A Convict Conversion Story
(by Jens Söring)
Ready for a really wild conversion story? Try this one: from Buddhist boy genius and diplomat's son to Catholic author and convict, by way of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Keating. If you think you can follow those spiritual gyrations, fasten your seat belts and follow me to...
...Bangkok, Thailand, where I entered the world in 1966. My father, a West-German diplomat, was stationed at our country's embassy there, and since neither of my parents ever attended a Christian church, they introduced their newborn son to organized religion by taking him to the local temple to be chanted and prayed over by orange-robed monks. But it was not only a Buddhist bug that bit me in the Land of Smiles: just one year later, Father Thomas Merton, the famous monk, mystic and author of Seven Storey Mountain and Seeds of Contemplation, died across town in a hotel room, and I have no doubt that his departing soul gave mine a nudge in the right direction before racing home to its Source.
Shortly after that fleeting spiritual encounter, my father was transferred to the West German embassy in Cyprus, the site of Paul's first overseas mission (Acts 13:4-12). Of course I did not realize then that the very same ground I walked on daily had carried the first Christian saints two thousand years earlier; but who is to say that the shores of Paphos left no mark on my childish soul, just as my little feet left prints in its sand? Is that not what we hope for when we go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land?
A few years later, our family moved again, this time to the Foreign Ministry's home office in Bonn, Germany, our native land. To catch my brother and me up on our heritage, my parents took us to every museum, tumble-down castle and cathedral we passed, so I was exposed to literally dozens of Europe's most beautiful Romanesque, Gothic, baroque and rococo churches. Even though we attended no services, I still recall vividly nearly three decades later the sense of awe and reverence those temples of soaring stone and light inspired in me. Our age has lost the secret of raising the soul's eye to God through sacred architecture, but across the centuries those medieval masons gave me my first glimpse of the visible church, the sacramental principle.
On my eleventh birthday, my father was transferred to the West-German consulate-general in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was introduced to American culture via a hotel TV screen: Hogan's Heroes, professional wrestling (Rick "the Nature-boy" Flair v. Chief Wahoo McDaniel) and the Reverend Ernest Angeley telling me to "Put your hand up against that television screen and say ?Baaaaaaaby Jesus."? Somehow I managed to resist poor Ernest's attempts to evangelize me, nor was I persuaded by the soft-spoken young minister at the ruinously expensive Episcopalian high school to which my parents sent me. Wednesdays there were "chapel day," which meant we had to wear ties and sit still for fifty minutes?perhaps the most effective means of paganizing children known to man. Certainly it worked on me, and when I began reading Buddhist books in my mid-teens, I even had a positive alternative to the weekly snooze-fest on "chapel day."
In those years I was spiritually hampered by an intellectual growth spurt that made it too easy to earn excellent grades, write award-winning articles for our high school newspaper, play guitar in two rock bands, participate in the drama program, and outshine my contemporaries in half a dozen other areas. If I was this good all on my own, who needed religion? And how could anyone but the simple-minded believe that a Palestinian revolutionary walked on water and returned from the dead two millennia ago? I was too smart for all that.
But Buddhism met my high standards. Here I found sophisticated and plausible answers to philosophical questions like the problem of evil, without being asked to believe in childish miracle stories. Moreover, the Buddha had promised that nirvana, the release from samsaric existence, lay within our own power if we applied ourselves. And most intriguingly, my otherwise invincible intellect actually failed to crack Zen koans, or meditative riddles?so there really had to be something to all this Buddhism stuff, right?
Upon my graduation from high school, one of this country's top ten universities awarded me an academic scholarship which not only paid for my tuition but also covered rent, foot and even spending money. The Buddhist boy genius had come into his own, so it seemed. But less than two years later, on April 30, 1986, I was arrested for double murder and entered the belly of the beast: the court and prison system.
I will not bore you here with the details of my trial, appeals and incarceration; that story has been told elsewhere, and in any case, my legal difficulties had no immediate effect on my religious views. I continued to consider myself a Buddhist, though I had no contact with other believers and restricted the practice of my faith to a steady diet of books and occasional attempts at meditation.
It was not until the fall of 1994 that I reached my great turning point, a conversion to Christianity (though not yet Catholicism) which was prompted by Pope John Paul II and NASA. That summer the Holy Father forbade Catholics to watch the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, with predictable results in my case at least. Since I could not go to a cinema, I quickly ordered the original novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and in its pages made an amazing discovery: a (fictional) Jesus I not only liked, but empathized with and even admired. This was not the sappy wimp I remembered from "chapel day" but a complex human being who suffered and doubted and struggled with his destiny, much as I suffered and doubted and struggled with mine. Could the religion founded on his life and death hold some meaning for me after all?
