Living a Sober Life: Orthodox Temperance Society

The Great Lent is the best time to get down to the battle against passions. Sin, passion, vice, and addiction are related concepts. Alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions are arguably the most antisocial passions that change a person’s lifestyle rapidly and radically.

It has long been evident that dependency is not just a healthcare problem. It is a spiritual problem, too. Luckily, the Church has an effective treatment method grounded in the teachings of the Holy Fathers. Thus, St Elisabeth Convent has organised the Orthodox Temperance Society. Archpriest Eugene Pavelchuk supervised a similar organisation in Hrodna for six years. Today, he puts his experience to use in our Convent, too.

Father Eugene, could you please tell us what the main idea behind the Orthodox Temperance Society is?

The Orthodox Temperance Society in Hrodna was established six years ago when I served in the Holy Protection Cathedral of that city. Those who suffer from alcohol, drug, gambling, and other dependencies, receive therapy based on the prescriptions of the Holy Fathers. With the blessing of Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok, the spiritual father of St Elisabeth Convent, an Orthodox Temperance Society has been established in our Convent, too.

Any passion is first and foremost an illness of the soul, even if it is linked to certain chemical substances. Alcohol and drugs are merely means of the subjugation of one’s soul. An individual drinks alcohol not because he likes its taste but because he likes the altered state of mind, the fake happiness and imaginary joy that ensues. This is what passion means: it’s a spoof, a devil’s trap.

You can get rid of dependency only by changing your heart. You can break free only if you stop loving vice and direct your steps to God. This road is incredibly thorny and cumbersome. However, we have patristic instructions how to fight passions; hence, we possess all the necessary tools and resources at hand. Of course, it is achievable only with that person’s active engagement and with God’s help. You cannot defeat sin without God and his grace.

The first step towards recovery is to admit that you are ill and to recognise that you cannot crush the dependency on your own. When you are humbled by your powerlessness, you become humble before God. Let’s recall the parable of the prodigal son. He enjoyed his life drinking wine and partying with harlots. As long as he had the fake sensation of happiness, he was okay and did not want to change anything. Only when, a son of a king that he was, he started herding pigs in exchange for eating their food with them — it should be noted that even this promise was broken: And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him (Luke 15:16) — did he finally acknowledge his desperate situation. Only after hitting rock bottom the prodigal son finally came to his senses and repented.

The devil is a liar. He never gives anything for free to a human being. He just promises: “You’ll have fun! Your life will be flashy!” In reality, the person’s life turns grey, hollow, and disappointing.

The purpose of the Temperance Society is to open up the way for a person to start healing his soul. Our Society is the starting point which can spur one’s improvement, provided that he is willing to participate in it. Being healed does not mean “being able to drink like everyone else.” No! Being healed means living a sober life with God, which is completely on a different level. As soon as a person tastes a God-filled life, the direction of his life changes.

It’s a long and challenging road but there’s no way around. The quick and dirty ways that various organisations offer, are bogus. The devil also suggested a quick and dirty way, didn’t he? As soon as you eat that fruit, you’ll become like God (…in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Cf. Genesis 3:5). God had prepared a long and rugged but the only possible path to becoming like God — the path of self-discipline, humility, and submission. The Lord Jesus Christ did not assure us that this road would be easy. He showed the way of carrying one’s own cross: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16: 24). If someone promises to make a person free from alcohol or drug abuse, he is a liar who leads that person astray…

You say that the starting point for a person to be healed is when he realises his dependency and his illness. What if someone refuses to accept the fact of dependency? What can his relatives do? What should they do to motivate their ill family member to start fighting his addiction?

One will admit that he is ill and make proper conclusions only when he is completely disappointed in his passion. The disappointment comes only when one feels the consequences of his sin. Passions attract people. People like their passions because they have turned into habits. If one doesn’t get hurt after falling, will he come to the right conclusions? No, he won’t. God loves us much stronger than we love our own children. Nevertheless, he lets us fall down, although he supports us invisibly to prevent us from being hurt too badly. The Lord allows an individual to suffer precisely as much as he can handle: If the suffering is too mild, the person won’t learn, but if it’s too harsh, the person can become angry or restless. This is how the great God’s love is made manifest.

As far as the immediate family of the addicts are concerned, they face the tricky challenge. They have to love the unfortunate person but do it the right way, i.e., with a clear view of the situation. The most vital part of our work with the addicts’ relatives is to help them to allow the sharp God’s love into their hearts by knowing God and to extend this love to their relatives. The love that they should learn to communicate is not the excessive love but the right kind of love when you feel where you should let that person fall and not to safeguard him, not to live his life for him. The point is not to help the addict to get rid of his passion temporarily. The point is to help him to change his soul, to help his heart to feel God, accept God’s love, which will then set everything straight. It’s hardly possible for our human reasoning to find the precise level of affection and engagement. It’s possible with God, though.

Relatives and friends of the addicts find the new reality of addiction hard to put up with. They become infuriated with the sick family member. There are cases when a woman goes to a mutual-aid group and then suddenly makes a disastrous decision, “Why do I stand that husband for so long? I want a divorce!” And she gets a divorce. Sure, if a man wastes a long time drinking heavily and clearly does not want to change anything, his wife is entitled to a church divorce. However, I am afraid of extreme actions like these… How much time should a woman spend waiting patiently? Six months, a year, three, five years, a decade — how do we find out? Right now, her husband doesn’t want to admit that he is ill. Half a year later, God will open his heart. Then what? Sometimes the man abandons his sin but his wife has been so frustrated and embittered that she doesn’t want and cannot stay with him any longer. “I loathe you,” she says. Is it a Christian approach? How do you explain the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife (1 Cor. 7:14) then? It’s genuinely elusive. That’s why dealing with the co-dependent is much harder than dealing with the dependent.

Where can one go and who can one ask if one wants to participate in the Temperance Society and start his way out of addiction? Where and when do you meet?

Our Temperance Society works with the addicts systematically in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Fathers. We meet twice a week. We read an Akathist to the Inexhaustible Chalice icon of the Mother of God on Sundays at 6 PM in St John of Shanghai Church followed by a meeting. Additionally, we meet for a friendly discussion in that church every Thursday at 6.30 PM.

Of course, we are in the very beginning of our journey. We have a lot to do together. When the participants of our Society gain enough love to be able to empathise with one another openly, the Society will transform into a real community. Little by little we are getting closer to it. Recently, one of our brothers had a breakdown. I said, “Dear brothers, let’s pray because one of our brothers feels bad and it can be devastating.” All the brothers prayed together, and the brother could feel it. He returned to our group saying, “Forgive me brothers.” He was sincere. Gradually, God willing, we plan to reach a new level where we will have the genuine Divine love among us.

Interview by Maria Kotova
March 2, 2018