Twelve Steps

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Religious or Not?

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I have begun a new series of TwelveDrawings titled "ReligiousOrNot". Here's why.

The Twelve Steps were published in the year 1939 in a book titled Alcoholics Anonymous (known commonly as the Big Book). Among its 500-plus pages, the word "God" appears nearly 300 times. I myself would assume that any book containing that many references to God must be a very, very religious book. (A nit-picker might easily argue against my assumption. There are many books which examine that word from a purely historical, academic, or cultural perspective without promoting any religious beliefs. And there are many books which might mention that word in passing while attacking any or all institutions of religion.) Still, I believe that the notion that where there is smoke there is fire. Likewise, where a book has the word "God" mentioned in a positive context on so many of its pages, there is bound to be some sort of religious message being delivered.

Or so I once believed.

Now that I have spent more than a decade reading and using the book Alcoholics Anonymous, I no longer believe the word "religious" applies to it. If you agree with me, there are many of us. If you disagree, there are as many (or more) who feel as you do. You may also fall into the sizable "Frankly I don't care either way" category. That's fine. Reasonable people often disagree.

For those of us interested in the question of "Religious or Not?", how are we to settle our differences? When lawyers disagree on the meaning of an important word, they agree to turn to a volume called called Black's Law Dictionary. I had never heard of it until a friend and law professor mentioned it. The book is so authoritative that even the Justices of America's Supreme Court turn to for an indisputible definition of any legal term. Want to see it? Here is a link

As it happens, the Big Book's author, Bill Wilson, attended law school. He passed all of his courses but his drinking took a turn for the worse and he never practiced law. Bill likely knew of Black's Law Dictionary but he also knew that only a fraction of his intended readers—the lawyers—would know of it. So, if Bill Wilson's readers wanted to look up the meaning of a word like "religion", he knew they would turn to a commonly available dictionary. Since I wanted to interpret words just as Bill's earliest 1939 readers did, I acquired the most authoritative dictionary for American English in his day: a Webster's New International Dictionary Second Edition, published in 1934. (The Third Edition would not be published until the 1960s).

I opened my enormous old Webster's and looked up the word "religion". There I found a definition that is longer than any other I have ever found since that day. It read as follows:

Religion n. - The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in the pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.

Whew! I labored to read and understand it. Some words came quickly while others came slowly. I knew the job of defining religion would be challenging, but this one must have kept Webster's lexicographers, etymologists, and editors working overtime. This definition seemed to ramble endlessly, which thwarted my ambition to create just one illustration for this very important word. I had been prepared for a tough assignment, but not for this!

Intimidated, I backed down from the original concept. I let several months pass while I ruminated. Finally, I reapproached the definition but this time examinging just one word at a time. My previous illustrations had focussed on the words Bill Wilson used in writing the Big Book. However, Bill Wilson had absolutely nothing do do with writing this Webster's definition. Still, the definition seemed relevant because when anyone used the word "religion" in Bill Wilson's day, this was the most widely accepted meaning and therefore its words deserved consideration. I sifted through the long passage and selected what I thought were the 12 most crucial words. I then looked each one up in the 1934 Webster's:

Service n. - the occupation, condition, or status of a servant, now esp. a domestic servant.

Adoration  n. - act of paying honor to a divine being

God (or a god) n. - the Supreme Being (or a being of more than human attributes)

Express v. - to force out by pressure

Worship n. - courtesy or reverence paid to merit or worth

Command n. - act of directing authoritatively

Writings n. - specif., act, art, or product of forming letters and characters on paper, wood, stone, etc. to record the ideas which characters and words express, or to communicate them by words or sounds.

Teacher n. - one who makes to know how

Pursuit v. - to seek

Way n. - direction of motion, progress, facing, pointing, etc.

Incumbent n. - one who is in present possession of a benefice (note: “benefice” is a temporary land holding) or of any office

True adj. - steady in adhering to friends, promises, allegiances, or the like

Maybe you would have chosen one or two different words. But bear in mind that I am an illustrator and I chose words that would benefit from what the ancients called "illumination" (i.e., visual embellishments or decorations which invite the reader to linger or reflect on particularly meaningful words or text.)

Regardless, I had found the basis for a new set of Twelve Drawings. I gave the new set a working title of "ReligionOrNot". I chose that name to reflect a long-running debate about whether people in Recovery are "religious" or not. Even outside of Recovery, I often hear people describe their own beliefs as "spiritual, but not religious". I also chose this name to acknowledge the biggest question of all......."Does it even matter whether we agree that Recovery is religious or not, as long as it works?"

