A spiritual sage once remarked, “There are only two things powerful enough to change a man; those things are pain and prayer.”

Like many of us who find our way into recovery, Bill Wilson suffered pain. When Bill was only 11, his father walked out on both him and his family, and shortly thereafter, Bill’s mother abandoned him too. She took his sister Dorothy with her but chose to leave Bill behind. In high school, Bill’s first love, the girl he had hoped to marry, died after a sudden illness. He was devastated. Young Wilson sunk into a depression so deep he was forced to drop out of school. The world wasn’t safe but it still hadn’t finished inflicting its pain on his soul. Bill’s alcoholism arose to deliver the final blows; it beat him and stripped him and robbed him of all he held dear. Pain was no stranger to the life of Bill Wilson, but he’d be the first to admit that prayer sure as hell was!

When Bill’s old drinking buddy showed up in Bill’s kitchen he had arrived, not under the influence of alcohol, but sixty days sober under the influence of the Rev. Sam Shoemaker. Ebby was living at Sam’s Calvary Mission in Manhattan – an arm of Calvary Episcopal Church where the Oxford Group called home. There, alcoholics found soup, soap, and a new path to salvation. There, they wasted no time in teaching a man how to pray. “Surrender as much of yourself as you understand to as much of God as you understand,” Sam would say to them. He would often quote John 7:17, “If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” In other words, don’t approach prayer as some mysterious art for the learned and holy but enter into it more like an experiment– an alternative pathway to change for the desperate.

When Ebby first carried this new message of hope to Bill Wilson, something started to light up inside him. Bill wanted what Ebby had. It wasn’t the kind of religion that demanded belief right off the bat but one that could be built on the experience of pain and defeat. Bill had amassed plenty of those.

Several days later, Wilson traveled to Shoemaker’s Calvary Mission. He arrived there drunk but intent on finding a way out of his alcoholic dilemma. When an altar call was announced, the once proud agnostic rose from his seat and answered. Bill’s experiment with prayer had begun. Instead of hitting the bottle, he hit his knees. “Soon I knelt among the sweating, stinking penitents. Maybe then and there, for the very first time, I was penitent too. Something touched me. I guess it was more than that, I was hit.”

Bill Wilson claimed authorship for the 1st and 12th Steps of the A.A. Program; but he always credited Rev. Sam Shoemaker with teaching him the Oxford Group principles that constituted the other ten. Wilson wrote, “Where did the early AA’s find the material for the remaining ten steps? Where did we learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and our lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob’s and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker.” (Bill Wilson, The Language of the Heart, p. 298)

In my own studies of Shoemaker’s influence on Bill Wilson and early AA, I discovered we have all but abandoned the prayer practices of our pioneers. Speaking of his own experiment with prayer, Shoemaker writes, “Formerly I had sought to find my own way up to God. Now I let Him find His way down to me. Listening became the dominant note. Not the exclusive note; for there was Bible study first, taking a book and studying it straight through; there was ordinary prayer, confession, petition, thanksgiving, intercession. But the bulk of the time is listening. Most of us find it indispensible to have a loose-leaf note-book, in which to write down the things that come to us. It goes without saying such a period is best in the early morning, while the body and mind are fresh and rested, the perceptions clear and unclouded, and the day is before us. We shall want to stop more than once in the day for further direction, especially with others about problems which concern them and us. But nothing makes up for our own private time alone with the living God.” (Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., The Conversion of the Church, p.59.)

The kind of Two Way Prayer Shoemaker suggests has the power to change us. It’s an experiment that leads away from listening to our selves, the source of our problems, to listening to God, the source of our solution. If you’ve had enough of pain, you might want to try prayer. Even at 6 AM, it’s the softer, easier way!

About the Author

Father Bill W. has worked in the addiction treatment field for over 40 years. He serves as Chair of Recovery Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and is the newest Fellow at the Hope and Healing Institute. Father Bill presents retreats and workshops throughout the United States on 12-Step spirituality. In 2008 he received the Wheelock Whitney Award from the Johnson Institute. The award is given to “the man or woman who has advanced the understanding of faith and science in addiction prevention and recovery.” Please watch his new video at www.TwoWayPrayer.org or send comments to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 26 March 2014 14:52 )