Taking on Step 11 Today

Note: I published my first draft last week. This is the version I will use today, Tuesday, January 30, when I lead my first Al-Anon class. The topic is Step 11. 

As I contemplated Step 11’s meaning, I thought of the steps that it is sandwiched between and the words of the serenity prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong to promptly admit it. 

Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. 

Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principals in all of our affairs. 

I preface today’s short dissertation on Step 11, with the fact that I took the advice from who I do not recall, that however you choose to proceed with the steps, is the right way. When I started Al-Anon in December on Step 7, I left that day thanking God for leading me there. I felt that the year that preceded my arrival at that meeting, was a year filled with steps 1 through 6. And yes there were plenty of days, just like Springsteen writes, of one step forward and two steps back. During the last almost two years, every day and every step, there was the constant presence of God, whose manifestations varied as much as the weather, but whose existence I never questioned.

The discussion of God, faith, religion, Higher Power, and or whatever we understand him or her or it to be, is a personal and complicated one. Without judgment of you, I ask that you refrain from judgment of me, and I offer you what Step 11 means to me.

It starts with my belief in God, which is the most important, fulfilling,  yet difficult relationship of my life. Sometimes, I feel like the battered wife, always coming home for more, but I have the role wrong. I remember in my first marriage when I woke up early one morning in a pool of blood. I had been unconscious on the bathroom floor. The flu led me to the bathroom at some point overnight. The fever must have knocked me out. As I got my bearings, I steadied myself, and I stood up and looked in the mirror. My lip was split open. My face was covered with blood. Horrified and scared, I started crying, ready to call out for my husband, I remembered I was alone. My husband had left days before in a rage. He was not an alcoholic. He didn’t have any problems. I was the one with the problems. I called my parent’s house. I spoke with my brother. An hour later, as I sat at Christ Hospital, speaking to the nurse, she looked at my wedding ring. She saw my mom through the glass. A husband was nowhere to be found. She looked at me with pity. My heart fell. I realized she thought I was lying. That I was battered. That the absent husband did this to me. That my mother was complicit. I was not the battered one. I was the batterer. I beat myself up time and again. How many times I questioned fate, and blamed God for the present and past.; decisions I made, yet wanted to distance myself from.

Seeking God’s presence has never been the difficult part because He is omnipresent. It is the nakedness required in this relationship that is its greatest challenge; a required vulnerability that is not unique to my relationship with God. To be vulnerable is, to be honest. And to be honest is to be truthful. To start a conversation with God requires an admission of fault, and a willingness to forgive. For me, that means being honest with myself and living in my truth.

It took several years of therapy, peeling off the layers of the onion, attempting to live a truthful life, until the only layer left to address was my marriage. That layer was my step 11. As such, I don’t believe this journey’s mission – the one we share through Al-Anon – is centered on those we’ve battered and injured. It’s centered on forgiving ourselves, and to stop the beating. We have to stop blaming ourselves for all of our past transgressions. By no means is it easy. Step 10, happens every day, in fact, countless times throughout the day, both in my waking and sleeping hours I am constantly working to right the wrongs and to chart the right course.

No doubt, that each of us has had a journey whose path traversed others challenges’ that made our lives much more difficult. It’s what led us here today. Did we choose to turn the other cheek, to enable, to punish, to persecute? None of that matters. At least in my mind. Because once we start that conversation with God, once we consciously invite him in, and ask for his guidance, for the serenity to know the right direction, then we can forgive. I’m not foolish to think that this is the most important step because they all have equal weight. I do believe the actions in Step 11 are greater and more present in our lives than we probably care to recognize.

In the physical world, yoga is the obvious place where I carve out the mental space for spiritual growth and reflection. It is accompanied by walks with my dogs, who I often feel are three guardian angels, reminding me to keep moving, to keep listening, to keep going. My God is found in the gentle breeze and fierce wind, His presence comes to me in the morning sun, at dusk, and through the glorious moonbeams in the midnight sky pickled with stars so far, yet so close I feel I can touch them. I feel his warmth when my hands embrace my cup of coffee in the morning or my cup of tea in the afternoon. I know the days when I drank alongside my alcoholic, denying the problems in front of us, were the days when I pushed Him away.

Step 11 is about finding peace in knowing that I am part of something greater. Yes, this world is surely built on sound science, but its mystery and miracles are grounded in spirit and faith. From the totem animals of the Native Americans to the saints of the Catholic church, our world is united in the breath. The breath of life is what we all share, and is what Step 11 means to me. On the inhale we let God in. And the exhale, is our physical recognition of His presence in our lives. The spirit inside of us is the presence of God guiding us, loving us, and forgiving us, constantly nudging us toward serenity.

My earliest image of God and the Holy Spirit is glued together in the mosaic that stands before you in St. Thomas More Church. In my 46th year of life, my father’s demand that we sit in the front row so that no one would come between God and us now makes sense. Step 11 is that conscious effort to sit in the front row, speaking and welcoming God into our lives. It’s no wonder that the front row is the best seat in the house. So many Sundays sitting in that front row, and so many weekdays at the adjacent school, we learned about sanctifying grace. Every selfless deed we did for others, moments when we felt empathy, instances when we modeled our lives after Christ, events when we turned the other cheek, especially when we wanted to strike, our cup was filled. The more grace in your cup. The closer you are to God.

This morning’s reminder in Courage to Change includes this snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word. … Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into your life. Then, without effort, you are impelled to truth to perfect contentment.”

When I read this earlier this morning, I thought of a trip my ex-husband and I took to Sedona for our wedding anniversary. Our daughter was almost seven months old. No sooner did we board the airplane, than she rolled over. Her life, her milestones, were hers. They were never scheduled according to other’s expectations. At that time in my life, expectations ruled my days. I longed to be with my husband. Alone with him. Close to him. Away with him. The entire trip he longed to return home.

Despite being in such close proximity to him, I felt empty for most of the trip. One afternoon we went for a hike. We were surrounded by red rock. The landscape was gorgeous. The blue sky went on forever. I laid down on a plateau. The rock beneath captured the sun’s warmth and radiated through me. I looked up. I closed my eyes. My body shook. I don’t know that I found a vortex. But I do know that I found God. I didn’t utter a word. I was naked. God saw all my fears. My desires. My hidden truth – that this man I loved so dearly – that he would never give me the love that I wanted and needed. He was married to something else.  Alcohol deadened him. It dulled all of his glorious attributes. It was more powerful than love. Love would not; could not conquer this. My face was covered in tears. I laid there for quite a while. Just bathing in the sun, letting its rays dry my tears. Absorbing God’s love. God knew the truth. And now He knew that I did, too.  And in time, together, we would figure it out. Nearly ten years would pass before I would act.

What a powerful step, Step 11 is; its bounty is the wisdom gained through our relationship with God. It’s embracing moments of grace. It’s emulating Christ’s treatment of the lepers and prostitutes. In this case, we are the bedraggled, the oppressed, the tormented. We are the outcasts. Our struggle with our alcoholic places us in this quandary where we seek acceptance and wisdom as we work to accept the things out of our control.

Step 10 includes my daily actions of waking up, or evening when I go to sleep, each a bookend of every day, when I make amends with my maker, acknowledging my faults and frailties. And Step 11, is me, seeking His guidance and wisdom.

With Al-Anon, with you, with you this step, and with and through my own humble actions, Step 11 fills my cup.  Step 11 is the graceful act of us accepting serenity.

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