Now robbing banks didn’t offer any metaphysical breakthroughs, but I did find the first two robberies novel and exhilarating. But the third robbery did not have the same effect, and I was once more thrown back upon myself—as upon a dead thing. Fortunately, by this time a fellow criminal tipped off the local Portland police that I had been robbing banks in Washington in exchange for the reward money and other considerations. The police soon raided my house, but they made an error and apprehended a friend standing outside the house instead of me. I was inside the house at the time and heard the screech of converging police cars followed by shouting. I immediately knew what was happening. I grabbed a semi-automatic rifle from under my bed and held it waist-high. I didn’t have a desire or plan to shoot it out with the police—it just seemed like that’s what bank robbers are supposed to do when the police arrive—you go and grab your gun. I held the gun for a moment, and it was cold and heavy. Then a bright thought of hope flashed through my mind, “I don’t want to die—I’m young!” I threw the gun back under the bed and ran out the back door wearing only boxer shorts. I was arrested a short time later.
After my arrest I was immediately full of joy and relief. I suppose I looked like someone who was just released from prison, and not someone who was going away for a while. In fact, the in-take officer at the jail found my behavior so unusual that he wrote on the back of my in-take form that I might be crazy, or what he called “a little 1…2…3…4”. What the officer didn’t know was that I had a new lease on life. I was alive, young, and would now spend the next few years trying to put myself back together. And so I happily told the detectives everything they wanted to know, and was relieved to confess and hold nothing back. I threw myself on the mercy of the court, and though my complete cooperation was not a strategic move, it actually had the effect of netting me the lowest possible sentence. Unfortunately, while the judge had some hopes for my rehabilitation, the state did not, and so they opted to send me to a maximum-security prison. The prison officials thought it was best to gather most of the “bad apples” in the same place, and so they stocked one particular prison, Clallam Bay, full of angry young men and hardened cons. It was known among inmates as a “gladiator school”, and that would be my new home.
Now the common view is that getting sent to a maximum-security prison is the worst thing that could happen to an eighteen year-old, but like most things in life, the truth is more complicated. In prison there are basically two kinds of inmates: those who are welcomed into and enjoy the benefits of convict society—that little society that convicts create for themselves despite whatever the prison staff are up to—and those who are effectively ostracized and serve their time on the edge such as sex offenders, “snitches” and the “weak” or “scared”. Since there is a dramatic difference in the quality of life between the outcasts and those on the inside—the so-called “solid cons”—my future depended upon where I would come to stand.
I knew it was crucial to make the right first impression since mistakes have a long shelf-life in prison and your reputation can follow you from prison to prison. The solid cons—the inmates who basically ran the prison—watched me and gradually put me through a series of subtle tests in order to sift through my character and determine what kind of inmate I was. They observed whom I sat with in the chow hall, how I acted on the weight pile, and how I reacted to tense situations. They kept me at arms length as they weighed whether this “youngster” was one of them: someone who was dependable, cool-headed, tough as well as honest and respectful to fellow cons, or whether I was a loudmouth or frightened or unreliable. After watching me for several weeks, I was grudgingly welcomed into convict society. But what began at first as a grudging acceptance, turned into real friendship and a sense of community and solidarity.
My secure place in convict society gave me the peace to try to sort out who I was and find my place in the world. I thought that by reading books that were considered wise or meaningful, I could clear away my confusion and set my life on a clear path.
As soon as the fog cleared after my arrest, I began my self-rehabilitation by picking up a Bible. I thought it best to give God—if He even existed—the first shot at my redemption, and so I began by revisiting my Catholic roots. I attended the Catholic communion service and read the Gospels day and night. I was really taken by the Gospels—the words seemed to zip off the page as though they were gently charged with electricity. There was only one problem. I understood that the Gospels were calling me to a life of simplicity, patience and mercy—a radical offering of the self—but I had already vowed years before that I would never be at the mercy of any one again. This created a visible tension within me, and as I would walk around the prison meditating over the sweet words of Jesus, my fists would pulse and clench, ready to pound the first person that disrespected me. Believing in the Gospels made me feel vulnerable and now something had to give. At last I decided to walk away from Jesus, and not because I was convinced the Gospels were untrue, but because I thought, “Who can follow this?”
