Aaron Semple, left, and Fr. Kevin Kelly at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal. ISP offers retreats, meetings and spiritual accompaniment to those fighting to get sober. Peter Stockland

I had two choices: carry on or stay alive

  • September 1, 2023

Choosing recovery, however, is not as easy as it seems

Editor’s note: The Catholic Register has spent much of the summer preparing two very special sections, on addiction and recovery and human trafficking, that will run in our Sept. 10 and Sept. 17 issues respectively. With this story, we give a sneak peak at the coverage readers can expect.

Four years ago, Aaron Semple was in a sober-living facility in Ontario, recovering from a decades-old addiction to drugs, and searching for the tools he needed to construct a new, sober life. His decision to sign up for a retreat inspired by the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises led Semple to a faith community, friendship and a move to Montreal to help bring that retreat-experience to others.

Semple had been “struggling with addiction or substance-abuse problems for the better part of 30 years” when he turned up for the weekend retreat organized by the Ignatian Spirituality Project.

It is with a downward glance and wry smile that Semple notes, “I’m only 43 years old, so you can do the math.”

“I had been to enough jails, enough institutions, and all my major organs were beginning to shut down through long-term, heavy usage. I only had two choices. I could carry on and die or try to stay alive and recover. I chose the second,” Semple said.

That choice, the daily decision to opt for recovery and life, is not an easy one.

“Recovery is not just something that happens. It is a complete overhaul and a change of your entire life,” said Semple.

The search for a solid foundation for recovery led Semple to the retreat and the team that organizes and facilitates ISP-Canada.

In 2016, Fr. Kevin Kelly, now director of the Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal, was approached by fellow Jesuit and friend Ted Penton. Penton had been working with ISP in the United States and told Kelly, “You should bring this to Toronto; it’s a great program.”

Together with a team he put together from Regis College, the Jesuit school at the University of Toronto, Kelly launched ISP-Canada and hosted the first retreats in 2017.

ISP began in Chicago in 1998, the brainchild of Jesuit priest and recovered addict Fr. Bill Creed.

When Creed started out, he was working with men and women who were living on the streets and still using drugs and alcohol. Kelly explained that there was an early shift in the execution of the project.

“Creed realized pretty quickly that the individual needs to have made some kind of step into sobriety,” Kelly said.

Today, ISP offers overnight retreats, follow-up meetings and spiritual accompaniment to people living in transitional homes who have two or three months of sobriety under their belt, in 30 cities in North America and Ireland.

Different facilities have different models for recovery, including Self-Management and Recovery Training or SMART, harm reduction and abstinence-based programs. ISP works almost exclusively with those who are in an abstinence-based, 12-step program.

“There is a commonality in language and the spiritual element, because 12-step spirituality understands a Higher Power, the need for community and the need for making amends. It can easily morph into a retreat ministry,” said Kelly.

There is a history between Ignatian and 12-step spirituality. In 1940, Fr. Ed Dowling, SJ, turned up on a miserable, sleety night on the doorstep of Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, introduced himself and said, “A Jesuit friend and I have been struck by the similarity of the AA 12-steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.”

Wilson responded, “Never heard of them.”

Despite the terse reply, the two men would go on to become firm friends with Dowling acting as an unofficial spiritual advisor to Wilson in the years that AA grew to become a national, and then international movement.

Since 2016, ISP-Canada has been renamed Spiritual Transformation in Recovery (STIR) and has expanded its network of collaborators, including the Redemptorists, Loretto Sisters, the Sisters of Social Service of Canada, the Congregation of Notre-Dame, and the Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto.

In 2022, with the appointment of Semple as launch director of STIR-Montreal, STIR expanded to Quebec and there are plans to begin offering retreats in Nova Scotia.

When asked to explain what makes ISP different than other recovery support groups, Semple talks first about what it is to be an addict.

“Addiction drives you to a space where you are completely alone,” says Semple. “Asking for help is one of the biggest things. When you feel all alone and there is nowhere to go and no one to ask, the only person you have to talk to is the addict in your brain. Developing a greater depth of spirituality gives me the sense that I am not so alone. When I can enter God into my life, and not feel so alone, I am then able to allow human beings into my life.”

Penton, in a 2018 journal article, wrote, “The overarching grace sought in the ISP retreat is a sense of being loved and accepted by God. In the Ignatian tradition, this grace is of fundamental importance for the spiritual journey.”

Semple and Kelly have faced unique challenges in their efforts to establish STIR in Quebec. “We find getting into the structures in Quebec is different than in Ontario. We meet a lot of walls around anything that is spiritual. In Quebec, they fund aspects of the transitional homes, but they are not into anything that is spiritual.”

Despite these obstacles, Semple has spent close to two years doing the research, making the connections, and laying the groundwork, and will soon be ready to offer STIR retreats at the Villa Saint Martin, the Jesuit-run, Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal.

Plans are also being laid for one of the two, smaller houses on the Villa Saint Martin property to become a place where people in recovery can come to live and be trained by Semple, a professional chef and the centre’s maintenance man and gardener, in practical skills.

More important than the opportunity for skills development is to “continue that community-recovery experience,” says Kelly, because “as we saw during COVID, when that starts to fall apart, as my grandmother used to say, the ‘arse falls out of it.’ ”

Both Kelly and Semple are full of plans and a kind of wonder at what is already being accomplished. “It is kind of amazing to see what can happen,” Kelly starts to say, “when we are not trying to drive the train ourselves,” Semple completed the sentence.