FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
“… unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but, if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jn. 12:22
Bill W. was a ferocious alcoholic.
He was a man who failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. He was initially a successful stock broker, but his constant drinking ruined his reputation. He was committed to the care of a hospital for alcohol addiction four separate times, but he was still incapable of staying sober. In fact, his condition became so dire that he was warned he would have to be locked up permanently due to what was then called “wet brain.”
It was only after a profound spiritual experience and an introduction to Dr. Bob Smith that he was able to maintain a sobriety that lasted 37 years. Together these two men founded a group that is now called Alcoholics Anonymous. Out of it came one of the most powerful spiritual programs ever devised: The Twelve Steps.
This program revolutionized the treatment of alcoholism, and later the treatment of all addictions. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is America’s greatest single gift to the world of spirituality.
Its piety is based on the belief that alone we cannot stop a particular behavior pattern; together we can. But, even more than that, it is also solidly grounded on the even deeper conviction that addiction is not only a brain disease, but a soul disease as well. As such, a different way of thinking, a different way of seeing, and a different way of doing are needed in order for a person to get well.
Today’s gospel is telling us that each one of us needs to do the same. The reason is that, in a way, all of us are addicts of one kind or another. We just call our “addiction” by a different name: “sin.”
If we’re really honest with ourselves, we will all admit that we each have our secret attachments, our hidden passions that we refuse to let go of. We will admit, too, that we are all good, sincere people until we get to any issues that involve money, or power, or status. Maybe we’ll even admit that we are all “addicted” not only to our own habitual ways of doing things, but also to our own ways of thinking that we’re convinced are superior to other people’s ways.
That’s why the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance and prayer/meditation are so important for us: they are all means of developing a different operating system within us, a new software package to upload, an alternative consciousness to live out of.
In today’s gospel, for example, Jesus is telling his followers that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but, if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
What Jesus is talking about here is what Alcoholics Anonymous calls the First of the Twelve Steps that any recovering person must take if they are to get whole again. It is so important, in fact, that, if it is not taken, the other eleven Steps won’t happen.
That First Step is called the admission of powerlessness. “We admit that we are powerless … and that our life has become unmanageable.”
“Powerlessness” is not a word we Americans are comfortable with. We like to think of ourselves as power-full. We like to believe that anything’s possible if we just put our minds to it.
But, listen to St. Paul, one of the greatest of all the saints: “I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do, and find myself doing the very things I hate … for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not.” (Romans 7:15,18)
Every single one of us can find ourselves saying exactly those same words in our real honest moments. It’s an admission of our own powerlessness.
But to again borrow from St. Paul, here’s the surprise that both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the 12 Steps of AA are offering to us: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9).
What Paul means is that when we admit to our powerlessness, we then create space within us for God to dwell. We get our egos out of the way so that there is room for God’s abundant grace to become fully operative.
That’s why Bill W. insisted that the “Imperial Ego has to go.” That’s why Jesus, in today’s gospel, used the metaphor of the “grain of wheat” that has to die.
To put it another way, as Fr. Richard Rohr writes: “Until you bottom out, and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel …. Until and unless there is a person, a situation, an event, an idea, a conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager.”
The gospel and the 12 Steps are really saying the same thing: Until we are brought to our knees; until we die to the “imperial” demands of our egos; until we admit that on our own we are powerless over certain behaviors and attitudes, nothing will change.
We will remain just as we are. Transformation will never take place. Grace will have no room to operate.
To help each of us allow that “grain of wheat” to die within us, we might want to follow the advice of another of Alcoholic Anonymous’ strong recommendations:
Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.