It was the last day of a graduate class I was teaching on the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps. I asked the class what was most striking to them from the lectures and conversations we’d had. As though she had been given the question earlier, a woman immediately shot her hand up. “I learned again and deeper that the most important word of the Twelve Steps is the first word, WE.”
All of us in the room gasped a bit. She had said it. WE is absolutely foundational for our recovery. The gift, the grace of recovery is given in community. As I have reflected on the wisdom of her response, I have realized that if Bill W. had written “I” as the first word of the steps, there would today be no A.A. and probably no recovery for many of us.
And so we sponsor and are sponsored. And so we attend and participate in our meetings. The caring God of the Third Step has created us as social beings, needing community if we are to live and grow, heal and recover. People might attain sobriety alone; few, if any, recover and find serenity and spirituality without community.
Sponsorship was a phenomenon early in A.A. But the first formal writing on sponsorship seems to have appeared only in 1944, almost 10 years after our origins. Clarence S. composed it and titled it “A.A. Sponsorship…Its Opportunities and its Responsibilities.” He emphasized how sponsorship arises right out of the Big Book and, particularly, out of the Twelfth Step. Clarence’s pamphlet is almost a synopsis of Chapter 7 of the Big Book, “Working with Others.” The sponsor shares his story, inspires confidence in A.A., witnesses to the benefits of A.A., emphasizes the importance of reading the Big Book, introduces spirituality, listens to the other’s story, and assists the other’s family in understanding A.A.
I submit that virtually all the development of understanding the importance and role of sponsorship in the past sixty years comes from the Big Book and this early pamphlet.
I mentioned “introduces spirituality” as a point Clarence emphasizes. Specifically his words are: “Since the belief of a Power greater than oneself is the heart of the A.A. plan, and since this idea is very often difficult for a new man, the sponsor should attempt to introduce the beginnings of an understanding of this all-important feature. Frequently this can be done by the sponsor relating his own difficulty in grasping a spiritual understanding and the methods he used to overcome his difficulties.”
Today I find that many in recovery are asking trained spiritual directors familiar with the Twelve Steps to join them as “spiritual sponsors” in this area of development, specifically in developing and committing to Tenth and Eleventh Step practices. They realize the profound truth of a sentence I consider one of the 10 most significant in the Big Book: “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition (page 85).”
A formal spiritual director is trained and certified in the art of accompanying people as they develop a response to the God of their understanding in all the communities to which they belong. If that person is also intimately familiar with the Twelve Steps, they can function as a “spiritual sponsor,” especially as one ascends to the Tenth and Eleven steps.
Marian, for instance, meets monthly with her spiritual director to discuss how to pray through her emotions, especially sadness and anger, and to account for her fidelity in meditation.
Dave meets regularly with his director to work on the connection between Steps Six, Seven and Eleven. “Six and Seven through Eleven” has become the mantra of their conversation as he brings to God and his director his perfectionism and resulting procrastination and anger.
Joseph is early in recovery and he consults with his spiritual director around a daily practice of gratitude that keeps him grounded in Step One.
Peter’s image of God is changing from the distant, demanding God of his youth to the caring God of the Third Step and he has a spiritual director to encourage him in that transition.
None of these recovering people has substituted a spiritual director for a sponsor. They all realize that we make it with a lot of help from our friends and so they have enlisted a spiritual director in addition to their sponsor to assist in the heavy lifting that is a spiritual conversion and discipline. They have been fortunate to find a companion who, as a wise person has written, “takes them where he finds them and listens to them. Intelligently, gently, lovingly, he encourages them to go on and recover their joy on the journey.” I am convinced that when one is ready, such a companion will appear.
Dick Rice, M.A.,M.Div., was a spiritual director at The Retreat, Wayzata.
This article first appeared in The Phoenix Spirit, January, 2008