In accordance with the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, this essay is published anonymously.
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
— Proverbs 27:17
Christians love to use the analogy of a rock tumbler to describe the process of sanctification through life in intentional community. I’ve heard the image invoked in settings that include Episcopal Service Corps sites, residential seminaries, and communities of monks and nuns. You begin with a bunch of extremely unpromising looking pebbles, but when you throw them into a rock tumbler together, they will knock each other around and gradually knock off one another’s rough edges, until eventually they all come out smooth and polished and reflective of the light.
It is, perhaps, a little bit hackneyed, but there is nevertheless something in that image that I have always found compelling, and which gave me reason to hold on in hope during the moments when Christian community life was at its most vexing — whenever I found myself thinking that I really preferred the church as an abstract concept over the daunting daily challenge of actually having to walk the path of sanctification alongside a bunch of other flawed, wounded human beings!
One time, however, when I was at a vocational discernment retreat, our mentor paused thoughtfully after giving the requisite rock tumbler analogy and looked at me very sharply.
That’s all well and good… unless one of your pebbles is a lot harder than all of the others. You have to make sure your rocks are well-suited to one another before you go sticking every interesting looking pebble into your rock tumbler! Softer pebbles won’t be able to polish a much harder one, and a harder pebble will just pulverize all of the softer ones to dust, and in the end there is no benefit for any of them.
I worry that I might be a hard pebble.
I have found very little of authentic Christian community in the Episcopal Church, although I have continually sought it. Church was more often a place to act professional and put together rather than a community in which to be vulnerable and authentic. Indeed, the one exception that I discovered to all of the façades of self-protection and self-promotion was in the Episcopal Church’s drinking culture. Here, in late night theological conversations and church gossip sessions, walls crumbled and vulnerabilities were expressed. Only over wine or whiskey were tears shed, grievances aired, and fears openly admitted.
In my own experience, alcohol is the primary medium through which we show love in many Episcopal circles, and buying someone drinks is often the awkward way in which we try to express things like friendship or concern. Being both younger and poorer than most people at most church meetings meant that I usually had rather a lot of people eager to buy me drinks. It somehow never occurred to me that perhaps my easy ability to keep pace with all of them wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. I tend towards over-scrupulosity and acute self-awareness about all of my sins and inadequacies, and yet somehow I couldn’t even see the fact that alcohol was becoming a problem for me. After all, I was usually drinking with a bunch of priests and bishops! Would could possibly be more innocuous, more respectable, than that? Several years ago I went through an especially difficult personal situation, and the response of nearly all of my church friends was just to send me alcohol. The vivid memory of all of those bottles so lovingly mailed to me from clergy around the country is one of my most striking memories of the Episcopal Church — a sincere and heartfelt and generous expression of care, and yet hardly an impulse that would result in my flourishing!
The first AA meeting that I attended was the group that met at my own parish. I am told that this was wildly eccentric of me, and I was genuinely surprised to find that there were no other parishioners there, but it honestly never occurred to me to seek help anywhere else. Drinking terrible coffee in the basement of my own church is, after all, pretty much the epitome of my comfort zone! But in many ways, alcohol proved to be the first problem I had faced for which the Episcopal Church was of absolutely no help whatsoever. Indeed, all of my church friends, perceiving my unhappiness but misdiagnosing the cause, responded by constantly trying to buy me drinks. Yet, through the recovery community, I began to encounter a different kind of intentional community, one where people showed up as their full selves, where they didn’t try to hide their wounds, where they didn’t flinch from one another’s pain. It was the kind of community I had always looked for in church settings, but had never actually found.
When the pandemic hit last spring, I was barely three months sober — still unsteady and uncertain, still struggling to find my way out of the maze into which I had wandered. My parish, like many others, cancelled all programming suddenly and without warning. That didn’t just mean that worship services were suspended, but also that recovery meetings were shut down, with no time even for people to communicate with one another first or to make a new plan. Maybe that was prudence. I am all too aware of the suffering and the loss that subsequent months would bring to so many people. Yet I sometimes worry that in our haste to respond swiftly to this new and emergent danger, we somehow allowed ourselves to forget the fact that people die of other things also.
