by Marya Hornbacher
For those who don’t believe in God, feel disconnected from the ideas of God presented in organized religion, or are simply struggling to determine their own spiritual path, Marya Hornbacher, author of the New York Times’ best sellers Madness and Wasted, offers a down-to-earth exploration of the concept of faith.
Using the cycle of a year’s passage, we will explore ten spiritual concepts in the context of the seasons of a life and in the practice of the Twelve Steps, looking at how they can be understood by someone who does not believe in a God. Rather than arguments for any theory or philosophy of spirituality, these are explorations of the experience of waiting itself as a spiritual practice.
I walked through the door of the convent. It was a silent Catholic order; no one would speak to me during the time I was going to spend there. I paused in the foyer to listen for something–nuns, God, mice–but there was no sound. The nuns, surely, were somewhere in the building; perhaps God was as well. At least, that was my hope.
The rooms were simple. In the kitchen, I found a long, rough-hewn wooden table with wooden chairs. On the table was a bowl of soup and some bread. This meal was meant for me. I sat down and ate it, after glancing around to see if there might be directions as to what one did prior to eating in a convent–presumably one might pray?–but there were no directions. So I simply ate. When I was done, I washed my bowl and spoon and set them in the rack to dry, and then went to explore the rest of the rooms.
I found a small chapel. The fading light of late day came through the stained-glass windows and cast the pews and stone floor with a bright motley of color. Beyond the chapel, I found a library: the walls were lined floor to ceiling with books, except for one long wall of windows that looked out on an orderly garden, vegetables and flowers in neat boxes and rows. Beyond the garden, there was a labyrinth, the long shadows of trees falling across it.
I scanned the books. I pulled one out, I don’t remember which one. I sat down in a chair with the book unopened on my lap. I looked out the window as the light faded and dusk fell.
I had lost, more or less, everything.
I say that in a very qualified sense: I had a place to live, food to eat. I had clothes and the usual things one needs to survive. But I had lost what was most familiar, what was safest, what I knew best: I had lost an addiction. That addiction had been the center of my existence since I was a child. It had been my guiding principle, my closest companion, the thing I turned to for comfort, for answers, for assurance that I would be all right. It had been my god. It had nearly killed me.
I fought like hell to keep it. I kicked and screamed and swore and sobbed. I begged to be allowed to hold it just a little while longer. But in the end, I had to let it go.
And without it, I was quite lost.
I didn’t know why I had come to the convent. It was an impulse; someone had told me there was a convent in a nearby city, an order of nuns who had taken a vow of silence and who allowed guests to stay. In that moment, the idea of going somewhere to be entirely silent appealed to some part of me I couldn’t explain. Maybe I thought that if things got quiet enough, I would hear God.
Night fell over the convent. I sat there in the dark, watching the moon scatter light over the orderly garden. There was no sound except that of my own breath.
I set the book on a table, picked up my small bag, and found the stairs up to the room where I was to sleep. In this room, there was a narrow bed, a simple desk, and a prayer bench, the velvet kneeling rail well worn. I set my bag on the floor and studied the prayer bench awhile. Then I lay down on my back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
I was at the lowest point in my life. I had lost all I thought I needed. I did not know how to go on. It was an enormous, sudden peace.
I knew, very quietly, that I would not find God in this place. I knew it was possible I would not find God at all. And so I could not explain the overwhelming peace I felt. I could not explain how I knew, absolutely, that it would be all right.
I remembered the words of Julian of Norwich: And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
I could not have articulated it at that time, but what I felt that night is what I would now call grace. I felt faith. I heard something. Not the voice of God, not the beating wings of angels. Not the murmur of nuns at prayer, not even the scuttle of mice. What I heard was the stirring of my own spirit coming to life.
The spirit, it seems to me, grows noisy and goes silent by turns over the course of one’s life. There are ways in which we silence it. Many of us have silenced it through addiction, but there are other ways, and many of us have used those as well. And there are ways in which we can draw the spirit out, listen for it with all the strength we’ve got.
But listening for spirit is something of a complicated process when we do not believe in a God, or do not feel a connection to what may be called a Higher Power. Many of us have been trained to think of “spirituality” as the sole provenance of religion; and if we have come to feel that the religious are not the only ones with access to a spiritual life, we may still be casting about for what, precisely, a spiritual life would be without a God, a religion, or a solid set of spiritual beliefs.
Throughout this book, I use the words spirit and spiritual often, and that may seem strange when I state my own lack of belief in a Higher Power or God. And some days it seems strange to me as well, that I am so certain of an ineffable force within me and within all of us when I doubt the presence of a metaphysical power without. But really, it isn’t contradictory. I am not speaking of metaphysics. I am speaking of the thing in ourselves that stirs.
