From 31st March to 21st April this year, the People Newspaper Group (The Wexford People, New Ross Standard, Enniscorthy Guardian, Gorey Guardian) re-published a weekly series of four articles written by the late and great Nicky Rackard shortly before his death in April 1976. These articles were first published by the Sunday Press in 1975 and were re-published with the permission of his family. Nicky’s story is an inspiring, honest and humbling account of how one of the greatest Wexford hurlers ever faced his greatest battle off the pitch with addiction to alcohol. I was struck by three aspects of his story in particular – his faith in God, seeing life in colour again when he became sober and coming to acknowledge his human limitations.
First, his faith in God. Most of us are familiar with the ‘Twelve Step-Programme’ of Alcoholics Anonymous. Distilled over decades of experience, the first of these steps is about the addict coming to a place where he/she realises they need help as they finally admit they have a problem that they are unable to tackle on their own; ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable’. The second step is the call for that help from God or ‘higher power’. The second step states: ‘We came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity’. Telling his story, Nicky Rackard shares how he came to the point of accepting the truth of these steps – that he needed help with a problem and how he turned to God for that help he needed. He writes: ‘Scoff if you wish, but I knew that I had the help of God in my efforts to stay sober and to rebuild my life. In the last five years, I have been convinced that there is a higher power than ourselves. One to whom we must, in the long run, entrust ourselves to get the help that human beings can’t give us’.
These words are a powerful testimony to the presence and power of God that broke through in one person’s life. Here is the breakthrough of grace that turns a person’s life around and sets it on a new path towards hope. In this case, the life in question was a man that so many admired and looked up to as a Wexford legend. All the more reason then to acknowledge this part of his life, as he did courageously, and to gain a proper perspective on his life and indeed our own. The acknowledgement of his struggle by this hurling legend does not take away from us admiring him but rather adds to it. For real courage is not about trying to be perfect but about facing our battles with honesty and finding God in the process as Nicky clearly did.
The first two steps of the ‘Twelve Step’ programme are about admitting we can’t beat our demons on our own. For the person of no faith, the battle is more lonely for the urge to control everything by will power that is itself limited, brings with it a great deal of stress and anxiety. If there is no God or no divine providence then all the pressure falls back on us. This added pressure impacts negatively on our mental health, happiness and leaves us more prone to relapses and further compulsions. This is not just the apologia of a priest for the faith of his Church. Studies have consistently shown that: ‘Religious participation…instils moral values, increases coping skills and decreases the likelihood of turning to alcohol or other drugs during times of stress’ (H.G. Koenig – M.E. McCullough – D.B. Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.180).
Faith in God does not absolve us of our responsibilities but assures us that the future is bigger than any of us. Through all the events of life, the person of faith in God receives Jesus’ words with great hope for they know that they do not face their challenges alone: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still and trust in me’ (John 14:1); ‘Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble heart and you will find rest in your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light’ (Matt 11: 28-30). The person of faith can also make these words of St Paul their own: ‘We know that by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him’ (Rom 8:28). Here is a confidence consistent with the words of Jesus himself who explicitly urges us not to burden our minds with things beyond our control but to trust in Him and focus instead on being at rights with God and the coming of his kingdom:
‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor your body and how you are to cloth it…Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life?...Set you hearts on his kingdom first, and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’ (Matt 6:25-34).
Notice the consistency of Jesus’ advice here to focus on today and the words of Nicky Rackard: ‘It sounds so simple doesn’t it? You just take each day as it comes and you don’t take the first drink. It works. I know because it has worked for me for five years…Just one day at a time…And each morning I get up, I realise that this day is the first day of the rest of my life’.
This is why the first and second steps of the ‘Twelve Step’ Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous are invitations to be humble and to make that step one day at a time. Today is the day that counts. Unlike tomorrow that never comes or yesterday that is past, today is the day of salvation. As the Lord said about Zacchaeus: ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (Luke 19:9) and to the good thief dying on the cross: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Today the Lord invites us to entrust ourselves to Him as our compassionate friend and Saviour. And it is because of our addictions and weaknesses, not despite them, that enables us to welcome Him into our lives. We can’t do it all on our own. Only when Nicky Rackard realised that, he saw life in colour again.
At the very end of the series, Nicky described how his life became so much better when he was sober. He says: ‘Some drinkers may not believe it, but I know that sober, life is better, the sky is bluer and the perspective sharper’. This description of seeing the colour of the sky again reminded me of something similar shared by former Arsenal captain Tony Adams in his autobiography Addicted where he described seeing life in colour again after he beat his addiction to drink. When he was drinking, he was seeing only in black and grey.
This change in the way Nicky saw things is also connected to his coming to faith in God as a higher power, friend and saviour. You see, coming to faith is not only an assent to religious creeds or doctrines but a way of seeing all there is to see. Faith in God is a light and once the light goes out, all other lights begin to dim as well. The light of faith is unique since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of our existence and the world around us. In the words of one Father of the Church: ‘The light of faith floods the soul of the person counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables them to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of’ (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Instructions to Catechumens). Transformed by this light, we gain a new understanding and a shaper perspective as Nicky describes it. With these new eyes of faith we have fresh vision of the future that opens up before us – a future that has colour, promise and celebrates every moment of being alive. This was the new vision restored to Nicky with his sobriety – a light had returned to his life that made him see the blueness of the sky again and the colour of everything else.
Finally, Nicky shares with us another major insight into himself that he came to see with his new eyes of faith. He understood his limitations and learned to accept them. When he was younger, he tells us: ‘Deep down inside me there had always been the need to be the best’. While he acknowledges that desire, drive and ambition can be good things, he came to learn that ‘this urge can be a dangerous thing…if it is allowed to reach the proportions of an obsession’. Before, he admitted a pressure he created for himself to always be right. ‘Now I accept that I don’t know it all’. Like the help he welcomed from God, he also learned to ask for the help and advice of others. He came to realise his own limitations and the freedom that comes from admitting them. He tell us: ‘I believe that if a person does an honest appraisal of their weaknesses and abilities, then accepts their limitations and strives up to them, they will lead a happier and fuller life. I think that since I became sober…I have become a better human being’.
Here is wisdom worth listening to. Much of our education and training programmes focus on strengths. The emphasis is on what we can do rather than what we can’t. In this model, achievement and success are the driving forces behind progress. The trouble is that our human nature doesn’t buy into this. It can’t because failure is part of human experience as much as success. Our human nature and deepest calling is not to be successful but to be faithful – to our true selves, to others and ultimately to God and his grace.
There is a tendency in modern society to skirt around the darker side of human nature, to minimise it or even ignore it. We celebrate success and idealise it but we fail to prepare for failure. Some say there is no such thing as ‘original sin’ and therefore no need for redemption. We are as we are and that’s the end of it. Such thinking is naïve and dangerous when it ignores our human limitations and the importance of knowing them and accepting them. By his own admission, Nicky Rackard worshipped for a time at the altar of success. In time, he came to see that God had blessed him with wonderful gifts that brought much pride and joy to many people. But he also came to know and accept his limitations and weaknesses which gave him an inner freedom and peace. He no longer needed to be the best. Just himself.
The legend of Nicky Rackard is immortalised in a song written by the late Tom Williams. In ‘Cuchulainn’s Son’ it says: ‘And when in later life you beat the devil on that lonely street, you showed us how to take defeat with dignity and courage’. Because of his own words in these articles, we know more about that courage that he displayed and that helps all of us even today. He teaches us the great lessons of knowing our need for God, seeing life in colour and how both our strengths and weaknesses are part of who we are. Nicky Rackard touched the lives of many people during his life. He still does today. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.