Boston Lawyer Writes 'Serenity Song' To Help People Battle Addiction

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A stain glass illustration of the Serenity Prayer, the common name for a prayer written by 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (Bill Densmore Sr./Flickr)
A stain glass illustration of the Serenity Prayer, the common name for a prayer written by 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (Bill Densmore Sr./Flickr)

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can/And wisdom to know the difference."

These are the opening words of the Serenity Prayer, a well-known slogan at addiction recovery meetings.

Now, Boston attorney Patricia St. James has set the prayer to music to help people overcome their struggles with addiction. The song has even been played at some drug court graduations in Massachusetts.

We spoke with St. James, along with Chelsea District Court First Justice Matthew Machera and Ethan Grove — who has overlaid his personal recovery story with rap lyrics over the song — about the song and how music can aid people in recovery.

Here are excerpts of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

Pat St. James on the origins of the Serenity Song and Serenity Project

I wrote it for a client who wrote a play called Recovery, which was going to play off-Broadway last year. And she was just talking to me about wishing that she knew someone who could write a song based on the Serenity Prayer, which is used in the play and as well as in many treatment programs. So I volunteered to do it, much to her surprise.

When I was writing it, I wanted it to be both passionate and serene at the same time, if that's possible. In the song, I wrote a verse called, "I really have to get myself out of this hell/I've got to stop believing all the lies I tell myself." So I tried to incorporate things from the play into the Serenity Prayer to show some of the tension about, "yes, we could ask for this," but at the same time, there's a struggle.

After writing the song, I played it for Chief Justice [Paula] Carey. It was her idea initially to use it to be played in the drug courts. I got the idea that maybe it would be helpful for people going through the programs, whether in the courts or otherwise, to actually tell their stories through song.

Ethan Grove on his version of the song for his drug rehabilitation

"I'm reaching out to you/Hopeless and in doubt of you/I'm scared, but I gotta get this message out to you."

It's a state that you only know if you've been through, really. There's no hope. I didn't really see the purpose in anything. It's a very dark place to be. And I threw "hopeless and in doubt of you" referring to like a higher power, like a God figure. Because, at that point in my life, that was the only thing possible that could maybe save me or maybe pull me out of those feelings of despair that I was going through.

To have expression in my life, to really be myself is something that I never really experienced before, until I got into sobriety. Because I wasn't being myself when I was in active addiction. I was never able to properly express myself when I was in active addiction.

Pat: It reminds people — Ethan being a perfect example — that they do have skills and they do have talents and they have things that they love to do, that it's not just despair, getting up and, "how am I gonna get through the day?" and that drugs are the only answer.

Judge Machera on using the song in drug court, the role of judges in recovery

It touches on the feelings that I think every participant in my drug court goes through. So when Ethan came out and spoke, he spoke their language. And it's another way for those in recovery to use the arts as another outlet as they continue to rebuild their lives.

I think everybody in the criminal justice system shares the same goal, and that is to make sure that that person never comes back again. And it's easy just to incarcerate someone and then sort of forget about them. But if we don't deal with the underlying issues, which in this day and age — I think everybody is on board — this is a crisis that I don't think anybody has ever seen before.

There is no family, I think, that has not been touched by addiction, and it's everybody's problem. The thing about community courts, the district courts, is that we're part of the solution.

St. James on what's next for the Serenity Song

The next step will be to roll it out more in the courts and have people who are in the programs come in and continue that on.

[One thing] to me initially is everyone who's doing it gets in an MP3 of their own lyric over the song. And the immediate thing would be, wouldn't it be nice if people were having an issue and were worried about whether they could stay sober until they reached up to their sponsor, maybe if they can click that on their phone and listen to themselves in the song or do it for another person. Maybe that's something that will help them along the way.

This segment aired on October 18, 2019.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


Khari Thompson Producer, Radio Boston
Khari Thompson is a producer for Radio Boston.



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