Saint Paul refers to a thorn in his flesh, a messenger of Satan that is his constant reminder of the need for God’s grace.1 Although many authors have discussed the nature of this thorn, there is no consensus as to its meaning. I have no greater insight into its meaning for St. Paul but can identify with having a thorn in my flesh. In contemporary terms, we refer to it as an addiction.
We don’t need “sample surveys,” universities or government agencies to tell us; our common experience in the United States tells us that the numbers are staggering for those addicted variously to illegal drugs, prescription drugs, gambling, eating, alcohol, internet pornography, sexual acting out. Addiction crosses all barriers: gender, age, socio-economic status, profession. Explanations regarding etiology, and therefore treatment of various addictions, vary. My purpose in this short article is not to offer an all-encompassing theory or treatment plan for addiction. Rather, it’s to reflect on my own experiential perspective in the hope that it may bring some direction to other priests either dealing with their own addiction or assisting others in counseling or in the confessional.
With me for many, many years, the power and influence of this “thorn” on my behavior ranges from the kind of annoyance one experiences with a flea bite to a constant and wrenching presence causing persistent distraction. Interestingly, at least to my knowledge, no one has suspected its existence in my life. Like so many with addictions, we are able to conceal them from most people.
Through my various academic studies — particularly in psychopharmacology, but more importantly in my own lived experience — I have come to the painful realization that all addictions, not only the obvious drug-related additions, alter the very chemistry and circuitry of the brain. It’s not just a “bad habit.” It’s a bad habit, as they say, on steroids. That euphemism only begins to express why these addictions are so intense and resistant to change. It also explains why no one intervention fits all. The brain is not reducible to mere chemicals and electrical circuits. This three-pound organ is unique and distinctive, responding to and shaped by various environmental experiences. How it perceives the world around it, how it responds to the world around it, is also unique and distinctive. A unique but integrative approach to addiction will address an individual’s biology, psychology, environment, and spirituality (bio-psycho-social-spiritual).
As with any approach to behavior, there is no one method that will apply to everyone in the same manner. But I do believe that a combination of the tactics that I describe below can be applied with some satisfaction to many, especially to priests and religious.
Medical intervention, psychiatric and psychological attempts to remove the thorn were less than satisfactory alone. Prayer alone seemed to increase my sense of guilt and shame. So, falling from the horse multiple times (or perhaps being knocked from the saddle to the ground), how have I managed to bring a sense of control and constraint to my life?
Prayer; meditation; confession, spiritual direction, accountability; developing and deepening a mature faith; medical consultation, psychological intervention are the sine qua non of my own stabilization (and that of the many individuals I have seen in pastoral counseling). Below, I will explain each of these factors and how they interact within an individual to offer some balance in one’s life.
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