrible, judgmental, punishing Catholic version of God, which was our problem. Right?

In 12 Step Recovery meetings we’re not supposed to put down other faiths or other varieties of “higher powers.”  12 Step Tradition encourages inclusiveness of all types of higher powers —- even (gasp!) the Catholic one — because never would we want to make a newcomer feel uncomfortable or made fun of.

cs lewis originalUnfortunately, some of us fear offending someone by our beliefs, so we don’t even mention our faith when we tell our story.  Simply stating we love being Catholic makes temperamentally insecure people feel judged. So we hide our faith. We just don’t  bring it up at all. I think this is a disservice to the members that might benefit from our stories.

Here are 5 things I do to stay honest about my faith in my recovery meetings.

1. Don’t accept the premise.  Just because one person blames their tarnished faith walk on their Catholic upbringing doesn’t mean I have to go along with this premise. Growing up Catholic is a good thing.  I was taught God is good, unconditionally loving, accepting, merciful and infinitely forgiving.  When appropriate, I’ll credit my Catholic upbringing for giving me a positive and personal relationship with my Creator.

2. Turn the Lord’s Prayer into an Our Father. You know how in some meetings some will change “Father” to “Mother” or change “deliver us from sin” to “deliver us from self?”   And some don’t say the Lord’s Prayer at all, simply standing there in silence, but in solidarity. It’s all fine. And, it’s perfectly OK we adapt the common prayer to fit our faith. Other people do this, so I can too. I will bless myself with the sign of the cross before grasping hands to pray.  And I skip the “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” and instead stop speaking the prayer at the proper Catholic stopping point.

3. I will occasionally share how the Sacraments help bring me closer to my higher power. During 11th Step meetings–when others are sharing the way they understand spirituality–yoga, meditating on an Eastern spirituality mantra, positive thinking, being one with nature– I try not to be shy to share how much celebrating the Holy Eucharist helps me have communion with my “higher power.” Or, mention that I did my 5th Step with my parish priest.

4. Work my Catholic faith into my story when I share my experience, strength and hope. I just might help somebody else who feels the same way I do. I may mention I went to Mass on Sunday and really felt connected to my higher power. I may talk about how being in recovery has brought me back to my childhood faith. I really try not to omit my faith from my story because it is my story—it’s ok to be spiritual AND religious, even in AA.

5. Use humor. Sometimes simply making a joke about being raised Catholic around all that alcohol is good enough–since I am a practicing Catholic, it is perfectly okay to make fun of myself! It is not okay if non-Catholics do this, though.  You know how it goes. I can complain about my family member, but don’t you dare say anything bad about him to me or I’ll kick your ass.  I’ve said, “When I was in high school I used to get in line twice for communion in order to get more wine.”

The really good news is Catholic bashing in 12 Step meetings is VERY RARE.   Like one-half-of-one-percent-rare.  In fact, an AA meeting is one of the few places where people of all faiths can come together without arguing over religion, because it truly doesn’t matter. What brings us together is a common problem. What keeps us meeting is a common solution: the 12 Steps.  Everyone is free to believe as he or she wishes.  It’s truly a beautiful thing.

 Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…1Peter 3:15