By Father Nathan Humphrey
Year C, Advent 1
2 December 2018
Fainting. Fear. Foreboding. It’s very easy to get caught up in all the apocalyptic language in this morning’s gospel about celestial signs and ecological distress. Amid the doomsday language, it is easy to miss the central message Jesus is proclaiming—that just when we are beginning to feel overwhelmed by it all, we are told to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near. That’s really good news! In response to this good news, we are called to prepare for our coming redemption, which, after all, is what Advent is all about.
Now, Jesus knows that it’s all too easy to get distracted and to neglect to prepare for our redemption. That’s why he says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t want us to be trapped in addiction and anxiety. He doesn’t want our hearts to be weighed down by these things, because a heavy heart keeps us from standing up and raising our heads and seeing our redemption drawing near. Jesus wants us to hold our heads up high.
Jesus also knows, however, that addiction and anxiety effectively block this from happening. Now, I would like to think that most of us do not struggle with addiction or anxiety, but my experience as a confessor, spiritual director, and pastor—to say nothing of my experience as a sinful human being—tells me that people who seem to have it all together on the outside may be struggling with some pretty menacing demons on the inside. These demons, especially alcoholism, dependence on opioids, and other forms of addictive behavior, tend to surface acutely during the holidays, as the stresses and worries of this life overtake us. So I’m going to talk a little bit about addiction and anxiety this morning, because even if you don’t personally struggle with the more extreme forms that addiction and anxiety take, you probably know someone who does.
Before I go any further into this sensitive subject, however, I want to make two things very clear. First, you are not (I hope) going to hear just one more heavy-handed, moralizing sermon on the evils of over-indulgence and materialism, or some pious ramblings on the importance of reducing our stress levels by slowing down and relaxing. We’ve all heard such sermons before, and maybe they motivated us to make a change for the better, but I have a sneaking suspicion I could just make things worse by getting, well, “preachy.” So in what follows, I want us to keep in mind that our goal is a head held high, not a heavy heart.
Second, even if we don’t ourselves fit the clinical definition of an addict, we need to recognize that addiction and anxiety aren’t just things that “other people” are caught up in; to one degree or another, we all suffer from addictive behaviors and anxious preoccupations. So while I’m not the sort of person who automatically pathologizes everything, following the lead of folks like Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace and Jeffrey Imbach in The Recovery of Love: Christian Mysticism and the Addictive Society, I do believe that human nature is essentially a struggle against harmful attachments that draw us away from the love of God and each other, what theologians call sin and the prophets call idolatry. As Gerald May writes,
For generations, psychologists thought that virtually all self-defeating behavior was caused by repression. I have now come to believe that addiction is a separate and even more self-defeating force that abuses our freedom and makes us do things we really do not want to do. While repression stifles desire, addiction attaches desire, bonds and enslaves the energy of desire to certain specific behaviors, things, or people. These objects of attachment then become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives…The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. Moreover, our addictions are our own worst enemies. They enslave us with chains that are of our own making and yet that, paradoxically, are virtually beyond our control. Addiction also makes idolators of us all, because it forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another. Addiction breeds willfulness within us, yet, again paradoxically, it erodes our free will and eats away at our dignity. Addiction, then, is at once an inherent part of our nature and an antagonist of our nature. It is the absolute enemy of human freedom, the antipathy of love. Yet, in still another paradox, our addictions can lead us to a deep appreciation of grace. They can bring us to our knees.
So whether it’s alcohol or grumbling, shopping too much, or even hyper-religiosity, addictive patterns affect us all. We can get trapped in anger, in self-denigration, in narcissism. We can even get addicted to anxiety itself.
Among the number of very good resources on addiction is a booklet entitled Helping Hands for the Addicted: A Renewed Call to Action, available from the Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. One statement from that booklet that resonated with my personal and pastoral experience was its observation that addiction “leads to behavior in conflict with the addict’s own values.” And it is just this conflict between what we do and what we truly value that keeps us trapped with heavy hearts.
In my last parish in Washington, D.C., one of my parishioners was a recovering IV drug addict. He told me that at one point in his active addiction, he was violating his standards faster than he could lower them. He would tell himself, “I will never use drugs on Sunday,” and then he’d use drugs in the car on the way to serve weekday Low Mass. Well, at least it wasn’t a Sunday! He would serve Mass knowing that right afterwards he would use, and eventually, he simply started using drugs on church property before services. He would go into a church office and shut the door and shoot up, and then go to Mass. My former parishioner was a well-educated, hardworking professional. By the grace of God and the support of key members of my former parish, he finally admitted his dependence on drugs to himself and others, entered a recovery program, and to my knowledge continues to make good progress nearly a decade later. The most important thing, he told me, was finding a church where people wanted to know him, made it safe for him to be known, and loved him. It was also important for him to establish relationships of accountability with people who would not enable his addiction.
My former parishioner’s story represents the extreme end of the spectrum of addiction and addictive behaviors, but the basic elements are the same whether one is an IV drug user or prefers more socially acceptable substances, like food, or activities, like work. The important thing is that a disconnect develops between the way one is living and the values one holds, and this disconnect keeps asserting itself no matter how much one tries to deny or rationalize it away, no matter how well one compensates for it by being a good person who does good deeds. What I have found to be true over the past several years is that there is absolutely nothing that keeps a person from being a gifted, loving, faithful person and at the same time deeply addicted and hurtful to one’s self and others.
Part of the problem, I think, is the toxicity of secrets. People feel that if they were really known for who they are, they wouldn’t be loved anymore. Part of the problem is that we often engage, even unconsciously, in enabling behaviors that keep people from being honest with themselves and others. We encourage people to hide their true selves. Or we genuinely may not see what the problem is, and thus not have the opportunity to show Christ’s all-encompassing love to those around us in word and deed.
Whether from enabling or blindness, the Church is among the worst culprits in keeping addiction and anxiety cloaked in secrecy and silence. But the Church can also, if it is living out its mission to be the Body of Christ in the world, be the best place for people to start breaking free from addiction and anxiety.
The first step is finding a context in which you feel safe to be yourself. I would like to foster small groups where trusting intimacy can be established, and to that end I will be starting a Bible Study following High Mass next Sunday at Noon in my study. Please let me know if you plan on attending.
In our Anglo-Catholic tradition, the sacrament of Reconciliation is a particularly intimate way of coming face to face with Christ and the forgiveness he has promised to the Church. In it, we can encounter God’s redemptive love. The important thing is to seek truthful relationships with fellow parishioners and clergy who can help you hold your head high and who encourage you to lift your heavy heart.
Jesus does not want us to be trapped with heavy hearts. For if we are trapped, we will not be able to lift our heads to behold his coming at Christmas. Jesus wants us to be in relationship with each other, honest about who we are and striving, with God’s help, for the new life that God is waiting to give us.
This Advent, lift up your heavy hearts, stand up, and tell the truth about yourself and others, for your redemption is drawing nigh.
You have nothing to lose but your chains.
May, Gerald G., M.D., Addiction and Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 3-4. Some emphases mine.