12 Step Spirituality (part 2)

Last Updated on 6 January 2024

Continued from Part 1 – by Richard Rohr ofm

Divine Therapy

Step Six: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Step Seven: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings. [1]

Thomas Keating (1923–2018), one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach which promotes the practice of Centering Prayer, explained how meditation is linked to the healing of our shortcomings. He called it the divine therapy:

The only prayer you need to say is, “Help!” It’s right to the point. It describes what we need. And when it comes from a heart that is broken by its own failures, it moves God to the very roots of the divine nature and God responds. It is not a question of forgiveness, because [God] has already forgiven us as soon as we want to change, but to give us the ability to be free of the straitjacket of the emotional programs for happiness based on those instinctual needs [for security, control, and affection]…

The purpose of ordinary psychotherapy, as I understand it, is to help a person lead a normal life when he or she is hampered by psychological problems. The purpose of the divine therapy is the healing of the roots of all our problems and to transform our attitudes and, indeed, the whole of our human nature into the mind and heart of Christ. In other words, to introduce us through grace into the interior life of God. This involves a transformation of our attitudes, faculties, and bodies so that we can receive the maximum amount of the transmission of divine life that is possible given the limits of human nature.

The Fathers of the church who wrote about this subject called this process deification. In other words, the purpose of this journey, even the Twelve Steps of [Alcoholics Anonymous], is not just to become a better person and to maintain recovery, as important as these are. It is to change us into the divine way of being human. This is a much bigger and more comprehensive project and opens us to the full extent of human possibilities and capacities. You cannot do much better than to become God by participation. [2]

I, Richard, believe that these are critical steps on any spiritual journey. God is humble and never comes if not first invited, but God will also use just about any circumstance to get invited. God’s totally positive and lasting way of removing our shortcomings is to fill up the hole with something much better, more luminous, and more satisfying. Then all our old strategies, including the addiction itself, are exposed for the false programs for happiness they really are.

Gateway to Presence:

If you want to go deeper with this meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55. (A Simple Program is a gender-neutral translation of the original Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.)
  • [2] Thomas Keating with Tom S., Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps (Lantern Books: 2009), 102, 105-106.
  • [4] “J,” A Simple Program (ibid), 55.
  • Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (CAC: 2007), MP3 download; and
  • Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), xxii, xxiii-xxiv

Emotional Sobriety

Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. [1]

Making a list of the persons we have harmed is a reversal of what our ego prefers to do—make lists of what others have done to us. We are only able to do this because of the housecleaning we’ve done in the previous steps. When we’ve experienced higher states of love and transformation, we must go back and rectify earlier wrongs in appropriate ways to support the healing of those we have hurt. God forgives us, but the consequences of our mistakes remain. We must repair what has been broken, or we stay stuck in a wounded world.

Bill Wilson saw the Twelve Steps finally leading to emotional sobriety. Sobriety is not just about no longer drinking. The goal is to become spiritually awakened, to have found some degree of detachment from our own emotions. Our emotions are not bad unless we are attached to them. Emotions are helpful indicators and symptoms of what’s going on, often subconsciously, within us. However, they are primarily “narcissistic reactions.” They’re self-referential because they are actually based in our body, not easily available to conscious control. The body carries all of our shame, guilt, childhood conditioning, and past hurts.

We are all trying to get our programs for happiness met by one another and by things, when only God can really meet our longings for unconditional love and authentic joy. Otherwise, we are going to be hurt and hurt others in the process. Steps Eight and Nine are about stopping that cycle from our end. Bill Wilson understood that we’ve got to stop depending on other people or outside events to meet our needs. We need to reverse the flow and draw it from the inside out—based on the absolute union between God and the soul—instead of from the outside in. Wilson often said, “It’s better to give than to receive” (see Acts 20:35). The union between God and the soul is the only stable, secure, and sustainable program for happiness.

Alcoholics Anonymous acknowledges that the process is gradual and in relationship with others:

There is a long period of reconstruction ahead. We must take the lead. A remorseful mumbling that we are sorry won’t fit the bill at all. We ought to sit down with the family and frankly analyze the past as we now see it, being very careful not to criticize them. Their defects may be glaring, but the chances are that our own actions are partly responsible. So we clean house with the family, asking each morning in meditation that our Higher Power show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness, and love.

