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Essay

The following excerpt is taken from Chris Hoke’s new memoir, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, published this month by HarperOne.

FOR SOME TIME I’VE IMAGINED all of us having a fragile nerve inside of us, like a spiritual antenna deep within our core. Some people, I’ve thought, simply have an abnormally large antennas inside—poets, prophets, psychopaths, your slightly crazy aunt who’s drawn to the paranormal, who some days is more compassionate than anyone you know and other days is aggressive and convinced everyone including the government is conspiring against her. Both behind jail bars and in my work with homeless youth on the streets of downtown Seattle, I’ve met a number of young people with schizophrenia. I’ve wondered, when talking with them about the abuse and trauma they’ve survived, if some wounded people’s antenna-nerves are damaged. Maybe they are exposed, jutting out like a bone from a broken arm, picking up way too many of the otherwise faint spiritual frequencies coursing through this world—from beyond, as well as from the person across the room. I’ve wondered if some of these people slam heroin or meth or any street medicine they can find as a way of jamming cotton into their spiritual ears.

It’s not a real theory, just how I’ve pictured that part inside us all.

But there are days I see this radio-antenna metaphor as compatible with the psychological definition of schizophrenia. My wife, Rachel, was in grad school to become a therapist during the same years I was encountering people with these symptoms, and I still pick up her DSM-IV and textbooks that sit open around the house every so often: due to trauma or defect, part of a person’s psyche or mind is split (the root schizo-) off from the rest of the mind, and its thoughts are then heard as an externalized set of messages. If our minds are not purely cognitive organs, the gray matter of brains, but also spiritual mysteries (as all religious traditions have maintained, and even contemporary science is rediscovering), then this splitting of the mind—or splitting of the soul? It’s the same word, psyche—is for me a fine description of the broken and exposed spiritual antenna that I’ve imagined.

This is what drew me closer to men and women with schizophrenic symptoms: what they reported the voices saying never sounded very strange to me. Actually, these troubled folks usually seem surprised that I ask about the content of their auditory hallucinations. They are used to people leaning back, politely, when they mention the voices. Their friends (what few they have kept) are weirded-out by the whole phenomenon, and mental-health professionals have as little interest in what the voices say as a TV repairman would with the content of the fuzzy static blaring through a busted device. But I recognize the content. Most of the time it is constant, cruel criticism. Intelligent accusations from beings who seem to know all their worst deeds, with access to criminal records more complete than any county register. The mean words that fill their ears—all the contempt and ridicule and steady accusations whispering through them—I recognize from my own home growing up, from political discourse, and from my own lips. But the mentally challenged were picking up the mean words right out of the air around them.

What if, sometimes, these voices are not just an illusion, the victims’ own fragmented thoughts and projections bouncing back at them off the inside of their minds? “Galileo thought comets were an illusion,” writes Annie Dillard, on a page I dog-eared recently.

There could be good news here, too: the schizophrenic souls I talk with don’t only hear negative voices. Sometimes they tell me about a voice that tells them they’re okay, reminds them who they are and prompts them to notice others who are suffering and care for them. Jesus told his friends (remember the company he kept) that he would send them a defender, a counselor. The Paraclete, or one who speaks from alongside. The street youth tell me they usually don’t report this kind of voice, especially not to professionals. Because, they say, they never want to lose it. Like the poet Rilke’s famous refusal to Freud and his chair: “If you rid me of my demons, my angels may take flight, too.”

I think I’ve heard that wiser, kinder voice, as well. But I’ve always wished it were louder for me. Especially when I try to pray. So I’ve gotten into the habit of praying, when I can, with those who hear better than I do.

§

These questions began for me one night when I sat with a sweating young gang member. He was swinging a golf club around a dark upper room of our ministry’s old Victorian building. This guy, Noe Solazo, was abused repeatedly as a child, then locked in rooms by foster parents and in group homes that used occasional beatings when he would rage at peers and authorities. By age twenty he had been given a diagnosis of severe paranoid schizophrenia. He had called me that afternoon from the house phone of an elderly couple who lived by the Skagit River. He’d tried to drown himself in the winter current, but it spit him back out on the tangled bank. He’d crawled, scraped and wet, to the front door of the closest house and called me. I brought him to our place to shower and mend. In the forest he had lost the anti-psychotic meds the jail had given him upon release and was now just coming down off a meth high. This same night a class on listening prayer was being taught in our large meeting room downstairs. “Quiet down,” the teacher had been saying, “tune into your inner flow, focus on the face of Jesus, ask a simple question, and dare to write down whatever next shimmers through your mind.”

