My name is Jenny B., and I joined Al-Anon when someone close to me joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
When I first walked into our local meeting place in search of an Al-Anon meeting, the greeter directed me to a room upstairs, and I slipped quietly into a meeting in progress. It turned out to be a women’s meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, but since it appeared to be coming to a close, I stayed. When everyone stood and held hands, I joined the circle. The woman leading the meeting said, “Who keeps us sober?” And everyone solemnly intoned, Our Father, who art in Heaven…
The Al-Anon meeting that I had originally been seeking began a half-hour later. When it drew to a close, the meeting leader prompted everyone by saying, “Whose father?” And again we recited, Our Father, who art in Heaven…
Each time, I joined the others in the Lord’s Prayer, in the spirit of unity and out of plain, old-fashioned politeness. But, it rankled.
In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery programs, addiction is approached as a disease of the spirit, and the 12 steps are intended to lead to a spiritual awakening. Often newcomers
resist or reject or find fault with or want to change some aspect of the program to make it “better,” which only makes old-timers chuckle, since they know that the fault lies not in the program but
within the newcomer. The point of resistance is where recovery must begin.
While examining this truth in the context of my program, I saw that the spiritual aspects weren’t the problem at all. For me, the Lord’s Prayer was the problem.
I was not unfamiliar with the Lord’s Prayer. I was baptized in a Protestant faith, raised in a non-sectarian Christian church, and even recited the entire Rosary, which includes many repetitions
of the Lord’s Prayer, every Friday for a year while attending a Catholic girls school.
But now, it bothered me. I wanted to pray, but not to “Our Father.” I wanted to pursue spiritual enlightenment, but not while professing doctrinal faith to a Christian tradition. I wanted to be able to stand next to others reciting the Lord’s Prayer and respect their recovery program, without compromising my own.
And I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way.
So I sought an alternative to the Lord’s Prayer. The community of people in recovery is creative and resourceful, I thought, so surely someone has written an alternative prayer to use at the close of meetings while others pray the Lord’s Prayer. I looked in the place where everyone looks for things these days: the Internet.
The first thing I discovered was the Lord’s Prayer itself.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he taught them the Lord’s Prayer (named for Our Lord Jesus Christ, and also called the Our Father, Pater Noster, Paternoster, and Oratio
Dominica). The prayer is repeated twice in the New Testament of the Bible, in Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:9-13.
What is the meaning of this ancient prayer? A Christian website says, “The Lord’s Prayer is composed of an invocation and seven petitions, the first three asking for God's glorification, the last four requesting divine help and guidance. A final doxology, ‘For thine is the kingdom…’ is found in some ancient manuscripts. Protestants customarily include the doxology in their recitation of the prayer; Roman Catholics do not, although it is added in the new order of Mass..”
To put this into A.A. terminology, Jesus taught these words as a way to pray to and worship the god of his understanding. Today Catholic and Protestant Christians use the Lord’s Prayer “in nearly every liturgy, sacrament, and public and private prayer,” and it is “the principal prayer and a unifying bond of Christians.”
Although I did not find alternatives to the Lord’s Prayer, my web search did reveal that I was not alone in feeling uncomfortable with the use of that prayer to close meetings. Many people have raised this issue, including a man named Russ who wrote to Bill W. about it. Below is a portion of Bill W.’s letter in reply dated April 14, 1959, reportedly from the A.A. archives in New York:
“Now about the business of adding the Lord's Prayer to each A.A. meeting. This practice probably came from the Oxford Groups who were influential in the early days of A.A. You have probably noted in A.A. Comes of Age what the connection of these people in A.A. really was. I think saying the Lord's Prayer was a custom of theirs following the close of each meeting. Therefore it quite easily got shifted into a general custom among us.
“Of course there will always be those who seem to be offended by the introduction of any prayer whatever into an ordinary A.A. gathering. Also, it is sometimes complained that the Lord's Prayer is a Christian document. Nevertheless this Prayer is of such widespread use and recognition that the arguments of its Christian origin seems to be a little farfetched. It is also true that most A.A.’s believe in some kind of God and that communication and strength is obtainable through His grace. Since this is the general consensus it seems only right that at least the Serenity Prayer and the Lord's Prayer be used in connection with our meetings. It does not seem necessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers to the extent of completely hiding our light under a bushel.
“However, around here, the leader of the meeting usually asks those to join him in the Lord's Prayer who feel that they would care to do so. The worst that happens to the objectors is that they have to listen to it. This is doubtless a salutary exercise in tolerance at their stage of progress.”
