September 2006

Being at Home

Agapê Love and the Goal of Twelve-Step Spirituality


© Copyright 2005 by Glenn F. Chesnut.   Taken from Chapter Eight of The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program:  For Believers & Non-believers, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (San Jose: iUniverse, 2001). From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at   This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at

Courtesy of Sue Chesnut at La Petite Domicile:

Agapê Love

When Jewish rabbis began to translate the Old Testament into Greek in the third century B.C., they discovered that there was no Greek noun that meant "love" in the sense in which it was often used in the Bible. Pagan Greek had a word which referred to lust and erotic love, or any love where a powerful desire for the beloved played the dominant role; they also had a word which meant friendship, or simply liking somebody at a deep level; but neither of these words seemed totally appropriate to many parts of the bible. These creative rabbis therefore decided to invent a special term. The word which they created seemed so perfect, that the early Christians took it over and used it throughout the New Testament. What the rabbis did was to take the Greek verb agapaô, and make a noun out of it. The verb meant to greet with affection, to welcome into one's home, to be completely contented with something or someone, to cherish the presence of the person or thing, and to be deeply pleased by it. So the noun agapê which they invented meant something like welcome-home-love.

Welcome-home-love is the word which is used repeatedly in the New Testament to describe the kind of love which Jesus and the Apostle Paul were so often talking about, the love with which God welcomes us back when we return to him and ask him for help.

Coming back home

I myself will always remember the first time I visited Dr. Bob's house in Akron, Ohio. I walked up the long steps to the front porch and stood at the front door;  a young man I had never seen before came to the door and opened it, and simply said quietly, "Welcome home."

And I just said "Thank you," and walked into the house, an ordinary middle-class two-story residence with living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. The rooms were fairly small -- it was in what was a respectable neighborhood in those days, but it was never the kind of truly grand home that would catch the eye by its class and distinction and size. South Bend, Indiana, where I live, is filled with thousands of houses much like it from that same era (I live in a similar house myself, built around the same time as Dr. Bob's house).

Eventually I went back to the kitchen, and someone there quietly asked, "Would you like some coffee?"

"Sure," I said.

There was a coffee pot beside the kitchen stove, so I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down on one of the plain chairs around the little wooden table, and sipped some coffee, as I thought about the many recovering alcoholics who had sat in that same kitchen, drinking coffee and talking with Dr. Bob and his wife Anne.

Then I went back out on the brick front porch that stretched across the front of the house and sat down on the porch swing there, and continued drinking my coffee as I looked out at the lawn, completely relaxed and content just to be there. At one point, another visitor -- again, someone I had never seen or met before -- also came out, and sat on the porch railing, and she and I chatted quietly for a while, as though we were old friends who had known one another forever.

And that was the spirit of the house:  the chairs, the beds, the bathroom sink, were simple and inexpensive, with nothing grand or pretentious, and yet it was a place where I just felt instantly at home. It was like the best part of my parents' home, and my grandmother and grandfather's house, and my Aunt Jenny's, and all the places I had ever been where I had somehow known that I could relax and feel at home there -- but without any of the stress or tension which I also sometimes felt in those places from my own childhood.

Feeling at home

I also remember the first time I was invited to attend the monthly Old-timers Lunch Group for the A.A. people from Elkhart and Goshen, Indiana. It is held on one Thursday each month at an Amish-style restaurant and buffet, halfway between the two towns, with hearty, home-cooked food prepared by Mennonite women in prayer bonnets. There at a long table were fifteen or twenty silver-haired men, old in years but young in heart, chatting and smiling and joking quietly with one another. Their eyes sparkled, and they laughed at themselves, and they were just old men, but they seemed somehow to glow with some strange light which can only be discerned by the eyes of the spirit. My own inner tensions and anxieties began to die off as I began to absorb a little bit of their spirit of relaxation and calm and serenity. Each of these men was a person who was at home with himself, and therefore at home in the world. There is a power to heal the soul just from being around such people.