The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to finally live it. [2]

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program, 55.
  • [2] Ibid., 77.
  • Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 73; and
  • Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2011), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Universal Consciousness

Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. [1]

Wisely, Step Ten does not emphasize a moral inventory, which becomes too self-absorbed and self-critical, but it speaks of a “personal inventory.” In other words, just watch yourself objectively, calmly, and compassionately. You will be able to do this from your new viewing platform and perspective as a child of God. “The Spirit will help you in your weakness” (Romans 8:26). From this most positive and dignified position, you can let go of and even easily “admit your wrongs.” You are being held so strongly and so deeply that you can stop holding onto or defending yourself. God forever sees and loves Christ in you; it is only we who doubt our divine identity as children of God.

Whenever we do anything stupid, cruel, evil, or destructive to ourselves or others, we are at that moment unconscious—unconscious of our identity. If we were fully conscious, we would never be violent, even in our thoughts, toward anyone. Loving people are always highly conscious people. To rely on any substance or habit is to become unconscious.

To be fully conscious would be to love everything on some level and in some way—even our mistakes. To love is to fall into full consciousness, which is contemplative, non-dualistic, and includes everything—even “the last enemy to be destroyed, which is death itself” (see 1 Corinthians 15:26). That is why we must love. Only love is stronger than death.

Didn’t Jesus tell us that we must love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44)? AA says at Step Ten, “we have ceased fighting anything or anyone—even alcohol.” [2] When we can on some level love even our sins and imperfections, which are our “enemies,” we are fully conscious and fully liberated. God, who is Universal Consciousness itself, knows all things, absorbs all things, and forgives all things—for being what they are. Since Jesus commands us to love our enemies, then we know that God must and will do the same. Yet the vast majority of Christians still believe in a punitive God and a pathetic notion of retributive justice, which is totally unworthy of God. This false and toxic image of God normally only recedes if we have an inner life of prayer, which is the next step.

What hope and joy a God of Infinite Love gives us all! Among many other things, it takes away all fear of admitting our wrongs to God, to ourselves, and to others.

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program, 55.
  • [2] Ibid., 78.
  • Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 90-92.

Expressions of Divine Love

Step Eleven: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. [1]

In his book Addiction and Grace, psychiatrist Gerald May (1940–2005)—who was a personal friend of mine and a true holy man—pointed out how addictive behavior uses up good desire and drains away spiritual desire. May was convinced, and I am too after my years as jail chaplain, that many addicts in their younger years were people with spiritual insight and desire. In spiritual direction, addicts will often admit to early youthful moments of “unitive consciousness.” These were moments when it all made sense and we knew we were good, God was good, it was all good. We were in touch with our true source of power, our spiritual desire, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When this incipient spiritual yearning was frustrated; when we no longer experienced communion, connection, and compassion; when we were instead met with religions’ legalism, exclusivity, and ritualism—there was a great disappointment. Some then try to maintain an experience of communion through substance abuse or a process addiction (for example, shopping or gambling). Timothy McMahan King writes: “Addictions represent finite answers to infinite longings. But adding up the finite over and over will never equal the infinite.” [2] We want to attach to something that will never let us down, something all-powerful, all-nurturing, truly liberating. But of course, with any addiction we need more and more of it because each time we experience the emptiness afterward. It’s never enough to fill the God-sized hole inside of us.

Prayer and meditation allow us to reconnect with our true source of power. Alcoholics Anonymous, the first Twelve-Step program, was developed before Thomas Merton reintroduced contemplation to the modern Western world. Although the “prayer and meditation” described by Bill Wilson and his friends was not exactly the type of contemplative prayer we teach today, it was indeed focused on surrendering to God, seeking God’s will, and relying on God’s power. It was amazing that Wilson used the uncommon word “meditation” in the 1930s, a time when most Western Christians would have thought that was a practice from “Eastern religions.”

Contemplative practice, done over time, actually rewires our brains so that we can detach from our addictive patterns of thinking and feeling and our unworkable programs for happiness. Now many neuroscientists affirm such very real change and call it neuroplasticity: chosen neural pathways gradually grow stronger; unused pathways die away. King again: “Grace points to the possibility of a redemption that is not just recovery but the opportunity to grow deeper and become stronger than we were before.” [3] May described the outcome of contemplative practice: “As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become expressions of divine love.” [4]

[1] “J,” A Simple Program, 55.
[2] Timothy McMahan King, Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us (Herald Press: 2019), 209.
[3] Ibid., 248.
[4] Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit (Harper San Francisco: 1982), 238.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), MP3 download; How Do We Breathe Under Water? The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, DVD, MP3 download; and Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2011), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Helping Others

Step Twelve: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. [1]

Step Twelve tells addicts that they will never really come to appropriate the power and importance of the first eleven steps until and unless they personally take it upon themselves to give it away to other people in need. This necessary reciprocity, a pattern of outflow and inflow, is one that many Christians have never committed to, and the whole religion has suffered because of it. I am convinced that in neglecting the need to serve and to pay back, many Christians lose whatever they might have gained in their private devotions; in fact, they live inside a false peace (pax perniciosa, the Desert Fathers and Mothers called it), which is often a very well-disguised narcissism.