Once I walked away from Christ, I quickly found the path that I desired. I found a way to build myself up by relying on my own strength and talents, and not some unseen God. I eagerly examined philosophy and literature books for answers to all the big questions: the nature of human life, the way to happiness, the qualities of virtue and integrity. I soon settled into a long romance with the largely secular classics of Western Civilization, and this romance would last fifteen years or up until the day of my conversion experience. At the time, I thought of these efforts as laying the foundation stone for after my release; when I would set aside the solid convict and build a life around college studies.
When I was released in 1995, I was still rough around the edges, but people sensed that they should give me a wide berth, and so I was able to avoid bar-fights and other mischief. I was still only twenty-one, and so I left prison full of hope and determination. I dreamed of a career as a professor or a fellow at a think tank, and this seemed possible as I had finally achieved some discipline with the help of long hours of independent study. I enrolled full-time at Portland Community College, and after two years of perfect grades and a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT, I was accepted into Reed College, a small, local liberal arts college. It is best-known as the college that Steve Jobs dropped out of to found Apple Computer, but it also offered an elite program in the very books that I had come to love, and was known as a breeding-ground for future professors. After my graduation, I was accepted into some doctoral programs in political science, and chose the University of Michigan.
At this point it would be thought that I was at the zenith of my life as I had marched up the echelons of higher academia, but just as I achieved my greatest success, my sense of drive and optimism began to falter. The problem was that while my life after prison looked great on paper, in my moral life I had practiced one betrayal after another. Now instead of believing in my future and the story of an ex-con made good, I had come to the point where I could barely look at myself in the mirror. Moreover, I had also become disillusioned with all the ideals and all the goods that I had strived after in order to give my life hope and meaning. With the end of yet another long-term relationship, I finally knew that a woman’s beauty, charm, intellect, care and comfort—as well as the hope of having children someday—could not give me peace and joy if I didn’t have some peace first. Like many men, the mystery and beauty of women had been my great idol, and like all idols, it was a god that failed. I also came to lose hope in the prospect of a fulfilling academic career and the joys of the life of the mind. My field of political and moral philosophy was hopelessly splintered, and even though we all agreed on what the “great books” were, there was very little consensus after that. It was as if a new Tower of Babel had replaced the Ivory Tower, and everyone was talking past each other. Nevertheless, I would continue to slog through my doctoral studies until the day of my conversion, but without the passion that I had known while poring over books in my prison cell.
On an April morning in 2007 everything changed. I had just submitted my students’ grades the night before, and I decided to mow my lawn to celebrate the end of winter. But my heart was troubled. Through typical selfishness I’d begun to spoil my friendship with a young woman. As I mowed the lawn, I kept saying to myself, “What is wrong with you? Are you ever going to learn? You’re 33, grow up!” I’d often had that conversation with myself in the past, hating how I treated people and who I was becoming. But this time really was different. Before I had been like St. Augustine: “O’ Lord, help me to be pure, but not just yet.” But this time I was of one mind, and I committed myself to a new path. But God had had enough of my plans—plans that were always self-contained and relied on my own resources, my own designs and my own upside-down worldview. But He honored my spirit of repentance, and so from this episode full of ugly habits God brought forth His beauty, His purity and His mercy. As I turned a corner with the lawnmower, all of a sudden, my whole person resounded with a divine intervention. A calm voice displaced all other thoughts and sensations, and, presented fully and clearly on my mind, the voice said,
“I love you, and I forgive you.”
