Rehab for the Rest of Us

Note: This appeared in The Daily on October 2, 2011. It is no longer extant so I am reproducing it here

In his recent memoir, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards described the rehab stints of his bandmate Ronnie Wood. “Ronnie’s idea of rehab was mainly a strategy to get away from the pressure,” Richards writes. At his favorite facility, in Ireland, the only rule was no visitors and no phone calls. Wood and his fellow residents went there “just to get the day-to-day living off their back.”

As rehab has climbed the rungs from stigma to heroism to lifestyle enhancement, it’s become a part of the resumes of a staggering array of famous people. It’s also an easy trend to disparage. Rehab, as one tabloid has put it, is now little more than a “Get out of jail free” card for people who choose “penitence over prosecution.”

But public acts of penitence and the need to escape the snares of daily living weren’t always thought of as so trivial. For me at least, a show like “Celebrity Rehab” — along with its other charms — demonstrates just how far we’ve gone to recast many of the insights of the ancient Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions into the modern, secular terms of recovery.

The Pasadena, Calif., center where the show takes place makes a big point of separating recovering addicts from their friends and family. The Italian monk St. Benedict, who lived in the sixth century, would not have been surprised: In his famous book of rules for monks, he insisted that friars be isolated from their communities. (He also allowed fallen brothers to come back to the house up to three times if they were willing — much like your typically forgiving modern recovery center.)

Many a therapist has also echoed the fourth-century monk Abba Moses, who compared the mind to a millstone, which can never stop its work. Unless this power is harnessed for good thoughts, he argued, it will issue in every sorrow and compulsion — much like the repetitive mind of an addict who can’t stop thinking about the next fix.

Abba Serapion, a rough contemporary of Abba Moses, described something like what we know today as a “trigger” for addictive behavior: human faults “have a sort of connection with each other, and are, so to speak, linked together in a chain, so that any excess of the one forms a starting point for the next.”

But this is not to say that monasticism is simply another way of talking about rehab, and it’s certainly not to say that a 30-day monastic retreat is a close substitute for professional treatment of chemical dependency. The problem goes the other way: instead of thinking about all of our problems in terms of a “12-step plan,” it’s worth looking to the ancient monastics to learn something about how we might deal with troubles — like Ronnie Wood’s, unlike Keith Richards’ — that are a little less serious than a heroin addiction.

At the Cenacle Retreat Center in Chicago, for instance, the nuns have made it their particular ministry (what Roman Catholics call their “charism”) to offer hospitality to people on spiritual retreat. Their facility has no televisions and no phones. The guests even eat in silence. “People don’t have to be ‘on’ for anyone, even in the dining room,” the center’s administrator, Beverly Ojeda, told me — a rather marked difference from the long group meetings mandated in most rehab programs. “When they leave, people are really glad they’ve given themselves this gift.”

A few miles south, you can rent a room in the Benedictine Bed and Breakfast at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, where eight monks currently make their home. At the guest house, five to 10 people come to visit for a month, from priests and nuns to students and seekers. “In the noise of the city, we cultivate silence,” one of the brothers told me. “You can come here and shut yourself off from the world, though the world is only a doorway away.”

Over my years as a seeker and a pastor I’ve gone on retreats of my own, the most recent after my beloved Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl. I didn’t seek penitence, much less rehab, though remorse certainly can follow a big party. My destination was St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Mich., America’s only Lutheran monastery. It was, among other things, an education by reduction. How automatically do we fulfill the most instant craving for food, how many unnecessary times do we check our email or our phones, how unreflectively do we accommodate the pace and tone of the Internet?

Rare is the person who can’t benefit from some time away from day-to-day living and the chance to look at it from the other side of the door. It might not work for Keith Richards, but a week at a monastery can be rehab for the rest of us.

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