I HAVE BEEN TO Jewish services of all kinds, have seen Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians at worship, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists--Golden Temple, Holy Sepulcher, Wailing Wall; Lhasa, Bodhgaya, Santa Maria sopra Minerva--but the truest religion I have ever witnessed was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. A friend of mine reached his 20th anniversary of sobriety not long ago, and I went to his meeting to help him celebrate.
What I saw there was religion stripped to its bones, austerely beautiful like a piece of Shaker furniture. No priesthood, no prelacy, no special garments or sacred objects, no shibboleths of membership. A bare minimum of custom and formula. A congregation called by need, not duty. Meaning springing from the bottom up: not from mythology or dogma or scripture, language handed down by rote, but from the particularities of individual experience--words spoken for the first time, not the trillionth.
One person said, "I don't wake up anymore feeling like I want to die. I may not always wake up feeling like I want to live, but I no longer wake up feeling like I want to die." Another said, "When I drank that first beer, I had no idea what was going to happen after that." A third added, "When I drank, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I always wound up in the same place. Now that I don't drink, I have no idea, and it's wonderful."
Most of all, a sense that...