The Dark Night of Recovery
Gerald May brings to light a phenomenon unknown to many in recovery. The Dark Night of the Soul. It is a stage through which many pass, if they are truly on a path of spiritual unfoldment. It is a necessary, yet misunderstood stage of the journey.
“No one understands the dark night of the soul better than people recovering from life-threatening addictions. Some AA members call themselves ‘grateful alcoholics’ because alcoholism finally brought them to their knees. It was only because of alcoholism that they discovered the true depths and longings of their souls.
Such spiritual awakenings can sometimes lead to another kind of dark night, what I’ve called a ‘dark night of recovery.’ To understand it, we need to realize that twelve-step programs work best people have come to know without doubt that recovery is a life-or-death matter, that dependence upon the higher power is the only way to life. This is a special kind of beginning for a spiritual journey. There are no delicate mysterious inner longings here, only the simple, desperate need to stay alive. As long as this sense of absolute necessity continues, a person can work the steps with complete dedication to recovery. Whatever images of God the person may have earlier held, God is now the higher power, the source of the grace one needs to recover, the only hope for survival.
Many people continue in recovery this way for years-perhaps for their whole lives. Others, however, experience something different at a certain point along the way. After having worked the program while, a person may begin to notice that what began as a desperate need for God is changing into a loving desire for God. It is as if God were saying ‘Of course I want to be saving higher power. But I Am also so much more than that. I want to be your deepest love.” And somehow, something in the person’s heart has become free enough to say yes to this barely heard invitation. In the dark night’s characteristic obscurity, compulsion is again becoming freedom, necessity changing into choice.
Before, one needed God as the agent of recovery, the divine dispenser of grace. We serve God (or AA, if you will) like a laborer expecting his wages. Now this need is developing into a love for God as God’s Self. This is a beautiful happening, but it brings with it a new relinquishment that can feel deeply threatening. Along with the sweetness of emerging love comes a certain shakiness about recovery. Recovery is no longer the single most important thing in life. Something else has taken its place, and the fear of relapse grows.
*Note-we are looking at a form of idolatry, the worship of false gods. We worship all the things that help to point us to God-AA, the fellowship, meetings, the Big Book, the steps, our sponsors, service, even ourselves. Yet we forget to worship or to live in thankful contemplation of God. Getting free of this attachment can be very difficult. Many will never get free, because they fear the freedom.
Later, one may come to realize that recovery, as the most important thing in life, had become an idol. God was a means to an end-recovery. Then in darkness, after the heart said yes and love grew, the idol of recovery teetered and fell. The powers had shifted. Recovery is no longer the end, but a means in the service of love.
All the signs of the night are there in this transition. What had worked before no longer does, and one’s previous energetic dedication is waning. More disturbing still, the deep care, the desperate need for recovery seems undermined. And if given the unusual courage and insight to admit it, one would have to say the deepest desire is no longer for recovery, but for God alone.
I have walked with several people through this particularly blessed and troublesome night. All were terrified of relapse, and some temporarily did relapse. But all made it through to deeper freedom: freedom from their enslavement to addiction, but also freedom from their servitude to recovery. Now their gratitude is not only for the grace of recovery, but for the simple freedom to love God and their neighbors more completely.”
-Gerald May from “The Dark Night Of The Soul”