Edward Dowling was born today in 1898. He would be ordained a priest and become the advisor to Bill Wilson who founded Alcoholic Anonymous. His experience of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola helped to shape the 12 step process that has proven so influential to hundreds of thousands of recovering alcoholics in their quest to achieve sobriety. When Fr Dowling died in the spring of 1960 Wilson wrote. "Father Ed, an early and wonderful friend of AA, He was the greatest and most gentle soul to walk this planet. I was closer to him than to any other human being on earth."
Dowling was the oldest of five children in an Irish Catholic family in St. Louis. He played baseball semi-professionally and tried out for both the St. Louis Browns and the Boston Red Sox, but was picked up by neither. He initially studied journalism; and reported for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat for a year before joining the U.S. Army in World War I. After the war, he entered the Jesuits and took the spiritual exercises as part of his formation, before he was ordained a priest. When a drinking friend from Chicago lost his wife, and was struggling to cope, Father Dowling took him to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, which in those days a fledgling organization. Noting the similarity of AA principles and his experience of the Exercises — particular a surrender to a Higher Power, rigorous honesty, a daily examination of conscience – he made the decision to try to meet Wilson who was the founder of the movement (pod Aug 8th)
An icy evening in December 1940 saw their first meeting and Bill Wilson described it in these words My first unforgettable contact with Father Ed came about in this way. It was early 1940, though late in the winter. Save for old Tom, the fireman we had lately rescued from Rockland Asylum, the clubhouse were we lived was empty My wife Lois was out somewhere. It had been a hectic day, full of disappointments. I lay upstairs in our room, consumed with self-pity. This had been brought on by one of my characteristic imaginary ulcer attacks. It was a bitter night, frightfully windy. Hail and sleet beat on the tin roof over my head. Then the front doorbell rang and I heard old Tom toddle off to answer it. A minute later he looked into the doorway of my room, obviously much annoyed. Then he said, “Bill, there is some old damn bum down there from St. Louis, and he wants to see you.” Great heavens, I thought, this can’t be still another one.” Wearily and even resentfully, I said to Tom, “Oh well, bring him up, bring him up.” Then a strange figure appeared in my bedroom door. He wore a shapeless black hat that somehow reminded me of a cabbage leaf. His coat collar was drawn around his neck, and he leaned heavily on a cane. He was plastered with sleet. Thinking him to be just another drunk, I didn’t even get off the bed. Then he unbuttoned his coat and I saw that he was a clergyman. My weariness and annoyance instantly evaporated. We talked of many things, not always about serious matters either. Then I began to be aware of one of the most remarkable pair of eyes I have ever seen. And, as we talked on, the room increasingly filled with what seemed to me to be the presence of God which flowed through my new friend. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences that I have ever had. Such was his rare ability to transmit grace. Nor was my experience at all unique. Hundreds of AA’s have reported having exactly this experience when in his presence. This was the beginning of one of the deepest and most inspiring friendships that I shall ever know.
The friendship was reciprocated and equally valued, Father Ed said that the graces he received from meeting Bill Wilson were as great as those he had received from his ordination as a priest, and Bill in turn described encountering the Jesuit as being like a second conversion experience, where he could feel the transcendent presence of God filling the entire room with grace. Dowling taught Wilson about St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, about the eternal battle between good and evil which the Spanish Saint described in that book, and explained the Jesuit understanding of the way we can use our deepest emotions to receive guidance from God while serving on that battlefield. Together the two men discussed Poulain's Graces of Interior Prayer and Bill's attempts to make spiritual contact with both spooks and saints, and explored the world of LSD experiences and the teachings of the Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics in Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy. Father Ed, with a deep social conscience, helped Bill W. turn his book on the Twelve Traditions into a what became a type of Bill of Rights for the twelve step movement