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Parallel Conversions: Charismatics and Recovered Alcoholics

by Joseph H. Fichter

Father Fichter, professor of sociology at Loyola University of the South, New Orleans, is the author of The Catholic Cult of the Paraclete (Sheed & Ward, 1975) and a yet-to-be-published study of more than 400 alcoholic clergymen. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 18, 1976, pp. 148-150. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Something happens to the converted alcoholic or the converted charismatic that brings about change, sometimes a quick illumination, but often a rather gradual and increasingly insistent spiritual awakening. The spiritual conversion experienced by both of these groups is intended to carry the individual along in a "new" way of life, and it does for those who stay with it.

Text:

A spiritual conversion is an interior experience, a decision for Christ, a change of heart, a turning of the mind away from vice and toward virtue, a relinquishing of the past and an embrace of the future. Something "happens" to people who are converted, as it did to Saul on the road to Damascus, and often this "happening" is not a personal choice. What the Protestant Pentecostals have been saying for a long time is now occurring among Catholic charismatics; in the words of one of their national leaders: "I am involved because I believe that God has touched me and that I have responsibilities as a result of that touch and call."

One has only to attend a large charismatic prayer meeting, or read the pages of New Covenant, to learn, of first-person testimony of conversion. Reports a priest: "I felt as if God took off the top of my head and poured his peace into me and that simultaneously all the junk of my past life was draining out of my feet." Comments a young woman: "For me the baptism of the Holy Spirit was a particular moment in my life; a moment when all time seemed to stand still and I truly felt the presence of the reality of Christ."

I

There is a steadfast tradition in the 40-year history of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship that practically every member has had a spiritual experience which "quite transforms his outlook and attitudes." Carl Jung in Zurich warned one of his alcoholic patients that his "only hope of salvation was a spiritual experience." Bill W., co-founder of AA, has told of his own conversion: He was in a hospital after a jag, deep in depression because he could not overcome his addiction to booze. In desperation he called on God for help. Then "suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe."

It would be going too far to say that every converted alcoholic (or converted charismatic; for that matter) has such a dazzling spiritual experience. From reading AA. Grapevine, or attending an AA meeting, or listening to a member tell his story, one learns that "something happened" to brings about change; however; often it was not a quick illumination, but rather a gradual and increasingly insistent spiritual awakening. Sometimes the conversion starts not with faith, but with a desire to believe: "God if you do exist, and if you do answer prayers, give me the help I need."

II

In simplistic terms the stated goals of these two groups appear to be quite different. The purpose of AA is individual and personal: that the alcoholic stay sober. The purpose of the charismatics is directed to the praise and glory of God. The practical effect on people, however, is that the goals tend to become means, and in both instances the outcome is a change of life style -- the alcoholicís sobriety is a means of allowing him to lead a normal, nonaddictive life, while the charismaticís prayerful praise of God is a constant reminder and inspiration for living a more virtuous life.

The spiritual conversion does not necessarily involve a switch from a life of extreme immorality, although some converts are willing to testify to that. For alcoholism, the emphasis has changed from sin to sickness; and while there are still people who attribute moral weakness to the habitual drunkard, the general consensus of the medical profession now is to diagnose disease. Even so, physicians have not yet discovered a cure for the illness. The patient can be detoxified, perhaps medicated and given hospital care, but more and more physicians are recommending the Alcoholics Anonymous program as the way to achieve sobriety.

The recovered alcoholic is usually humbly ready to admit to previous guilt feelings. This appears to be the case also with charismatics, all of whom say that they "know how it feels to repeat and to experience the forgiveness of sins." Their mystical metanoia is, therefore, generally preceded by repentance -- and, after all, this is what Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem at the first Pentecost. He told them to "turn away from your sins" and promised that "you will receive Godís gift, the Holy Spirit."

One of the lessons alcoholics -- as well as charismatics -- learn the hard way is the possibility of a lapse after the conversion experience. The alcoholic knows that a "slip" can happen even after years sobriety. A popular AA slogan carriesí the reminder: "But for the grace of God." To put oneself trustingly in the care of God means to live confidently one day at a time. While many Catholic charismatics believe that to accept Jesus as their personal savior is a guarantee of eternal salvation, they also know that they can become remiss or drop out of the fellowship completely.

III

Although conversion is an individual and personal experience, one of the secrets of staying converted is the support of a group. The more frequently an alcoholic attends AA meetings, the more likely is he or she to eschew drink. Further undergirding regular attendance is the fact that an essential part of the recovery program is for the member to carry the message to other alcoholics. While "the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking," AA is a program of mutual help. New, or prospective, members are called "pigeons" whose main supporter, a "sponsor," looks after them and sees that they get to meetings. But the person helping is also the person helped. The 12th step of the program is, in a way, a kind of evangelism: to bring the good news to those who want and need it, and to increase the number of converts.

