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Reclaiming Life on Death Row
Lief Halvorsen is awaiting execution at Kentucky State Prison in Eddyville, Kentucky, USA. He was sentenced to death in 1983 with his friend Mitchell Willoughby, who is on death row with him, for the murders of two people (and a life sentence for a third). Overwhelmed by drug addiction, he was at his lowest ebb. Here he describes his struggle to reclaim his life through education and a renewal of his Catholic faith.
On a shore of Lake Barkley in Western Kentucky in the USA stands a rock-like edifice known as the Kentucky State Penitentiary. The state’s maximum security prison, it’s been incarcerating men since soon after the Civil War and presently houses some 800 male prisoners, many of them awaiting execution.
According to the history of the prison the words, “Ye who enter here abandon all hope” used to be written above the entrance. Although they were no longer there the day I entered prison 16 years ago, as a man condemned to death, I certainly experienced an ominous feeling of hopelessness. My footsteps, like the footsteps of the many other souls entering such places, echoed behind me.
My years in prison have been spent reclaiming and rebuilding my life from the ashes of its ruins. When I arrived I was still fighting addition to drugs, in poor mental and physical health, my life reduced to a mere shadow of its 28 years. I had reached my lowest ebb.
Much of this rebuilding has been through my search for some semblance of balance: healing my physical body and ridding myself of addiction; stimulating my mind through education; and seeking a spiritual path. Even in prison I have found that it is possible to see the wholeness we are born to discover and to live it through our lives.
The path I’ve taken over these years has been non-traditional. I did not set out on any given course. Much of it materialized from people who touched my life in various ways or arose from the mother of necessity in the quest for survival. My intuition was my guide much of the time.
One thing that prompted me to a path of rediscovery, rebirth if you will, was being confronted by the fact I was now marginalized from society. I was captive, a prisoner. Alienated from the world I had left behind, I was now banished by society and looking death in the face (instead of playing hide and seek with my addiction and slowly killing myself anyway).
In the two years leading up to my conviction I became totally lost in my world, a world I had once been a very productive member of; I had lost everything that ever meant anything to me. My addition to drugs resulted in my suffering from manic depression and bouts with psychosis, culminating in losing my family, my career, my house and my life as I knew it. Once I had been full of joy and life and hope and love; now there was only depression. I was empty and my whole life was shattered.
When I first arrived on death row we lived in a modern-day dungeon. There were no windows. Days and nights ran into each other. We lost contact with the busy world outside. I had passed through into another realm of human condition visited upon me by my judicial sentence of death. I was living in the presence of death, and I began struggling with the face of death in myself.
I was also struggling with the fact I had created a human tragedy from the very life I had been gifted with. I was deeply sorrowful for my mortal transgressions. I began searching for something deeper than that final sleep. There was much time for reflection, much of it unpleasant, trying to understand, sort out, the destruction of the past. I longed for a way to reintegrate the parts of me that were amiss and made me feel fractured.
I began to gravitate back to my Catholic roots. The understanding of human nature that I received from my parents had a liberal slant. I was raised Catholic and did time in the Catholic school system. My understanding of religious matters, grounded in both symbolic and psychological interpersonal interactions, is influenced by this experience.
I returned to the weekly celebration of the Mass and receiving Holy Communion and I immersed myself in books on spirituality. I had become acquainted by mail with a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, also in Kentucky, named Brother Ambrose. We wrote and he sent me books from time to time on various subjects of spirituality and prayer: types of prayers, ways of prayer, books on the path of contemplation.
One book I remember, Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton, an autobiography that opened me up to the fact that ordinary men like Merton had also lived reckless lives but later found a path to enlightenment. This man Merton captured my interest and I thirsted to understand more. Another book that I think was the beginning of my tasting the fruit of prayer and meditation was Centering Prayer by M. Basil Pennington. I began experimenting with that type of prayer and found it helped me find my own inner spirit and the Spirit of God, as I knew it then.
I began to learn to relax and let go, to open up and look at various aspects of my life that had become ingrained in my psyche. At the same time I found myself in turmoil when things surfaced that I didn’t readily know how to deal with. My consciousness had been attacked by my subconscious and I had become agitated, unable to sleep. I desired the madness to stop. I pulled back from my prayer and meditation.
Finally, Brother Ambrose helped me through this time. One book he sent me, The Cloud of Unknowing, an enduring classic of Christian mystical experience, proved to be a valuable practical guide. I slowly mastered some of my demons through my experiences. I began to experience a loss of self and a consciousness of being of God. I started to see in myself a worth that I sense God saw in me. It was as if the pool of reflection began to clear and I experienced this something beyond, deeper than, the finality of my death.
It was this something, this place beyond thoughts and concepts, that drew me closer to understanding my own existence in this infinite mystery. In a way, it was a sense of freedom despite being in the jaws of judicial death. It was from this point I was able to begin to reintegrate the pieces of my fractured self, but in a way different than I believe they had been when I self-disintegrated. I had become aware of a part of me that was illuminate because of this sense of freedom.
I found I was able to sit and begin to look and understand facets about myself in a clearer way than I had ever remembered being able to before. From this I began to heal some of the wounds within myself. While I still fought, and fight to this day with unproductive rationalizations, I found I was less and less slave to them and especially to what I call grand rationalizations, which had roots in my psychological disturbances and drug addiction. I was no longer saddled with the many pathological maladies that blinded me to this illumination. My thought process began to settle down. My mood swings were less severe. I found a calmness and at times clarity of mind.
It took me three years to regain my mental, physical and spiritual stability to the point that I felt confidence in this new-found prowess. But I was still fearful of sliding back into that unilluminated hell hole still very vivid in my mind. I was cautious.