You can ask that question yourself. Or not. If someone asks me today, I confidently answer "doesn't matter". But my trusty Webster's dictionary has shed much new light on my view of Twelve Step recovery. So I am open to being proven totallly wrong. I have begun the new set of drawings and will continue at my usual glacial pace. (I draw in my spare time and spare time is hard to find.) Please check my Twitter profile at @TwelveDrawings if you wish to see new drawings—like "Command"—as they are completed.

As I finish each "Religious or Not?" drawing, I will post it in my Twitter profile which is @twelvedrawings.

Thank you for reading. And please keep coming back to whatever religion, belief, spiritual experience, and/or program of Recovery nourishes your spirit.



TRIVIA: There are five prior sets of series, including Serenity Prayer, Twelve Steps, Twelve Promises, Twelve Metaphors, and Twelve Insanities. All but the last set are already posted on this website as of this writing. The Insanities will be added when I begin a monthly rotation which showcases just three sets of TwelveDrawings at a time.

The Steps: Inventory



Step Four consists of a short sentence, but it sounded like a big deal to me when I first read it:

Made a searching and moral inventory of ourselves.

I did not know exactly what this meant, but as a still-suffering addict, I did not like the sound of it. I was in the habit of hiding my true nature. Step Four sounded like a step I could not hide from. But remaining an addict was, for me, a death sentence. So even though the inventory sounded interesting, scary, mysterious, and impossible to do, I sensed that something powerful might happen if I tried it.

A GOOD START, UNFORTUNATELY FOLLOWED BY HALF-MEASURES - My sponsor gave me simple instructions for doing my inventory. I went home that night and did what he suggested. It felt good to be taking real action. I wrote a few pages of my inventory that first night. But then I skipped the exercise the next night and, before long had quit working on it entirely. My inventory was still incomplete nine months later. (By comparison, an extremely willing person might be able to work their entire Fourth Step within days or weeks.)

My sponsor was a live-and-let-live person. He never hurried me. He knew my willingness HAD to come from me and NOT from him. I occasionally worked my inventory, but I only halfway followed my sponsor's instructions. When I finally finished and I was ready to do my Fifth Step with my sponsor, my sponsor had moved away. At a crucial moment in my step work, I became derailed.

I kept coming back to meetings, but there was little sobriety for me or others. Lacking any other resource, I started listening to recordings of “The Big Book Comes Alive” series by AA members Joe and Charlie. They described the Twelve Step recovery as they believe it was originally practiced in the 1930s. Joe and Charlie's description of the Fourth Step inventory was fascinating, and I had to admit that it very closely matched what I had read in the Big Book of AA.

STARTING OVER AGAIN - Armed with this new insight into "old school" Twelve Step work, I proceeded to work steps Four through Twelve exactly as described in the Big Book. As the result of working these steps, I was astonished to find myself staying sober one day at a time.

When I decided to illustrate Step Four, my attention was drawn to the word “Inventory”. It is a fairly common word and I predicted that its definition would be unremarkable, even in my 1934 Webster’s Dictionary. As usual, that old book surprised me.

Inventory - n. An account catalog or schedule made by the executor of all the goods and chattels and sometimes the real estate, of a deceased person.

The phrase “deceased person” shook me. Was my Fourth Step inventory really the account of a DECEASED person? Certainly not literally! Still, the words gnawed at me. I had to admit that when I walked into my first recovery meeting, I felt dead. Every joyful part of my life was gone: my livelihood, my home, my marriage, my children. I know I was near death because the idea of suicide seemed totally acceptable. Fortunately, I was taught to work the inventory as it was described in the Big Book of AA. I used the tone of an objective third party, briefly recording the relevant facts of my life without adding any unnecessary commentary.

HOW WOULD BILL KNOW ABOUT THIS LEGAL MEANING? - Not everone realizes that Bill W. completed nearly three years of classes at Brooklyn Law School. Law students were taught how to take the "personal inventory" of a deceased person's property. Such inventories describe absolutely EVERYTHING... from real estate to farm animals (called "chattels" back then) to shovels, to buckets, to bars of soap. Any county courthousein America contain thousands of these detailed inventories. When I examined some historically accurate inventory forms, the rows and columns looked very similar to what the AA Big Book shows on page 65.

My Twelve Step drawings are intended to call attention to the definitions of key recovery words. But no drawing I could think of could improve on the precise definition found in the dictionary. So for my drawing, I did the only thing I could; I produced an sample of what a typical legal personal inventory would have looked like in the 1930s.

MY DRAWING IS NOT SOMEONE'S REAL INVENTORY: I copied a real inventory form, but I changed it to obscure the real name and details. I note with some amusement that whoever filled out the original form followed the written categories correctly—but only for the first several lines. After that, they ignored the column headings and began writing a numbered list of belongings. If you ever help someone else work their Fourth Step Inventory, don't be surprised if they, too, veer away from the written instructions. It is my experience that addicts always try to complicate simple things. That's why year after year, signs are posted in Twelve Step meeting rooms that say: "Keep It Simple".

