Prayers for People Under Pressure
- Tuesday, May 13, 2008
For all its strengths, the Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication formula has its omissions and weaknesses. Perhaps the most glaring omissions are prayers of contemplation. As these usually take place in silence, it would be difficult to devote many pages to them in a book of this kind. However, as I mention in relation to the Three Crucial Questions prayer on page 132, some of my own deepest moments of discovery have come from going down the contemplative path. In particular the nine-day silent retreat I did on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises under Father Gerard Hughes’s direction in 1998 was another major turning point on my journey.
Prayer needs to be balanced between the inward swing of contemplation and the outward swing of action. In this context action can include doing, serving, or praying in accordance with God’s will. For me, at that time action meant preparing to go to prison since I had already confirmed my intention to plead guilty to charges of perjury arising out of the Guardian libel action. So my most frequent prayer request was, “Lord, help me survive in prison.” It turned out to be a prayer well answered.
On the first morning of my prison sentence, June 9, 1999, I awoke at 5:30 a.m. and wondered how I would survive the coming day. HMP Belmarsh was notorious for being “a tough nick,” and it had lived up to its reputation on the night of my arrival with dozens of its inmates participating in an obscene chant on the theme of “Let’s Get Aitken Tomorrow.” Among the noisiest vocalists in the chant were the neighbors on my wing landing. Occupying the cells immediately to the left and right of me were a couple of prisoners who seemed to have cast themselves in the role of cantors. After helpfully identifying my precise location in their sing-song voices, they would shout a question such as “What shall we do to Aitken (or Aitken’s private parts) tomorrow?” From the other three sides of the exercise yard came a thunder of unprintable responses.
Although my blood ran cold when I first heard these raucous exchanges, the combination of physical exhaustion, saying a prayer, and reading a psalm1 caused me to fall asleep before the shouting had run its course. But the memory of these menacing obscenities came back all too vividly as I began to think about the day ahead.
In contrast to the cacophony of the night before, the stillness of the morning after felt amazingly peaceful. Belmarsh was as quiet as a becalmed battleship. Its silence was strangely conducive to prayer. As I took in my immediate surroundings, I remember thinking, Now I can see why monks down the centuries have found cells such good places to pray in. Confronted with the stark reality of being shut inside a 12 x 8-foot concrete-walled box, whose main features were iron bars, iron door, iron bed, chair, table, and toilet, I realized that life could only be livable in these claustrophobic surroundings if one’s spiritual heart and mind were in the right place. So I turned to God and prayed.
Prayer discipline works. My brain might have been whirling in a thousand different directions, but I settled down into the routine of the ACTS structure I had been using ever since the Alpha course of October 1997. For obvious reasons I remember those particular morning prayers well, as usual recording them in my diary.
First came Adoration. What could there be to adore in God’s glory and creation from a cell in Belmarsh? A nanosecond after asking this silly question I looked up through the bars and saw sunlight dancing like golden ballerinas across the gray rooftops of the adjacent cellblocks. One of the short adoration prayers I had learned came to mind: “O God, be exalted above the heavens: let your glory shine over all the earth.”
Next came Confession. I began with a familiar plea: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. Look well if there are any wrongful ways in me, and lead me in your way everlasting.” Usually this prayer, from Psalm 139, brings up sinful junk by the bucketful. On this day it produced nothing. This was absurd. Here was I on my first morning in prison and I couldn’t think of anything to confess! Was I praying in the wrong way? Of course, the sins for which I was being punished had long ago been confessed to God. But even so, the idea that the previous day had been a sinless one was ridiculous. So I redoubled my efforts to bring to mind my sins. Still nothing happened.
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