Many good and worthy people in the past have found the experience of imprisonment a crucial and definitive period on their road towards faith and religious conversion, or as a means of deepening an already existing faith. Saint John of the Cross springs to mind, as does Miguel Cervantes, and the great Nicolae Steinhardt, whose book on his time in prison is called The Happiness Diary. We could also add the French poet, Paul Verlaine, the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, and the iconic Russian Nobel Prizewinner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
As was the case with these illustrious figures, my own experience of prison exemplified the paradox that prison can be a liberator. It can free us from ourselves and our pride-ridden prejudices. In many ways, prison serves as a metaphor for the role and purpose of suffering in our lives, which is to remind us of our mortality and prompt us to ask deep questions about the meaning of life, suffering and death. Prison can serve as a memento mori pointing us toward the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thinking of these things is the beginning of wisdom. As Oscar Wilde put it, speaking of his own experience in prison, “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?” It is for this reason, echoing Solzhenitsyn, that I can truly thank God for my time in prison.
In my case I had been sent to prison twice as a young man for hate crimes under Britain’s Race Relations Act, sentenced as a twenty-year-old and then as a twenty-four-year-old for “publishing material likely to incite racial hatred.” I spent my twenty-first birthday and my twenty-fifth birthday behind bars. During the earlier sentence I was a defiant unrepentant fanatic, boastful in my perceived role as a political soldier and a political prisoner. This had changed by the time I began my second sentence, at the beginning of which I found myself alone in a cell in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, fingering the rosary beads that someone had given me during my trial.
I knew what rosary beads were. In my anti-Catholic past they had been a symbol of the idolatrous Catholics, or “papists,” whom I had always held in contempt. My father called Catholics “bead rattlers” and I had learned from my anti-Catholic friends in Northern Ireland a song in which we jeered that we wanted “no nuns and no priest and no rosary beads.” I recalled that when I was a young boy, my father had thrown my maternal grandmother’s rosary beads out of the window, telling my mother in no uncertain terms that we were not having those papist beads in the house.
And yet now, as a young man, in the solitude of my cell, I was fingering these beads with no desire or inclination to follow my father’s example. I did not want to cast the beads through the bars into the courtyard below. Nothing could be further from my thoughts. What I wanted was to pray, something I had never done before in my life. There was, however, a problem. I did not know the Apostles Creed; I did not know the Hail Mary; and I did not know the Glory Be; nor did I have any notion of the mysteries which form such a necessary part of praying this most ancient and edifying of prayers. It was true that I had been taught the Our Father, many years ago, as a young child, but I had long since forgotten it.
No, I could not say the rosary, at least not in the conventional way. What I could do was fumble the beads and mumble inarticulate prayers, using the chain of beads as a lifeline, lifting me up towards a God whom I had never known. As if by a miracle of grace (and what else could it be!), answers began to flood into my questioning mind even as healing flowed into my embittered and broken heart. “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery,” says the noble Earl of Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and so the lowest point in my life became the turning point.
In truth, my hard head and hardened heart would not have consented to the desire for prayer if they had not been introduced to the goodness and truth that they had found in the works of G.K. Chesterton, whom I had started reading, almost against what I thought was my better judgment, in the years before the prison sentence. I couldn’t help liking Chesterton, in spite of his Catholicism, and couldn’t help reading everything by him that I could get my hands on. It is for this reason that I consider my biography of Chesterton, the first book I wrote following my reception into the Catholic Church, as a two-fold act of thanksgiving. It was an act of thanksgiving to God for giving me Chesterton, but it was also an act of thanksgiving to Chesterton for giving me God.
I have come a long way from the days in which I was involved with anti-Catholic terrorist groups in Northern Ireland, like the UDA and UVF, or from my days as a member of the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society. I have come a long way from my days as a neo-Nazi and a white supremacist, serving time in prison for trying to cause a race war. I have come a long way but I am all too aware that I still have a long way to go. I am still a miserable sinner. No, my race with the devil is not won but I know that as long as I remain in communion with the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, I am on my way to victory.
Books by Joseph Pearce, including his autobiography, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on Catholic Exchange (January 2015) and is published here with permission.