By Sr. Annie Klapheke
Some of my greatest spiritual lessons over this past year have come from some unlikely teachers: women in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
About a year ago I become involved with the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP). The mission of ISP is to offer retreats for men and women experiencing homelessness and/or in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. These retreats integrate the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius with the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Since becoming involved with this ministry, I have received far more than I have given. As I reflect on my past year as an ISP team member, here are three important lessons I’ve learned.
Lesson 1: We have more in common than we think
The first step to becoming an ISP team member is to first participate in a retreat, as a retreatant. I remember feeling nervous as I prepared for this initial experience. I was a novice at the time, and I remember wondering, ‘What will I, a nun-in-training, have in common with women in recovery from drug addiction? Will they think I’m self-righteous or too naïve to relate to them?’ God answered my question in the first hour of the retreat. The opening activity was to find a partner and spend five minutes each sharing about our lives. My partner shared first. She was currently living in an all women’s residential recovery center. She talked about how much she enjoyed the bond with the other women in the program, how they lived together like a family, sharing duties and responsibilities and how they all supported each other in living their common mission to stay sober. A group of women, living in intentional community, with a mission driven-purpose – it sounded awfully similar to religious life. As I shared about my own experience of living in community with my sisters, and supporting each other in our mission to live the Gospel, my partner commented, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d have something in common with a nun.’
This lesson can be applied in so many areas of life. Often we look at the ‘other’’, focusing on the obvious external differences, and these felt differences can lead to resistance or even fear. But when we take the time to share our stories with one another, we often find we have more in common than we think, simply by our shared human experiences. Imagine how this lesson could transform hearts around issues such as racism and anti-immigrant sentiments?
Lesson 2: The true meaning of poverty
I’m not talking about material poverty here. I’m talking about poverty of spirit – the kind of poverty that Jesus blessed, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3); and the kind of poverty I have vowed to live as a woman religious. In this type of poverty, a person admits they are nothing on their own, but instead completely dependent on God. These women know what it feels like to hit rock bottom, and it is from this place of complete emptiness and desolation that they begin their journey in recovery. The first three steps of the 12-step program are 1) admitting your powerlessness over your addiction, 2) coming to believe that only a higher power can restore you to sanity, and 3) making the decision to turn your will over to a higher power. These three steps also align with the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, which is also called the “Principle and Foundation”. The goal of this first week is to recognize that the total purpose of one’s life is union with God, and everything in one’s life should be ordered to God’s plan. One of the women on the ISP team has been in recovery for three years, and she often gives the witness talk on retreats. One of her most compelling lines is, “I wake up every morning and as soon as my feet hit the floor, my prayer is, “God, today I’m doing your will, your way; your will, your way.” She relies 100% on God to maintain her sobriety.
As a healthy, well-educated, white, middle class US citizen; it can be easy for me, from my privileged vantage point, to fall into a pattern of self-sufficiency and independence – ‘I have it all together, and I can go it on my own’. This mindset is the antithesis to my vow of poverty as a woman religious. The women in the ISP program have taught me what it looks like to admit total helplessness, and to live a life totally reliant on God.
Lesson 3: Gratitude
On the most recent retreat I led, I spent Saturday evening hanging out in the kitchen chatting with one of the retreatants. She amazed me with her attitude. “Every morning my alarm goes off and I just pop right out of bed with a big smile on my face. I go bounding down the hall saying good morning to everyone I pass,” she said, “I am just so happy to be alive and to be where I’m at.” These women’s lives are not easy. The recovery programs are often very rigid and structured, and the women have very little autonomy or privacy in their day to day lives. Even once they are living on their own again, many of them work exhaustingly long hours, with long commutes via bus or walking, making just enough money to make ends meet. Not to mention that many of them bare the wounds of trauma and carry burdens of guilt and shame from their past. Yet they live each day with such gratitude; grateful simply to be alive, to be sober and to wake up each morning in a clean, safe, warm bed.
After making an ISP retreat, the women can continue attending monthly reflection nights for support and sustained spiritual nourishment. So many times I have arrived at these Monday evening meetings feeling stressed or cranky about something petty going on my in my own small world. But after two hours with these women, I’m reminded that the only acceptable attitude for the gift of life is complete gratitude, every day.
Maybe one day these three important lessons will take root in me, and I’ll finally learn to be like one of my new role models.