07/20/2011 09:55 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2011

Recovery, Gratitude and the Power of the Holy Spirit

It begins and ends with gratitude. For me, gratitude arrived when I had been sober for less than two years. It was Thanksgiving Day. The weekend before, I spent a long afternoon with my sponsor, the late Bob Roche, doing my Fifth Step. In the Twelve Steps of recovery, after we've done the first three steps of admitting powerlessness over our addictions, coming to believe in a higher power, and turning ourselves over to that power, it's time for the Fourth Step. Here, we make a "searching and fearless moral inventory" of our life under the cloud of addiction, and follow it with the Fifth Step, where we admit "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." I had spent months writing my Fourth Step -- listing all the people (and institutions) I had wronged as well as all those I believed had done me wrong.

As Bob explained, drawing on decades of the collective wisdom of the recovery movement, even in situations where we believe we are the victims, we almost always played a part as well. The boss we resent so deeply for firing us likely did so because of our behavior on the job while in the grip of our addictions. I created a chart of people, places, and things dating back to childhood right through to my early sobriety of friends, lovers, bosses, teachers, family members, institutions, and government agencies whose love, friendship, or trust I had betrayed in some way, along with others where I harbored a resentment: who, where, when. And in the last column I wrote how each item on the inventory made me feel. After hours of explaining the complications of each sour experience, Bob summarized: "Darling, it all boils down to fear." That was it, so simple, so utterly reductive, so totally annoyingly true. All my insecurities, angers, resentments, infatuations, lying, cheating, stealing -- all of them derived from fear. And what is the opposite of fear? It is, I came to understand, simply: love. So ended our Fifth Step session on that Thanksgiving weekend of 1992. From fear to love. I was ready to move on to the next steps and to open myself to God working even greater changes in me.

I had never thought of myself as a particularly angry, but really my temper was always right under the surface, ready to be triggered by something like an unexpected rain shower -- how dare it rain? -- on me? I covered my subtext of rage with sarcasm, cynicism, and a nasty streak that revealed itself when I was drinking. But now, sober since January 1991, without the outlet of drinking to free my anger, I had been working a recovery program, getting honest with myself, and I was beginning to change. The rages became fewer and farther apart. Rainstorms didn't infuriate me the way they used to. I was now regularly sharing my feelings with other people in recovery, with my sponsor, and with a therapist. But there was still something missing.

It was the Thanksgiving Day service at The Riverside Church. In recovery, I had come back to the church of my upbringing (as the child of five generations of Congregational/United Church of Christ ministers), and found the worship and the community at Riverside to be a nourishing compliment to my recovery program. By the intentional design of the cofounders of the parent of all Twelve Step programs, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is spiritual but not religious, although it is strongly rooted in the confessional style of small-group Methodism, among its various theological antecedents. Early in my recovery, I came back to life spiritually through the personal transformation I experienced attending Twelve Step meetings.

I remember very little about that service at Riverside. I'm certain there was uplifting music; there always is. And no doubt there was a stirring sermon by then Senior Minister James A. Forbes, Jr., because his messages always were. Unquestionably there was the warm company of a welcoming congregation I had already come to call home. And on this Sunday, the fact that it was the beginning of the long Thanksgiving weekend and the theme of Thanksgiving -- perhaps we sang "Harvest Home" or other great old hymns of the season imprinted on my heart from earliest childhood. And perhaps it was that I had just finished my Fifth Step in the presence of God and my sponsor, and myself, and the experience had transformed me.

For whatever reason, as I sat in the pews, looking up at the vaulting arches and stained glass of that great grey Gothic cathedral, with my eyes resting on the simple gold cross that hangs suspended above the chancel, I felt something new.

Feeling feelings instead of medicating them away with alcohol or other substances (or behaviors) is part of the miracle of what happens when we put down the drink and the drug and all the other addictive things, when we put it down and learn to sit with what our actual emotions are at any given moment. We learn that "feelings aren't facts," that just because we feel something doesn't mean we have to act on it or do anything at all. We can feel the feeling, knowing it will pass. But to feel things that we ran from for most of our lives is nothing less than a revelation.

I felt something. I felt the spirit of the season we were celebrating, Thanksgiving. For the first time in my life, it seemed, I felt a genuine sense of gratitude. Gratefulness. Flooding over me in waves that seemed like a fountain to pour out from the Cross above the chancel, I remembered people who had been kind to me. People who had cared for me. My parents. My partners. My friends. Acquaintances. It struck me so deeply how very fortunate I was, how blessed. I was here, I was alive. I'd been given a second chance (and perhaps, really, a third, fourth, or fifth chance so close had I come to death on several occasions over the years). I'd been given a chance at life, at a new life, a sober life, a life of faith, and friends, and meaningful work, and healthy relationships -- and physical, mental, and spiritual health. The Holy Spirit poured out over me and I was overwhelmed with Gratitude. I wept warm tears of joy.

Church ended. I remember walking on Riverside Drive, at the edge of Riverside Park, still crying, filled with gratitude. Thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for all the love in my life, for all the gifts you have showered on me. Thank you, thank you.

The A.A. "Promises" follow the Ninth Step where we make amends to people we have harmed, spell out incredible possibilities for those who follow the suggested program of recovery. The beginning of the Promises offers a wonderful beacon of hope to people just beginning their journey of recovery: "if we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness." The Promises evoke God's assurance in Jeremiah (29: 11, 13): "surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope ... When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart."

On that Sunday so many years ago, I truly began to know that freedom and happiness. I let go of the anger that had fueled me for so much of my life and opened myself to a basic and simple thankfulness for life. All these years later, in sobriety I became a U.C.C. minister myself, and as part of my ministry, I lead a travelling congregation called Step By Step that uses the Twelve Steps in a worship setting -- hymns, scripture, sharing, and a message that holds Judeo-Christian tradition in conversation with the wisdom of the many facets of eight decades of the recovery movement. I like to tell the story I just shared at Thanksgiving time.

And in those moments when gratefulness is slow to come, whenever I find myself--my ego, my willfulness, my pride, my fear--getting in my own way, there is a prayer that I find helpful: "Lord, help me with my ingratitude!" Then in my mind's eye I let myself go back to the Riverside chancel. Centered there, I am free to use other tools: making a gratitude list, counting my blessings, letting the Holy Spirit fill me with gratefulness once again. And in doing so, I open myself to the wide universe of possibility and mystery in that place of hope, faith, and love.