The Church and Addictions
There are two underlying causes for most addictions: trauma, particularly childhood trauma, and isolation/loneliness. The Church is uniquely positioned to heal both of these causes.
Note, that I do not say that the Church is uniquely positioned to heal the addictions, but rather to heal those causes of addictions. Through Confession and Professional Counseling, the traumas that cause so much spiritual and emotional pain can be healed. Through participation in the full life of the Church, the loneliness and isolation can be healed.
But none of this will happen unless the local community/church is a welcoming and loving place.
If we do not “forgive all by the Resurrection” then we make our community into a place of judgment. If we do not love our enemies, “even those that hate us”, or if we do not love those who come in repentance, no matter how shallow, and open our hearts and our community to them, then our church becomes a cold place where God is distant and our works do not reflect our Faith.
This is not an easy task, but it is the task to which the Church has been called. How much of “feeding the hungry” is seen as a physical rather than a spiritual and emotional task? How much of “giving drink to those who thirst” is answered by the water that only satisfies for a while rather than the Living Water of Christ? How much of “visiting those in prison or ill” is satisfied by going to a jail built by men rather than the prisons of the mind or of the heart, those prisons that capture and create an addict?
It is precisely because Confession in the Orthodox Church is a time of repentance, a time of rethinking our lives and reflecting on those things within us that cause us to sin, rather than a dry recitation of acts committed or thoughts or words expressed, that makes our Church a place of healing rather than judgment. Our Lord's instruction, “As you forgive the sins of others, so will your Heavenly Father forgive your sins,” (Mt. 6:14) is one which permits us no other action except forgiveness if we are to have any hope for His mercy in the Dread Judgment.
Note that forgiveness does not imply or include acceptance. We Orthodox Christians do not consider any sin to be acceptable, only forgivable.
Thus, every addict, no matter what the addiction, should expect a home in every church.
The Fathers and Addiction
The Fathers are silent about addiction because for most of our history, addiction was seen as a moral issue and the consequence of a lack of faith, rather than a matter of brain chemistry. Many fathers speak about the passions, and there are those today who equate the passions with addictions among other things, but addictions are much more than a passion and cannot and should not be dealt with in the same way. The very concepts and understanding of childhood trauma are a 20th century development and appear long after any of the Fathers.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is often dealt with by the Fathers. Because loneliness is such a common aspect of earthly life the fathers speak of it often. However, loneliness is seen as the absence of the presence of God in one's life. Loneliness, both for addictions and for spiritual life, is a maladaptation to our presence in this life. It is the lack of the knowledge and understanding of the omnipresence of God every moment of our lives.
Fasting and the Addict
One of the great arsenals against addictions that the Church gives us is fasting. Fasting is not a cure for addictions, but it is a great weapon. True fasting is a decision from within as to what I am going to eat or how I am going to live or what I am not going to eat and how I am not going to live. As with every human decision, we are not always successful in carrying them out, but the pattern of how we are living in this moment is our basis.
Because fasting helps us to set boundaries in our lives, regular weekly fasting is one of the ways in which resumption of addictive behaviors can be resisted. Fasting is one of the ways in which we connect to the life of the Church and to the lives of the Saints of the Church. It is also an excellent practice for controlling our lives rather than allowing our desires to control us. Following the annual and weekly fasts with participation in the full cycle of the church services is a way of becoming one with our brothers and sisters in Christ, of being one of the family of God, and of experiencing the presence of God in our lives rather than being an individual “doing our own thing”.
But all of this will only work when the Church is not condemnatory when we fail – fail to fast, fail to avoid addictive behaviors, fail to be perfect.