The origin of the word spirit is Greek. It means “breath.” That which stirs within, slows or quickens, goes deep or dies out. When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves. I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. The experience of living in this world, bound by a body, space, and time, woven into the fabric of human history, human connection, and human life. This is the force that feels and thinks and gives us consciousness at all; it is our awareness of presence in the world. It is the deepest, most elemental, most integral part of who we are; it is who we are.
So when I speak of spirit, I’m speaking of something that frustratingly defies articulation, because we have few words for spiritual beyond those that refer back to a God. But not believing in a God is not opposed to a belief in an aspect of the self that can be called spiritual. The latter is experienced, and defined, very personally, and is different for each individual.
I am not speaking of some universal or transcendent “Spirit” that exists outside of us; I am speaking of the human spirit that exists in each of us. I’m speaking of something that is urgently important in ourselves, the very thing that’s sent us searching, the thing that feels the longing, the thing that comes knocking on the door of our emotionally and intellectually closed lives and asks to be let in.
When we let it in, and only when we do, we begin to be integrated people. We begin to find integrity in who we are. We are not just a body, not just a mind, not just a mass of emotions, not just people dragging around the dusty bag of our pasts. We have depth and wholeness, not shattered bits of self that never seem to hold together properly. And we begin to walk a spiritual path.
This path is not toward a known entity of any kind. Rather, it is the path that leads through. And there are many points along the way where we stop, or we fumble, or we get tangled up or turned around.
And those are the places where we wait. We’re not waiting for the voice of God, or for the lightning-bolt spiritual experience. We’re not waiting to be saved or carried. We’re waiting for our own inner voice–for lack of a better word, I’m going to keep calling it spirit–to tell us where to go next. It will.
I confess: even after putting together a few sober days, I still flinch at the God-centered language of the Twelve Step literature. There’s no need to lay out a litany of examples; one need only thumb through the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) or Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions or a meditation manual to find what I’m talking about. And I imagine if you’ve picked up this book, you’re probably already aware of what can seem like an inherent assumption held by the Twelve Step program: sooner or later, you will believe in God.
Let’s be clear–not every Twelve Step member feels this way. There are plenty of people who are completely comfortable with the idea that some do and some do not believe in or feel a connection to a Higher Power. But there are also a whole lot of members who don’t mind telling you that you need a God and better find one quick, or risk losing your sobriety. They believe what they believe. They just don’t believe what I believe.
But the literature itself does seem to press the point–sometimes none too gently–that a relationship with God is a basic necessity for contented, long-term sobriety. Maybe the most striking moment when the newcomer realizes this is in reading “How It Works.” It reads: “Remember that we deal with alcohol–cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power–that One is God. May you find Him now!”
That’s religious language. Not spiritual language. It leaves no room for interpretation. It implies–rather, it states–that without the help of the One God (whose, or which, One God is not made clear), you can’t get sober.
So while many of us have spent a lot of time telling non-AAs “no, no, it’s not a religious program!” I have to concede that it certainly looks like one from time to time.
Generally speaking, when a person expresses doubt about God, or flatout says he or she doesn’t believe in one, people get a little frustrated. It’s as hard to explain belief as it is to explain unbelief, but people want to share what has helped them, and many of them want you to be able to find the God that works in their lives. So they direct you to read chapter 4 of the Big Book, “We Agnostics.”
We get a few paragraphs in. We think we may actually have found some room for our own beliefs within this program. And then we are instructed, “Cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics. Our experience shows that you need not be disconcerted” (page 44).
In other words–you are not really an atheist or an agnostic. You are deluded. You are simply not as far along in sobriety or spiritual development as those who believe in a Higher Power. Soon enough, you’ll believe in one too.
The chapter ends with a description of a man sent to his knees by a thunderbolt of a thought: “Who are you to say there is no God?” By this point, after many pages of reading about the apparent fact that there is a God, and the absolute necessity of belief in one if we hope to hold on to sobriety, the nonbeliever may be despairing, furious, alienated, or simply at a loss. In any case, we may feel very strongly that there is no room for us in this kind of spiritual context.
But such a spiritual experience is only one kind. There are as many ways of being spiritual, of feeling one’s spirit stirring, of creating a spiritual practice in one’s life as there are people in the world. The task is to get to know our own spiritual nature, learn what feeds it, and act from a spiritual place in our work in the world.
I was one of those people who came into the Twelve Step program and was more confused by the notion of a Higher Power than opposed to it. I figured there might be one out there, and if all these people were sure there was, they were probably right and could likely tell me how to find it.
Gradually, though, it began to seem that the belief in God–not just a Higher Power, not just a “God of your understanding,” but a God who was assumed to be of all our understandings, even those of us who had no understanding of, or belief in, a God at all–was a given. I got the sense that if I did not believe in God now, it was a matter of me still being new to sobriety, and surely I’d come to my senses soon.
So I gave it a shot. Every morning I watched the sun rise and read a highly religious little meditation book and tried having a conversation with God. I waited for that sense of the presence of a Higher Power that I’d heard of. I chastised myself for not being open to real spiritual experience. It was one of the loneliest things I’ve ever done.
