What is the meaning of insatiable craving? How does drunkenness seem to be an experience of the divine? How is it different? How can Catholicism make sense of the joys and sorrows of the drinking life? What, if anything, can an alcoholic in recovery offer to the Church?
The first three questions are addressed in the 2012 documentary film “Bill W.” about the life of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) co-founder, Bill Wilson. The film discusses Bill’s friendship with Fr. Ed Dowling – a non-alcoholic Jesuit priest and an early proponent of the fellowship of AA – who served as Bill’s spiritual director. It recounts a conversation that Bill and Fr. Dowling had once, in which Bill asked Father whether his thirst would ever be quenched. Father replied that, no, Bill’s thirst would never be quenched, because we are meant to thirst; what matters is where we aim what we thirst for.
This understanding of a profound thirst, an emptiness sometimes described as a “God-sized hole,” is the beginning point of recovery for many. In the 12 Steps of AA, it is described as an admission of powerlessness and a recognition of unmanageability in one’s life. Though this is a good beginning, one needs more for recovery; one needs to “come to believe”, to encounter God and to begin to set aside self-will for God’s will.
By our Catholic faith, we see that God has created us for happiness – for union with Him – and that He has instilled in us both a capacity and desire for Himself so that we might seek to do His will and to draw ever closer to Him. This desire and capacity seems to have two dimensions or aspects, which I call "unitive" on the one hand, and "infusive" on the other. The "unitive" aspect is one in which we desire and seek after unity or oneness with God, with other people, and with creation; it could be characterized as contemplative, peaceful, quiet, or restful. The "infusive" aspect, as I call it, is a desire to be filled with and transformed by the Holy Spirit; this aspect could be characterized as charismatic, active, or apostolic. This twofold capacity and desire for unity and for infusion I call the "mystical impulse."
Although this "mystical impulse" can be found in each one of us, the effects of sin and concupiscence often direct our desires away from God throughout our natural lives. Alcoholism – the habitual, chronic, and compulsive use of alcohol – is one of the ways in which we see sin express itself in the world. While alcoholism has been described in many ways, one of the most illuminating descriptions of it can be found in the beginning of "Alcoholics Anonymous": the so-called "Big Book," from which the name of the fellowship of AA is derived.
In the section entitled "The Doctor’s Opinion", written by addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth in the late 1930s, one sees alcoholism described as the operation of a type of allergy to alcohol within the body of the alcoholic. Dr. Silkworth notes that the alcoholic experiences a "phenomenon of craving" that is triggered when he takes a drink. In addition to this physical craving, he experiences a mental obsession with drinking that defies reason or willpower. He seeks after a sense of "ease and comfort" that becomes ever more elusive over time, even in the face of a relentless and fatal progression. If he is fortunate, the alcoholic will come to discover that: a) once he takes the first drink, he is unable to stop, and b) that he has no effective mental defense against the first drink. So why does he do this? The best way to explain is for me to recount my own experience of drinking and recovery.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father showing me the coin he received upon his reaching 90 days of sobriety in a Minneapolis alcoholism treatment facility; I was perhaps 5 years old at the time. For as long as I can remember, I was aware of and obsessed with alcohol. On the one hand I was afraid of alcohol knowing that my father had problems with drinking and I did not want to end up in a hospital; on the other, I wanted to experience release from a painful self-consciousness and fear that mounted all throughout my childhood. I recall watching with rapt attention the TV commercials which depicted the Budweiser Clydesdales pulling their fully-laden coach through bucolic, snowy landscapes, wishing for their promised good cheer to break through the sad fog of familial strife that unfailingly settled over my house from mid-November to mid-January every year.