My old 1934 Webster’s Dictionary hints at how grave my condition was before I got into recovery. And it reminds me that my Higher Power, the Twelve Steps, and my fellow addicts are all that stand between me and my real, legal personal inventory....taken by someone else after my death.



TRIVIA: If Personal Inventories were so common in the 1930s, why don't we still commonly hear about them today? I asked an attorney, who informed me that many states only require these forms only if the deceased owned a particularly valuable collection of something, such as guns, coins, jewlery, etc. In those cases, the executor creates a detailed inventory so family members cannot dispute which belongings were in the home at the time of death. Any incidents of relatives "helping themselves" to valuables would be quickly detected and thoroughly documented. In short, a lawyer took a thorough inventory to reduce anyone's temptation to fudge the facts. If you wish, you may ask a lawyer you know whether they have ever used a legal personal inventory. Please share what you discover at [email protected]

ADDENDUM: When someone in my family passed away in 2012, I was surprised to learn that their executor was required to file a written personal inventory for all of their personal assets and possessions. What had been true in 1934 remained true many decades later.

Serenity Prayer: Serenity



"God, grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change"

The words of the Serenity Prayer seem as if they were created specifically for use on sentimental screen savers, inspirational posters, and syrupy greeting cards. They often hover majestically against a background of scenic sunsets, ocean shores, and mountain streams. The prayer sometimes comes close to sounding like a cliché. But the hope it offers is deadly serious to those who yearn to experience a day of sober serenity.

In 1934, Webster's Dictionary offered this definition: "Serenity n. The quality of being bright, clear, and calm".

As an artist who wishes to offer an original perspective, I wasn't pleased when my prayer and meditation on the word "Serenity" produced YET ANOTHER pastoral drawing. All of the other drawings in my Serenity Prayer series had been slightly surprising, unconventional, and even mysterious. Still, I remained committed to making the drawings that my Higher Power inspired, whether I understood them or not.

It wasn't until the Serenity illustration was finished that the real point of the illustration became clear to me.

In the drawing, a tree is perched on the shore of a river. The surface of that river is broken up by very common-looking waves. But in the area closest to the tree, the water appears very still and smooth. That's not entirely unusual. Who hasn't seen exactly that type of becalmed water in the midst of light waves?

Then a memory came back to me. My high school physics teacher taught that when a wave travels, it will not stop until it is stopped by another force. We may think of waves as tapering down as they travel, but that's not entirely accurate. The reason they appear to lose size is because their force becomes spread out around an increasingly expanding circle. Waves cannot stop abruptly in mid-water.

Still, haven't we have all seen such patches of mirror-smooth water amid rippling waters? I am confident that science can explain it—I am sure of that. But I still marvel at whenever I see that effect on real water. 

I now know I can turn my inward gaze toward flat water when confronted by a world of choppy, honking, distracting noise. I no longer ask my Higher Power to stop the world around me. I can ask for help being bright, clear, and calm whenever I choose to.

Serenity Prayer: Grant




"God, GRANT me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"

This drawing may confuse you at first. It is not lovely like most "inspiring" artwork is. But please bear with me; you may feel as surprised as I was.

I looked up the word "grant" in my 1934 Webster's Dictionary. The word is so familiar that I almost didn't bother. However, its 1934 meaning was not what I expected. I think of the word "grant" as meaning the same thing as "to give". I usually hear it in connection with someone applying for a financial grant and receiving they money they requested. To me, it basically seems like a gift. There are usually strings attached to that type of grant and a certain outcome is often required. But once the grant is—well—granted, the person gets money from the grantor. So until now, "grant" always meant "to give".

But the definition was this: "Grant v. to agree or assent to".

Giving is not even mentioned. Why would we ask the God of our understanding, to "agree" instead of to "give"? Personally, whenever I recited the Serenity Prayer, I thought I was asking to be GIVEN courage, serenity, and wisdom. My request was the same as saying: "God won't you please, please, please, PLEASE give me those good qualities?" But with the dictionary open in from of me, the that request did not fit. 

Begging God to give me qualities that He has never refused to give me suddenly seemed a little absurd. Then more and more and MORE absurd.

Did I really believe that God sits idly by until people like me beg for good qualities? Did it seem likely that God would reply, "Well, I'm not so SURE. Do you DESERVE good human qualities?" We cannot know God's motives fully, but that image struck me as being extremely unlikely. OF COURSE our Higher Power wants us to have good qualities!

