Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Jens Soering
Lantern Books, 317 pages, $17.95
Praying your way out of the prison of self

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

Kierkegaard said that we are all in a state of despair. The problem is, most of us don’t know that we’re in despair, and so we never examine ourselves as we truly are.

In The Way of the Prisoner, inmate Jens Soering tells his own story of peeling away the layers of self and turning his darkness into something positive. The “way of the prisoner,” he says, is to follow the example of Jesus -- whose own cross transformed him, liberated him and brought him to new life.

At the time of his writing, Soering had served 17 years of two life sentences for murder. He started Way in January 2001 on the day his last appeal was denied. This blow, he says, “came close to extinguishing that little flame of ‘Jens’ that had struggled so hard to stay lit with the divine Fire.”

Soering sent his manuscript to Cistercian Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the foremost practitioners of centering prayer, and the monk passed on Way to his own publisher. The book is part philosophical and theological discussion, part how-to contemplation guide, part spiritual memoir, part reflection on the need for prison reform.

The first section describes the biblical foundations of Christian contemplation, giving exegesis on the temptation of Jesus by the devil (Luke) and other scriptural types for contemplative prayer. This portion also discusses contemplative exemplars like the Buddha, Antony of Egypt and Teresa of Avila.

Between the next sections of the book are two “intermezzos,” or interludes. The first details the 1985 double murder case in which Soering was involved. (Though Soering says the reader can skip this section, it provides an important piece to the book. Throughout Way, he advocates fiercely that the self is an illusion. It is hard to understand why this seems so vital to him until we see where the “self” led this particular individual.)

In the next intermezzo, Soering describes the most satisfying fruits of his faithful contemplation practice. Up until this point in the book and in his life, he has dismissed the idea of mystical experience. “ ‘Visions’ struck me as figments of overwrought imaginations, as (particularly beautiful) distractions of the mind.” Then (February 2003, on the book’s timeline) he had a surprise spiritual breakthrough that changed his mind:

“Contemplative prayer does indeed work incrementally, but along with the strip-mining, it appears that God also secretly drills deep shafts and carves huge subterranean caverns. In the fullness of time, when those hollows are large enough, the land above caves in with a spectacular crash, transforming the surface geography all at once.”

The mystical insight Soering relates here will strike fellow contemplatives as true to their own experiences of God’s vastness.

The last part of Way moves into what Soering calls “centering practice” -- how centering prayer must move a person outward to help others. The author describes his own prison situation and his attempts to practice compassion for his fellow prisoners. He tells of molested-children-turned-rapists stalking other inmates and men whose only pleasure is a cigarette, drugs or a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Soering also relates his own escape from a prison rapist, his experience in a Victorian-era English prison and his stay at a prison in Virginia where the window glass was frosted over because, according to officers, “the view overlooking the valley was considered too beautiful for inmate eyes.”

These glimpses into prison life are fascinating, absorbing and sad. Soering can also be funny. About distractions in prayer, he says, “My self … loves nothing better than to disrupt my prayers with particularly clever ways of phrasing sentences for this book.” Other parts of Way are slower going, such as some of the biblical exposition or the step-by-step centering instruction. But though they take longer to absorb, these spiritual passages are the heart of the book. They stay in the mind for a long time, prompting many -- the author hopes --to take up the practice of centering prayer, find their way out of their own prisons and be “able to find God sparkling in my tears.”

(This is a shorter version of a review that ran in the October issue of Celebration.)

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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