Visiting priest sees similarity between AA 12 step program and writings of Church Fathers

Floyd Franz (left), a teacher at St. Herman Theological Seminary and director of the Freedom Challenge, with visiting priest Fr. David Subu.

Guest priest Fr. David Subu of St. Mary’s Orthodox parish of Falls Church, Virginia, gave the homily at Holy Resurrection Cathedral on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, based on Christ’s parable that distinguishes self-righteous pride from God-fearing humility. His sermon set the tone for the upcoming Lenten season (now in progress) in which the faithful examine themselves in repentance and humility. Subu also gave a series of lectures and classes at St. Herman Theological Seminary.

A graduate of St. Vladimir Seminary in Crestwood, New York, Subu completed his doctorate of ministry on the subject of the 12-step recovery program of Alcoholic Anonymous in relation to the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church. 

“All true theology is practical,” said Subu, referencing a quote from a Church Father. “If it is not practical, it is not true.”

The meditations of the Desert Fathers regarding the walk of faith speak to the issue of drug and alcohol addiction, Subu said. 

“Both the 12 steps of AA and the sayings of the Fathers emerge from the ‘empirical crucible of experience,’” Subu said.

The Church Fathers often address the “passions,” a word that can have negative and positive connotations. “When we talk about passions today, it’s usually in a positive context (such as) ‘I’m passionate about something,’” Subu said. 

But in a negative sense, according to the Church Fathers and Stoic philosophers, the passions are like addictions. The Fathers recognized that “habits over time become compulsive and imprisoning to the point where your will is not able to overcome the (temptation) and turn back. Passions and addictions seem to be much of the same,” said Subu.

Generally speaking, the classic definition of “addiction” is a habit or behavior or use of a substance that is done repeatedly to the point of a person continuing to do so in spite of negative consequences, Subu said.

Passions and addictions can become imprisoning and inescapable, Subu said.

For his doctoral dissertation, Subu spent time in Romania studying a recovery program initiated by Floyd Franz, who currently teaches at St. Herman Theological Seminary and heads the Freedom Challenge program, which teaches students how to minister to those caught up in substance abuse. 

In Romania, Franz combined the AA’s 12 steps with the teachings of traditional Orthodox Christianity.

Subu wanted to know how participation in the 12-step program in Romania affected the participants’ church life.

“What I found was much to what I expected,” said Subu.

“In just about every single case, the only person who didn’t have a positive impact was somebody who was not sober and had just begun the program. Anyone with a long-term sobriety of a year or more showed that (participation in the 12-step program) greatly improved their participation in church life, increased the amount of time they went to communion and confession, (and) improved their understanding of their faith and relationship with God,” said Subu, adding that it “helped them get to the place to find a faith that works.”

Spending time in Romania was “a lot of fun,” Subu said. “I got to meet all kinds of interesting people from various backgrounds.” 

Subu’s research in Romania “bore out the same kind of results shown by research on the effectiveness of the 12-step program in the United States,” Subu said. “It works if you work it.”

For his doctorate, Subu provided lessons designed to benefit parishioners as well as those in the priesthood. He prepared YouTube presentations relating the 12-step recovery to the teachings of the church.

While in Kodiak, Subu met with seminarians to discuss childhood trauma and how it can lead to substance abuse and other disorders. 

“We think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a combat veteran issue. In the U.S. today, children are 10 times more likely to develop PTSD, because of adverse childhood experiences, than a combat veteran,” Subu said.

PTSD is a “huge epidemic,” he said. “Trauma embeds itself in nonverbal memory in your brain and body.”

Subu noted that first responders — including social workers, psychologists and priests — can suffer a secondary traumatic response, “something like second-hand smoke.”

The 12-step program and the corresponding teaching of the Church Fathers can help in trauma stewardship, which is “basically the care-taking of your memories,” Subu said.

Franz gave an example of a Romanian priest in the city of Cluj who was “a top-notch guy, top of the class.”

The priest was ready to quit the priesthood because many of his parishioners had died from alcohol-related issues. Since he was their priest, he wondered why he couldn’t help them.

“He was getting ready to throw in the towel,” said Franz. “We got him into our program in Cluj. He started realizing that the 12-step program was pretty handy. They can actually help people. He was on fire when I left Cluj. He went back to his parish and started implementing the programs.” 

Franz noted that the Patriarchate of Romania is moving on its intention to implement Franz’s program for training clergy to help deal with addictions. 

“In 20 years (Franz) has been able to bring awareness of recovery with clergy, social workers, psychologists, doctors, nurses, all over the country” of Romania, said Subu. “People’s lives are being transformed. It’s beautiful to see. I got to talk to people who probably would have been in the grave if it were not for the sobriety program.” 

In his discussions with seminarians, Subu also addressed the relationship between the church and the native culture, which values storytelling and traditional means of healing.

As “the Body of Christ, we are the ones who tell the stories in our preaching and teaching,” said Subu. “We are the ones who are preserving the memory of a 200-year-old tradition.”

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