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Respecting Tradition

November 1, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Father Joseph Martin and the center he co-founded prepare for the future but gain strength from the past
Father joseph martin during the 1980s in his office at the father martin's ashley treatment center
Father Joseph Martin during the 1980s in his office at the Father Martin's Ashley treatment center

In a weekly ritual after delivering the Sunday chapel service at the treatment program he runs, Father Mark Hushen takes the short drive to the house where Father Joseph Martin resides with his co-founder of Father Martin's Ashley and her husband. For Father Martin and Mae Abraham, the visits from the CEO keep them current on happenings at the Maryland treatment center where their presence remains unmistakably strong. For their relatively new administrator, less than two years in his tenure, the precious moments of these visits are described as an opportunity to sit at the feet of the master.

“I have an hour to be one-on-one with him,” Father Mark says of the man who remains the face of 12-Step recovery for so many. “I learn about the history.”

He adds, “Father Martin's message is timeless.”

In an addiction treatment community that almost seems overtaken at times by new modalities and rapid-fire scientific terminology, Father Martin remains the strongest link to a tradition that arguably made all the rest possible (by legitimizing an illness and its treatment). At 84, receiving dialysis treatments and using a wheelchair, he is no longer the worldwide lecturer and ambassador for 12-Step recovery—at least not in person. But his DVDs, audio CDs, and books, all relating the powerful words that came to be known as the “Chalk Talk,” remain a staple in treatment programs and homes everywhere. And the connection felt by those who have met him remains powerful, even if they have not crossed his path for decades.

“When he was in his prime he had a remarkable capacity for remembering names, faces, and the details of a person's life,” Father Mark says. “Today everyone holds him in the highest regard and asks about him. Almost everyone has a story about how at a lecture they heard his message and it was life-transforming.”

Father Martin, who this year commemorated 60 years as a priest, 50 years of sobriety, and the 25-year anniversary of Father Martin's Ashley, is quick to credit others for having a large part in the influence he has sustained. In an interview conducted in late September at his home, he described how the lessons he learned in his own recovery came from those whose recovery experiences were only a few years removed from the time Bill W. met Dr. Bob and gave rise to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

“We got our sobriety from the founders,” Father Martin says. He says of Austin Ripley, creator of the Guest House program for priests in recovery and Father Martin's home for seven pivotal months of his life in 1958, “He had the soul of a saint and the tongue of a poet. He knew that AA was the only answer to this thing.”

Tradition and change

On a crisp and overcast early fall morning, Father Martin scanned a magazine cover's headline about redefining alcohol treatment and was quick to interject his plea for not discarding the basics in a time of change.

“Many professional organizations are threatened by AA because it doesn't have degrees behind it,” he says. “But unlike everything else, the 12 Steps are so complete. These 12 principles cover every phase of the disease and what it does to us.”

Father martin at his home in september
Father Martin at his home in September.

Yet Father Martin's words, and the legacy he has left at the center overlooking the Chesapeake Bay that bears his name, do not reflect a stubborn adherence to the past with no regard for new approaches. He recalls that his own treatment involved a thorough general health assessment as well as guidance in the Steps, so he intuitively understands why Ashley and other centers are embracing wellness and adjunctive therapies. He is well aware of advances in neuroscience and the treatments they might generate, but believes along with Abraham that a strong therapeutic foundation will always remain essential.

“An arm put around you, and saying you're going to be all right, does a lot more for the person than any number of psychiatry libraries,” Father Martin says.

Adds Abraham, “They will never invent a pill to handle the mental side of this disease.”

When Father Mark arrived as Ashley's CEO, he was well aware that the co-founders of the facility had not always agreed with the direction therapy had taken at various times in the facility they established to give people the same kind of treatment Father Martin had received at Guest House. He believes Father Martin and Abraham will remain supportive “as long as we stay true to the mission of healing with dignity.”

“We try to stay involved as much as they want us,” says Abraham, who was inspired in her own recovery when she first heard Father Martin lecture and saw him exhibit no shame in what he had experienced in his own struggle. Father Martin adds that those who run Ashley today know to keep things on course. Otherwise, “I'd come back to haunt you,” he tells them with a gleam in his eye.

Lasting presence

Both Father Martin and Abraham still visit their nearby center periodically to talk to patients. Despite his weakened physical condition, Father Martin still is clear and on point with the messages he delivers at the center about twice a month, Father Mark says. “He has an amazing capacity to rise to the occasion,” he says.