As the words concluded, an immense love that I had never thought possible ignited in my chest like a smoldering furnace. It was a consuming love, but also gentle, and it slowly spread from my heart up to my head and down to my toes. Along with this love, God placed in my mind—as one places things on a shelf—two thoughts or convictions. The first thought was that I simply knew He removed the chip on my shoulder: the mistrust, the wariness and the fierceness of an ex-convict. And the second thought, that God’s promise—His intention—was to eventually restore me to the little boy that I had been 25 years before. Before my sins and the sins of others had left me the disfigured person I had become.
Over the course of the next three days the divine love slowly drained out of me—like a bucket with a small hole. I spent those days trying to move beyond shock into understanding. Who was this God? This God who intimately knew me, and loved me—even when I seemed unlovable? I couldn’t imagine what this simple God of love had to do with all the baggage of revealed religion—all of the contested doctrines and history. And so I avoided organized religion and began to settle into the view that God is up there and He loves me, and I just need to be a better person, but my life wouldn’t substantially change. That’s a common view today, but it’s not the plan of Christ and His Church: for we are called to radical conversion, to put aside the old self and put on the mind of Christ. God in his mercy wouldn’t allow me to fall into this complacent theism, and so he promptly shocked me out of it through the following experience.
On the third day the love passed, and I decided to go running late at night with my dogs at a wooded park. Just as I arrived, an evil thought passed through my mind, and then another, and then another. Each thought was more outrageous than the last—like a rising crescendo of evil. I was stunned—not just by the wickedness of the thoughts—but that these thoughts clearly came from just outside of me—as if some unseen entity was subtly pushing them into my mind. I immediately guessed that there must be something like evil spirits, and that God was allowing me to clearly distinguish their actions on me from my own thoughts. I got out of the car and started to run at a frantic pace. As I ran I kept saying over and over, “Are there demons? There must be demons.”
Then just as I emerged from a hollow of trees into an intersection of paths and dirt roads, God answered my question. Spread out below a large moon wrapped in smoky yellow clouds, a thousand furious demons streamed down the road toward me. They appeared like animal humanoids; like a thousand different failed genetic experiments. They were restrained at a distance of about fifty yards. There was a kind of spiritual de-militarized zone between us, and I knew I was in God’s care—that He was showing me something under His protection.
For several seconds, God had raised the veil that separates the natural and super-natural—revealing a cosmic drama that earlier ages had taken for granted, but that for me was unthinkable. The very first thought I had when I saw the demons was that the typical medieval farmer had a more accurate understanding of our human condition—its perils and possibilities—than all of the smartest people I’d ever known. Modern philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and artists had got the basic picture wrong because their eyes were fixed only on this passing world. Just as our “best and brightest” can’t fathom the infinite love, mercy and purity of God—and our invitation to share in the divine feast—so they can’t fathom the reality of evil: a spiritual, personified evil that wars against us day and night whether we know it or not.
From the fact of demons, and the fact that God was one—a monotheistic God—and not part of a pantheon of gods, I reasoned that one of the religions that claim Abraham as their father must be true: Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and so that ruled out the Eastern religions. But now which religion? They couldn’t all be true since they each made important claims that the other would deny; particularly over the question, ‘who was Jesus?’ With that thought I went to bed.
When I awoke the next morning I was exhausted. Everything had changed in such a short time, and I just wanted to quietly sort things out. But God had a different plan. As I lay in bed, I was startled to find that a small, circular image obstructed my field of vision. In the upper left corner of my line of sight, about the size of a silver dollar held twelve inches away, was the likeness of a man set against a brilliant gold backdrop. The image was present no matter where I looked—like it was stamped inside of my mind—and it was there even when I closed my eyes. When I focused in on the image, concentrated on it, the colors would seem to literally come alive and the man would sharpen into focus. But when I was focused elsewhere—like driving—the image would gradually dim until it was like a colored splotch on a pair of glasses. The man in the image was about my age, and he appeared from the waist-up dressed in a wine-colored robe. His arms were at his side, but all you wanted to look at was the man’s face. The man had an immense vitality that was life itself. And yet I could never fully see his face when I focused on it. When I switched my attention elsewhere, I was conscious of the fullness of the face, and yet when I tried to focus in on it, the mouth and the eyes were always obscured. It was like the problem of looking into the noonday sun. When you see the sun indirectly, you see it simply and completely there in the sky, but when you try to look directly into it, your eyes fail.
