I have been to Jewish services of all kinds, have seen Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians at worship, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists—Golden Temple, Holy Sepulcher, Wailing Wall; Lhasa, Bodhgaya, Santa Maria sopra Minerva—but the truest religion I have ever witnessed was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. A friend of mine reached his 20th anniversary of sobriety not long ago, and I went to his meeting to help him celebrate.
What I saw there was religion stripped to its bones, austerely beautiful like a piece of Shaker furniture. No priesthood, no prelacy, no special garments or sacred objects, no shibboleths of membership. A bare minimum of custom and formula. A congregation called by need, not duty. Meaning springing from the bottom up: not from mythology or dogma or scripture, language handed down by rote, but from the particularities of individual experience—words spoken for the first time, not the trillionth.
One person said, “I don’t wake up anymore feeling like I want to die. I may not always wake up feeling like I want to live, but I no longer wake up feeling like I want to die.” Another said, “When I drank that first beer, I had no idea what was going to happen after that.” A third added, “When I drank, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I always wound up in the same place. Now that I don’t drink, I have no idea, and it’s wonderful.”
Most of all, a sense that all this really mattered in the most urgent and immediate way. The overwhelming feeling that I’ve gotten from most of the religious services I’ve attended is that none of this has to do with anything other than itself. But this time, instead of pulpit abstractions about “faith” and “service,” or vague ideas about attaining some future blessed state, what I saw were people fighting for their lives—right here, right now.
Meeting, as in business meeting, is a good word for it: there was no room for anything but the most concretely practical considerations—that is, the most authentically personal ones. For most people, church is for Sunday; AA members go to meetings every day. The program is religion set down in the midst of life, not a special sanctum that we keep cordoned off in our brains. One of AA’s acronyms is sober: “Son Of A Bitch, Everything’s Real.” Amen, selah.
This is a sneak preview of a new blog called “All Points,” a weekly posting by William Deresiewicz that will begin in March 2011. Watch for his posts at theamericanscholar.org.
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