Being Grateful, Even in Hell

Imagine living in a 10 x 6 feet space, with no window but a 4 inch slit just below the ceiling, breakfast served at 3 a.m., lunch at 9 a.m. and dinner at 3-4 p.m. constant noise and often shouting and screaming, an hour’s exercise out of your cell on good days, appalling food (never anything fresh), great violence, never the slightest physical contact with anyone except the guard who touches your wrists to handcuff you … and this description could cover pages.

Every day a blessing

And despite being there – death row Texas, knowing you are innocent – you spend more and more time expressing thanks. ‘Every single day of my life, I find something to thank God for. When it is cold and the guys are complaining about it and do not want to get out of bed in the morning, I roll out of bed onto the floor and start doing my push ups. All the time I am thanking God that I am still able to feel and know what it is like to be cold, because a lot of guys that were here last year complaining about the cold weather are not here to complain any more because they have been executed. Every day and every thing in it is a blessing to me.’

Who is sharing such a powerful message?

Roger W. McGowen has been for 25 years on death row for a crime we know he never committed. His book Messages of Life from Death Row, first published in French in 2003, has been changing lives across the planet for almost ten years. It has been his main fundraiser – justice is very expensive in the USA, and if you are a poor black your chances of getting a fair trial are often very remote. The message of the book is so powerful and especially so hopeful and positive that hundreds of people have spontaneously donated anything from £10 to over £33000 to his defense fund!

MESSAGES OF LIFE from Death Row - Pierre Pradervand

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Roger has become a spiritual guide and source of inspiration to thousands across the planet because of the message he delivers and with which everyone can identify. In his letters, he shares his ‘lows’, moments of depression and frequent struggles as well as his ‘highs’ and the amazing spiritual insights he has. Even agnostics can feel at ease with his very broad, non-sectarian vision of spirituality. ‘Spirituality means to me that every person has to seek out his or her own religious experience and seek God’s face by their own means. … It is a path I believe in my heart that every man, woman and child will have to walk one day, and what they find on that path will be between them and God. The path of enlightenment is not just for a select few but for all who choose to seek it.’

An immense respect for life

His respect for life is amazing. It is almost as if being on death row had multiplied his respect for life, as reflected in the following passage: ‘I try to learn from every little thing that happens to me. For instance, one of my friends is always talking about the fact that I do not kill the spiders on the wall, the roaches that crawl over the floor or the crickets that make so much noise in the middle of the night in the corner of the cell. I do not kill them because the same force that supplied me with life also supplies them with theirs. Everything was placed here for a reason. I allow the insects to have their space, and I have mine. But I learn from the insects. I watch them, how hard they work to stay alive and exist, and I get strength from the heart they exhibit.’

The above passage reflects Roger’s fundamentally non-dual vision of spirituality: ultimately, all is the expression of the same infinite Life-force, unconditional love or ‘God’.

Love is only one thought away

The following is one of my favourite letters. ‘An officer entered my cell and destroyed some of my personal affairs. When I came back and saw what had happened, I immediately became angry, I wanted to say something to him and he knew it. He was waiting for me to say it. In fact, he acted in that way without really being aware of what he was doing. Because a few hours earlier, I was on my knees asking God to give me the strength to face any kind of evil that I could encounter that day. So when the officer did what he did, he was playing a role in which he had been placed unwittingly. I realized that the minute I looked at him. And so, instead of saying something mean and become a victim, I stole the victory and smiled at him, saying: ‘Thank you, I needed to do something. And you know, officer, we all have our roles to play.’ That evening, before going home, he stopped by to present his excuses to me.

Love is only one thought away. It can never be depleted. Remember to use it often.’

His vision of the oneness of all things undergirds all his life and permeates his letters. ‘I believe that we are all one – that we are all one with everything and everything is one with us. There is no you or I or me – all is us. That is why when we see things that are not right, we hurt, because what is being done to one is being done to us all … When we harm one another, we are only harming ourselves. All that is, is God. He is everything and everything is Him. When we meditate, we tap into where we come from just for a moment, and we feel what we really are, and that is love, because LOVE IS EVERYTHING, Love is God.’

My very favourite quotation of Roger’s is the following, which sounds like pure Meister Eckhart:

We are what we have been looking for
We seek what has not been lost.
When we seek too hard,
We miss what we seek.
God is all around us, why must we seek Him?
We are what we seek.

© 2012 by Pierre Pradervand