All that God has ever wanted for us is that we be free. His laws and teachings are given to us, not to hamper our freedom, but to guarantee its fulfilment. And its fulfilment is to be like God, with God and in God. The real enemy of freedom is evil. It sells itself, of course, as the champion of freedom, but its seductive mask hides its real intent to enslave us. Christ came to unmask it and to destroy its barefaced lies.
At the end of the Our Father we pray, “deliver us from evil.” At Mass, the priest picks this petition up and adds, “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil. Graciously grant peace in our days that we may be free from all distress as we await the glorious coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”
“Every evil.” That suggests there are many evils, and many kinds of evils. Moral evil is the deliberate choice to do what we know to be wrong. If the thing we do is serious, and if our choice is truly free and our awareness full, then the moral choice we make is a mortal sin. If not, it is venial.
But there are other evils: there is physical suffering, mental anguish, the disorder of nature and society. And, as we know so well and so bitterly, it is often the most innocent who suffer the most from these evils, whilst the wicked appear to go Scot free. There is then the mental torture of wrestling with the great why: why do the innocent suffer? This is the central question of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. Its answer is in the New: Christ crucified.
Today, I would like to talk about one specific form of evil which afflicts a huge number of people, and probably someone very close to you. I refer to addiction. Addiction might start as a moral evil, for example, if someone knowingly and deliberately overindulges in alcohol or in drugs or in pornography. But, in time, that sin committed, and even confessed and repented of, fades into the background because the attraction of the evil has taken root deep in a person’s make-up. They are caught. The word addiction in Latin means slavery. And while the moral devastation may be diminished because the addiction becomes a sickness, it can still nevertheless cause untold damage of a moral and spiritual kind to others, and usually to one’s nearest and dearest.
There is a charity called “Action on Addiction” which says that one in three adults is addicted to something in some form. It defines addiction as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point it could harm you.” Doing something: e.g. gambling, gaming, shopping. I once knew a woman who was hospitalised because she was addicted to Pringle’s crisps. Taking something: e.g. alcohol, nicotine, narcotics. Using something: e.g. pornography, drugs. The Pringle’s example shows that the human being can become addicted to anything.
What is the addict looking for? Well, it’s commonly called a “high” of some sort, be it emotional, physical or of some other nature. The experience of the “high” brings on the urge to repeat it and, with time, to intensify it to be “higher and higher.” Since withdrawing from the experience can be painful, a reluctance to do so sets in as the easier option. And the human being will usually always go for the easier option. Even although the addict knows that their addiction can seriously damage their health, work, life and relationships, they keep at it.
The origin of the addiction can be genetic. I am sure we have all met families where, alas, alcoholism seems to pass from parent to child. The environment can also lead to addiction, e.g. poverty or unemployment. Some psychological wound can also trigger addiction, such as low self-esteem or the need to escape from painful memories or events of the past.
Whatever the addiction, though, the good news is that it is curable! No-one is condemned to remain in the vicious circle of addiction. Going to a G.P., to a health centre, to organisations that specialise in helping addicts is always a possibility. The Samaritans can be contacted anonymously for assistance for oneself or a loved one.
Given the statistic mentioned above, we have to accept that addiction is a reality in our parish and in our town. You will appreciate that, as a priest, I come across some very sad and painful situations of addiction, as do other professionals who work for the community. People are struggling and suffocating and drowning in addictions. The big problem is convincing them that they can come out of it. You repeatedly hear people say, “I just can’t stop it.” On their own, that’s true, but with the help of others, with our help, they can. The challenge to us as a Christian community is to give a hand, to stretch a hand out and say, “here, I will help you.” How powerful is the image of an open, outstretched hand!
So, what can we actually do? I wish the parish had the personnel and funding to open counselling centres and other resources to offer practical and sustained help. Alas, we do not. So, the least I thought I could do is provide at the back of the church a display with a number of pamphlets which offer a stepping stone to getting help for addiction from organisations that specialize in them.
While I understand the shame and stigma that sadly still attaches to addictions of all kinds, we need as a community to help one another overcome that. There are about 180 people here today. Chances are there are 60 of us with some kind of addiction. In other words, you are not alone, so you should not suffer alone: we should not let you suffer alone. While I know you will be reluctant to be seen taking a pamphlet for gambling addiction or pornography addiction, it is important that you know the pamphlets are there. Every one of us is human and therefore weak. A Greek philosopher once said, “nothing human is alien to me.” In other words, every human being can intuit what leads others to behave in a given way. We give each other the cold, for goodness sake! Are we not also likely to give one another bad habits? More importantly, are we not also able to help one another quit them?
We are in this together. We belong to one another, all the more so because of our baptism and membership of Jesus Christ. He became weak with us out of compassion and in order to give us strength in our weakness. He bore the stigmata, and when his hand is stretched out to save us, it is a wounded hand. Sadly, when we hear of others’ misfortunes, we can be tempted to gossip and murmur, as if we were somehow superhuman and devoid of all fragility and weakness. To do that is to put yourself against Christ, above Him even, and not just your wounded neighbour. So, we need to learn instead of gossiping in our secure bubbled relationships, to ask ourselves, “what can I do to help?” How about a gossip group becoming a support group?
The pamphlets available include help for: alcohol, drugs, gambling, gaming, child social networking, sex and pornography addiction, narcotics anonymous, eating disorders and suicide. There’s none on Pringle’s crisps, but should there be?!
There is a well-known campaign to “keep Christ in Christmas.” I would like to propose that we start another campaign to “keep Christ in every crisis.” Addiction is not somehow on the margins of the Gospel or the Church. Any suffering of any kind always beckons the Cross of Jesus. We need to pray insistently for deliverance, for the strength to sustain the withdrawal symptoms by looking to Christ and to Christians for the concrete aid that we need. I was once stationed with a priest who was a recovering alcoholic. He told me that the worst thing about withdrawal was the “heebie-jeebies”, i.e. the physical trembling and sense of aching emptiness and craving which the recovering alcoholic has to face at one point in his recovery. He told me that he could never have done it without two people sitting with him through the night, literally holding his hands and reassuring them he was okay, talking him through it, giving him cups of tea, wiping his brow, holding him tight.
That picture is both horrible and beautiful. It’s horrible because it shows what real damage and misery the seductive lies of the addiction caused to a human being. It’s beautiful because it shows how basic human solidarity, with simple gestures like hugging and holding hands can help heal and restore a brother or sister to themselves.
So, my pitch to you today is not one of marketing (I have no shares in the addiction charities!), or of populism. It is one of basic humanity and basic Christianity. It comes from the heart of the Gospel, from the compassionate and crucified Christ. Addiction means slavery. Christ means freedom. Which is it to be? Where do you stand?