The Prism of AA

(Ezk 18:21-28; Ps 130; Mt 5:20-26)


As I was about to enter into my monthly retreat or poustinia, a friend who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan asked me on Facebook what I would recommend to him in the area of community development.

I immediately suggested the Four Worlds Institute in Lethbridge, Alberta as well as a Community Development Institute that I came across on the Internet. He replied, “What about A.A.?” I felt embarrassed, as I, who wrote a book on addictions awareness and the 12 Step program (Walk A New Path), had not thought of that. It is true that, through faith, fellowship and self-awareness, A.A. and the 12 Step program has transformed many a northern community.

This incident worked its way into my prayer that morning, and indeed into the readings that I began to view from the prism of the 12 Step program. The message became clear: repent, receive God’s forgiveness, be open to healing and seek to be reconciled with others.

Steps 4 & 5 of the program (a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admitted to God, ourselves and one other person our wrongs”) are all about repentance and receiving forgiveness.

The reading from Ezekiel speaks of repentance and turning away from sin. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means putting on a higher mind and way of thinking and acting. Those who do so, who turn away from sin and transgressions, will live and their sins will even be forgotten – God will not remember them!

Jesus in the Gospel takes repentance one step further. Our virtue must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who tended to look at people’s faults and rely on their own external observance of rules and regulations to make themselves holy, or at least look holy. Jesus, on the other hand, proclaims himself the new Torah and goes way beyond it. Instead of simply obeying rules and regulations, Jesus wants us to operate at the level of the heart – even our thoughts and feelings count for him. He wants us to live from the heart, not only by the rules. That truly is repentance.

Step 6 & 7 of the program (“became ready to have God remove all our defects of character”, and “humbly asked him to do so”) is what Jesus is getting at by his focus on the heart. For our virtue to move beyond the externalism of the scribes and Pharisees, and into the level of the heart, healing is needed. For this transformation to take place, we need healing of our sinfulness (that which makes us sin): our painful emotions like anger and resentment, our defects of character or negative attitudes like false pride, need to be right and stubborn self-righteousness, and above all, our addictions (both chemical and process). That is something only Jesus as our Higher Power can accomplish within us. The genius of the 12 Step program is that it takes us precisely right into this area of healing.

Steps 8 & 9 of the 12 Step program (“made a list of the people we harmed” and “made amends to them all”) are all about receiving forgiveness again, only this time from all the people that we hurt when we were acting out of our painful emotions, negative attitudes and addictions. Jesus is very strong on this in the gospel – if we are in church and become aware that someone has a grudge against us for some wrong that we have done, we are to leave the church, go to apologize and seek to be reconciled first, then we can come to church and worship with a clear conscience. I suspect that if we took this seriously, half the average congregation would have to leave mass on any given Sunday!


There is a process to making amends: 1) Ask permission to share something personally, 2) Remind the other of your hurtful behavior, 3) Listen to and soak up their emotions around your behavior, 4) Make a declaration to change and to try to never do that hurtful behavior again, 5) Humbly ask for forgiveness without any expectation or pressure, and 6) Try to make it right by making amends in whatever way possible.

Mark Pizandawatc, developer of the Returning To Spirit process for personal growth and Residential School healing, teaches that an apology without a declaration to change is almost meaningless. That means that any penance we are given in the sacrament of reconciliation should not be just to say prayers, but to actually go to the person we have harmed and do a Step 9, or make restitution to the degree that we can. This will be truly apologizing from the heart, and living a virtue that is deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Another way of looking at the readings today is as follows: The first reading is all about what God wants – repentance; the Psalm is about who God is – forgiveness, and the gospel is all about what God seeks – reconciliation.

It is amazing how many people, even religious people, don’t get this whole teaching. I was a witness as a young woman who had been sexually abused as a child confronted her abuser with love, using the Step 6 model I had shared with her. When she asked why he had done that to her when she was 8 years old, he actually blamed her for the way she was dressed. Then when she asked for an apology, he just said that he was sorry if he had hurt her. That was not really an apology, but more an excuse along with minimizing the harm he had caused her. When I pleaded with him some days later to at least write her a note of apology, he brushed it off with the statement that he had taken care of it in confession!

To my mind, that is an abuse of a sacrament. There was no remorse, no awareness of the damage that he had done, no apology, no taking responsibility and no attempt to make amends. Yet this man went to church every Sunday. It struck me that I was dealing with someone who fit the description of the scribes and the Pharisees. His virtue was not deep at all, and there was no reconciliation. I felt sorry for him, as he missed a golden opportunity to enter more fully the kingdom of God, right then and there.

The Eucharist is both a blessing and a challenge for us. It is first of all a blessing – an experience of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. However, it is also a challenge as it sends us out to be reconciled with anyone in our lives who may have something against us.

May our celebration both open us to God’s forgiveness and healing, and also empower us to apologize to and be reconciled with anyone we may have hurt along life’s way, so that we may truly live as righteous persons in the Kingdom of God all our days


Updated: February 26, 2021 — 3:40 am

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