By Kim Redigan, a reflection on Exodus 16 for the St. Peter’s Episcopal community in Detroit
Today’s reading from Exodus is one to I turn to often. Not because it brings me comfort or consolation but because it so often mirrors my own spiritual condition. I am so like the disgruntled Israelites cursing Moses and Aaron for leading them away from the known, the familiar, the place of their oppression and into the desert where they would have to confront their own personal and communal demons. They are my people – I know them and their circuitous journey well.
For the past several months, I have been wandering in the desert of depression and grief related to some tough inner work that is part of my recovery. Although, I have been sober for 28 years, I reached a point last year where it was either grow or go. It was either stand up to the pharaohs of the past and say good riddance to Egypt or sit around a campfire ringed with barbed wire and eat to my heart’s content. All of us come to these turning points in our lives when we have to make the choice: Will it be bring on the Egyptian dessert or bring on the desert? Will we opt for fleshpots or what feels like famine? Oppression or liberation?
The choice seems so obvious . . . of course, one would choose freedom, liberation, an unflinching “F -you” to the powers that keep us captive.
One would think . . . but that is often not the case. And often for good reason.
Liberation is an elusive thing and the desert journey is not a one-time deal. In saying yes to freedom, in consenting to leave behind whatever it is that oppresses us, we come to discover that once we pick up our mats and walk, we too often walk right back into another house of horror in which we find ourselves once again paying exorbitant rent to yet another Pharaoh. We may cross the Sea of Reeds but we often find ourselves back in Egypt where we find ourselves satiated and enslaved for the thousandth time. Turning in our birthright for a bowl of mush that comes straight from the devil’s kitchen. Finding that when we expel one unclean spirit, it returns with its seven ugly friends to take up residence in our swept and tidied home
What I am talking about here is the slavery of addiction. The addiction to whatever it takes to keep us away from the desert. Away from freedom. Away from ourselves. Away from the Divine.
We who are drunks and drug addicts have it easy since it is a stark choice of either death or desert. Some of us are dragged to the desert’s sandy shores by the courts and desperate family members while others limp willingly, not out of virtue, but out of sheer defeat and exhaustion. The substances themselves are harsh, cruel, and soul-crushing taskmasters. When one is breaking bottles in the street or stealing from family members for dope, the yoke of mental, spiritual, and physical oppression is obvious.
But what about addictions that keep us bound in ways that are more elusive, maybe even more pernicious? Addictions that are even more “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” to quote the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous?
I have come to view addictions of all sorts through the lens of idolatry. It’s all about the futile effort to fill what we in recovery call the “hole in the soul” in a million different ways by fashioning golden calves out of . . . you name it – substances, food, relationships, knowledge, political ideologies, religion, and in our culture especially, money, power, and violence.
The idols at whose feet we in this country worship are not hidden. I recall that strange, silent moment in the wake of 9-11 when the world held its breath as it waited to see how the U.S. would respond. I recall vividly my heaviness of heart and the churning in my stomach during those eerie days when I knew with certainty that this nation was about to go on the bender of all benders as it prostrated itself before the altar of nationalism while rolling out the flags and polishing the artillery.
I knew that our addiction to violence meant that we would enter the desert all right – but not as a people in need of healing, as an immature nation founded on unconfessed bloodshed, racism, and a brutal way of doing business around the globe. No, I knew before the first bombs were dropped that we would enter the desert not to liberate ourselves from our own sickness of soul but, rather, to liberate the oil from beneath the sands of Iraq, for the sake of freedom, of course. There was no doubt in my mind that we would enter the desert as the “strange liberators” of which Dr. King spoke in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I knew that as bad as things had gotten this nation had still not hit bottom. That it lacked the spiritual maturity to look in the mirror and admit that we are Pharaoh. That we are addicted to a way of life that demands the blood of children, including our own. A way of life that demands the sacrifice of truth.
