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The Alcoholic In Church

I’m not a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous, but I’ve been to plenty of meetings and received immeasurable benefits from the experience. I benefited because when I was there, I heard many men, often very old men, who had finally achieved what to me was and is inconceivable–sobriety and inner peace.

I heard these people give voice to my own inner frustrations and desires. These old-timers had been in my shoes and yet somehow acquired serenity. 

How did they do this? 

Most of them, to use a common phrase, had “found God” in one way or another. However, what I also need to mention is that another common thread among these individuals was an expressed inability to find anything “real” in conventional church service. It seemed there was nothing in church, whether it was the people or the service itself, that they could identify with, much less internalize. Over and over I heard this problem enunciated by men of various backgrounds and temperaments.

What is important about this phenomenon is that it wasn’t a criticism of church as such. These folks weren’t saying, for they were much too humble, that something was “wrong” with church or that church had failed them through some fault. The alcoholic, especially the seasoned alcoholic who had achieved full awareness of his problem, knows all too well that the fault is almost always within himself and not with the person, place, or thing that pains him.

So, when I say that many of the alcoholics I know have struggled to find meaning in church, I do not say that alcoholics have a low view of church or that they deny its value. Only that they experience a barrier between themselves and whatever it is in the church service that appeals to Christians at large.

I wanted to write about this today (since it is a Sunday morning, after all, and I am sitting at home) because I too am one of these self-contradicting individuals who can say with a certainty that religion (in my case the Catholic religion) plays a central part in my life while at the same time admitting that I experience actual anguish whenever I try to attend “church.” For years I went, and it created in me an anger–bordering on hatred–of the institution of church, not for any “reason” but simply because it was causing me so much pain.

Much of this is a matter of temperament. Like most people who turn habitually to alcohol, I struggle with alienation. I find little to identify with in others, have very few friends, and even in the cases of those who are closest to me I find it almost impossible to communicate those parts of me that I really want to share–my most treasured values.

And that is the worst kind of loneliness: being surrounded by people who would love to know you deeply if they could–but they can’t. And every time you muster up the courage and strength to try to “let them in” (that’s what they call it), and you give it your best shot, you have to see that look of absolute confusion, sometimes even outright fear, on their faces that signals yet another failure to “connect,” and so you slip back into that desert of isolation.

To return to the point, this isolation is multiplied ten-fold at church, because it is clear that everyone gathered there to worship shares something. By the way they greet each other and smile and raise their hands and sing and pray, they have clearly “gained access” to the event. They have achieved what they call “fellowship,” and, although they will certainly try to extend that membership to you, you are apparently constitutionally unable to enter into it.

Church becomes, for the alcoholic I have in mind, the place where others are able to achieve the height of identification with God and with each other as “one body” of believers, and where he, by his exclusion (again, not due to actions on the part of the other people), feels his own sense of alienation multiply tenfold, as he watches the crowd in which he is immersed ascend into the heavens of communal love while he himself is left behind.

This may be why AA is often accused of being a “cult.” To the person who has never felt what I just described, it sounds very cult-like to hear a bunch of men talking about how they “found fellowship” in Alcoholics Anonymous that they were never able to find in church. To the Christian outsider this is a blasphemy statement. But he needs to understand that when this sort of thing is expressed it isn’t a proclamation of the superiority of AA over church, nor is it even a criticism of church. 

It is simply the expression of the inner experience of the speaker–nothing more, nothing less. And if you asked him to elaborate, I’m sure you would find that he would change it if he could, and that he’d like nothing more than to feel the communal joy he sees in the other church-goers. But he doesn’t, and it isn’t blasphemy for him to say so, is it?

And chances are, he knows the fault is with him–that it is his debilitation, and not some shortcoming in the church, that excludes him. Anyone who has lived very long as an alcoholic knows full well that they are the problem.

Read more by Daniel Schwindt at