At the risk of being roundly criticized for challenging our most revered A.A. founder, I disagree with Bill W. on a couple of points made in this letter. First of all, the Lord’s Prayer clearly is
of Christian origin and is of widespread use – among Christians. The Lord’s Prayer is the only prayer attributed to the founder of the Christian faith, is found twice in the New
Testament, includes professions of faith and worship of a Christian God, and is the universal prayer of all Christians. No doubt this prayer was incorporated into the Oxford Group and then Alcoholics
Anonymous because the founders and early members were predominantly, if not exclusively, Christian.
As a person in Narcotics Anonymous put it, “A minority is painfully aware that the Lord's Prayer is the prayer of a specific religion... People in the minority are generally the most appreciative of the protection offered by our Third Tradition.” In addition to Jews, Muslims, and people of other non-Christian faiths who might be uncomfortable hearing a Christian prayer at every meeting, there are those who, having been abused at the hands of their fathers or Fathers, might not want to pray to “Our Father.”
In his letter Bill W. suggests that objectors listen to the Lord’s Prayer as a salutary exercise in tolerance. Certainly newcomers must listen to and tolerate a great deal before they overcome their “belligerent denial” to reach humility and understanding, and as Bill W. says, the program should not defer to them. This is why protections are built into A.A., Al-Anon, and similar 12-step programs, so that changes cannot be made impulsively by any individual (whether a newcomer or an old-timer), but come only after lengthy review and consensus of the group conscience.
Meetings in many regions have found a simple answer to this controversy by replacing the Lord’s Prayer with the Serenity Prayer, which in its short four-line version is a perfect non-denominational prayer for A.A. and other 12-step programs.
But beyond custom, beyond consensus, and beyond controversy, Bill W. and others defend the Lord’s Prayer with good reason.
It is a beautiful prayer.
As the Big Book says, “We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” In focusing on the words of worship of a traditional male Christian god, I had overlooked the beauty and meaning and power of its other words, and only by studying them closely discovered their relevance to the 12 steps. Now I understand why Bill W. and so many others recite the Lord’s Prayer as part of their recovery.
As for me... I still was not comfortable praying to and worshiping the traditional male Christian Father Who Art in Heaven. And I knew there were many others who felt the same way.
At the risk of being roundly criticized for changing beautiful two-thousand-year-old words attributed to Jesus and prayed by millions of people worldwide and for interpreting the words of an
amazing program of recovery founded over 70 years ago, I was inspired to adapt the Lord’s Prayer to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, creating the Higher Power Prayer over many months of
prayer and reflection.
I certainly don’t pretend to elevate myself to the level of Jesus, Bill W., or Reinhold Niebuhr. I am just another flawed human being who still considers herself a newcomer to Al-Anon and a student of Alcoholics Anonymous, and who stands in awe of the simplicity, the paradox, and the effectiveness of 12-step recovery programs that have helped me and so many others. And I am not anti-Christian – in fact, for over a year now I have been attending a Christian church that is aligned with my core beliefs. But now I have a prayer that fits with my spirituality and the 12-step program that inspired it.
Just as I felt called to create the Higher Power Prayer, I also feel called to share it with others, which is why I created the Higher Power Prayer bookmarks and website. I humbly offer these to the community of people in recovery from alcoholism, addiction, and dysfunction; their families and friends; and all those seeking a nondenominational prayer for the god of their understanding.
The Higher Power Prayer is a new non-denominational prayer and alternative to the Lord’s Prayer, and it is my hope that it can help make newcomers of all religions and walks of life feel welcome at meetings. It is in no way intended to force change onto A.A. or any 12-step program or anyone who prefers to say the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, or any other prayer – or none at all.
The Higher Power Prayer is to address to the god of your understanding, be it a Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Moslem, Muslim, Native American, Pagan, Protestant, Wiccan, or other god – or a doorknob.
The first line of the Higher Power Prayer may be substituted with your name for your god,such as Dear God, Divine Mother, Great Spirit, Heavenly Father, Holy One, Inward Light, O Goddess, Sacred Creator, Universal Essence…
The words requesting guidance in the Higher Power Prayer reflect the main petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, while incorporating meaning from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs, including humility, forgiveness, surrendering one’s will and fear and control to a Higher Power, and carrying the message of recovery to others.
The sounds, rhythms, and a few of the words of the Higher Power Prayer are intentionally a close match to those of the Lord’s Prayer, so that people may join together in prayer, each one saying the prayer of their own choosing at the same time without disturbing one another.