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Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers   

Father Ed Dowling’s Ministry to Alcoholics 

January 29, 2023

            Many people know the story of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. Much less is known about Father Ed Dowling, the Catholic priest who served as his spiritual sponsor. In the early-to-mid 20th century, Father Ed embodied the love of Christ not only to alcoholics, but to anyone who was suffering or marginalized: from African Americans to those with mental health issues to married couples in need of counseling. Author Dawn Eden Goldstein has done a deep-dive into Father Ed’s life to explore the personal suffering which grew his compassion—and the deep faith that motivated his work. Her book is called “Father Ed: The Story of Bill W’s Spiritual Sponsor,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.” 

            When Father Ed was 19 years old, before he entered the Jesuit seminary, his younger brother James died because of the 1918 flu pandemic. To make things worse, Father Ed suspected he might have given the disease to his brother, with whom he shared an especially close bond. Dawn said, “When you have a wound like that—whether it’s grief or another kind of trauma, particularly trauma that hits you when you’re young—it can make you question, ‘Does God exist? Does God care about me?’” 

            As Father Ed’s faith grew deeper over the years through the practice of saying daily Mass and meditating in front of a crucifix, he believed that Jesus brought him a level of healing from his emotional wound. He also came to see the “suffering Christ in his suffering brothers and sisters” and made it a part of his mission to reach out to them. When Father Ed first encountered the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, he felt God’s hand at work. The 12 Steps were based on Bill Wilson’s achievement of sobriety after a spiritual experience. He devised the Steps so that alcoholics could recognize “that they’re powerless over alcohol and that only a higher power can relieve them of this great thirst for alcohol.” 

            “Then,” continued Dawn, “what Bill discovered—and what he passed on through the Steps—was that he could only maintain his sobriety through…helping other alcoholics. I think Father Dowling must have recognized that this is also a very Christian idea: that our salvation is not meant only for ourselves…Every Christian has a mission. This is part of the message of the Second Vatican Council. We have a mission to be Christ among others and to spread that fragrance of Christ wherever we go.” 

            As he got older, Father Ed experienced an ever-worsening arthritis that was turning his body to stone, as others described it. Getting around became quite painful, yet he always exuded joy amidst his suffering. Dawn interviewed several people who spent time with him and their recollections confirmed this point. She said, “What I picked up from them was that Father Ed…so loved people that he could not be unhappy when other people were around because he was interested in them. Even when they were going through difficult times and he was suffering with them, he felt honored that they were sharing their lives with him…Every person he encountered, whether it was the drunk just off the street or the high society person, they each felt that they were the most important person who Father Dowling saw that day.” 

            In closing, Dawn hopes that Father Ed comes alive for readers of her book, explaining, “If I could ensure that they encountered Father Ed, then…they would encounter Christ through him and Christ’s healing.” 

Don’t Give Darkness Power Over Light 

January 15, 2023

            In my previous column, I shared parts of my interview with Joy Marie Clarkson, author of the book “Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life.” She revealed how a period of suffering led her closer to God and a greater appreciation for the joys we can experience if we open ourselves to them. But getting to that point was not a straight line for Joy, who admits she has struggled with doubt as well. 

            She doesn’t see doubt as a bad thing, though, noting that she feels a kinship to two characters in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” because “it portrays someone who, with the best intentions of their heart, cannot believe in God—and someone who, with the best of intentions of their heart, chooses to [believe] anyway. I always have felt like I had both of those within me. A part of choosing to believe…is saying that my life is more sensible, more endurable in faith—and the consolation that comes with faith can’t come from the outside. I have to take the step into faith to be able to receive its consolations. Having that story in my mind has helped me know that God is faithful to me even when I waver in doubt.” 

            Among the consolations of looking at life through the eyes of faith is the belief “that at the heart of reality is goodness, is joy, and that in choosing to cultivate happiness, we are speaking to that reality.” Still, there are people who view the world through a darker lens, seeing only its hardships and sufferings. While acknowledging that we can’t be happy all the time, Joy believes that view gives the darkness too much power over the light. 