I began to read the New Testament consciously and voluntarily for the first time in my life and, after an indecisive encounter with the synoptics, fell in love with the gospel according to John. One verse in particular touched the very center of my being and quite nearly brought me to tears: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Like some supernaturally bright light, that sentence illumined a terrible night in my own life, changing its meaning though not the sad facts. I still choke up every time I read this passage.
What completed my conversion was the publication in a national magazine of those first, magnificent photographs from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. While looking at the swirl of the galaxies around their mysterious, glowing centers, I had a kind of epiphany: both the physical force of gravity, which set those stars to circling, and the human emotion of love were forms of attraction?or love! Come to think of it, electrons could be said to love the nuclei they
orbit, just as sunflowers love the sun they follow across the sky?yet more cases of attraction. Could this be what the New Testament meant when it claimed that "God is love," and that it is in this universal attractive force that we "live and move and have our being" (1 John 4:16, Acts 17:28)? Did the Psalmist see what I saw when he wrote that "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalms 19:1)?
My tentative "yes" led me to contact the Reverend Beverly R. Cosby, one of whose parishioners visited me regularly at that time. Bev was the brother of the Reverend Gordon Cosby, founder of Washington DC's Church of the Saviour, made famous by Elizabeth O'Connor's books. What attracted me to Bev was his radical commitment to the inner and the outer way, which seemed to adhere closest to the model Christ gave us: full members of his congregation not only had to spend an hour each day in silent prayer, but also had to dedicate large amounts of time and money to serve society's outcasts. That combination of the spiritual and the practical produced their town's first interracial swimming pool and summer camp in the 1960s, low-cost housing for dozens of poor families, homeless and battered women's shelters, an AIDS hospice and literally a dozen further ministries?all with only a handful of people.
Their leading texts, apart from the Bible, were Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, Henri Nouwen's works (he was a personal friend of Bev's), and Father Thomas Keating's books on Centering Prayer. It was with these texts that I began my education as a Christian, and for the next six years, I read voraciously?everything from Josephus to Bultmann. However, because I was housed in a special unit within the prison for former members of law enforcement and high profile cases, I had absolutely no access to church services throughout this time. My only means of practicing my new faith were twice-daily Bible reading and verbal prayer, and monthly tithing of my prison wages to Feed the Children.
Yet the Holy Spirit guided me in my studies. I quickly discovered, for instance, that I just could not swallow the extensive marginal notes in virtually all the Protestant Bibles I bought or was given; inevitably, they insisted that Genesis be taken literally, or that Peter personally wrote the second epistle attributed to him, or something equally implausible. Then, in 1997 or thereabouts, I finally acquired a Catholic NAB Bible?and rejoiced! Here at last were marginal notes that a thinking person could accept and learn from each time he opened the Bible. Why was "my" side?Bev's side, the Protestant side?unable to produce something like this?
Meanwhile, I was gobbling up those enormous fat commentaries so beloved of evangelicals, though the ones I chose were probably more academic and "liberal" than most. Each and every one, however, failed to measure up to the very first fifteen-pound commentary I had bought, the one I simply could not bear to part with: the New Jerome's. It simply went deeper into the text and, unlike the Protestant's, provided ancient and medieval exegetical views. These in particular came as a monumental surprise to me; until now, I had never encountered the thoughts of Jerome and Augustine and Aquinas and thus did not realize that they had developed a Christian philosophical edifice that was at least as sophisticated and satisfying as the Buddhists I had admired from my teens onward. And to think, the only reason I had bought the New Jerome's was because it had been on sale!
Many of the theologians I read were Protestant Europeans, but while they satisfied my taste for the hyper- (and arguably pseudo-) intellectual, they presented me with a new problem: Christ vanished! By the time the Tűbingen school was finished with the New Testament, they were barely willing to admit that the man Jesus actually existed, much less that he might be the firstborn Son of God; after all, there was no independent historical verification of his life aside from the famous reference to a certain Chrestos in Tacitus. But if Jesus had really been no more than a peasant preacher whose body was stolen from the tomb, why did the apostles willingly go to their own deaths for him in the decades that followed? And would an intelligent, educated man like Paul fall so thoroughly for a religious con game run by eleven leaderless rubes?