Seeing so many gathered together in one place was especially impressive, but any one of them, by himself, would have irradiated the same spirit of being-at-home-in-the-world no matter what situation you placed him in. There is an incredible strength in such a human being: even in the midst of great crisis and confusion, with other people running here and there, yelling and arguing and screaming, and even in the midst of death and dying, such a man or woman stands out above the rest, acting in clear-headed fashion, and making wise and practical decisions based on responsibility and compassion.

If you call up one of these men or women in the middle of the night, you find that you can talk completely openly about what has terrified you or put you in a rage, and they will genuinely listen to you, with kindness and compassion. They will not shame you or tell you that you are a bad person. But they also will continue to retain their own inner calm and serenity, and will finally say something simple like, "How important is it, really?" or "Well, you can't do anything about it tonight, so why don't you go read the passage on acceptance on page 449 [4th edit. page 417] of the Big Book, and then go to sleep?" or "You're right, it is unfair what so-and-so is doing to you, but the important thing to remember is to keep your own side of the street swept clean -- as long as you do that, it'll work out the way it's supposed to work out." And so you hang up the phone, and you're still upset, but somehow not as much, and to your surprise you discover that you can lie down and go to sleep now, and that their strange magic has worked.

The "flavor" of twelve-step spirituality

Each of the great spiritual traditions of the world has its own "flavor" or "feel," in spite of the fact that they are all, underneath, so often saying the same things. We can read stories about the Zen masters doing whatever they felt like doing and ignoring all of society's normal conventions while they posed their preposterous paradoxes to their puzzled disciples, and get something of the feel of this kind of Buddhist spirituality. St. Teresa of Avila's nuns, on the other hand, had ecstatic visions and experienced strange things like out-of-body soul travel, and eventually reached a state called the spiritual marriage where they were bound body and soul to their Lord. Or you can go to a certain type of Protestant revival and see people lying on the floor, twisting spasmodically and crying out "Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!" while others are speaking in tongues or shouting "Hallelujah!" at the top of their lungs. The monks of Mt. Athos in Greece chanted the Jesus Prayer silently in their minds over and over, all day long, until they were caught up in the vision of the Uncreated Light that penetrates from beyond this created world and fills us with the divine glory. St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Denis, and St. John of the Cross talked about the look down into the bottomless abyss of No-thing-ness, and the sudden, gut-level, totally disorienting awareness of the complete incomprehensibility of the Ultimate.

People who enter the twelve-step program have frequently seen or at least read about spiritual disciplines with this sort of flamboyant "flavor," and keep trying to experience things like that, and can end up completely missing the point of what it is they are trying to do in the twelve-step program. Sometimes they continue trying to hype themselves up yet more, or drive themselves yet harder in perfectionistic ways, so that their inner anxieties and resentments just keep on growing greater and greater.

Sometimes you want to say to some of these newcomers to the program, "What you really need to do is to learn to relax a little." Submarine Bill warns his pigeons frequently, "Don't take yourself so seriously." His sponsor, Don H., would just ask his pigeons quietly, "How important is it, really?" Brooklyn Bob F. often repeats a line which an old-timer named Roger Stanz used to say at meetings many years ago, a little formula which is simple yet says so much: "Don't hurry, don't worry, don't compare." All of them were trying to say the same thing:  learning how to relax -- so the fear and resentment can start to dissipate -- is one of the most important goals in the program.

A major goal of twelve-step spirituality is to learn to-be-at-home-with-myself, so I can learn to-be-at-home-in-the-world. In the fourth step I learn who I myself truly am, in the fifth step I quit hiding the secrets, in the eighth and ninth steps I clean away the wreckage of the past (where I can) so that I can start over with a clean slate, and in the twelfth step I begin living this new way of life every hour of every day in a new, outreaching kind of way. But the only way to accomplish this often frightening spiritual journey is to start learning how to-be-at-home-with-God, because only that can give me the strength to do the other things that have to be done.