If I have grown at all in my decades of being a priest, it’s in part through this role of being a preacher and teacher. I have had to stand before crowds for years and describe what I thought I believed, and then I often had to ask myself, “Do I really believe that myself?” In my attempt to communicate something, I usually found that I’d only scratched the surface of understanding it myself. In sharing, in giving it away, you really own it for yourself and appreciate its value more fully, beyond what you ever imagined.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn’t enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be. It may mean the loss of many nights’ sleep, great interference with your pleasures, interruptions to your business. It may mean sharing your money and your home, counseling frantic spouses and relatives, innumerable trips to court, hospitals, jails and asylums.” [2] A little later the Big Book says, “Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others.” [3]

This reminds me of Pope Francis’ description of the Church as a field hospital: “a Church that moves toward those who are ‘wounded,’ who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness, and love.” [4] It does not wait for people in pain to come to us.

Bill Wilson ends his own story with this: “There is, however, a vast amount of fun about it all. I suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness and levity. But just underneath there is deadly earnestness. Faith has to work twenty-four hours a day in and through us, or we perish.” [5]

I have often said that the Twelve-Step programs are the best at helping people achieve sobriety from an addictive substance. But if people do not seriously practice all the steps in their daily lives, especially Step Eleven (prayer and meditation) and Step Twelve (action and service) they will not progress. We can be very grateful for Bill Wilson and his friend Dr. Bob Smith for cooperating with the Spirit and designing a practical program for suffering humanity.


I have known and cared deeply for people in recovery for most of my professional life. In my experience, it is as if they live inside a much bigger world full of endurance, meaning, hope, self-esteem, true desire, and, most especially, a bottomless pool of love for themselves and the world. I invite you to read the words of our generous and sincere CAC staff member, Ron H., and see for yourself.

My own earliest experiences of God were in a small Catholic church in the rural Upper Midwest. I still remember the feeling that sometimes came in those devout childhood moments: head bowed, earnestly praying inside of a child’s understanding, and experiencing that mysterious and familiar contact right down to my core. I think of those experiences now as the implanting of a homing beacon that has pulsated within me ever since.

When I was still in junior high, I discovered drinking, and as I continued through high school, other drugs. As addiction took root and progressed over the next decade, that divine pulse became faint, obscured by the rush of the many synthetic substitutes. . . . I will spare you the details of this journey to alienation and despair. Suffice it to say, borrowing Richard’s words, that it was a precipitous decline from the “order” of a child’s pure experience and belief to the “disorder” of a young man’s unraveling life. When my fiancé finally moved on with our year-old son in my early twenties, the inner cacophony of self-loathing and the deeper lapse into drugs drowned out the divine pulse or homing beacon until I was sure it was lost to me.

“Reorder,” in my case, came in the form of the paint-by-numbers approach to mystical awakening called the Twelve-Step program. But that’s such a tidy description of a messy process that started when I voluntarily removed what everyone saw as my problem but I knew as my solution: the drugs. An addict who has stopped using is not an addict without a problem but an addict without a buffer. The early going in recovery occurs amid deep disorder and a void aching to be filled. The road to reorder from there is not for the faint of heart.

I look back now—forty years and a number of cycles of order, disorder, and reorder later—even without the drugs, and it is clearer than ever that the antidote to the soul sickness of addiction in all its forms is the awakened spirit.

This fact is there in plain sight in the steps. The second step holds out the hope for a restoration to sanity. From the addict’s point of view, it is hope for the same thing that the drugs provided in their own way: a shift in how life looks and feels. After the cleaning up of the first three steps, the growing up of the fourth through the tenth, there is the waking up, the eleventh step’s prescription of seeking to improve conscious contact with God. We go full circle back home. In my case, when the twelfth step looks back and observes that the result of this journey has been an awakening of spirit, it is referring to my restoration to the sanity of that little boy, head bowed, earnestly seeking and sometimes experiencing the contact that progressively awakens. And having had that awakening, the step says, now show up for the next one who needs a roadmap and a companion on that journey from disorder to reorder.

  • With sincere thanks to Ron H. for again sharing his insights with Daily Meditation readers.
  • Meditations by Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr.

Printable version: 12-Step Spirituality

  • Published by the Center for Action and Contemplation (https://cac.org/) from 8 Dec 2019 – 20 Dec 2019.
  • Image credit: La Soupe (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-03, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada.
Scroll to Top