But if Bultmann and the Protestant academics had argued themselves into a philosophical dead end, who could offer me a reasonable, intellectually respectable explanation of who Jesus "really" was? It turned out that Father Oscar Lukefahr and his two lovely little catechetical books, The Privilege of Being Catholic and We Believe..., could. They introduced me to the sacramental principle?of which the first instance or manifestation was the incarnation itself!?and to the scriptural basis for each of the seven Catholic sacraments. Even if I took my Protestant sola scriptura as a starting point, I had to admit that Catholics were in fact more "fundamentalist," truer to the text, than the most conservative evangelical. Especially the Real Presence became to my mind indisputable: "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life," whereas crackers and grape juice avail nothing (John 6:54). Next I succumbed to the philosophical force of fundamental Catholic doctrines like the necessity of works as fruits of faith?Bev Cosby's inner and outer way in a different guise. And finally, Father Lukefahr made me see the logical consistency of Catholic social teaching, which condemned both abortion and execution as facets of the "culture of death" denounced by John Paul II; Protestants, by contrast, either want to abort fetuses and save murderers, or save fetuses and execute murderers, depending on their political persuasion. Still, since I continued to have no access to any religious services whatsoever, I felt no pressure to make a denominational commitment.
So I continued my theological reading and twice-daily verbal prayers until, in the winter of 1999 to 2000, I came to an end. An end to what, I hardly know how to explain ... all I can say is that the inner resources which had sustained me for fourteen years of incarceration finallyfailed me. Perhaps it was nothing more than the cumulative weight of my miseries: having my arm broken twice by other inmates, spending three years under threat of execution, being nearly raped by another prisoner, hearing of my mother's death through alcoholism, and much else besides. Or perhaps God had finally brought me to a place where I had to let go of my self.
Learning to let go of the self?one's physical hungers, emotional desires and intellectual preenings?and opening oneself to God in silence is one way to describe Centering Prayer, of course. Years earlier, Bev Cosby had sent me one of Father Thomas Keating's yellow leaflets on this spiritual discipline?basically, a reinvigoration of our age-old but nearly forgotten Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer?and now, at this severe crisis point in my life, that yellow leaflet somehow fluttered out of my accumulated papers and into my hands.
I remembered how Bev occasionally mentioned that it was Centering Prayer, and Centering Prayer alone, which gave him that astonishingly deep, still energy he spent so recklessly on the helpless and homeless, the drunk and despairing. If this was really the secret of my mentor's beautiful spirit, perhaps it was time for me to give it a try too. My intellect alone could not lift me out of the spiritual hole in which I found myself, that much was clear.
And so I embarked on a marvelous journey that continues to this day: I learned a new way of relating to God and the world that uses no words and no grasping with the mind, but relies on a fragile inner silence through which the Spirit enters me and I enter it. This journey has been tough at times?Centering Prayer is definitely not for the impatient?but it quickly began to transform my life. When I was shot with a rubber pellet a few months after beginning C.P.?the guard had been aiming at another inmate?my first response was to sit down for some contemplation, and it was contemplation that eventually helped me find seeds of grace even in this traumatic experience.
Shortly after I was shot as a bystander, the Department of Corrections finally allowed me to transfer to a medium-security prison where, for the first time, I had access to religious services. Since the Baptists came three times a week and the Catholic priest only once every other month, I went through a hymn-singing and hand-clapping phase which I enjoyed greatly at the time, but which eventually showed me the need for liturgical worship led by a minister with valid orders. Our Baptist "minister of music" was an elderly black inmate who did the best Sam Cook impersonation I have ever heard; in time, however, I noticed that it was only the hearts of our congregation that he moved so profoundly, not our minds and our souls. Was "being in the spirit" really supposed to be just an emotional response to well-performed gospel music, a religious version of the ecstasy teenagers experience at their pop-idols' concerts?
Father Leo's exceedingly rare but quietly beautiful Masses seemed to answer that question in the negative. He too was "in the spirit" during his services?a very calm, gently glowing, subtly powerful spirit that seemed much more of a kind with the Spirit I encountered three times a day during Centering Prayer. His God, like Elijah's on Mount Horeb, showed himself in a "gentle whisper" (1 Kings 19:12).
