This story describes well what I believe AA folks do all the time; they see a Higher Power at work in someone else’s life and then seek the same experience in their own life. It happens in the lives of people who have no faith whatsoever when they start out. It is an experimental approach to faith and I believe it’s a good one.
While in Town’s Hospital Bill Wilson was in a desperate depression, utterly broken in spirit. He told God he would do anything if he could find the answer. The place suddenly went electric – it was as if he was on a high mountain, with a strong wind blowing. He felt like he was in another world – it was ecstasy! He became deeply aware of a Presence that was beginning to do for him just what he had asked to be done. It was this change in himself that made him realize that change could also come to other people.
As I mentioned earlier, William James’s book “Varieties of Religious Experience” also had a profound impact on Bill, therefore influencing early AA ideas. Bill grasped that when people are in great need, transforming experiences come to those who surrender – not to people who say they surrender but to those who are truly willing to let go. They are the people desperate enough to know they are not in control of their lives. These people recognize that without God the situation is hopeless and with Him there is hope.
Bill said that after his spiritual experience he believed he was a messiah who had to get his message across to all the drunks in the world. All I can say about that is – I’m glad he did. Sometimes God takes the misdirected, egotistical drives of a person and refines those things until they become of great use to Him and to humanity. I believe that is what happened to Bill.
Bill traveled to Akron in May of 1935 because of a business proxy his company was involved with. Bill said he hoped to “gain control” of the company he was working for. The business deal collapsed and Bill found himself alone on a Saturday afternoon in the Akron Mayflower Hotel with only ten dollars in his pocket. He said he was pacing the hotel lobby and was in a bad way; he was afraid. He noticed the bar room was filling up and he knew he was in danger of getting drunk.
Bill told me he felt the need to talk to another alcoholic, so he could forget his own troubles and maybe help the other guy. He saw a church directory at the end of the lobby: as a minister I never thought those things did any good! He scanned the list until he came to the name Rev. Walter F. Tunks, St. Paul Episcopal Church, took a chance, and called. The conversation led him to Henrietta Seiberling, another Oxford Grouper. She was able to arrange a meeting between him and Dr. Bob Smith.
Dr. Bob was only planning on giving Bill a few minutes but they visited for five hours. Bob later said Bill was the only person he had ever seen that had “the pitch.” A short time later Bill moved in with the Smiths for several months. He and Dr. Bob began to work with alcoholics. They found their first successful candidate at the City Hospital, his name was Bill D. Later, Bill W. said that there were three candles lit in Akron and all three stayed lit. This was the birth of the first AA group. It was the summer of 1935.
There has been a rumor occasionally going around in AA that I had a lot to do with the twelve steps and I would like to set the record straight. I had nothing directly to do with the twelve steps. The twelve steps came to Bill, by himself. I think he once told me it took him about forty minutes to write them.
My opinion is that the writing of the twelve steps is one of the greatest instances of direct inspiration that I’ve known in human history. Inspiration doesn’t just drop materials down from heaven. Rather, God provides the ability to interpret human experience and these experiences can then be distilled down into transmittable principles. I compare it to Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. I’m grateful that Bill was able to get quiet for those forty minutes.
I recall attending an AA function in New York once where the keynote speaker was Austin McCormick, the Commissioner of Corrections for New York. He had this to say about AA; “This may be one of the greatest movements of all time.” The commissioner was a man who measured his words very carefully and did not talk impulsively. I personally believe that history has justified his statement so far and will continue to do so.
It is my profound conviction that God’s Spirit directed the creation of AA by inspiring Bill and those who worked with him in the writing of the principles that have guided and governed it. I also believe we have only seen the beginning of what this is going to do for one group of people in this world. I am of the opinion that all people – in the church and outside of the church – should learn the twelve steps. The steps are eternal and universal principles that are applicable not only to those who have a problem with alcohol, but to all of us who are faced with the issues of human life.
There is wisdom alive in the steps based on experience, psychological insight, and, I believe, much inspiration. It started way back when the steps were first carried out by the members of the early days. It seems God continues to work through these principles and the people who follow them, bringing this movement farther on its way to blessing and helping men and women everywhere.
Looking back over my life, one of my greatest joys and privileges is the minor share we of the Oxford Group may have contributed to AA in the beginning. We weren’t sure what to think about Bill’s aberration from the Oxford Group at first; going off to work exclusively with his alcoholic friends. All I can say is, “Thank God.” Bill stayed with it and left us alone with our misgivings. When I reflect on the days, weeks, and even years of solitary pioneering that he and just a few others had to do I’m just extremely grateful that he persisted in what he felt he was being called and led to do.
We had no way of knowing what was in the wind and what God would make out of those tenuous beginnings. There is no doubt that they were difficult times. It was real pioneering because no one else had dealt with those challenges head-on. Up to that point I don’t believe anyone else had seriously tried to apply “faith” to solving the alcoholics’ problem.
I think my attraction to AA people has been sort of a natural one for me; I’ve always had a strong liking for sinners. I enjoy people who get into mischief more than the stuffy church people. I have consistently found them to be more fun to be around. AA people have a spark that’s alive in them!
In closing out my recollections I will simply say, “You can’t love any guy too much and you can never tell him too often that you love him. You can’t trust him too much, and you can always do good to give thanks to God for him.
Perhaps one of Sam Shoemaker’s greatest contributions to Alcoholics Anonymous was his relationship and encouragement to Bill Wilson in the beginning. Bill said as much when he introduced Sam at the AA International Convention in Long Beach. “So, here is the man who more than any, in those early days made me feel that the vision which had been suddenly given to me, was real. So Sam . . . Has been a channel of grace like no other.
I can think of no better way to close a story about Sam Shoemaker than to use his own words in this very meaningful poem:
I Stand at the Door
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.
The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.
Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.
There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.
The article written in its entirety by Michael Fitzpatrick
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