The Catholic Digest
Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.
Ed and AA's Bill W.
Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was down. His feet
hung over the end of the bed that nearly filled the small room
he and his wife, Lois, had rented above the 24th Street AA Club
in New York. It was a cold, rainy November in 1940. Lois, who
supported them both with a job at a department store, was out.
Bill was wondering whether the stomach pain he was feeling was
The walls were closing in. Thousands of copies of the Big Book
were waiting in a warehouse, unsold. A few people were sober,
but Bill was frustrated. How could he reach all who wanted help?
Nine months earlier, a gathering of rich New Yorkers had come
and gone with applause for the young movement, but no money.
Hank P., after complaining for half a year, finally got drunk in
April. Rollie H., a nationally famous ball-player, sobered up
but broke AA's policy of anonymity by calling the press for a
full name-and-photograph story.
Eventually, Bill fell into the same trap as Rollie; he began
calling reporters, too, wherever he gave talks. Now he was
becoming the center of attention. He had just returned from
Baltimore, where a minister had asked him to face the self-pity
in his own talk. He was depressed. What if he--five years
sober--were to drink?
It was 10 p.m. The doorbell rang. Tom, the Club's maintenance
man, said there was "some bum from St. Louis" to see
Reluctantly, Bill said, "Send him up." To himself, he
muttered, "Not another drunk."
But Bill welcomed the stranger, all the same. As the man
shuffled to a wooden chair opposite the bed and sat down, his
black raincoat fell open, revealing a Roman collar. "I'm
Father Ed Dowling from St. Louis," he said. "A Jesuit
friend and I have been struck by the similarity of the AA twelve
steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius."
"Never heard of them."
Father Ed laughed. This endeared him to Bill. Robert Thomsen
tells the rest of the story this way in his book, Bill W.:
"The curious little man went on and on, and as he did, Bill
could feel his body relaxing, his spirits rising. Gradually he
realized that this man sitting across from him was radiating a
kind of grace....
"Primarily, Father Ed wanted to talk about the paradox of
AA, the 'regeneration,' he called it, the strength arising out
of defeat and weakness, the loss of one's old life as a
condition for achieving a new one. And Bill agreed with
Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth
step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest
who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his
anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.
"Blessed are they," Father Ed said, who hunger and
When Bill asked whether there was ever to be any satisfaction,
the priest snapped, "Never. Never any." Bill would
have to keep on reaching. In time, his reaching would find God's
goals, hidden in his own heart. Thomsen continues:
"Bill had made a decision, Father Ed reminded him, to turn
his life and his will over to God ... he was not to sit in
judgment on how he or the world was proceeding. He had only to
keep the channels open ... it was not up to him to decide how
fast or how slowly AA developed.... For whether the two of them
liked it or not, the world was undoubtedly proceeding as it
should, in God's good time."
Father Ed continued quoting Bill's work to him. No one had been
able to maintain perfect adherence to the principles. None were
saints. They claimed spiritual progress, not spiritual
Before Father Ed left, he pulled his body up, and leaning on his
cane he thrust his head forward and looked straight into Bill's
eyes. There was a force in Bill, he said, that was all his own.
It had never been on this earth before, and if Bill did anything
to mar it or block it, it would never exist anywhere again.
That night, for the first time in months, Bill Wilson slept
Thus began a 20-year friendship nourished by visits, phone
calls, and letters. Both men spoke the language of the heart,
learned through suffering: Bill from alcoholism, Father Ed from
arthritis that was turning his back to stone.
Bill turned to Father Ed as a spiritual sponsor, a friend.
Father Ed, in a letter to his provincial, noted that he saw his
own gift for AA as a "very free use of the Ignatian Rules
for the Discernment of Spirits for the second week of the
Thus Father Ed endorsed AA for American Catholics with his
appendix in the Big Book and his Queen's Work pamphlet of 1947.
He was the first to see wider applications of the twelve steps
to other addictions, and wrote about that in Grapevine (AA's
magazine) in the spring 1960 issue. Bill added a last line to
that Grapevine article: "Father Ed, an early and wonderful
friend of AA, died as this last message went to press. He was
the greatest and most gentle soul to walk this planet. I was
closer to him than to any other human being on earth."
For his part, Father Ed counted many gifts from Bill. He had
told his sister, Anna, that the graces he received from their
meeting were equivalent to those received at his own ordination.
And he thanked Bill or letting him "hitchhike" on the
twelve steps. In 1942 he wrote to Bill that he had started a
national movement for married couples to help each other through
the twelve steps: CANA (Couples Are Not Alone). He used the
steps to help people with mental difficulties, scruples, and
When chided by an AA member about his smoking, Father Ed stopped
with help from the twelve steps and wrote to Bill that as a
result he was becoming as "fat as a hog."
Next, he tried to use the twelve steps with his own compulsive
eating. One story of his struggle ends with Father Ed one night
eating all the strawberries intended to feed the whole Jesuit
Community. He became so sick he had to receive last rites. He
went from 242 to 167 pounds and up again like a yo-yo. He asked
Bill to start an 00 ("obese obvious") group.
Often Father Ed spoke of being helped by attending an open AA
meeting and wrote to Bill that AA was his "lonely hearts
club." In his last 20 years his ministry changed radically
due to AA and his friendship with Lois and Bill. He gave CANA
conferences for families, using the twelve steps, once a month
from 1942 to 1960. He cheered Lois on as she started and
continued with Al-Anon. Father Ed rejoiced that in "moving
therapy from the expensive clinical couch to the low-cost coffee
bar, from the inexperienced professional to the informed
amateur, AA has democratized sanity."
He wrote his superior to free up another Jesuit, Father John
Higgins, who was recovering from mental illness, to work with
Recovery Inc., a group Dr. Abraham Low had started for people
with mental problems. Those groups for mental illness were
especially close to Father Ed's heart as there was a history of
depression in his own family. He called people to be wounded
healers" for each other.
Was there anything from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius in
Father Ed's gift to Bill? Father Ed pointed out parallels
between the Spiritual Exercises and the twelve steps several
times, but Bill had written the twelve steps before he ever
heard of the Spiritual Exercises.
Father Ed did give Bill a copy of the Spiritual Exercises in
1952, underlining the "Two Standards" meditation. When
Father Ed met Bill, moreover, he had called him to the place
where he bottomed out and surrendered to his higher power.
Father Ed believed that this was the place where humiliations
led to humility and then to all other blessings. In saying this,
he paraphrased Ignatius's closing prayer of the "Two
And this, Father Ed maintained, was where the Exercises become
most like AA. He went a step further and invited Bill to make
choices based on poverty and humiliation rather than on money,
power, or fame.
This suggestion helped Bill Wilson turn down an honorary degree
from Yale. On the packet of letters dealing with his decision,
he wrote: "To Father Ed, with gratitude." In the
letter to Yale he stated his reasons for declining the honor:
"My own life story gathered for years around an implacable
pursuit of money, fame, and power, anti-climaxed by my near
sinking in a sea of alcohol. Though I survived that grim
misadventure, I well understand that the dread neurotic germ of
the power contagion has survived in me also. It is only dormant
and it can again multiply and rend me--and AA, too. Tens of
thousands of AA members are temperamentally like me. They know
it, fortunately, and I know it. Hence our tradition of anonymity
and hence my clear obligation to decline this honor with all the
immediate satisfaction and benefit it could have yielded."
This, then, is where Father Ed met Bill that rainy night long
ago, in the small room where bottoming out opens up to life,
where humiliations lead to humility--and to all other blessings.
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