One other thing struck me powerfully in Father Leo's physical presence, since he was the first Catholic priest I had met in person: he represented a direct, unbroken, physical line all the way back to Jesus himself. The Son of God had breathed his Spirit on eleven men, who in turn had laid hands on other men, who?through hundreds of intermediaries?had laid hands on Father Leo. To me, this was a stunning realization. Father Leo was indeed a sacrament, a visible sign of God's grace and one empowered to confer that grace by Christ himself. As much as I loved Bev Cosby and remained convinced of his personal holiness, even he was merely a man who might or might not be "in the spirit" during his church services, but certainly could not claim to be properly instituted.
In January of 2001, roughly six months after I arrived at the medium-security facility where I met the holy rollers and Father Leo, the U.S. Supreme Court denied my attorney's final appeal petition without even granting a hearing. This came as a complete shock to me because I knew I was no more guilty of double murder than Joseph was guilty of raping Potiphar's wife. Over the previous fifteen years, I had held despair at bay with the firm belief that "the greatest legal system on earth" would eventually give me justice, clear my name and return me to Germany?but that hope, that crutch, was now gone.
My response to this living death sentence (life without realistic hope of being granted parole) was, I believe, a gift of grace from God: I began to write a book which is being published during this season. Entitled The Way of the Prisoner?Breaking the Chains of Self through Centering Prayer and Centering Practice, it is based on the premise that all of us are imprisoned in one way or another, whether by cancer or an emotional trauma or a "real" jail. And the truth is that some of us will never leave our prisons. Sometimes, our crosses really do end in death.
Yet we can still experience genuine liberation as we struggle toward our own personal Golgotha?by freeing ourselves of our self, that urgent voice within that cries "me, me, me" and complains so bitterly of its unjust fate. "[T]he more completely a man renounces worldly things, the more perfectly he dies to self by conquest of the self, the sooner will grace be given, ... and the nearer to God will it raise the heart set free from the world," wrote Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. And the wonderful thing is that this truth need not remain at the level ofpious sentiment but can be turned into practical reality through a spiritual discipline even a dumb convict like me managed to learn: Centering Prayer, or contemplation.
In my book I introduce readers to roughly a dozen classic teaching texts in our tradition?from the fourth century Life of St. Anthony to the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing to Father Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart?and teach a number of very useful (and theologically unobjectionable) techniques for achieving mental quiescence which I picked up during my years as a Buddhist. All this "how to" information comes wrapped in an account of my personal experiences with learning Centering Prayer, as well as the story of my tabloid-TV trial. The book's final section recounts the stages of my prison journey with an emphasis on showing how anyone can apply the spirit of contemplation to his or her own life's traumas or prisons?and by doing so overcome them.
What Centering Prayer taught me, and can teach my readers, is that our prisons can become instruments of grace. Father Thomas Merton, the great contemplative author whose path nearly crossed mine in the year of my birth in Bangkok, Thailand, once wrote in a poem, "Life is this simple / We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent / and God is shining through it all the time. / ... / God shows Godself everywhere, / In everything, / In people and in things and in nature and in events"?and even in our suffering, our chains. Christ himself knew this well; it was only on the cross that he could show us what divine, self-giving, self-emptying love looked like in practice.
Writing The Way of the Prisoner?passing on the gift of contemplative prayer to my readers, and along the way shining a light on some of the problems faced by America's two million prison inmates?helped save my soul, after the fatal blow dealt to me by the U.S. Supreme Court. It took me twelve months to complete the first draft, and during that time the devil fought me as hard as he could: halfway through the book, I lost my father, and just after I completed it in January of 2002, Bev Cosby died too. But even in those very dark days, God's grace was working powerfully to build a new family for me.
On the one hand, advance copies of my book manuscript won me new friends?including a surprising number of highly committed and deeply spiritual Episcopalians, the kind of people my school chaplain should have brought in as guest speakers on "chapel day." And, on the other hand, I received the final shove I needed to convert to Catholicism during a Mass I attended in July of 2001, halfway through the writing of my book.
Father Leo had not allowed Protestants like me to receive communion, but when he was disabled by a horrific automobile accident, Bishop Sullivan sent us a retired priest who took note of the exemptions provided by canon law. Outside, a summer storm lit up the sky with lightning and battered our room's windows with raindrops the size of marbles; inside, the drama was even greater for me as I received the body and blood of our Lord for the first time. Intellectually, I had been convinced of the Real Presence for years, but now I experienced it as a profound spiritual and physical reality, at the very depth of my soul. That Mass changed my life. Afterwards, I went outside long enough for the rain to hide the tears I could no longer hold back; then I returned inside to blubber out my thanks to the priest, who probably thought I was a mental patient.
Next Easter, I was confirmed into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
October 31, 2018