Dedicated charismatic converts also reinforce their spiritual strength by frequent contact with group members. Susan Anthony says that in her travels around the country she makes use of her list of charismatic prayer groups as well as her list of AA groups. Even when on the road she can keep in contact with her fellow converts in both groups. Like alcoholics, charismatics follow a pattern of attending a group meeting every week, and some do so even more frequently. The enthusiastic member is also a kind of missionary, spreading the word to others and constantly inviting them to come to prayer meetings.

Said one cheerful alcoholic, who happens to be a charismatic as well: "I used to do plenty of talking in tongues back in the days when I was drinking." While the charismatic prayer meeting includes testimonials and glossolalia, it is also given to guitar music and the exuberant singing of hymns (most of them borrowed from Protestant sources). The AA meeting, too, is suffused with enthusiasm, but of a quiet and determined sort. The meeting regularly starts with a silent minute of gratitude to God for continuing divine support, followed by the group recitation of the Serenity Prayer. At the conclusion members repeat the Lordís Prayer, sometimes joining hands, as is the common practice among charismatic prayer groups.

Membership in enthusiastic convert groups seems to call out a need for self-revelation. Witness in charismatic prayer meetings is often personal testimony about how oneís life has changed. These public "confessions" are often frank and detailed accounts of spiritual and moral waywardness in the past, going on to indicate how wonderful things have been since "finding the Lord." The willingness to confess is even more prevalent, among recovered alcoholics. There appears to be almost a compulsion to reveal the problems, difficulties and obstacles the person had when drinking. In fact, it is often difficult to "turn off" the former drunkard who wants to tell you how he or she got that way. As some of them readily admit: "We used to drink too much, and now we talk too much."

IV

Having attended the International Charismatic Congress at Notre Dame and also the International AA Convention at Denver, I can attest to marked similarities in enthusiasm, joyfulness and spirituality in both groups. Attending as a sociological observer, I had hoped for professional papers, results of academic studies, research reports and scholarly discussion from panels of experts. What I found in both instances was like a gigantic revival meeting, with speakers encouraging everybody to stay converted and members greeting one another joyfully -- all in an overall spirit of religious fervor. Wearing an anonymous name tag (just the first name) is characteristic of both congregations.

The camaraderie among AA members, their tight fellowship, becomes even more evident when an "outsider" admits to being a nonalcoholic. The impression is given that one cannot really understand these people and their illness, cannot really appreciate their fellowship -- and certainly cannot share in it -- without having personally been through these experiences. There is a similar difficulty in trying to relate to charismatics. The "insiders" have had the privilege of baptism in the Spirit, and the impression is conveyed that they feel sorry for anyone who has not had this extraordinary good fortune and are eager to lay hands in prayer on him or her.

In another interesting similarity, both fellowships proclaim a distrust of organization and structure. They find it important that no one have power and authority, except what they call the "authority of service." The charismaticsí top-level group of decision-makers is the "Service Committee," and the New York headquarters of AA houses the "General Services Office." There is, however, a great deal more autonomy for both individuals and local groups within the AA fellowship than within the charismatic movement. The latter has become more tightly organized as its membership has increased -- most prominently in the extent to which it accepts the model of the covenant community.

One important nationwide factor is found in communications. AA publishes a sprightly monthly magazine, the Grapevine, and distributes books and pamphlets related to the field of alcoholism. The charismatics also have a monthly publication, the New Covenant, and the communications center issues an annual catalogue of cassettes and record albums, inspirational books and pamphlets offered for sale. Both organizations consider their periodicals a teaching instrument, but they also carry news of the movement and letters from readers. Both groups recognize the value of propaganda in getting the message across to members and nonmembers alike.

The Grapevine regularly prints a "calendar" page, listing the dates and places of meetings, conventions, rallies, roundups and conferences. The references are to state and regional gatherings, not to the local meetings which are scheduled regularly and frequently. The charismatics issue an annual roster of member groups, with brief notations of time and place of meetings together with the name of each local group leader. The New Covenantís coverage extends to announcements of forthcoming gatherings on the regional level, and much space is devoted to reports of large meetings held both in this country and abroad.

The spiritual conversion experienced by alcoholics and charismatics is intended to carry the individual along in a "new" way of life, and it does for those who stay with it. The before-and-after difference is obviously appreciated by the convert, but it is also observable by close friends and family members. This difference consists not simply of another way of relating to God, although that is the basis for changes in personal behavior and in dealing with fellow human beings. The 11th step of the AA program is probably applicable to the charismatics too: we "sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out."


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