The Spiritual Heroes of 12 Step Recovery
Next time you feel God’s abandoned you and he’s no longer working in your life, you might want to think about an alcoholic named Rowland Hazard. His name isn’t too well known in AA circles, but without him there probably wouldn’t be recovery as we know it today: there’d be no AA, no 12 Steps, we wouldn’t even have our monthly copy of Recovery Today to warm our hearts and feed our souls as we trudge the road to happy destiny! Rowland’s story sets in motion the chain of events that brought all these good things about. Maybe the place to begin telling his story is with a cold, winter morning in 1931 when the ship on which he was sailing quietly slipped out of New York harbor.
Rowland was drinking again and deeply depressed. The ship was carrying him back to Europe where he’d just spent the better part of a year receiving treatment for his alcoholism. Rowland had seen his life beaten down by the bottle and he’d been in treatment many times. Now he was in therapy with the famous Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung. Rowland was descended from a wealthy Rhode Island family that traced its roots back to the Revolutionary War. Money was no object in his search for recovery. He’d tried to see Sigmund Freud but Freud wasn’t taking new patients. (Probably a lucky thing for us; if he’d gotten that appointment, we’d all be sex therapists today!) Anyway, there’s poor Rowland laying fetal position on a deck chair, watching the great skyline recede in the distance while he pulls a blanket over his head and travels back, in certain shame, to see the good Doctor.
Rowland had left Zurich just a few months earlier feeling on top of the world. He believed Jung had helped him finally overcome his alcohol problem; but once back in the States, it didn’t take long for him to relapse. Now he was traveling to Zurich for a second and final time. Rowland had tremendous respect for his therapist and he saw him as his one, last chance. If Jung couldn’t help him then all hope was lost.
Now think of Rowland when your depression reaches its absolute bottom. Think of him when he finally reaches Jung’s reception room and tells the Doctor about his short, failed attempt at sobriety. Think of him maybe most especially when you remember Jung’s reply. It’s a turning point in early AA history and it should be for everyone who approaches the 12 Steps. Jung said, “Rowland, I’m afraid you are hopeless!” He gently but firmly refused to take Rowland on as a patient for a second round of therapy. He said people like him were just too heart breaking and there was nothing further he could do to help. Rowland’s defeat was absolute – his ego was crushed. Then, in desperation, he asked Jung if there was any direction toward which he could point him – anything that might keep him from the death or insanity that most surely lay ahead.
"Are there no exceptions?" he asked. "Yes," replied Dr. Jung. His words are recorded in the Big Book. “Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” Jung told his former patient that he needed to find a “vital spiritual experience” to produce the psychic change he had just described. A simple belief in God wouldn’t be sufficient, Rowland needed an experience of God.
Now whether Jung specifically pointed Rowland to the Oxford Group seems a matter of some historical conjecture; but however the connection occurred, we know that Rowland joined the Oxford Group in New York City sometime in 1932. There he worked the spiritual program known as a First Century Christian Fellowship that was the forerunner to AA and that we’ll study more closely over the next few months. His participation must have been sufficient to produce that “vital spiritual experience” his therapist said he needed because Rowland remained sober the rest of his life. He became an active member of Calvary Episcopal Church where he learned his spiritual principles from Rev. Sam Shoemaker, then the leader of the Oxford Group in the United States. The Oxford Group program called for its members to carry the life-changing message they had found to others. In August 1934 Rowland carried that message to the man who was later to become Bill Wilson’s “sponsor.” Ebby Thatcher was facing six months in Windsor Prison in Vermont for repeated drunkenness when Rowland made his call. Ebby’s last incident reportedly involved his firing a gun at a group of annoying pigeons (not the AA variety!) In the company of two other Oxford Groupers Shep Cornell and Cebra Graves, Rowland called on the judge who was getting ready to sentence Ebby. The judge was actually Cebra’s father and the trio convinced him to release Ebby to Rowland’s care. With this nudge from the judge, Ebby became a resident at the mission run by Shoemaker’s Calvary Church. He started working the Oxford Group principles and he stayed sober. Sixty days later, Ebby made his famous call to Bill Wilson. The rest is AA history. Some see the hand of God clearly at work in the series of events that brought the 12 Steps into the world. As we look at the events and the characters more closely over the coming year you can be the judge of that. Rowland’s repeated treatment failures drove him half way across the world in search of healing. His apparent curse became a blessing. Jung’s diagnosis of Rowland’s “hopeless condition” made him willing to seek out a spiritual solution he would otherwise have avoided. His willingness to help a stranger kept Ebby from prison and prepared him to make the earliest recorded 12th Step call we have. So next time you feel God’s abandoned you and he’s no longer working in your life, you might want to think about an alcoholic named Rowland Hazard. Maybe God’s getting you ready for more than you could ever imagine.