The late Dr. Conway Hunter used to sponsor an annual, four-day Thanksgiving retreat at St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast for people in recovery from substance addictions, mainly alcohol. In November of 1990, I joined a contingent from Little Rock led by the late Dr. Don Browning and his wife, Joanne, to the retreat. I was about ten years sober, and felt in need of a spiritual jolt.
A Catholic priest known only as Noel said in one of the opening monologues, “As addicts, it is important for us to remember that our first addiction is not to alcohol and chemicals. It is to being apart. To being isolated and alone. Our addiction really is to nonliving.”
Noel went on to say that this style of “nonliving” is contrary to what God had in mind with the Creation.
“God created us to be together,” Noel said, “to be with each other and with Him. The Scriptures certainly make this clear, and it is what the AA program teaches us. The Big Book tells us to share our experience, strength, and hope with each other.”
This theme of sharing our lives with each other and not going it alone cannot be overemphasized. And it’s not just a spiritual imperative, it’s a scientific one.
“The lack of social relationships according to scientific sources, are a major risk—rivaling the effect of established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and lack of physical activity.
Researchers have also found people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.
Hunter, a Georgia physician, millionaire, and entrepreneur widely known in recovery circles for his treatment facility for impaired physicians, died in 2003. The retreat basically died with him, but the memory of it lingers.
Some of the things that made the retreat special were the warmth of Conway and his wife, Charlotte; the magnificent and somewhat mysterious seaside setting; and a format that demanded participation and promoted a sense of belonging. It was an experience that was nurturing and loving on many levels.
Epworth By The Sea, a Methodist facility where the guests stayed and where daily meetings were held, provided a theologically sturdy base from which to contemplate spiritual matters within the added context of an ageless sea and sky and the centuries-old, giant live oaks lining ancient thoroughfares.
Clearly this was a place for spiritual renewal. And that brings us to Thanksgiving night, 1990, and my report.
A hundred yards from the sea, I wrote, the guests gather under a hunter’s moon in an early-nineteenth-century tabby house—once a shelter for plantation slaves and now a refuge for those who are finding their freedom in recovery—to talk about gratitude.
Warmed by a blaze in the huge fireplace, the participants speak of the goodness of God and of their growth in recovery. They speak of healed marriages and families, triumph over illnesses, and of the ability to deal with the pain and heartbreak of life with God-given strength and wisdom.
Some have been coming to Epworth By The Sea for many years. For some, the people there are their family on Thanksgiving, and that is the way Dr. Hunter intended it to be. Years ago, he began asking those in AA and others on similar journeys to come home with him to his beloved Georgia coast for Thanksgiving, and it was this pilgrimage that evolved into the retreat.
Gracious living is a part of the Thanksgiving package, and there is lots of sizzle to the spiritual steak. The retreat begins, for example, with a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, and it also includes high tea served by Charlotte on Saturday at the Hunters’ spectacular home on Sea Island within a few blocks of the famous Cloisters.
This year’s dinner was at the Jekyll Island Club, a facility of significant charm and sense of history that was once the playground of the nation’s wealthiest families. The centerpiece for dinner on this day was a table loaded with such southern staples as smoked ham, turkey, candied yams, and Key lime pie.
Charlotte’s high tea, an elegant affair not unlike high tea at the Ritz in London, provides further support for the thesis that God has given us a life to be enjoyed, certainly for those who prefer clotted cream on their scones.
Indeed, it was Noel who said with a broad smile and a brogue as thick as Irish Mist, “The first thing God will ask us when we see Him for the first time is, ‘Did you enjoy your life? Did you enjoy the life I gave you?’”
For most, the answer would be, “Not until I began to do things your way.”
Contacted by God
As people—mostly alcoholics in recovery—spoke at meetings over the four days, their stories revealed lives characterized by vast stretches of isolation, alienation, and loneliness—that addiction to nonliving that Noel spoke about—before they chose sobriety and began their spiritual journeys.
That is when we come to know God and begin to achieve serenity.
There is a moment in sobriety “when we are contacted, contacted by God,” Noel says, and we begin to achieve a kind of serenity that comes from living the life that God has given us.
The retreat is a potpourri full of insights and rich perspectives furnished by its diverse participants, many of them involved in treatment center work. This year was no different.
There was Max, a psychiatrist whose years of teaching and study have illuminated the field of recovery. It was Max who reported at dinner that forty AA groups in Russia have sprung up in the last two years—complete with “the God concept.”
There was Stephanie, who had just completed her thesis which, among other things, proved that God exists. It showed, too, that as addicts accumulate years of sobriety, their concept of God becomes deeper and more internalized.
There was Laurie, the consummate shopper who went for treatment with her bathing suit under one arm and a copy of Vogue tucked under the other. Today she is a physician in charge of the patients at a small treatment center.
There was Hal from the State Department, the unofficial “president of AA” who reminded us that we are spiritual beings undergoing human experiences, and who suggested that our egos would be better off with less flattery. “Flattery is OK,” he said, “if you don’t inhale it.”
There were Conway and Charlotte Hunter, charismatic and compassionate, and many others who told their AA and Al-Anon stories with warmth and conviction.
It is appropriate to quote seventeenth-century English poet John Donne as an epilogue to the Thanksgiving retreat. As many will recall, Donne wrote, “No man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”