And so when I went to my AA home group to celebrate 3 months of sobriety, I encountered only a locked door, without even a sign to indicate what had happened, or who we might call. I had suspected that this would happen. It was, after all, my own church, so I knew that worship services that morning had been cancelled. (Not merely moved to Zoom, but actually cancelled, with instructions to “worship at home with our families” or to watch the National Cathedral.) That foreknowledge did not really prepare me for how utterly gutted I felt, standing there in the March sleet in a dark parking lot, faced with only a locked door. That memory has been suspended in my mind for the last fifteen months, somehow perfectly foreshadowing the utter ecclesiastical abandonment that would characterize the subsequent year, during which we offered no corporate worship, even online, and I heard from no one at all.
But I wasn’t alone in that dark parking lot on that miserable March evening. Three other people also came looking for that meeting, all of them even newer to sobriety than I was, none of us yet socially embedded enough to really know what was going on or who we could even call to ask, yet all driven there by loneliness and desperation and a desire for hope. Even though we hadn’t quite learned to trust yet. Even though all of us had half expected to be abandoned by this new community just as we had been hurt by so many others before.
We had only the vaguest idea about the appropriate format for a meeting, and we certainly didn’t have any of the right books. But the four of us huddled under a single umbrella in the sleet, sharing our stories, trying our best to offer strength and hope to these others who were suffering, even though we all possessed little enough of either quality ourselves. I told them rather forlornly that I was celebrating three months of sobriety. So very little — and the fact that I could be three months into such a journey and still not be in possession of a single phone number was certainly not a resounding endorsement of my great success in the program! But they were so unreservedly, unselfishly proud of me, rejoicing with me in spite of their own sufferings and struggles.
They all seemed to feel like they ought to give me something, even though we didn’t have any official chips or tokens or medallions. But everyone started to fish around in their pockets, looking for anything moderately appropriate that they could give. Finally, one of them triumphantly produced three small pebbles — ordinary stones, but ones that had been polished in a rock tumbler until they sparkled with light. “They’re like us,” he said, pressing them into my hand. “They polish one another until finally they shine.”
It took the better part of a year for the parish to remove that AA meeting from its calendar, and it is still listed in the AA meeting directory even though it has long since disbanded. Yet I still went every Sunday night for more than a year to stand in front of a locked door, just in case someone new should come, out of fidelity to a memory. That kind of sheer obstinacy may be more willfulness than virtue, but the thought that maybe someone else might need me to be there kept me sober during a time when there was no one else other than God to even know or to care.
I never saw any of those people from the parking lot again, and that fact haunts me somewhat. I want to believe that they are well, somehow thriving against the odds during the past year of devastating isolation. Statistics would suggest otherwise. But I want to believe it. And I’m honestly not quite sure how I would forgive my own church if they are not.
It is that same kind of stubborn fidelity to a memory that has enabled me to continue to love and long for the church and the sacraments during a time when both have been almost entirely absent from my life. On my desk I keep an icon of the Inexhaustible Cup, which depicts Mary offering a eucharistic chalice with the infant Christ in it. It is a late icon by Orthodox standards, revealed in the nineteenth century in the context of recovery from alcoholism. When I first acquired it, however, I knew it only as an icon that depicted the Eucharist. It was only within these last 18 months that I suddenly understood very acutely what it meant to represent — the kind of infinite longing that no amount of alcohol would ever be enough to assuage, but which only Christ in the Eucharist can perfectly satisfy.
I missed out on most of the customary external trappings during most of my first 18 months of sobriety — no colorful plastic chips, no terrible coffee in church basements, no hugs. In a similar way, I have been without the sacraments and rites of the church — those material things that make the gospel visible and tangible, through bread and wine, oil and water. But three tiny pebbles now sit in front of my icon of the Inexhaustible Cup, as a tactile reminder of the fact that divine grace is offered in all kinds of unexpected places. We give to one another out of our own emptiness and brokenness and lack, but those gifts that are freely given in spite of our poverty are somehow immeasurably blessed. I hope that my hands can always remain open — to receiving grace under even the most unexpected forms, and to passing on grace that I never realized I had to give.