It could have been a roomful of friends gathered for coffee, based on the way they greeted one another and talked, cups in hand. They were meeting in a church parish hall, where the congregation normally gathers for coffee hour after morning worship; these folks would easily fit in.
It could have been a book group, or even a Bible study, based on the way they gathered around big tables set up in a square, shared readings, and then told their own stories.
It could have been a group gathered for a cause, based on the passion with which they spoke and their determination to succeed at their task.
It was the Alcoholics Anonymous group where I took my friend this morning. I had never been to one. The room was peopled with about twenty folks of varying ages who didn’t look any different than anyone else. Actually, the way I first noticed them was in thinking that I didn’t stand out in the group. I looked just like them and, like them, I headed to the coffee pot as soon as I walked in the room. There were announcements, some reading from the Big Book, and then the person chairing the meeting told his story and then opened it up for anyone else to speak. Eight or nine people raised their hands.
As each one began, they would say their name and then add, “And I’m an alcoholic.” The entire group would respond with a warm hello. When they were finished, the group would thank them in unison. Their various stories hung between the group’s words like a hammock between two palm trees, offering comfort and rest. The topic today had to do with acknowledging our Higher Power. Many talked about their struggles with faith, about bordering on agnosticism, about having to learn about grace. One man, a tall, sturdy, Liam Neeson-looking character, spoke about advice he had gotten from his spiritual director: “just notice.” “If I need evidence of God,” he said, “all I need to do is just notice what is going on around me.”
I noticed the people in the room, once again: the old man with the big glasses who spoke of the grief of losing his wife, the two guys in the back who looked like they were on their way to a Sox game, the woman who made the lemon squares, the woman in the wheelchair, the guy with the pony tail that chaired the meeting, and my friend, who looks a lot like a hobo at the end of a long trip right now, who sat silently with head down for most of the meeting. I noticed the hope in their stories informed by pain and desperation that gave them reason to trust that life would not always be as it had been. They were making intentional choices to change.
Nora Gallagher tells of her encounter with a woman who suffered from such a severe depression that she had to be hospitalized from time to time.
“I go to the Oaks when I cannot stand it anymore,” she said. “We call it the Schiz Ritz. I read the words over the door when I go in, each time, and they give me some kind of dignity.” And then she paused and collected herself and said, “And it is where my daughter is now.”
And then the woman read the inscription on the bottom of her apron. “Non est vivere sed valerie vita,” she read: “Not only to live, but to live valorously.” And if we had been the magi then, we would have gathered our gifts and traveled toward her, toward someone who was not only willing to shape her vulnerability into words but brave enough to speak them. (183)
When the meeting was over, I noticed the way in which the big guy who told us to notice and the pony-tailed man traveled toward my friend and began to talk, offering their gifts. They had a book of all the meetings in the area. They asked a few questions. They told a little more of their stories. They wrote down their phone numbers. When my friend said phone access was difficult right now, Liam Neeson replied, “Anyone can find a way to get to a phone,” and then he smiled.
When we got in the car, my friend didn’t seem to know what to do with a roomful of people who understood, who wanted to help, and weren’t going to take any excuses.
The King James Bible says the prodigal son went into the far country and wasted all of his money and a good bit of his life on “riotous living,” which is a wonderfully evocative phrase. When he turned toward home, I don’t think he ever imagined another chance to live valorously, as if he had ever lived valorously. He came back to be a slave mostly because his father’s slaves ate better than the pigs he had been eating with. On the long and dusty walk home, he practiced his speech, hoping for a chance to beg forgiveness from the father he had wounded so deeply.
By the time the son got to make his speech, it was moot: the father had already forgiven him and had moved on to throwing a welcome home party. As grateful as the son must have been, I’ve often wondered if the party was painful for him. My sense is before he left he was an entitled brat who probably made life miserable for the very servants who were now blowing up balloons and filling ice buckets. He had ridden away on a cloud of pretense and pomposity only to come back empty-handed and embarrassed. It might have been an easier night if they had made him a human piñata. Did they really believe he could shift from riotous to valorous living? How could they believe when he didn’t?
Grace hurts, sometimes, because we have to grow into ones who are able to receive it.
Tomorrow will be the third day of my friend’s sobriety. I keep praying they will be able to grow into the grace that surrounds them.