Monday, 16 September 2013

"Getting arrested saved my life"

Few people would be grateful for having spent 10 years in prison. But James
Bishop was imprisoned for a decade, and hails it as a lifesaver. “Getting arrested saved my life,” he says. “Had I not been jailed in 1999, I am
convinced that I would have died soon after.”

I meet James on a hot London day with sun pouring down. He tells me he was born in 1965 in a Los Angeles convent run by the Sisters of Holy Family Adoption Services, who cared for unmarried mothers. His mother was 15, and she gave him up for adoption. In his new family, James was the second of four. All the children were adopted and he was raised by “an extremely devout Catholic dad”. His adoptive mother was a covert alcoholic, getting inebriated while they were at school.

When he was growing up, he resolved to abandon Catholicism as soon as
he turned 18. He chose to do electrical engineering at university and it
was on the first day there that he drank his first bottle of whiskey, “to drown
out the anxiety that I felt at being away from home and my family”.

During his 20s and 30s he became more dependent on larger quantities of
alcohol – before he was jailed, his staple was four large bottles of Jack
Daniels a day. A severe form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and
related paranoia had a lock on his thinking. “I was not mentally well,”
he says. “My paranoia was most likely from drinking so much alcohol. I was
convinced that the world was going to end and so I started stockpiling cases
of military rations and barrels of water. And I had obsessions with counting
bricks in the wall or counting the number of steps that I took, or drawing
star shapes over and over in my mind.”

One day, while uncontrollably drunk, he committed grievous bodily harm. When
he was arrested and put in jail, he began to realise the repercussions of
his crimes. “I stayed in a corner of the cell, wrapped up in a ball, crying,
because of what I had done.”

He then felt his first surge of gratitude for prison life. “I was grateful
that it was impossible to drink inside,” he said. “It forced me to look at
my issues square in the face.” He got a prescription for medication to help
him cope with OCD. But after asking for psychiatric therapy, he found there
was little on offer.
Yet it wasn’t long before he discovered the method to heal his mental
wounds. Benedictine nuns visited and taught the prisoners meditation. While
James was a lapsed Catholic at the time, he felt a real peace after the very
first time of meditating on the word, “maranatha” (an Aramaic expression
found in St Paul’s letters often translated “Come, Lord!”). James then began
meditating on his own. “Even in prison, there are times when you can
meditate in silence. I got up earlier than the other prisoners, and so would
meditate before the lights came on. In addition to the general feeling of
peace, I was beginning to regain my sanity. My anxiety was lowered and my
OCD got better.”

In prison every book that was being thrown under his door had a Catholic
theme, and James first thought that it was a fluke. Later, he saw it as a
sign.

James made a list of difficulties that he had with the Church, and presented
them to the chaplaincy. Each question was satisfactorily answered and
James’s adoptive father sent him a Catechism. “I realised that I had
horribly misunderstood Catholicism,” he notes humbly. It had been 30 years
since his last Confession, and to prepare he wrote out his sins on a list.
He was no longer a hardened alcoholic, but a practising Catholic steeping
himself in Benedictine spirituality. But he was also determined that when
his prison term was finished  he would not be a repeat offender. He stayed
away from people who were planning to commit crimes. “I wasn’t going to help
them, and they certainly weren’t going to help me,” he says.
James notes cheerfully that “it’s very surprising who you might get on with
in prison”. I am aghast when he mentions that he was friendly with Roy
Norris. In 1979, Norris was one of “the toolbox killers”. An accessory to
Larry Bittaker, Norris raped and tortured six teenage girls, killed five of
them and dumped their bodies in various parts of southern California.
I say that I find it surreal that Norris was a pleasant jailmate. “Yes, his
crimes were despicable. But prison has been very good for Roy Norris. He is
personable and does beautiful artwork. He knows that he’s never getting out,
and that is the best thing for society. We stay in touch and we write to each other.”

James says it made him a new person, and he thinks that meditation could be
the key to helping criminals “get over their anxieties and issues, which may
have been the reason that they ended up in prison in the first place”. James
is recruiting people who are willing to teach meditation to prisoners. But
it’s difficult because, “people want to get out of prisons, they don’t want
to break into them”!

Meditation certainly seems to have worked for James. In American parlance,
he has “done a 180”. He is so relaxed and at ease that it’s a difficult to
imagine the anxious person who was racked with OCD-related obsessions before
he discovered meditation. He has written an exceptional book on his
experiences called A Way in the Wilderness, which convinces the reader of
the life-changing benefits of meditation.

But is meditation all good? Are there not some risks? I mention that I have
reservations because a scrupulous Catholic told me that it was dicy. They
warned me against letting the mind go empty, because the Devil will slip in
and control the person. James is familiar with this notion and counters it
by saying: “If you open yourself up to the Devil, then it could be true, but
in meditation you are opening yourself up to God. I know of nobody who
meditated and suddenly became possessed. The distinction is that we are
emptying our minds of our thoughts, and giving room for God to put His
thoughts.”

When James has given public talks on meditation, people have objected to
letting go of their thoughts. He has responded: “Your mind is like a cup. If
it’s already filled with one liquid, you can’t put another liquid in it. You
have to empty the cup first. The distinction is that we are emptying the
mind but we are not emptying the soul. The soul is like the telephone to
God, and we are using it to get in touch.”
What happens after we get in touch? “We listen. Meditation often starts with
saying: ‘God, I’m finished asking you for things. Now, I’m ready to listen.’
When God makes His presence felt, it’s not always in a booming voice or a
flash of light. If we want to know Him, we must listen. The first word of
the Rule of St Benedict is ‘listen’, and we don’t pay enough importance to
listening to God.”

A Way in the Wilderness is compelling reading because it lifts the Rule of Benedict from so many centuries ago and shows the contemporary reader how to apply it in their own lives for spiritual enrichment.


I ask James if he thinks that a modern audience would find St Benedict
off-putting. I mention the saint’s practice of getting rid of lustful
thoughts by rolling around in thorny bushes. I ask him how he would
interpret that to a modern group.
“I think copying that practice directly is too severe!” he replies. “But
Benedict placed enough importance on dealing with temptation. Maybe thorn
bushes were the only thing that he had at his disposal to ward off that
particular temptation.”
While St Benedict was tempted by lust, James says that he knows the
importance of conquering temptation because “I am an alcoholic and,
fortunately, people can drink around me, and it does not bother me. But if
it did, then I would have to remove myself from the company of people who
drink, and the temptation, or else I might fall.”

There are also miracles that are attributed to St Benedict, such as when his
own monks made an attempt on his life by poisoning his chalice. But when
Benedict blessed the wine, the poison was nullified. When we discuss this
incident, James says: “What rotten little monks. They attempted murder! I
used to have the idea that monks were better than criminals, but that might
not always be the case.”

Not merely has James’s spirituality been revitalised, but he has also been
reunited with his biological mother, who he calls “a wonderful lady”. He has
certainly come full circle, from being convicted of a violent crime to
passing on the practice of meditation to prisoners. You never know, maybe
even others like Roy Norris will follow in his footsteps.

A Way in the Wilderness by James Bishop is published by Continuum, priced
£12.99. For more information, visit http://authorjamesbishop.com
Footage of James speaking at a Justice Seminar can be found at Meditatiostore.com

The above interview was published in print edition of The Catholic Herald

1 comment:

  1. The few times I have meditated I have felt peace and it has put me in a prayful mood. I found it meditation has made me more trusting of God and I am better able to give Him my burdens.

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