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The abyss and the gift

First slide

"I’m very happy I’m an alcoholic," Anthony Hopkins said in a recent interview. The 45-years-sober actor, aged 83, continued: "It’s a great gift, because wherever I go, the abyss follows me."

The scourge of alcoholism is a "great gift" one can be "very happy" about? Not familiar with Hopkins’ biography, I suspected this was just an act.   

"Wherever I move, I can’t go back. Because for me to do that would be deadly," he said. "It’s fun to move forward in life and think, ‘Don’t look back, because there’s a big, gaping abyss behind you, and it’s called death.’ "

While I find Hopkins’s acting forceful — most recently in "The Father" — I can’t say I’ve ever turned to him for moral guidance. A former atheist, he now professes belief "in some form of universal intelligence." But in an age that would rather ignore the "great abyss," Hopkins’ story of recovery is gripping. How many of us, I wonder, can speak with such candor, ease and freedom about our own personal "gaping abyss"?

In the late 1970s, the abyss of Hopkins’s alcoholism nearly swallowed him. "Drinking myself to death" and unable to make it past six weeks of sobriety at a time, Hopkins finally knocked on the door of Alcoholics Anonymous, where an elderly volunteer named Dorothy welcomed him and asked, "Why don’t you just come home and rest, honey? Why don’t you just trust in God?"

"I remember that morning," he recounts with the clarity of a conversion experience. "A Monday morning, the 29th of December, 1975." With Dorothy’s questions ringing in his ears, he then came "in contact with a power that is so fascinating, so infinite and so all-consuming," and heard a voice say to him, "It’s all over. Do you want to live or die?" He chose life. And while a long road of AA meetings — with those he came to call his "real family" — lay ahead, the urge to drink left him that day.  

With our own personal abyss, it’s easier to dodge Dorothy’s penetrating questions and opt for a sin management approach. Our gossiping, drinking, pornography use, anger, white lies, approval seeking, workaholism, online gaming, complaining, social media, overeating , whatever — it’s not an abyss, we reason, but rather a shortcoming that we just need to work on and manage. Instead of avoiding the near occasion of sin, we walk around the edge of the abyss, toying with it. Shame enters the picture as we find ourselves unable to break free of patterns, and we choose not to see the abyss as an existential threat. Instead of managing our sin, our sin manages us.

But there is another path forward.

"O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem" (O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer). In the Easter vigil Exsultet, this is how we sing of Adam’s fall — as paradoxically happy or fortunate in that it set in motion the coming of our Savior. Our own abyss — or what Paul referred to as his "thorn in the flesh"— can likewise be the harbinger of our freedom.

Paul begged the Lord to take his thorn from him, but instead he heard, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." At that, Paul adopted a new relationship with his abyss, one that accepted his relative powerlessness to "manage" it, apart from Christ. "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me ," he wrote.

"It’s a great gift," Hopkins says of the thorn and weakness of his alcoholism.

"I am content with weaknesses… for the sake of Christ," Paul wrote. "For when I am weak, then I am strong." The abyss, the thorn, the reality of sin follows every last one of us.

In a culture that manically invites us to revel in the abyss, or ignore it, or be ashamed of it, or white-knuckle it, the church illumines the only way out: through our encounter with Christ, conversion, confession, daily turning to Our Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the company of our "real family"— all of whom are in abyss-recovery — in the church, and possibly support groups or professional counseling.

Forty-five years later, Dorothy’s questions still have the power to jolt us away from our abyss and onto the path to life: "Why don’t you just come home and rest, honey? Why don’t you just trust in God?"

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are cofounders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021