Contrary to popular belief there are no baritone orders of “lights out” in prison. It used to happen but gone are the days of plunging the inmate’s world into darkness, leaving him (or her) alone with nothing but thought and the echoes of a cellmate’s snoring. It’s true in days gone by the life of an inmate could be hard, cold and often brutal, but slowly HM Prison Service has dragged itself into the 21st century so that we (the author is serving a life sentence for armed robbery) at least have electricity and light available when required.
Enlightenment? That’s another matter.
Years back, when I was 18 and beginning a first stretch, I lay on the bottom bunk and looked out through the bars into a beautiful blue sky. It was then and for the first time in my life that I questioned my own mortality; my own insignificant position in the universe unrolling before my eyes.
It only looks like a paradox that the more a man is confined away from the world, the more he finds himself exposed to curiosity and the searching mind. Locked in a concrete box he will sooner or later discover perspective and play with it in his mind. He is alone as never before, cold with the realisation that he is on a planet that hangs in the black of space, illuminated by starlight older than history itself. That moment, when clarity screams aloud, “Now you see!” is a realisation like no other. For me, at 18 and locked in a box, it was terrifying.
When my pulse finally calmed and things fell slowly back into place it was impossible to look at life in the same way. The universe had opened up to me like a flower and a single question repeated itself within my skull: Does God exist? … Does God exist? … Does God exist?
It was the beginning of a journey that I am still on. The steps along the way have been inspiring at times and the people we share this planet with never cease to amaze me. Some are evil – I have seen it in the eyes of men the public needn’t know about. Conversely, I’ve seen goodness shine out from the most unlikely candidates who make me smile at nothing but their presence and swagger. But God? No. I don’t think so. The question still breaks through now and then but I know now that if God were indeed walking beside me and sharing my cell, I’d know about it by now. I know this 560 cubic feet of space better than my own home. For now it is my home and I will continue to fill it with books, some read, some written, and keep moving forward.
I could not quantify the number of books read or the hours spent seeking a response to the question. It is quieter these days but the question remains.
What I do know is this: the human mind cannot fully embrace that which the human heart cannot accept as truth. I’m talking of course about religion and how, over the many years spent behind these walls, I have sought proof of the existence of God from the religions I have tripped over and stumbled into along the way. When proof wasn’t available, something – anything – would have done to quieten my mind but the priests and Yogis and Imams and Hippies (I‘d have listened to the bloke with no teeth who scrubs the corridors) couldn’t offer me evidence that my mind and heart could accept as spiritual truth. Needless to say, none is available at the time of writing either.
So now I sit at peace, a proud and diligent agnostic. The position suits me and I say I’m a proud agnostic because experience has taught me that it takes real courage to turn away from “The Light” if you know it to be false in your heart, more so when the door slams shut and the abyss is opening beneath your feet. That courage has made it possible for me to educate myself, made it possible to look the darkness, in the absence of the Light, right in the eye for evidence of empirical truth and not turn away from the beauty that doubt can offer. “Step into the darkness,” I tell prisoners who inevitably start talking God. “It’s really quite beautiful.”