Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Sam Shoemaker, Episcopal priest and deeply influential voice within the Alcoholics Anonymous community. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, said this of Shoemaker’s witness to AA: “He passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated. The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.”
When I reflect on the life of Shoemaker, I am stopped in my tracks by the power of the spiritual keys by which we can be liberated from the constrictions of how alcohol affects the mind, body, and soul. Just a few months ago in November, I celebrated 2 years of sobriety myself: a celebration of my own liberation.
When I started reflecting on my relationship with alcohol, I found myself reading tons of “quit lit” (sober memoirs and books about how to quit drinking) with boxes of chardonnay, including AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Interestingly enough, I already owned it, because it was a required text for a seminary class on ascetical theology, because—at its core—the 12 steps are rooted in ascetical theology: a way of understanding spirituality that stresses practices of self-discipline.
I did not choose to go down the AA path in my recovery, but I continue to have a spot on my bedside table with a chardonnay stained Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, because as a priest, I believe in the power of its witness to the church and to the greater world. I consider my own sobriety to be ascetical theology: the daily spiritual practice of prayerful self-discipline.
I have incorporated a variety of spiritual practices that guide my sober path, some from AA and many from outside of it, but I continue to be grateful for the spiritual keys by which I have been liberated. That is, I continue to be grateful for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that I feel in my bones, as a person who has resurrected in real time through giving up alcohol in order to take on the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the callings of my own heart.
Sobriety is always a choice to stare into the mirror; it is always a willingness to be seen, both by ourselves and by the God who has always seen us. When we choose to no longer numb out, we choose to be awakened, to have our hearts made new, to be liberated from the pain that accompanies being so distant from ourselves that we no longer know ourselves.
I struggle sometimes with the conversation around sobriety, because it can carry with it the image of someone who is forced to no longer drink, someone who is unable to be normal, someone we should pity. This experience is unrecognizable from how I understand my own sobriety, and the gift it is to me in my mind, body, and soul. I wasn’t forced to no longer drink – I chose to no longer drink. There is nothing more normal than me, awake to myself, without the mind altering effects of a substance. And there is nothing to pity, because I have never been happier.
I offer spiritual direction for anyone seeking it, but also specifically for people who want a spiritual director who is also a recovery coach. In the work I do with people who are sober, I mark our time together with celebration, joy, honoring of self and other, beauty, strength, courage, and the palpable awareness of Christ’s love and power to heal us in every way. I am always reminded, in every word, that nothing separates us from the love of God, because nothing can ever separate us from the image that we carry in our hearts of the God who numbered the hairs on our heads. I love working with people, praying with people through their sober path, because it is only ever an honor, a joy, and a blessing to love people who are doing the hardest and most beautiful work of their lives.
I encourage you today to reflect deeply on how you understand sobriety. If it conjures up an image of sadness, I ask that you consider lifting the pall, to see the faces of those who have been willing to face their death and, in doing so, stand resurrected after the encounter. There is incredible joy in sobriety because, as the witness of Sam Shoemaker promises, it can hold the spiritual keys by which we are liberated.