As I progress along the way, I end up learning more and more about how to feel all three ways of being at home -- being at home with myself, in the world, and with God -- but the best and greatest of these is being-at-home-with-God. Because God is everywhere, and is always with us wherever we go, being with God is being at home in the most ultimate and satisfying sense. And if I have learned how to clear away the barriers within my own mind which block me from feeling God's presence, I will automatically know how to start feeling at home with myself, and totally and unselfconsciously at home in the world around me, wherever I am.

The good old-timers in A.A. are just as much in a state of satori as any Zen master, it just "feels" different on the surface. They don't hit foolish disciples over the heads with bamboo poles; instead they zing them with a well-chosen sentence that stops them in their tracks. The good old-timers walk continually with God just as much as anyone who ever achieved St. Teresa's spiritual marriage, and they go on twelve-step calls into dangerous places with the same fearlessness as frontier Methodist circuit riders journeying into the trackless forests of the American wilderness. They know the radical incomprehensibility of the ultimate abyss as well as any follower of St. Gregory of Nyssa or St. John of the Cross; and they speak with the parrêsia, the total boldness of speech, of the ancient Egyptian desert monks. They have the simplicity of the eighteenth-century Hasidic followers of the Baal Shem Tov and the total abandonment to God of the original followers of St. Francis of Assisi.

But the "flavor" is different in the twelve-step program. It is a great spiritual tradition all its own which has already, in less than seventy years, produced two great classic works on the spiritual life [the Big Book and Richmond Walker's Twenty-Four Hours a Day], and a number of respectfully good lesser books and writings -- and it has demonstrated over and over again that it actually works if you work it, and it works amazingly deeply and amazingly quickly compared to any other of the great classical spiritual traditions I myself have studied. If you wish to receive its fruits, however, you need to work towards what it actually promises as its reward.

So you need to ask yourself: what do you, the reader, really want out of life in order to be truly happy? Not what mama wants or papa wants, or hubby or wifey wants, or what magazines and television shows try to make you want. What do you want to be happy? If it's continuous ecstatic visions or trance states, or endless mind-blowing experiences of the unutterable, or the self-torture of sleeping on a bed of nails or wearing a hair-cloth shirt, or sitting cross-legged and staring at your navel while you try to empty your mind of all content, there are religious groups which will teach you how to do that. But what do you yourself really want to be happy with your life?

Welcome home

I have been at twelve-step meetings where a newcomer stumbled in, weeping and crying, as he choked out his story past his sobs. And finally someone in the group said quietly, "Welcome home." What does that little phrase mean? It means you're O.K. now, you're not lost anymore, you're not going to have to cry that way anymore -- though it's perfectly O.K. to cry -- but you're safe now, and we're going to get you all well again.

Wouldn't it be great to-be-at-home-with-God, where all your tears will be wiped away? To-be-at-home-with-yourself? Simply to-be-at-home-in-the-world, wherever you go? Because then you can enjoy anything and everything else that's really worth enjoying and appreciating. The theologians stood around outside and talked about God;  the desert monks sat inside and dined with God. The twelve-step program is not talk-about God, but a way of living that leads us to being-with God.

One of the most powerful passages in the Big Book is the section called the Twelve Promises:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us -- sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
As Brooklyn Bob F. says to newcomers who walk into their first A.A. meeting, if this is the way you would really like your life to be, "this is not the best place for you to be, it is the only place for you to be." Why must it necessarily be a completely spiritual program? Because of the realization that comes in the twelfth promise above:  everything else was secondary, for it was only God working secretly within our souls, who -- often without us even being aware of it -- did for us what we could never in a million years have done for ourselves.

Listen to the gentle laughter and look at the smiles on the faces of the good old-timers and hear the simple words with which they greet you when you arrive at their door: "Welcome home." They are but earthly channels, for it is God himself speaking to you, and telling you that you can lay down your burdens now, for you -- the wandering, lost child -- have come home at last. Amen.

CLICK HERE  return to the list of Glenn C.'s essays on spirituality

CLICK HERE  return to the description of the book on The Higher Power

CLICK HERE  return to the Hindsfoot Foundation home page