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“Who Is This Fellow Ignatius?”

By Dawn Eden Goldstein

Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ (Maryville University Archives, Public Domain)

On October 22, 1941, Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson flew into St. Louis while in the midst of a Midwestern speaking tour so he could make his first-ever visit to the city’s AA chapter as it approached its first anniversary. The unseasonably hot weather — it was 80 degrees when Bill’s plane landed — was matched only by the enthusiastic warmth of Fr. Ed Dowling, SJ, who greeted Bill at the Lambert airfield.

At that moment, Bill might have thought back to the night he and Fr. Ed first met in November 1940, when the Jesuit dropped in unexpectedly at his temporary home at AA’s Manhattan clubhouse. Bill was in no mood for visitors that evening. Depressed and frustrated over his failure to spread AA beyond a few cities, he was on a “dry drunk” — physically sober, but mentally in a downward spiral. So when this priest — who walked with a cane due to crippling arthritis — hobbled upstairs to his room and asked him about the connections between his Twelve Steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bill grunted, “Never heard of him!”

Fr. Ed responded with a warm laugh. And soon Bill found himself opening up to Fr. Ed, who, although only 42 years old (three years younger than Wilson), appeared with his white hair and cane as though he were a wise old sage.

During the months between that night and Bill’s arrival in St. Louis, the AA co-founder came to see Fr. Ed as his “spiritual sponsor.” Normally the word “sponsor” in AA referred to members who mentored others as they sought to maintain sobriety. Fr. Ed’s gentle guidance helped Bill maintain his spiritual sobriety — the interior stability he needed as he struggled to keep up with the demands that AA’s growing popularity placed upon him.

From the airport, Fr. Ed took Bill to The Queen’s Work, the Jesuit publishing apostolate where he had his office. Fr. Ed’s colleagues were eager to meet the AA co-founder. When Bill later recounted the experience to an audience of Catholic clergy, he said he did not know what to expect when he arrived. “I had never been in such a place before. I had been raised in a small Vermont village, Yankee-style. Happily, there was no bigotry in my grandfather who raised me. But neither was there much religious contact or understanding.”

Edward Dowling, SJ, third row, far left, at St. Stanislaus Seminary, Florissant, Missouri, on June 7, 1921. (Courtesy of Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

The atmosphere at The Queen’s Work, Bill was relieved to discover, was one of “delightful informality.” Fr. Ed’s brother Jesuits asked Wilson about the Big Book that he had co-written to instruct AA members in the program — “and especially about AA’s Twelve Steps,” Bill recalled.

To my surprise they had supposed that I must have had a Catholic education. They seemed doubly surprised when I informed them that at the age of eleven I had quit the Congregational Sunday school because my teacher had asked me to sign a temperance pledge. This had been the extent of my religious education.

Wilson explained to the Jesuits how he had picked up certain key concepts —  “self-survey, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others and prayer” — from the Oxford Group, the Protestant community that he was involved with during his first few years of sobriety. The Twelve Steps sprang from his desire “to define more sharply and elaborate upon these word-of-mouth principles so that alcoholic readers would have a more specific program: that there could be no escape from what [AA] deemed to be essential principles and attitudes.”

Fr. Ed’s colleagues listened attentively to Bill’s account of his composition of the Twelve Steps. Then they showed him something that took him by surprise. In Bill’s words —

My new Jesuit friends pointed to a chart that hung on the wall. They explained that this was a comparison between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, that, in principle, this correspondence was amazingly exact. I believe they also made the somewhat startling statement that spiritual principles set forth in our Twelve Steps appeared in the identical order that they do in the Ignatian Exercises.

(Courtesy of Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

Although the chart Bill describes has not been preserved, it was almost certainly a modified version of one that had been created more than 10 years earlier by Fr. John Markoe, SJ. Published in 1930 by The Queen’s Work, the chart was intended to show how the essential elements of a 30-day Spiritual Exercises retreat could be compressed into eight days. It was Fr. Markoe who first noted to Fr. Ed the parallels between the Twelve Steps and the Spiritual Exercises, as Fr. Ed recalled in an interview:

I remember the astonishment of one Jesuit, whom I believe to be wise in the ways of the spirit, when he first read AA’s Twelve Steps. He was astounded at the great similarity between those steps and the Foundation and First Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which contains the basic and ridding-oneself-of-sin part of Jesuit spirituality.

Fr. John Markoe, SJ (Public Domain)

It is quite possible that Fr. Markoe — an alcoholic who learned of the Twelve Steps from Fr. Ed — showed Fr. Ed his Spiritual Exercises chart and wrote on it to point out which steps corresponded to particular parts of the Exercises. But even if Fr. Markoe did not write anything on the chart or otherwise adapt it, the chart’s treatment of the Foundation and First Week of the Exercises lends itself readily to comparisons with the Twelve Steps.

The Foundation is a brief instruction in which Ignatius explains the philosophy that underlies the Spiritual Exercises. It begins,

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.
Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as [tantum] they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as [quantum] they prove a hindrance to him.

Fr. Markoe’s chart features a numbered list of “spiritual fruits” that correspond to different points within the course of the exercises. The first four fruits correspond to the Foundation and are listed as follows:

1. Sense of nothingness
2. Utter dependence upon God
3. Gratitude; love for God
4. Resolve to attain end

A person familiar with the Twelve Steps can easily connect those fruits with the principles of self-knowledge, God-consciousness and surrender that characterize the first three steps:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

Fr. Markoe’s chart goes on to list spiritual fruits for the First Week of the Exercises. They include “intense sorrow” for one’s sins, “firm resolve to amend,” and “strong resolve to throw self on mercy of God and . . . become reconciled by a sincere confession.” These likewise parallel (in almost exactly the same order) steps four through eight of the Twelve Steps:

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Almost certainly it was Fr. Markoe himself, along with Fr. Ed, who drew Bill’s attention to the Spiritual Exercises chart on the wall at The Queen’s Work office and pointed out the parallels to the Twelve Steps. An amazed Wilson exclaimed, “Please tell me — who is this fellow Ignatius?”

Fr. Ed Dowling, SJ (Courtesy of Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

Over time, as Fr. Ed employed the Twelve Steps in his ministry not only to alcoholics but to others seeking freedom from harmful habits, he would come to see them as a condensation of not only the Foundation and First Week, as Fr. Markoe had imagined, but the entire program of the Spiritual Exercises. All three ways of the spiritual life could be found in them: the purgative way (what Fr. Ed had called the “basic and ridding-oneself-of-sin part”), the illuminative way (walking with God to learn from him), and the unitive way (desiring never to be separated from God). To Fr. Ed, AA’s members, whether they realized it or not, were traveling the road to perfection that the Jesuits’ founder had mapped out 400 years before.

Adapted from “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor” by Dawn Eden Goldstein (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2022). Used with permission.

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