After much more in this vein Paddy ended by saying, “Me nan [grandmother] used to believe in Jesus, and she really had something. I can see that you’ve got something. So I’d like to try that path myself. I really would.”

One of my self-imposed survival rules in prison was that I had resolved never to talk about religion. Before I went inside, an ex-prisoner had warned me that “Jesus freaks sometimes get served up [beaten up].” So I had kept my prayers for the privacy of my own cell, until this moment. Now I realized that I had to respond to Paddy. So it was my turn to create a long pause between us, until I finally said, “Well, Paddy, if you feel that way, why don’t we say a prayer together?” I had moved a long way since the days when I thought that praying out loud would be worse than going to the dentist without an anesthetic.

So we prayed. First night, second night, third night. Then Paddy, who had in him the qualities of a good recruiting sergeant, decided that our two-man prayer partnership needed to be expanded. So he went off recruiting and came back with two or three of his friends, then two or three more, and then still more. Before we knew where we were, we had gathered together about twelve young men in a rather unusual prayer group—so unusual that it gave a new meaning to the Christian term “a cell group.”

We started off in considerable embarrassment. “How do we pray?” someone asked. Hesitantly I described the ACTS structure. By the time I had finished I thought no one had understood my explanation. Then a Nigerian prisoner leapt in with a passionate extempore prayer on why he adored the Lord Jesus. We were off and running.

Far from being the tutor of the group, I was its greatest learner and beneficiary. Until my time in prison I had prayed from my lips. It was my fellow prisoners who taught me how to pray from the heart.

Their examples showed me how little prayer has to do with the human activity of polishing words and phrases that we think are appropriate for addressing God. What my prison prayer partners instinctively knew was that prayer is a supernatural activity in which we rely on God to enter our hearts and let our feelings rise up to him in words, occasionally in silences, which he inspires. In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that I had to go into a prison cell to learn these facts of prayer life.

Once I understood why my “experienced” prayers were less powerful than the “inexperienced” prayers of my fellow prisoners, a new impetus came to my prayer life. Take Confession. Saying it with your lips is not enough. Changing your life with your heart, away from what you have confessed, is an essential part of the process. As John the Baptist urged his followers, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). The conflicting forces of good and evil cause struggles in every human heart. As I participated in prayer with those who were struggling against, say, the inability to forgive, I became much harder on my own failures in this area. This particular problem was solved for me by the advice of a Benedictine monk whom I met when he was walking around the exercise yard of Belmarsh dispensing pastoral advice. I told him of the problem I was having over unforgiveness, particularly toward one or two journalists who persisted in writing complete fiction about me. “Pray to receive the gift of forgiveness,” said the monk, “and when you receive it, give the gift back to those toward whom you feel unforgiving.” So I prayed, and weeks later it all happened just as the monk had said it would. My unwillingness to forgive rolled off my shoulders and has not troubled me again since.

One of the most difficult areas of Supplication in our prison prayer group was drug addiction. The jails of Britain are awash with horse, charlie, coover, tackle, and a dozen other exotically named derivatives of heroin and cocaine. The prices are low, the dealers are persistent, and the flesh is weak. But in some cases prayer was an enormous help to young men who wanted to break their habit and stay clean. Most of them had done Narcotics Anonymous courses of one kind and another that referred to the need for the help of “a higher power.” What does this phrase mean in the context of secular NA or AA courses? At least a Christian prayer group can answer the question by praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to come into a drug user’s heart and transform his weak will so that it harmonizes with God’s will. Also the accountability factor in a group of prayer partners can be a huge support in weaning drug users off their habit.