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Interview with Archimandrite Meletios (Webber). Part II
Of the two books that are published at the moment, the first is called Steps of Transformation, and that has a subtitle: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The second is called Bread and Water, Wine and Oil, and the subtitle is, An Orthodox Christian Experience of God.
The first book (people say that everyone has one book inside of them, and this is probably mine—the one I needed to write before I could write anything else) was really linking together my life as an Orthodox priest and my life as a psychotherapist who has been very much involved in recovery from addiction. It is something of a matter of opinion, but I have to say, hand on heart, that of all the methods that have ever been devised to help people recover from alcoholism, the work of Alcoholics Anonymous is preeminent.
There have been other attempts, ranging from the punitive, where people are actually punished if they ever drink again, to medical models, where people are made to feel very, very unwell, almost fatally unwell, if they attempt to drink again. But Alcoholics Anonymous comes through with a “program”—that is their word for it—which is spiritual in character; not medical, nor psychological. The notion that there is a spiritual way of healing fascinates me more than anything else.
I say, “spiritual,” and not “religious.” This is how Alcoholics Anonymous describes their work, because they are not affiliated with any religious body at all. People of any religious affiliation, or none, are welcome to join the ranks of AA if they choose to do so. So, there is talk of God in their meetings, there is talk of something that looks like confession, there is talk of something that looks like making amends to other people, and other points where you could say, yes, there is a clear parallel between the life of the Orthodox Church and Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was my great desire to point out these parallels; principally, so that Orthodox Christians throughout the world should, at the very least, look with some kindness on the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, and not dismiss such work as something unacceptable to them because it is not Orthodox in nature. I am an Orthodox Christian and I love the Orthodox Church, but there is a saying that goes, “if I am run over by a bus, don't take me to the church; take me to the hospital.” I would say again from a place of pure conviction, that if someone is suffering from the condition of alcoholism then they need to go to AA. AA will then encourage them to go to church as well, but that's the second step. Alcoholics Anonymous is, as far as I can see, the most powerful method of help to people who are stricken with what in most circles is accepted as a fatal disease.
Now, knowing that alcoholism tends to be widespread in
Absolutely. AA is actually alive and well in
One thing that people find difficult to understand—and indeed it is difficult to demonstrate—is that there is a big difference between people who drink too much and people who have alcoholism, although the two look very similar. Heavy drinkers might drink as much as alcoholics, and might kill themselves just as easily as alcoholics, and indeed destroy their family lives as much as alcoholics, but there is still an element of choice in their life which would allow them to stop drinking if they saw that it is imperative to do so. An alcoholic doesn't have that choice any more. Now, how many people in
Perhaps that would be harder to determine in a country where drinking is a big part of social life, as opposed to a society where drinking in general is frowned upon?
Right, I have a lot of experience—I am of Scottish descent, and the Scots have a big problem with alcohol as do the Irish, people in Scandinavian countries in general, and most Native Americans including the Aleuts and people associated with the deep north. Alcoholism, for example, in
But, having said that, from what little I do know about life in
The destruction by alcoholism of individual families from the inside out is universal wherever there is alcoholism, and I see that in
Do you suppose that there could be a different approach in rural areas of
New Alcoholic Anonymous groups are formed by people who live in a particular area. There is no leadership, and there is no spear-heading. So, the natural way for this to occur in, for example, a village where there is nothing else to do but get drunk (as I am told), would be for two or three people to decide that they do not want to do that any more, then get in contact with AA and some of its literature (which would by this time have to be in Russian, and in a form which they could assimilate). Then they would form the nucleus of a new group. There can be no question of missionaries going out—that doesn't work. Alcoholics are extremely stubborn people. It is known what works in helping alcoholics, and what their tendencies are. That is what I would expect to happen.
In the large cities there are possibly already English-speaking meetings scattered around.
What's happened, for example, here in the
Do you have any information from AA groups in
I don't have access to any such information. The only information that AA can actually furnish is the number of official meetings (and a lot of meetings, particularly in
Especially since Alcoholics Anonymous places stress on anonymity, right? For the sake of delicacy, these people's identities are not disclosed?
That is what anonymity means in the beginning, when people are just starting. They can feel safe that they are not going to be stigmatized in the local community for belonging. In fact anonymity has a much more profound spiritual significance, but they learn about that in due course. But in the beginning safety, of course, is a big issue for people.
Alcoholics Anonymous works because they are doing it themselves, right?
Because their own will is involved?
Not their own will. It is fundamental to the understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous and how things work, that the alcoholics hand their will back to the care of God. That is a crucial part of their recovery. I have to say, at its heart, alcoholism has very little to do with the drinking of alcohol. It is a condition which has been described variously. One way is to say that it is self-will run riot. Another way of looking at it (and this takes some research on the part of people who aren't used to using these words), is that since alcoholism responds to spiritual recovery, then perhaps the essence of alcoholism lies in it being a spiritual malady.
So you think that this would have the potential for being a workable solution for Russians if only they knew about it?
Absolutely. And I see that if the experience in
Not only do the words need to be translated, but also the spirit (which is essentially Midwestern American), into something which is essentially Russian.
 The icon of the Mother of God “Of the Inexhaustible Cup.”
Nun Cornelia (Rees)
06 / 02 / 2008
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