Of course, it was inevitable that Dr. King would meet the same fate as all who dare break through the denial by naming the idols that feed our national addiction to power and might. Addictions are deadly and will destroy whatever gets in their way, including prophets.
This is what addiction, idolatry, writ large looks like. But we come to times in our own lives when we find ourselves mired in addiction and clinging to idols that are violent and death-dealing in their own seductive way and we need to recognize that the same dynamic operates on the micro level.
During the past months I have been reflecting deeply on the various addictions that I have walked through during my sixty years and the painful toppling of idols that has accompanied each letting go . . . drinking, smoking, sugar, religiosity, to name a few. Each time I allowed one of these idols to fall there was a real death involved, a loss of control and equilibrium, an acquiescence to desert uncertainty, a sense of riding a two-wheeler on wet pavement for the first time. In short, stark terror. But terror tempered by the Great Cloud-Shrouded Mystery who promises manna just enough for the day.
Manna . . . which means What is that? This was the question asked by the Israelites upon encountering the sweet, sticky substance made from trees and insect secretion. Strange, unadorned desert food that was just enough. Food for the 24 hours ahead. Give us this day our daily bread.
Of course, the people were ingrates who, like all good, fear-based addicts, tried to pilfer more than their share only to have their greed and insecurity met with maggots and a foul smell. And, of course, these wandering malcontents complained about the grace rained down upon them in the form of wild freedom food as they whined and pined for the fleshpots of Egypt. They were sort of like the guy whose life was spared from alcoholism crying in his coffee about missing the good old days doing shots of whiskey in his neighborhood bar while forgetting about those four DUI convictions for drunk driving. I’ve been that guy which is why I feel a kinship with the inconsistent and unruly and reluctant Israelites. They are my kind of people. Often lacking an attitude of gratitude, yet beloved nonetheless.
And it is this knowing one is beloved that I have been banking on these past months.
After hitting a bottom that was every bit as hard as the pavement beneath my drinking, I had to take a long look at an addiction to work that was killing me and hurting my family and close friends. In our sick, addicted society, this is perhaps one of the hardest idols to confess and let fall. Not only my work as a teacher but a lot of my work as an activist.
And I know I am not alone in this.
No one ever gave me an award for my drinking, but the short-lived intoxication that comes with academic honors and other public forms of recognition, often the fruit of compulsive work, suggests that our culture has it wrong.
At the Jesuit school where I teach there is great emphasis placed on the magis, the more. The addicted part of me uses that as an excuse to justify more work and activity, while the healthy part of me screams: We need more quiet, more rest, more contemplation, more time for meaningful conversation. All of us – students, faculty, staff.
I often feel the same instinct in the activist community where it seems our roots are often shallow and we don’t take the time to really grow our souls, as Grace Lee Boggs counseled. Unhealed trauma, the times in which we are living, and the mind-numbing omnipresence of social media that allows us to construct meaning through memes are taking a toll on our spirits that is greater than we know.
While I love what I do and feel deeply called to the work of peace and justice, I have had to admit that I am enslaved by the addiction of doing, of running, of inflicting violence upon myself and others under the guise of work. For the sake of my sanity and my soul, I have had to step back and head to the desert these past months in order to come face to face with some hard and healing truths about myself.
Although it feels like the scaffolding has been kicked out from under me and the landscape looks wildly unpredictable and stark and new, I am learning to be still with open hands and a heart grateful for the manna that is being given one day at a time – food that is humble and low to the ground and just enough – despite the depression that I have been walking with.
Depression is always a stern and demanding teacher, but her lessons do indeed grow our souls if we are willing to do the homework.
One of the things that I have learned at her feet is that underneath all addictions is a love issue.
Early in recovery, I read a book on the Prodigal Son and recovery. The author, himself a drunk, stated that the great question for the alcoholic is whether or not the son in the parable can stand still long enough to endure the father’s embrace. That the great, hold-your-breath moment that determines everything hinges on the son’s ability to accept love without running.
When I read this, I felt as if I had been hit in the heart with a sledge hammer. I still do.
