Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor, by Dawn Eden Goldstein; Orbis Books (2022)
MANY people either know alcoholics or have an alcoholic in the family. I do. For those of us who are not in thrall to alcoholism it is hard to understand the desperation, indeed despair, that bedevils those who are. For some it is a vice which you have to fight; for many others it is a disease from which you cannot escape by willpower alone. You need the help of others both to free yourself from the addiction and to maintain this freedom. This was the insight of two American alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith, who began Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, in June 1935.
The movement gradually spread throughout the world and has helped millions of men and women to change their lives. Non-addicted cynics query the success rates of AA compared with other solutions for addiction. No matter. I suspect such people are hostile to the ‘spiritual’ undercurrents of the 12-step programme, which Bill Wilson formulated in what is known as the Big Book.
He had picked up the key concepts of the 12-step programme from an earlier movement, the Oxford Group, which included self-survey, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others and prayer. To these he added admission of powerless over the addiction, belief in a Higher Power and the decision to turn one’s life over to God ‘as we understood Him’. This was the genius behind AA. To its founders it had to be open to people of all faiths and no faith; all that was needed was humility – the recognition that you could not turn your ruined life around on your own.
This is the background to the ‘Bill W’ of the biography’s title. But the biography is really about his friendship with a Jesuit priest, Edward Dowling SJ – ‘Father Ed’ – a friendship which was critical to Wilson’s life and to the enduring success of AA itself, and which lasted from 1940, when they met, until Father Ed’s death in 1960. Catholic priests do not receive a good press these days, largely because of the appalling sexual scandals involving a few of them which were systemically covered up by the Church for years. And they generally make an appearance in Hollywood films about exorcism, that stark if rare combat with evil forces which are vanquished by the power of the Cross. Such media impressions do a disservice to the countless hardworking priests who go about their daily business, visiting the sick and bringing a sacramental presence to people’s lives, often at the time when they prepare to leave this world for ever.
Father Ed, who, as a Jesuit, was very familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit Order, was immediately struck by the parallels between the Exercises and the 12 Steps of the AA programme when he first read the Big Book in 1939. The Exercises involve intense sorrow for one’s sins, a firm resolve of amendment, reconciliation with God through a sincere confession, and recognition of one’s dependence on God. In the 12 Steps, participants make a moral inventory, admit to a Higher Power and to another human being the nature of their weakness, list all those who have been harmed by their addiction and humbly ask for healing.
Yet when the two men met on Saturday, November 16, 1940, at Father Ed’s instigation, it was clear that Wilson, raised loosely as a Protestant but who had given up any vestiges of faith during his youth, had not known of the Exercises. It was one of those serendipitous occurrences which remind us of the spiritual yearnings of all men, whether they formally subscribe to particular religious practice or not.
What attracted the two men to what became an enduring friendship? For Father Ed it was God’s doing; for Bill Wilson, a Higher Power. The priest gave Bill constant support and guidance in his discernment over the development of AA; and Bill ‘helped fill the gap of friendship in Father Ed’s life’. The author of this biography observes that Father Ed ‘was built for friendship’ – something vital in the life of a celibate priest, who wants to connect with ordinary people beyond the fraternity of the cloth. And Father Ed had a vocation to help people with problems. Although not an alcoholic himself, he had suffered a serious spiritual crisis in 1919 when at the seminary. ‘The memory of that experience would ground the deep sense of empathy that empowered his ministry to alcoholics’ – and to other groups too: drug addicts, spouses in troubled marriages, those with anxiety disorders, even prisoners.
Although afflicted all his adult life by a crippling form of arthritis which caused the bones of his spine to fuse, Father Ed managed to shuffle with his stick to a large number of AA gatherings – when he was not ‘sitting at his desk and ministering one-on-one to a steady stream of people with problems’. He came to rely upon his regular contact with the struggles of members of AA to help him to remain hopeful in his own personal trials.
For Bill Wilson, his first encounter with Father Ed was transformative: ‘I began to realise that this man radiated a grace that filled the room with a sense of presence . . . He always brought to me the same sense of grace and the presence of God.’ It was ‘one of the deepest and most inspiring friendships that I shall ever know’. And Father Ed’s assurance to Bill that God was behind the inspiration for AA ensured that the movement, which became so transformative in the lives of its participants over the next decades, has never lost its spiritual roots and bearings.