The image would remain in my mind for ten days. After a few days, the persistence of the image began to weigh on me day and night. On the one hand, I felt like I was failing God—missing a clue that was right in front of me. On the other hand, I felt like I was being pursued without a chance of escape, like the man was staring at me, and that I was being branded or claimed in some way. What was I to do? In a state of desperation I focused again on the picture. The image grew radiant as always, and then something happened. The man’s thick hair lightly blew as if in a gentle breeze. I couldn’t believe it. So I looked again, and again wisps of his hair wafted in a breeze—while the air around me was still. The thought hit me: “That’s not a picture of a man—that’s a real man. That man’s alive!” And it was obvious that he wasn’t simply alive in our familiar world, but that his life transcended all of our scientific categories, and that he must be alive in Heaven. This increased my desire to know who the man was, but the truth is, I knew who He was—even if I did try to hide it from myself. And now that I knew it was a living man looking at me, I couldn’t keep up the self-deception. Even if I couldn’t see Him clearly, I knew He could see me clearly, and so I admitted, “It’s Jesus. Yes, it’s Jesus.”
My first step in exploring the Christian faith was to open a Bible an evangelical had given me, and compare it to the God I had just come to know. I opened to the “Gospel of John” with a fear of disappointment, a fear of not finding my beloved God. I had remembered the skeptical arguments of modern scripture scholars, and I wondered whether the Gospels were a faithful account of Jesus. After only a handful of pages, my fear subsided. How Jesus was portrayed and what He said, the sense He gave you of Himself, was true to the God who had rescued me. And even better news; the Gospels contained an enormous wealth of insights into God and the Christian life.
At the same time, I felt a need to worship on Sundays along with other Christians. I wanted to face toward the Lord and adore and quietly rest in Him. I yearned to feel His presence again. In short, I needed traditional liturgy. I had attended the Traditional Latin Mass a handful of times as a child and then twice for a medieval humanities field trip while I was at Reed College. I remembered the whole experience challenged you to think in different ways and in different terms. The mass was focused on and trustingly offered up to an unseen God, and it had a kind of ancient beauty that is rarely seen in an age like this. I also remembered that the preaching there was different—the hard sayings of Christ and his apostles were taken seriously, and the grace of God was understood to be the real source of change—where the real action and hope of sinners resides. This very different, unworldly aspect of the parish—for God’s ways are not our ways—gave me hope that I might find the dwelling place of the one, true God in the Catholic Church. I decided to attend the Traditional Latin Mass and if that didn’t feel like home, then I was going to look up the Eastern Orthodox.
So I searched online for local masses in the area, and found several options. I decided on St. Josaphat’s in Detroit—a beautiful old parish built by Polish immigrants. Before mass I was nervous. I held the Latin-English missal and wondered what I was doing there: “Is this a good idea? Am I going to be able to follow along?” Then a bell rang and I stood along with everyone else. Then the congregation and the cantor hidden behind me up in the loft began to sing the “Asperges Me”. All it took was the chanting of the first two words, and I knew that I was in the house of God. All the sights, smells and sounds, and a feel of the sacred beyond the mere senses, brought me back to His presence, and I knew I was finally home.
Edited by Rachel Waugh
Thank you for reading, and may you know the peace of the Lord. A longer version of this story can be found at Scott’s blog: www.bringustolife.blogspot.com
Scott Woltze's Recommended Reading
- The medieval book "The Flowers of St. Francis" captured the simplicity and humility of God--despite his omnipotence and omniscience!
- Pope Benedict's first volume of "Jesus of Nazareth" enabled me to finally get my head around the person of Jesus--true God and true man.
- Georges Bernanos's novel, "Diary of a Country Priest", exemplified how Christ works through weak, humble men to bring grace to those who think they don't want it.