The Common Good
September-October 2003

Blast of the Divine

by Jens Soring | September-October 2003

What a Department of Corrections shotgun pellet taught me about centering prayer.

The crazy thing is, I thought I saw it coming. Of course I could not hear it; the shotgun blast had left me momentarily deaf. But I was looking straight at the man who caught the full force of the shot, watched him go down, and then saw a cloud of ricocheting projectiles expand outward. I swear I could pick out the dark little ball that was heading my way.

Department of Corrections shotguns are loaded with a handful of pea-sized black rubber pellets that bounce easily off hard surfaces like prison walls and prison floors. So even with the best of intentions—and, believe me, there aren't that many good intentions in a "supermax" penitentiary—almost inevitably some bystanders will be hit when this weapon is used indoors.

I had already, as the prison rule required, assumed a completely prone position immediately upon hearing the blank warning shot. In fact, I had not broken a single regulation in my 14 years of incarceration. So why was I now taking fire? Unfair, I wanted to shout, unfair!

Those of us who knew the drill had hit the floor with alacrity, but the new man seemed so shocked by the echoing first shotgun blast that he only crouched and looked around—perhaps wondering why everyone else was flat on his stomach. Then the officer fired the second round, the one with the black rubber ball that had my name on it.

The projectile hit me in the left biceps, only 6 or 8 inches from my face since I was in the spread-eagled position. The impact didn't hurt me physically, though in the coming days and weeks I experienced sleeplessness, extreme sensitivity to loud noises, a few panic attacks, and much free-floating anger. Immediately after the pellet's sting, however, I mostly felt something close to relief: Hey, that wasn't so bad.

As per the rules, I remained motionless while the tactical response team removed the offending inmate to the adjoining segregation unit. Other officers then picked up all the loose pellets scattered around the day room, and finally we were allowed to rise and return to our cells. "My" projectile had burrowed under my arm and was now lying on the floor, so I dutifully turned it in to the nearest guard. No point getting caught with that in my possession during the next shakedown.

Back in my crib, I told my cellmate all about the fun he had missed. And then I sat down for the second of my (then) two daily sessions of centering prayer.

I had only been practicing this spiritual discipline for four or five months. Earlier that year, I had finally come to the end of all the self's survival mechanisms that had sustained me for nearly a decade and a half. Fortunately—or more accurately, providentially—at that crisis point I picked up a little yellow leaflet on centering prayer, written by Father Thomas Keating and sent to me years earlier by a friend. I found the following: "We close our eyes to let go of what is going on around and within us." Letting go was what I wanted to do, desperately! But centering prayer was neither a form of escapism nor a spiritualized narcotic, the leaflet assured me, since "[c]ontemplative prayer is a process of interior purification leading, if we consent, to divine union."

By the time of the shooting, I had already caught a few glimpses during centering prayer of that divine presence in whom we live and move and have our being. This definite, undeniable sense of encounter kept me coming back session after often-frustrating session in those early months. By contrast, I had repeatedly failed to build a regular, sustained meditation discipline a decade earlier using vipassana, an ancient Indian meditation technique, before my conversion from Buddhism to Christianity, precisely because on that path I seemed to meet only a cool and neutral void within, not the gentle pull of love. Nor did this divine love disappoint me when I sat down to perform centering prayer with the sting of the shotgun's pellet still fresh on my arm: That session was a particularly satisfying one, a gentle and much needed comfort after a very frightening experience.

But the first lesson I learned as I struggled with the psychological aftershocks was that I had to stop clinging to the peace and consolation I had felt during this initial post-shooting prayer session. I tried desperately to return to that inner sanctuary again and again. I failed every time. Grasping at anything during centering prayer only agitates the mind and makes it that much harder to develop quiescence. However, the very difficulty of attenuating the self's tendency to grasp during this very stressful period strengthened my subsequent spiritual practice tremendously.