Those financial grants I referred to earlier are not given out literally at random or as favors. For example, grants intended for "Female Farmers" will go only to female farmers. Here in the mundane world, the funding offered by grant-offering institutions can be depleted. But can the Divine "budget" for supplying good human qualities ever run out?

I have trouble imagining my Higher Power being selfish or stingy when faced with such unselfish requests. Is there any voice in Heaven bellowing, "We are receiving far too many earthly requests for courage, serenity, and wisdom. Cut off the supply immediately!!!"

Only the voice of inner fear would conceive a selfish God like that. My fear often disguises itself as an unquestionable authority or indisputable assumption. To confront my fear, I began drawing what my fear would have me believe. I envisioned a cruel-looking and intimidating barrier between me and Serenity. The barrier is tall and bristling with spikes, wires, chains, and nails. I could never penetrate it or scale it. If God is cruel, then He would be sneering and taunting: "See how beautiful Serenity looks? Well I'm certainly not going to let YOU have it. I'm going to give it to someone else, not YOU!"

Is that God? Or is that odd?

I had to admit that it was my fear—not my Higher Power—which denied me access to courage, serenity, and wisdom. I have come to believe that my Higher Power has already imbued me with those qualities. He doesn't really "give" them to me today, they became my birthright long ago.

The key to unlocking this "Grant" drawing is sitting out in plain sight. A glance to the right and the left of the barrier shows the fence is very narrow. As long as I remain frozen by my fear, I will face nightmarish blockages which are entirely inside my own mind. If I move away from the spot that fear has lured me into, I realize that God has already granted me everything I need in the Serenity Prayer—long before I ask.

The next time I prayed the Serenity Prayer, I didn't feel I was pleading for a handout. Rather, I felt I was saying "thank you" for receiving what my Higher Power had already agreed to long ago.

— Amen to that


TRIVIA: If parts of this fence vaguely remind you of a concentration camp fence, that is on purpose. I wanted this fence to look horrible and that's the most horrible type of fence I know of. Does my desire to show something scary confuse you? To be honest, this drawing confuses most people and I understand why. It is showing us the world as Fear would have us see it. Fear wants us to view the world this way: "One way or the other, I will always be denied the good life that I yearn for." And who can argue with Fear? It is high and wide and deep and terrifying. In a moment of real panic, Fear blocks out everything else and completely fills up our entire view of the world. Like that fence in my drawing, my Fear is scary as hell. Fortunately fear is not my Higher Power. I don't have to believe it and trust it and follow it. I can take a step back from it at any time, and ask my real Higher Power to show me what He sees. When I do that, fear shrinks a little at first. Then I notice there is hopeful information that my fear forgot to mention. And fear shrinks a bit more. And soon, I notice I am not surrounded by a fence of fear anymore. In fact, fear usually shows me only a small piece of the whole picture. I can choose to stay "trapped" behind that small fence OR I often can choose to go a different way. Like around it. Away from it. Find another path that is free from fear. Oh it looks huge and awful, alright. But the only way that fear can replace my Higher Power is if I let it. I ask God to grant me the courage and serenity not to let that happen today.

Serenity Prayer: God


Artist's Remarks

"GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"

I have often heard other members of Twelve Step groups refer to life's most divine force with the phrase "a power greater than human power" or simply as "My Higher Power". I sometimes wondered how these unique and somewhat mysterious phrases came to Bill Wilson's mind as he wrote the Big Book of AA. I opened my enormous 1934 Webster's Dictionary to see which words were used by Webster's staff to literally define god.

The principal definition: "God n. a being of more than human attributes and powers"

Hmmm. Interesting. "A being of more than human powers" vs "A Higher Power". There certainly is some similarity between Webster's definition and the trademark phrases used in the Twelve Step groups. It might be pure coincidence; I have no way of knowing. Still, this dictionary definition helped me grasp the Twelve Step definition more clearly. My solution will never come from a human power. Not from myself, family, fellowship, professionals, clergy, sponsors, etc. No power that is human power can help me. Once I got sober, I knew this to be true.

I have used my drawing skills to underscore the point. The "God" drawing includes items reflecting the greatest of human forces, including the diploma (education), the beaker (science), the gavel (justice), the rose (love), the crown (royalty), the pearls (wealth), the drill (industry), the stethoscope (medicine), the football (sports) etc. The drawing also includes seductive temptations found in human affairs including the bullet (violence), the shot glass (alcohol), the pills (drugs), the bra strap (sex), the cigar (tobacco), dice (gambling), etc.

So, the hand which appears in the "God" drawing is not a hand at all. It is an empty space where the clutter of human powers cannot reach. In effect, I have drawn God by not drawing God at all. I have made the drawing to remind myself that when I strive to find Him, I can start by ruling out all human powers in the world. And there, the real search can begin.

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