12 Step Spirituality

At the time I entered seminary I sometimes felt very isolated. Few of my friends were religious, and some were quite mystified by my decision to go to seminary. However, I slowly became aware that I was surrounded by friends who had been working very hard on their spiritual growth in a quiet, anonymous way as part of the twelve step movement. As I began my training to become a spiritual director, I discovered that some of these people were doing very similar work as sponsors. I found myself visiting meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other branches of the twelve step organization full of interest and admiration for what was happening there.

The meetings seemed very alive to me. For years I had been going to church, feeling frustrated that I never seemed to come any closer to loving my neighbor as myself. In the basement twelve step meetings, often more than in the churches upstairs, I felt a profound sense of connection with others. The stories that people told about their addictions were so ordinary yet remarkable, bursting with the drama of redemption and transformation, yet full of little details that I recognized from my own life. I felt closer to these people than I usually felt to the people in church. Even though I wasn’t an addict in the sense of being an alcoholic or drug addict, I knew what they were talking about, as I struggled with the ways I was stuck in my own habitual patterns. Meetings were a fascinating place to hear about what had helped people to change. Like a laboratory of spiritual growth, the rooms of the twelve step movement contained all the elements of belief, transformation and connectedness that I studied in seminary and tried to bring into my own life: accepting our limitations, believing in a power greater than ourselves and surrendering to that power, making a moral inventory, prayer and meditation. The people in the rooms seemed to have discovered everything that was most important in religion and stripped it down to the essentials.

Like an alcoholic, I discovered twelve step groups when I needed them and could benefit from them. At an earlier point in my life I’m sure they would have seemed too frightening and full of "touchy-feely stuff." However, at the time I started to learn about them, it was this "touchy-feely stuff" that I was craving. I’d been sitting in the pews, longing for more contact with the worshippers around me, becoming wildly excited at the moment in the service when we “passed the peace,” shaking each others’ hands and smiling at each other for a brief moment. In contrast, the rooms of the twelve step movement seemed to me like a tornado full of Holy Spirit. I would like to raise up twelve step spirituality here and place it alongside other traditions because I feel that it sometimes doesn’t receive the respect it deserves as a system of faith, and I would like to acknowledge the difficult work that many twelve step members are doing quietly and anonymously.

The twelve step movement provides a model of a spiritual system that works, helping people to transform themselves in practical, unmistakable ways. It also encourages religious exploration. Twelve step members are told that an essential aspect of their healing and transformation is to find a way to believe in a power greater than themselves, but they are asked to decide for themselves what this power might be. For those who were not raised in a faith tradition or cannot accept the tradition in which they were raised, this step may require a radical journey of discovery into other traditions in a search for wisdom and knowledge of God. The twelve step movement has much to teach about how to become unstuck from addictive ways of being, and it also sends its members forth into the world to learn from other faith systems in a model of openness and dialogue.

Click here for more information about 12 Step Spirituality.

Centering Prayer can be used by those in twelve step programs as an eleventh step practice and is so well suited to this purpose that it may feel like a kind of missing link for those in the twelve step movement who have been searching for a way to deepen their relationship with God through prayer and meditation.  Contemplative Outreach has developed a number of ways of offering Centering Prayer to people in twelve step fellowships. The 12 Step Outreach website offers numerous resources on Centering Prayer as an eleventh step practice.