On August 8 2019 I celebrated 13 years of continuous sobriety. A few weeks later I attended a ‘Came to Believe’ 12 Step Retreat in a Merseyside village a stone’s throw away from where I grew up. The retreat was held in St. Joseph’s Prayer Centre/Care Home, a series of buildings surrounded by a National Trust pine forest. As a child I had often played in those woods and St Joseph’s had always held a strange fascination for me. That was the main reason I had signed up for this particular retreat and driven over 180 miles from Oxford to attend.
I enjoyed the retreat and did my best to leave my past experience at the door and seek a new experience. I participated in the activities and shared a mini-fifth step with one of the facilitators. This included one particular humbling fact which I was pleased to get off my chest. I also did my best to support the newcomers, a handful of whom had less than a month sober.
An hour before I was due to leave and return to Oxford, I made a bee-line for one of the old-timers who had help to organise the event and also led a number of sessions. I would have liked to have spoken with him earlier but held back as there were plenty of newcomers there who wished to speak with him. I’m not sure why I was drawn to speak with him – all I know is that I was guided to do so.
He seemed a taciturn individual who would have little time for idle chatter. He eyed me cautiously as I approached. I decided to ask him if he had known the man who had 12 stepped me, a Catholic priest who had died several years previously. My opening gambit worked, his gaze softened as he replied: ‘So you’re one of Father Bill’s, are you?’
We began to talk. I thanked him for his contribution to the retreat and told him a little bit about myself. Every time I finished a sentence and paused for him to speak, he would fix his eyes on me and say: ‘And?’ And I would continue talking, finish a sentence and pause for him to speak. At which point he would eyeball me and ask: ‘And then what?’ This continued for several minutes until I suddenly found myself blurting out:
I’ve just celebrated thirteen years of continuous sobriety. I work the steps, sponsor a load of guys, active in intergroup, but I feel like I’m faking it. In many ways I feel in worse shape now than I did during the early years of my journey in recovery.
This time he didn’t say ‘and?’. Because we had finally arrived at the reason I had approached him, although neither of us had known that when I had engaged him in conversation. He looked at me and said something that I will never forget:
You know it says in the Big Book that faith without works is dead? Well, works without faith is also dead.
Works without faith is dead. I could see clearly now. I had become the resounding gong or clanging cymbal referenced by Paul in 1 Corinithians 13. The old-timer smiled, sensing that his words had found their mark. ‘Come with me’, he said. ‘I’ve got a card for you’. He led me to the literature table there were laminated pocket-size cards with quotes from scripture. He starting sifting through cards muttering to himself: ‘No, not that one. Take that one. Yeah, you could use that one. Not that one. Take that one too. And this one will help you. Not that one. Ah! Here it is. This is the one I was looking for.’ I now held five or six laminated cards in my hand – but he drew my attention to the one that he had been looking for all along.
The bible verse reminded me of something that my sponsor had said to me many years ago. ‘This is about your relationship with God’. Ultimately that is the only relationship that really matters. I cannot turn outward before first turning inward. Page 164 of the Big Book states: ‘See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.’ Yet again, as always, I had been caught up with worldly clamours, mostly within myself.