By this time, death row had been moved and we were given better living quarters (with windows and fresh air) and some new freedoms. I continued to read a considerable wealth of books on spirituality. Many were Thomas Merton’s: The Wisdom of the Desert, The Other Side of Silence, Well Springs, Monastic Journey, No Man Is an Island, The Way of Chuang Tsu, Asian Journal. And there were others: The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (the Church physician and mystic), The Life of Padre Pio, Brother Lawrance (which was a very simple book about a monk who found a way to make everything he did prayer.) I began to understand the language, the message, of these and other books from my own experiences; to a degree they validated these experiences. I had no teacher, mostly intuition, and books. And my own experiences.
Merton had opened me up to the Eastern schools of thought and I sought to learn more of them. Mitchell Willoughby, the man I was convicted and sentenced to death with and who lives on death row with me, had been exploring the path of Buddhism. We began to share the many things surrounding our journeys. We’d walk and talk, share books, magazines, insights, problems. And we still do.
One of the many books he shared with me is probably one of the best books for anyone desiring to know about, understand and practice meditation: Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, by Goldstein and Kornfield. To this day, our ability to share in such matters is a very valuable asset to us both.
My interests today are not just the Catholic monastery traditions or the Eastern schools. I am open and thirsty to learn and expand my awareness and knowledge in many areas. Recently I met someone who practices Pure Land Buddhism and I’m reading Horizontal Escape, Pure Land Buddhism in Theory and Practice.
Along with these studies, the need for mental stimulation and challenge was answered by getting permission to attend college here at the prison. My mind was thirsty for knowledge on a secular level, and now I was able to focus. With a great deal of hard work I earned an Associate Degree in Hotel Restaurant Management and graduated with summa cum laude honors. After graduating from the associate degree program I was allowed to enroll through Murray State University; I went on to study for a Bachelor Degree in Sociology, continuing to maintain a 4-average throughout my studies and making the Dean’s List. I require only 20 hours to complete my degree but grants are not currently available.
Besides benefiting me, my education allowed me to become more understanding of and empathetic with the world. I think too it aided in a further integration of my mind, body and spirit. Drug addition had damaged nerve ways in my body and mind and it’s my belief that the mental stimulation of education helped promote healing of those pathways.
Growth has come, too, from facing and interacting with the various matters that have arisen in my life, such as attempts to reconcile from the past and heal old wounds. My family and I were able to share the pain and work through the resentment of the hardships and loss I had caused them through dialogue and action. In time we were able to reunite as a whole and to reciprocate love.
Reconciliation with the family of the victims of the crime has not been so easy. It’s been hampered by the legal system and frustrated by lack of proper mediation via Victim Rights’ Advocates, whose present models do not operate without resulting in legal jeopardy for the defendant. Having no confidentiality makes healing unworkable; in my opinion, it cheats the victims of crime of the opportunity for healing. While healing, if any, for the perpetrator is secondary, healing for both the victim and perpetrator should be able to happen outside the grey areas that the criminal justice system operates, and it should be of utmost importance for the victim.
In my frustration with the current reconciliation models I have been working to change them with a lady named Linda Harvey of the Transformation House, Inc. It is our hope to create a system that can work independently of the judicial system, which would be conducive to healing people and communities without legal jeopardy. It is my hope it can be a reality in Kentucky some day.
One can only speculate where my journey in the land of Abandon All Hope would have led without people like Brother Ambrose. It’s apparent none of us can live without the help of countless others, alive or dead. Everything we have, not only material goods, but our ideas, our skills, our faith, our music and stories that give us courage, understanding and delight the heart – everything we have has been given us by others.
Like Brother Ambrose, there are those who have written or visited in the past; and people who dedicate their lives to prisoners. A man by the name of Paul Stevens, whose daughter was murdered, walks into this prison every week to work with convicted murderers and is one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever known, concerned about our spiritual needs. And Sister Chris Beckett, who manages to visit when circumstances permit and who works with us men on various aspects of our lives and spiritual needs. And not least, Ven. Robina Courtin with her fast-paced Australian accent who stops over in Kentucky from time to time and shares the many facets of Buddhism with us and works with us in our various needs, sending us reading materials and copies of Mandala and other publications.
These people don’t see us men as marginal but as part of themselves. Merton says, “We are already one, but we imagine that we are not. What we have to discover is our original unity.”
I would also like to say I have never felt the approach I’ve taken has caused me any spiritual conflicts. I am a Catholic, and it works for me. But I am also very enriched by the study and practice of other traditions, some of them having gone much deeper into the metaphysical and theosophical aspects than my Catholic tradition. And I drink from those springs of knowledge. Merton said, “The concepts of different traditions do not exactly coincide, but they have much in common.” And: “The Gita, like the Gospels, teaches us to live in awareness of an inner truth that exceeds the grasp of our thoughts and cannot be subject to our own control. In following mere appetite for power we are slaves of appetite. In obedience to that truth we are at last free.”
We must be faithful to our own calling and to our own inner truth. And the truth is I find my sacramental relationship much deeper and my awareness of Communion much stronger, not only with those of my Catholic faith, but with those I touch in my everyday life in prison and those my life touches outside these walls, all of us on the many and differing paths of enlightenment.
As for hope, I will finish with a quote by someone called Lizz McAlister (I have no idea who she is) that I have carried with me for years. “Hope never consists in thinking things will work out. Hope finds its substance looking reality in the eye; realism finds its possibility in hope. Without a living hope, we can’t stand reality; we lie to ourselves with illusions and rationalizations. Hope does not begin to exist except in the harshness of the reality with which we are confronted. Everywhere else we get along quite well without it.”
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