I have come to believe that this running from love, love with both a lower case and a capital “L,” is at the heart of the matter – not just for alcoholics but for all of us who will do whatever it takes to avoid the unmasking of idols that keep us from becoming vulnerable and fully human.
From Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, the theme of learning to “bear the beams of love” is at the heart of overcoming the addictions that keep us sick, even addictions that our society often deems laudable. Underneath all addiction is self-loathing and shame that will hop scotch from one addiction to another in order to hide from being seen, from being transparent, from being loved. Hence, the hallmark of all addiction is loneliness.
The anthem for addicts who run from love and find self-protection in things like booze and books and poetry and work is Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock,” an interesting metaphor that twists the biblical understand of Jesus as rock:
I am a rock. I am island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.
A second lesson I learned is that we are liberated in community. I will never forget spending time with the New Jerusalem Community as part of the Philadelphia Word and World school. New Jerusalem is a residential recovery community that believes we cannot recover from our addictions unless we help the society in which we got sick recover. In other words, there is a social context to all addictions and an inner and an outer dimension to recovery. This community focuses on both personal and societal healing.
There is great wisdom in the truth that to everything there is a season. A time to act and a time to rest. A major part of recovery is making amends by giving back to community and working for a more just and peaceful world, recognizing the relationship between the systemic violence of poverty and racism, for example, and the introjected violence that often results in substance abuse or violence towards one’s own community. After visiting this community, I concluded that a holy life consists of holding a coffee cup in one hand and a protest sign in the other. That there is a yin and yang to the journey to wholeness that flows inward and outward.
Finally, I have learned that the tendency to push the demons of addiction into a cob-webbed corner of the basement doesn’t work. The shame, hurt, emptiness, need to control, and always, always the four-letter “f” word, “fear” need to be named and brought into the living room. Uncomfortable guests to be sure, but if we want them to lose their power, we have to invite them upstairs and listen to what they have to say. Our failure to see them for what they are keeps us from the truth. From healing. From our own humanity.
If we could grasp the depth of the sundry addictions we are swimming in – individually and collectively – we would have compassion for everyone. We would look at Donald Trump and see an out-of-control addict whose destructive actions must be stopped but also a sick brother who needs to be loved back to life. We must remember that there is a long-armed Liberator who wills healing for all and a Spirit who blows where she will. We still live in an age of miracles.
This is not the reflection that I thought I would share today. I wanted to write something intellectually inspiring or something that would reflect on what justice means in times such as these.
The desert has a way, however, of rendering us mute while we are in the middle of it.
I have not been able to write this summer or do much work on behalf of peace and justice. I have spent my time in meditation and recovery meetings and sitting near water feeling stripped down and silent. I have felt raw and ready for whatever is to come next since one never leaves the desert without some kind of marching orders. Some kind of change. Some kind of conversion.
My hope is for a return to work with deeper roots. A recovering workaholic who is sick of her shackles and ready for liberation – not only my own, but in union with others who share these struggles. We cannot recover unless we help the society in which we became sick recover. Another way of saying this is that with “I” there is “illness” and with “we” there is “wellness.”
I’ll end by returning to the water, where we always seem to land here at St. Peter’s.
It is worth noting that after the dramatic exit from Egypt, the people find themselves in the desert where they wander for three days without water. Like many here in Detroit, their throats are parched and they are desperate for something to drink in heat beyond what we are experiencing today. When they finally do come upon water at the place called Marah, it may as well be flowing from the taps of Flint, since it is too bitter to drink.
But then something miraculous occurs. The water is made sweet by the One who tells the people to listen and pay attention as they journey though the desert. Not to act or perform great deeds. Not to engage in back-breaking work like they had under the boot of the Pharaoh.
Their marching orders for the duration are simply to listen deeply and pay attention. To be awake.
The One who calls the people to attentiveness is named Yahweh the Healer.
May we be healed by the water and the bread and by one another. Amen
Kim Redigan, St. Peter’s Detroit, August 5, 2018