It sent me, actually, to a pretty bad place. I was terrified I was going to lose my sobriety. I wanted to know what was wrong with me that I couldn’t sense or believe in the existence of a God, let alone the personal involvement in my life one might have. I spoke of it in meetings, this failure on my part; I talked to my sponsor, to other people in the program, to anyone I thought might be able to instruct me how to find this God of which everyone spoke in such personal, intimate terms.
Finally, someone pulled me aside after a meeting. He said, “Here’s the thing. I don’t know what God is, or if there is a God. I only know that there are moments when I feel spiritual. I can be in a church or a mosque or a temple or a grocery store or the woods. And I get that sense of being spiritual. Of something alive in me. It’s not necessarily a sense that something outside me is present. It’s the sense that I am present. Completely present. Alive.”
And in that moment, as we stood there in the church basement kitchen while people around us rustled and chattered and headed home, I recognized that what I felt–a connection to this person, an ability to hear him clearly, to open my mind, to listen, and to learn–was a spiritual experience. It was an enormous relief. I stopped feeling like I was doing the whole thing wrong. His words undid the terrible tangle I was in, and I could move forward with a new sense of what spirit meant, and what mine felt like, and what I believed.
For all its God language, the Twelve Step program isn’t actually an attempt at religious conversion. Really, it just tries to bring us to a place of new spiritual understanding that allows us to live differently in this world. The Steps are not intended to get us to heaven or save us from hell. This is not about life in another world, above or below. This is about how we live here. And though many would not agree with me on this point, it’s my contention that how we live here is defined and guided by who we are, who we choose to be, who we try to become. Some believe that a God is the guiding force and principle in this evolution in ourselves. I believe what guides us is already in us, is in fact the deepest part of who we are–capable of turning us into ever-more spiritually grounded, spiritually generous, peaceful people.
That evolution itself is a spiritual process. And the Steps can be guideposts on the way. Each of them asks deep and hard spiritual questions; while some of us may need to find our way past the God-centered language to reach the core of those questions, we can find that core, and having done so, can open our minds to what the Steps might teach us about how to live. The Steps are intended–it sounds simple, and it is–to make us better people, more aware, more alive, and more spiritually whole.
The Steps, at their heart, are a pathway to spiritual experiences. Not to a singular spiritual experience. They are, as you’ll often hear in meetings, “a program for living.” I would add that they are a program for living spiritually. Each Step is based on spiritual principles; taken as a whole, they form a map toward understanding ourselves better as spiritual people. And they are a spiritual practice, requiring not only thought and feeling but action as well.
We come to the program “spiritually bankrupt.” We come spiritually bereft. Addiction starves and eventually kills the spirit; we come in need of spiritual nourishment. That nourishment comes in different forms for different people. For some it comes as God, for some it’s felt as a more amorphous Higher Power. Some people are comfortable taking the suggestion often given to nonbelievers, that they make their Twelve Step group their Higher Power. Some people, for reasons I don’t claim to understand, find comfort in the idea that literally anything can be their Higher Power–a doorknob, a rock.
Whatever works. But it is human nature to want some source of spiritual comfort or guidance–the things a God gives to those who believe. Addicts have, over the years of their use, ultimately made their addiction their Higher Power. And when addicts come to sobriety, the sense of disorientation–the sense of being unmoored from anything solid–the sense that they are absolutely lost is overwhelming.
So we reach for something. We reach blindly outward–toward a God in whom we may or may not believe, toward a Higher Power we may not understand, toward a group of people, toward a simple inanimate thing. And for some of us, this works. We find that spiritual source we crave.
Some of us, though, do not.
It is my belief that though we need to reach outward in our search for spiritual nourishment, we need to reach deeper within. For those of us who do not know God, who may not believe there is a God to know, this search within is the search for our own spiritual nature. We seek not what is out there in some abstract heaven. We seek, instead, what is here, in ourselves, on this earth.
And the search can be undertaken using the Steps. Though the language of the old program literature is religious, its message is spiritual, and it seeks to bring about a spiritual experience. And if we allow it to, it does. We do not need to know a God for that to happen.
The practice of the Steps does not require houses of worship or prostrations or adherence to a creed. It requires a careful and intensive look inward, a deepening knowledge of ourselves, our actions, and our beliefs, so that we can be more intimately, spiritually connected to the world in which we live. The Steps ask us to take that look inward, and ultimately bring us to a spiritual wholeness where we have the capacity to love and serve the world outside our limited selves.
When we come to the program, we are in dire need of a spiritual source. The Steps lead us to it, whatever we call it, whatever it may look like, whatever form it may take. This source feeds us; and, in turn, we are able to feed others in spiritual need.
This is a spiritual experience. This is a spiritual experience anyone may have, anyone who knows a God, and anyone who does not. This is a way of living a spiritual life; this is a spiritual practice of being alive.