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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I am from an alcoholic family, had my own problems with alcohol, married an alcoholic. i believe God helped me to no longer desire alcohol. i have been told by counselor that i am codependent and should go to al-anon. have been for awhile but cant seem to stick with it. what do you think of aa and al-anon? i was born and raised catholic and know it is the true church. i have been trying to do Gods will for years and years now. some of the aa and alanon seem catholic, and some of it seems anti-christian. i very much agree with what you say though i havent read it all, i think God led me to it. my husband is drinking again and is physically addicted but not violent. his daughter has a lot of problems. i just want to help people. do you think al-anon is okay? the catholic church seems to say aa and alanon are okay but i still dont know?

Outline of the Answer
• Watered-down Religion
• Addictions: Their Core and Strength
• Social Support
• Purging Disordered Desire
• The True Catholic Perspective
• Co-dependence

 
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups (and Al-Anon groups for the family of an alcoholic) can be useful to a large extent. The problem is that these groups simply offer a watered-down, secular version of Christianity, and many people who don’t really know what religion is make such groups into their own “religion.” Therefore, as you have seen, some meetings are as far from Christianity as hell is from heaven.

The truth is, if people lived the Catholic faith as it is supposed to be lived (that is, with as much conviction as AA members have for their groups), there wouldn’t be any problems with addictions in the first place.

Why?

   
Addictions: Their Core and Strength

Well, the core of any addiction involving intoxication or euphoria is your feeling so deprived of your primal desire—real love from your parents,[1] especially through the lack of your father—and so angry about it, that you use the addiction to hide (i.e., deny) the “stain” of the anger. Thus you settle for any satisfaction of intense excitement—and then, because the intensity of the satisfaction is, according to its own materialism, short-lived, you crave it more and more, over and over. And all of this is an unconscious way to avoid giving to others the real love that, despite your craving for it, you secretly fear.

  

If a father fails in his role as a proper father, then he will also fail in his duty to separate the child from its infantile dependence on the mother. In distress and anger at this loss, the child can then return to the mother unconsciously, thus setting up the dynamic of an addiction.

Addictions to a substance (e.g., alcohol, drugs, food) can therefore serve the unconscious purpose of numbing the pain of the loss of the father’s guidance and protection.

  

Addictions draw their strength from your lack of trust in God. When you lack trust in God, and when despair is therefore the unconscious essence of your life, then nothing in you can stand up to the overwhelming urge for momentary pleasure and say, “Wait! This isn’t right.”

  

Many women alcoholics have had abortions at some time in the past, and this secret thorn-in-the-flesh only adds to the woman’s guilt and despair, especially if she abandoned her faith in the first place because of her parents’ hypocrisy. 

  

Therefore, any addiction is in itself proof that you are preoccupied with the immediate sensory gratification of your own body—desiring to escape the demands of personal responsibilities and return to an idyllic infantile feeling of care-free bliss—as a psychological defense against your lack of belief in something greater than your own body.[2] And what could this “something greater than your own body” be? Simple. It’s the Body and Blood of Christ. When you have the Body of Christ—which is faith—and the Blood of Christ—which is love—there is nothing you lack. The entire meaning of life is mystically embodied in the Eucharist.

 
Social Support

Nevertheless, AA offers something in which the Catholic Church often fails: intense social support in avoiding specific behaviors. People go to AA meetings because each meeting focuses on doing whatever it takes to avoid alcohol. If bishops and priests could preach about living a genuine holy lifestyle the way AA “preaches” about day-to-day life without alcohol, the Church wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

  

It’s true that some persons have a predisposition (a) to craving alcohol as a defense against emotional vulnerability or (b) to becoming addicted to alcohol once it is used as such a defense. And once addicted, such persons can be subjected to changes in body chemistry that are beyond their control.
 
Still, if alcoholism is a disease, it’s an unusual one. A person with cancer, for example, can’t just wake up one morning and say, “You know, I’m sick of this illness. Today I’m going to stop having cancer.” And yet an alcoholic has to do almost precisely that. He or she has to say, “Today I’m going to stop drinking. And if I can’t do it myself, I will get into a treatment program that will force me to stop drinking.” In other words, treatment for alcoholism is behavioral. If you’re an alcoholic, your behavior has to change. You have to stop drinking. And, once you get clean and sober, you might have to refrain from drinking thereafter. It’s all a matter of your personal responsibility, regardless of genetics or brain chemistry.

  

 
Purging Disordered Desire

As much as the AA emphasis on changing unhealthy behavior is a critical step (or 12 steps) in overcoming an addiction, another step is even more important: the step of purging disordered desire. That is, for spiritual healing, we must not only stop disordered behaviors, we must purge the desires that underly the disordered behavior. Essentially, our entire attitude to the disordered behavior must change—and this is true in regard to any sinful behavior, not just in regard to alcoholism.

