The Spiritual Exercises and the 12 Steps

Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ,  a friend of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was convinced that the Spiritual Exercises influenced the 12 Steps of AA (which guide many other 12-step programs).  Bill Wilson said he had never heard of Ignatius or the Exercises. He said he sat down at his kitchen table one day and wrote out the 12 Steps in about 20 minutes. To this Fr. Dowling said, “If it were twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.”

I recently ran across an article Fr. Dowling wrote showing the parallels between the Exercises and the 12 Steps.  A sample:

St. Ignatius starts with a presumption that our power of faculties are bound by sinful tendencies and addictions to the wrong things. The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, work on the soul in both a negative and positive way. The first section, the consideration of my sins and of their effects in hell, is the negative part. It aims by self-denial to release our wills from our binding addictions, to enable the will to desire and to choose rationally.

The second part of the Spiritual Exercises, start in with a consideration of the Incarnation and going through the Passion and Resurrection, is an effort to see how Christ would handle various situations.

A priest alcoholic, who has written with discernment on the Spiritual Exercises, first pointed out to me the similarity between them and the twelve steps of A.A. Bill, the founder of A.A. recognized that those twelve steps are pretty much the releasing of myself from the things that prevent my will’s choosing God as I understand Him.

Read the whole thing.

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Jim Manney

Senior Editor at Loyola Press
Jim Manney is a popular writer on Ignatian topics (God Finds Us, A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer) as well as the editor of many books on Ignatian spirituality, including What Is Ignatian Spirituality? He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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4 Comments on The Spiritual Exercises and the 12 Steps

  1. recidivus ut sanitas // January 26, 2011 at 11:56 am // Reply

    Thank you for posting this! It is difficult to find any of Fr. Dowling’s stuff.

  2. If a person has to reach/aim at constant peace, he has to live in a spiritual life. And as said by many scholars to date, Awareness is the first step to change.

  3. Augustine Hourigan C P // January 25, 2015 at 6:27 am // Reply

    Insightful, thanks.

  4. Thanks for the post! I´m a fellow of A.A. myself and I´m currently researching on Ignatian Spirituality. The Examen of St. Ignatius instantly reminded me of the 12 steps.
    I was surprised to learn that there is actually a conncetion between the 12 steps and Ignatian Excercises. And incredible to see how much I learn through AA. As a side note, I´m not a Catholic 🙂

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