I might never have developed a clear understanding of the ultimate purpose of contemplative spirituality if I had not been shot. Before the inner storm unleashed by that experience, I believed that we must aim to reach the "prayer of union" during the contemplation session itself. The sixth century Syrian monk Pseudo-Dionysius described this special spiritual state in The Divine Names as being "made one with the dazzling rays, being then and there enlightened by the inscrutable depth of wisdom…in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself." Under this approach, centering prayer was something I did at certain times each day in order to reap specific spiritual benefits—like "peace" and, later, "divine union"—for me. In other words, my self was fully in control of this new, devout project, and I probably would have felt mildly threatened by the idea that the "principal effects of centering prayer" could spread beyond its scheduled sessions to affect my daily life, as Father Keating's yellow leaflet claimed.

After the shooting, of course, my "daily life" began to affect my centering prayer. In every single session after the initial peaceful one, I was under assault by afflictive emotions—anger, fear, panic, and doubt—which were far more powerful than the run-of-the-mill distractions and disturbing thoughts I had encountered in the first few months of my practice. Fortunately, I had enough centering prayer experience by then to apply the proper technique to these new, much greater inner obstacles: I noted their arising, recognized them for what they were (impermanent wisps of the mind), and finally let them go and returned to my prayer word. After hundreds, possibly thousands of repetitions of this process over the next few weeks, I was able to return (occasionally) to that gentle, quiet inner place that God had kept ready for me.

More important was the gift of being forced to apply the technique of centering prayer to those same feelings when they arose outside of contemplation proper. It seemed like an accident when I first let go of an incipient panic attack in the middle of the day; I simply did with eyes open what I normally did during prayer, without even thinking about it. And miracle of miracles, this worked!

On a very practical and literal level I learned the truth of the sixth century Syrian abbot John Climacus' dictum in The Ladder of Divine Ascent: "The [one] who has entered stillness…but who fails to see how it benefits him daily is either practicing it in the wrong way or is being robbed of it by self-esteem." Learning to recognize my self's various attractions and aversions as they arose throughout the day, and steadily shifting focus away from them to God, slowly helped me develop some inner distance from the self's endless grasping and rejecting—the state of mind the ancients called dispassion.

As I became more skilled at looking beyond the surface of people and events, another more profound change in my worldview and my prayer discipline took place. Occasionally, I started catching glimpses of how "all things [are] in God, and God in all things," as the 13th century German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg claimed. "This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true," the 20th century American abbot and author Thomas Merton wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time."

Both Mechthild and Merton saw the "prayer of union" as a pleasant by-product of developing an eye for the mysterious workings of divine Providence everywhere, at all times. Mechthild and Merton were well aware of the reality of evil and actively worked to oppose inequity. What they focused on, however, was the divine intent behind allowing trauma and tragedy to enter our lives.

Learning to respond to the divine call in all circumstances is far more profound than "making the best of a bad situation." Offered here is a form of "divine union" that lasts not just for a few minutes during contemplation but extends to every waking moment. Pain remains pain, but we now see its purposes, as Joseph did thousands of years ago when he explained to the brothers who had sold him into slavery that "it was not really you but God who had me come here" (Genesis 45:8). All we need do to gain this kind of insight into the Spirit's workings in our own lives is to listen. That is what we train ourselves to do in centering prayer: to be silent and hear.

Of course we do not want to hear this when it is we who are sick or alone or under fire from a guard's gun. But refusing to listen to God's invitation to let go of our selves and turn to him, simply because we do not like the form in which this invitation was sent, means remaining locked in the prison of self, outside of God's love.

I have not traveled as far on this path as Mechthild or Merton did, of course, but I have advanced enough to feel a certain gratitude for the suffering, as suffering, that God gave me in that supermax prison. Along with Joseph, I can honestly say that "God made me fruitful in the land of my affliction" (Genesis 41:52).

Jens Soring, author of The Way of the Prisoner—Breaking the Chains of Self Through Centering Prayer and Centering Practice, had served 17 years of his two life sentences for double murder when this article appeared.

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