            She explained, “There’s a great quote by Jack Gilbert, the American poet, who says, ‘To only attend to evil would be to praise the devil.’ So, attend to what is good and beautiful and true, but not in a way that ignores all the difficult things of life…There can be this idea that if…someone in the world is suffering, you’re being selfish because you’re being happy…It’s like, ‘If I’m sitting around being cynical and unhappy, I’m more righteous than everybody else because I’m more knowing.’ When in fact, you’re probably making life for everyone around you more unpleasant. It’s not helping anyone on the other side of the world, it’s not helping anyone around you, and it’s not being attuned and thankful for what is in front of you.” 

            When Joy encounters problems nowadays, she tries to follow The Christophers’ approach of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. She concluded, “I always start with the practical…What I try to do is I… eat something healthy, I’m going to sometimes literally light a candle. It’s amazing to me how much pleasure…lighting a candle can be. Then…I try to be intentional about reaching out to friends. Sometimes when I’m encountering difficulties, trying to give kindness to other people helps me feel better, because it also reminds me that I’m not just a victim to the rest of life. I can be an agent of positivity. 

            “Then, I [rest] in God. There are times for shaking one’s fist at God and doing all the Psalmist activities. But I think also [about] trusting in God’s love for me, no matter what happens. Sometimes that takes the form of prayers and listening to a beautiful song and knowing that God made beautiful things in the world.” 

How to Cultivate Happiness 

January 8, 2023

            If you’d like to be happier in the new year, Joy Marie Clarkson has some insights to share from her own life. In fact, she considers herself “aggressively happy,” which is also the title of her book, because, “In this world that is so pervaded by cynicism…[and] difficult things…to have some kind of joy and happiness does take an act of at least assertiveness, if not aggression.”          

            At the same time, Joy is a realist who never descends into toxic positivity, which she describes as “an inability to deal with the actual griefs and heaviness of life.” In fact, she notes that her name, Joy Marie, means “joy in a sea of bitterness or sadness,” which, again, accurately reflects her personality. 

            During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Joy explained, “I am a person of extremes to some extent. So I’ve always felt…a deep enjoyment of life…and I’ve also felt very keenly the heaviness of the world, whether it was my own struggles with mental illness, or the people that I loved [who were] suffering, or just looking at the vast fragility of the world…So happiness for me has been…a cultivated thing or a habit. It’s not that you can just make yourself be happy. It’s that you slowly but surely till the ground of your life. You pull up the weeds. You water thankfulness every day. So that was part of what the book is wrestling with and, hopefully, models a bit as well.” 

            Ironically, “Aggressively Happy” was inspired by an extended period of hardship for Joy, a period from which she emerged with wisdom and clarity about life and God. At the end of December one year, she had a mystical experience that told her the coming year would be one of suffering. Initially, she wrote it off as OCD or intrusive thoughts, but she soon learned this was a message meant to prepare her for what was to come. 

            “I feel like that period of my life was one of the first times I woke up to the fact that Jesus says, ‘In this life, you will have tribulation, but take heart for I have overcome the world.’” said Joy. “Having that sense of preparation made me feel like I wasn’t alone in it, that I was being guided through it. It helped me…get in touch with reality, which is that there will be difficult things. Then [it ushered] me into a posture towards life, which I have to learn again and again: to not be surprised by suffering and to know that it doesn’t undo the joy and beautiful things we experience. Also, to let it become something that softens you and makes you open to others and other people’s pain, and aware of God’s love in the midst of life.” 

            The comforting aspects of Joy’s faith did not just occur in the spiritual realm, but through tangible ways. It’s not just about sitting in church trying to make yourself “believe harder,” she said, but rather about a sacramental experience of God’s grace. 

            Joy continued, “We experience these specific graces in the Church, but also as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ So from poetry to the beauty of nature to the comfort of the sacraments, those were all things that helped me know that God was with me, that I was never alone in suffering, and that the suffering was never the fundamental thing…It didn’t have the final word in my life.” 

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