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On Penitence and Penitentiaries: A Lenten Reflection

(by Jens Soering, National Catholic Reporter, Spring 2004)

Lent is the penitential season, so where better to compose this Lenten reflection than in a penitentiary cell? Both the season and the institution are meant to heighten our awareness of our own sinfulness and help us rededicate ourselves to the good and the godly, Or so the theory goes: The current recidivism rate among released prisoners is 67.5 percent, and I suspect that sustaining inner renewal is no easier in your world. As a convict serving two life sentences for double murder, perhaps I can offer a few helpful thoughts on repentance, penitentiaries and the hope of a coming Easter.

My Lent has lasted almost 18 years so far - plenty of time to think about my sins and my need for change. When I was 18, I covered up a double murder and eventually was convicted of committing it. Of course I felt tremendous grief, anger and bitterness at what I felt to be a horrible injustice; on the night of the verdict, I tried to kill myself. But as the years rolled past, I came to see that guilt and innocence are much more complicated than I thought at first, that I have much I should be repentant for and that my incarceration is not totally unjust.

The truth is that I could have prevented this double murder if I had been less cowardly, less self-centered, more loving, more willing to help the person who committed the crime before it was too late. I failed to be my brother's keeper. And I knew this as soon as the real killer confessed the murders to me. My own moral culpability in failing to prevent the crime was, in fact, one of the primary reasons why I agreed to cover it up.

That meant lying - to my parents, to my friends, to the police and ultimately to myself. With those lies, I hurt the victims family, my own family, myself and probably even the actual murderer. The harm my lies caused reached its terrible climax when my mother drank herself to death 11 years after my arrest. It took that long for her broken heart to kill her.

Since my mother's passing six years ago, my two life sentences have actually been easier to bear: One of them I now feel I deserve. But the story of my penitential journey, my 18-year Lent, does not end there. What happened after I became aware of my sin and guilt was that God granted me the grace of conversion and renewal. What happened is ... Easter.

For two years after my mother's death, that happy end seemed unlikely, The outward and inward circumstances of my life spiraled downward until, in January 2000, locked down in the harsher of Virginia's two "supermax" prisons, I reached the end. There was nothing left of me for the state to take or break. I was done.

Miraculously - and I really do think of it as a miracle - I was shown the way out of my despair by a friend, the Rev. Beverly Cosby of the United Church of Christ. He introduced me to Centering Prayer, the modern version of contemplation developed by Fr. Thomas Keating and others in the 1970s. Through Centering Prayer, I learned how to quiet the self that had gotten me into so much trouble, and to create a little inner space of silence into which God could begin to enter.

In The Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena described contemplation as being "locked up in the house of self-knowledge" - an irresistible turn of phrase for a prisoner like myself, as one can imagine. Locked up in my own house of self-knowledge in the "supermax" prison, I learned to face my sin and guilt, fear and pain, regret and shame while Centering. Each prayer session was like a little Lent, twice a day, 20 minutes each.

And the Lent of Centering Prayer led to an Easter: God gave me a mission and a new life, even behind bars. Four years after embarking on this journey, my first book has just been published; my second book will be released this fall; and many of my articles on prayer and prison reform have been printed in major religious publications. Where before I was virtually friendless and alone, I now have a surfeit of correspondents and visitors. Perhaps there is a more joy-filled "lifer" somewhere in America's prisons, but I have not heard of him.

None of this goes to my credit, of course; this is all God's doing, not mine. In fact, what Centering Prayer did and does is to get me out of the way, so God has more room to use me. "He must increase. I must decrease," John the Baptist said (John 3:30).

For me, the key to it all is more Lent, more Centering Prayer, more time "locked up in the house of self-knowledge." I now practice Centering four times a day, roughly half an hour per session. By returning so often to my own brokenness, weakness and failure in prayer, I learn to keep my eyes trained on Jesus, whose grace and salvation I need so desperately.

I think our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, like St. Catherine of Siena, understood much better than we do today how important a lively and continual awareness of our sinfulness is for sustained inner renewal. To us, their writings seem almost masochistically preoccupied with the sordid details of their transgressions. But I believe this is the very foundation of their spiritual greatness. Real saints never allow themselves to forget that even their best-intentioned acts carry within them some secret taint of selfishness or pride. Once this insight penetrates deeply in prayer, casting aside the self becomes a joyful act of liberation: Now God can finally take over. And then miracles start happening. They certainly did for me.

"There is no one just, not one," St. Paul reminds us, and the more vividly we apply that insight to ourselves, the closer we draw to Christ (Romans 3:10). Something to ponder this Lenten season - and to continue pondering throughout the year.

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