Rediscovering God on the road to recovery

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Mike Maher never struggled with alcoholism. But he’s seen the disease devastate the lives of his friends and family, and in turn, devastate him as well. He’s seen addiction cost people their livelihood, their health, their relationships, and perhaps most tragically, their faith in God. “People are spiritually broken,” said Maher, a parishioner of St. Theresa Church in Ashburn.

Al-Anon, a support group. for friends and family members of alcoholics, has helped him cope. The Calix Society, a Catholic support group for alcoholics and their friends and family, has helped him rediscover his faith.

“I was so co-dependent and unhappy. I thought it was my responsibility, that I needed to fix it,” he said of his loved one’s alcoholism. “Al-Anon has helped me learn I can love the people in my life that I’m affected by, but I can also detach from the insanity.”

A secondary priority

Maher was born in upstate New York, the oldest of six in an Irish-Catholic family. His mother was deeply devout. He had a difficult relationship with his father.

“I have no memories of him spending time with me just throwing a football around or things like that,” he said. During his college years, Maher spent a semester in Israel, and the experience helped him forgive his father for past hurts. “I came back a much different young man,” he said.

At the same time, his parents went to counseling, which not only saved their marriage but inspired them both to become therapists. His father later earned a doctorate in theology. The change helped heal the father-son relationship.

“We really came together, my father and me,” he said. “We (had) a lot of good years, and with my brothers, too.”

Maher, himself a divorced father of four, said he’s always had faith. “But my faith was never number one,” he said. “I had a lot of things that were number one. I had to be a good provider, the breadwinner. I was always a family guy, but I got caught up in the work world.”

Today, he said, his faith is the number one priority in his life. The transformation stems from an experience he had during a Calix retreat at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2015.

Seeing God’s hand

Though Maher had attended Al-Anon meetings before, in 2014 he joined the group in earnest, and stayed. Yet he felt like he needed something more, a way to talk about his recovery from a Christian perspective. A Protestant friend recommended he join Calix and talk to Father Thomas B. Cavanaugh, then parochial vicar at St. Theresa. “That was the start of a beautiful relationship with Father Thomas,” he said.

A year later, Maher attended the annual Calix retreat at Mount St. Mary’s. During a break, he visited the grotto, a replica of the spot in Lourdes where St. Bernadette saw visons of the Virgin Mary. Maher lit candles, prayed for his intentions and caught a glimpse of two butterflies in a nearby flower patch, reminding him of childhood summers in Kentucky.

“From that moment on, a number of things started happening,” he said. He began to read the Bible more, attended Sunday and daily Mass. He saw more opportunities to witness the Gospel and to share about his exposure to addiction. “I wanted to get closer to God,” said Maher.

There were several seemingly cosmic coincidences, such as when he was placed in a hospital room with a detoxing alcoholic. They became friends and continued to talk when the young man was in a rehabilitation center. When he later relapsed, Maher checked in at his apartment and let the man’s worried mother know how he was doing. When Maher and his friend found the man blacked out, they convinced him to go to the emergency room. Though he’s in rehab once again, he no longer returns Maher’s calls.

“I was distraught,” said Maher. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, God, you put me in that room for a reason.’ But a friend of mine said, ‘You may be just the seed.’ ”

It reminded Maher of step one in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program: remember that you are powerless. Maher could bring the message, but having someone else accept it, “that’s God’s work,” he said.

Touching the lives of others

A familiar mantra among recovering alcoholics is known as the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” Maher, now a board member of the Calix Society, hopes to change what he can by inviting more people to join the organization. Additionally, he serves as a sponsor for Alateen, a program for teenagers affected by alcoholism, and with other local recovery groups.

On Pentecost Sunday, June 4, he and other Calix members staffed a table outside St. Theresa. Three new members joined. He hopes the group can reach Catholics outside their parish, too.

“I know there are a lot of struggling parishioners in our diocese,” he said. And having fellowship with faithful Catholics in similar straits has made all the difference in his life.

“This is, I think, not my calling but God’s calling for what I’m supposed to be doing —  to be available for others who are in need of comfort and to let them know you can be happy,” he said. “And a large part of that for me was growing in my faith.”

Learn more

The Leesburg chapter of the Calix Society meets Saturdays, 10 a.m. in Loudon Club 12. For more information, call 703-901-8069 or go to calixsociety.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

@ZoeyMaraistACH