For example, to be free of alcoholism, the attitude of thinking of alcohol as a means to avoid responsibility must be purged. To be free of an eating dirorder, the attitude of thinking of food as a means of comforting oneself when under emotional strain must be purged. To be free of sexual sins, the attitude of thinking of sexuality merely as a physical pleasure must be purged. In short, even though we stop committing a particular sin, we are not spiritually free of that sin until we purge from ourselves the desire to commit that sin. We can’t “get over” a sin just by not doing it because we have to go down “underneath it”—that is, deep inside ourselves—to see the dark desire to sin that lurks in the depths of our unconscious.

In Canto I of Book I (Hell) of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself lost in a dark woods (symbolizing the spiritual blindness of a heart hardened by sin). He tries to escape by climbing up a beautiful mountain, but he is driven back to the woods by three animals, a leopard (symbolizing lust), a lion (symbolizing violence) and a wolf (symbolizing malice). Back in the woods he meets the shade of Virgil, an ancient Roman poet, who proposes to guide Dante down through Hell to get to Purgatory and ultimately Paradise. 

  

The Mountain, which on the mystical level is the image of the Soul’s Ascent to God, is thus on the moral level the image of Repentance, by which the sinner returns to God. It can be ascended directly from the “right road” but not from the Dark Wood because there the soul’s cherished sins have become, as it were, externalized, and appear to it like demons or “beasts” with a will and power of their own, blocking all progress. Once lost in the Dark Wood, a man can only escape by so descending into himself that he sees his sin, not as an external obstacle, but as the will to chaos and death within him (Hell). Only when he has “died to sin” can he repent and purge it. Mount Purgatory and the Mountain of Canto I are, therefore, really one and the same mountain as seen on the far side, and on this side, of the “death unto sin.”

  

Dorothy Sayers [3]

Sadly, most persons resist this process of purging. They cling to the comforting belief that changing behavior is all that matters. But it’s not.

 
The True Catholic Perspective

To approach your problem from a true Catholic perspective, then, it will be necessary to confront the fact that unless you thirst for Christ—and the living water He offers—more than any pleasure in this world, you can never be healed from your childhood emotional wounds.

Overcoming an addiction to any substance, therefore, is not a matter of constantly resisting the substance, it’s a matter of understanding that, compared to Christ, any substance (when used as a psychological defense) is about as desirable as putrid, muddy water.

  

My love so delights the soul that it destroys every other joy which can be expressed by man here below. The taste of Me extinguishes every other taste . . .

  

—as told to Saint Catherine of Genoa
Spiritual Doctrine, Part III, Chapter VII

 
Co-dependence

Co-dependent behavior is a matter of someone enabling (e.g., making excuses for, or lying for) someone whose social life is crumbling because of an addiction. The sad truth is that whenever you have “too much to lose” to take up the cross and be honest about the addict’s behavior, then you are essentially as dependent on the addiction as the addict.

You can overcome your tendency to co-dependence by placing your dependence totally on Christ, not on the affection or attention of another person.

  

Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.

  

—Matthew 10:37-38

Therefore, if you are truly willing to overcome the fear of taking up your cross and dying to yourself, and if you live this truth in your heart, you will have all the strength you need to cope with an addict in your midst. Remember, Christ will never abandon you: I will not leave you orphans (John 14:18). Secure in this knowledge, you can witness the truth to others without being paralyzed by the fear that they might abandon you. And bye-bye co-dependency.

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes.

1. True love is not just a matter of food and shelter. True love is a process of giving—not the giving of material things that merely bribe others to like us, but the giving of qualities such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness, qualities whose ultimate purpose is the salvation of other souls. If your childhood was not grounded in these noble values, such that you grew up with a pure and humble faith in God, then—sad to say—your parents did not love you.

2. Here we can see the role that a father’s lack plays in an addiction. Trust requires that the child grow to depend on and respect the father as a teacher and protector, through his being different from the mother from whom the child originated; that is, the father is a different body and a different gender from the mother. The father—and only a father—can therefore teach the child to enter the world and encounter difference safely and confidently. But if your father is lacking, you will grow up lacking trust in anything other than your own immediate sensory experience.
      And if your father failed in his duty and left you emotionally crippled, then how do you remedy the mess you’re in now? Well, you surrender to the spiritual healing process and pray earnestly for Christ to lead you to God the Father.

3. From her commentary on Canto I of Cantica I: Hell (L’Inferno) in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, trans. Dorothy Sayers (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1949).

 


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