I was taking notes when one of our volunteers tapped my shoulder and asked me to come upstairs; our guest was getting aggressive and frightening. I found Noe circling in the shadows of a dark room, a blue paisley bandana tied tight around his forehead, gripping a driving iron, threatening to strike out at tormentors I could not see. He told me they were laughing at him, whispering from just outside the windows—we were on the second story—calling him a faggot and a pussy, telling him to do the world a favor and just kill himself. As he agreed to hand over the club and sit down with me, he kept looking over his shoulder and sneering with menace at his mockers in the shadows. I could not tell him to just ignore these voices or try to convince him they were not real.

What I did—probably because of the class I had just stepped out of—was get him to try a different kind of listening. I asked Noe to try turning his antenna toward God. Ask a question, I said, and then just listen. This seemed more reasonable to him than ignoring all his senses.

This was his heaving question: “Why me?” He pressed his face into his hands, wild and unhealed cuts all over his fingers and cheeks, and started to cry. The room was silent for a moment, as when someone’s on the phone with someone else. Then he laughed dismissively, like he’d heard an answer. “Fuck this,” he stood up.

What did he hear? I asked.

“Nothing—just…I don’t know…what it said was: You’re the righteous one.”

I was amazed that after days of hearing cruel contempt, he would suddenly hear such a message. To this young man it seemed too good to be true, unbelievable. “This is stupid,” he said. “That was probably just me.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But is that how you see yourself? Does that sound like something you’d say?”

“Fuck no,” he laughed. “I fucking hate myself! I mean”—he almost whimpered—“why am I the righteous one? Look at me. I’m a piece of shit tweaking here on crystal. I’m filthy and homeless, a vato who’s robbed and ripped people off in the last twenty-four hours. I tried drowning myself in the river just this morning. I’m nothing.”

I didn’t want to try to convince him otherwise. But I suggested he ask this same question in the form of a prayer, and listen for another answer. Noe sat down on the floor, rolled forward on his knees, steadied his hands on the carpet, took a deep breath. “Why…,” he jerked his neck in an agitated tic, wiped his forehead, “…what do you mean, I’m the righteous one?”

Silence in the room again.

Then he snorted in what looked like irritated disbelief and shook his head.

“You heard something!” I was totally absorbed now, eager to overhear again what God might sound like when speaking directly to a scraped-up criminal, rather than to the normies like me sitting downstairs, quietly penciling in our journals. “What’d you hear?” I asked, there on the ground with him.

“Forget it,” he said, but sat still.

“What I heard was…I’m ‘the righteous one’…because I’m the only broke-down vato in this town on my knees tonight, on a Friday night, crying out to God with all my heart.”

That night, on the floor of the upper room with a suicidal schizophrenic, I fell in love with whatever voice said that to my self-hating friend.

The same quality of mind I’d often encountered when I read aloud from the Gospels in the jail, in red letters, now spoke in our dark room, cutting through Noe’s unseen crowd of accusers. And it brought him sudden peace. He laughed and smiled. “Ahhhh, shit.” He shook his head, exhaled. He looked at me, reached out a hand that landed on my shoulder. “Crazy, huh?” He stretched out on the floor with a blanket and pillow, disarmed and with no concern for the windows nor the shadows. Within minutes, he was sleeping soundly. Noe had made contact with the voice that I seek to follow. I sat in the dark for a long time, listening to the sound of his deep breathing.

§

If any of this is true, if the sensitive calibrations of these touched and tormented souls are being overwhelmed—the volumes in their heads turned up to eleven—then seriously listening to them has seemed to me to be the best way to eavesdrop on what spiritual frequencies there are out there, still in the cosmos, in our own more subtle thoughts, old as the earth. That is, some kind of direct, un-doctrinally-mediated read on what’s really out there. It might be a way to reconsider both the divine and destructive spiritual currents washing through our own minds, through history and cultures, humming all along through our soft hearts and passing through harder walls of universities, bedrooms, monasteries, prisons, governments, and asylums.

So, a couple of years later, when I got an email about a young man named Connor Harrison, a church kid my age now in jail for obeying telepathic messages that told him to kill his father, I was certainly curious to learn more.

This quiet twenty-four-year-old son to suburban parents in the Pacific Northwest rose from his bed one night, went downstairs, selected a large knife from the block on the kitchen counter, started an argument with his father, and then began stabbing him, pursuing him out the back door and onto the wet, cold lawn. He only got seven blows in because his bleeding father tackled and held him as he himself died.

Connor was not a violent kid, I learned. Nor was his father, Fred, violent. This was not blowback from a childhood of abuse at the hands of a tyrant. Connor was not into video games or guns. He did not have gruesome drawings in his notebooks. He did not listen to morbid metal music. But he was listening to something.

For example, two years before this incident, Connor stopped eating for a while because he said he could hear his food crying out in pain. He heard his friends’ thoughts as well. He was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia. As Connor would later tell me with no recognizable emotion—through the glass in the cold jail visiting booth on one of several dark winter nights I visited him—they were not so much voices but more like “messages from the world.”

When I was first contacted via email about visiting Connor Harrison, I told the Harrisons’ family friend that he probably wouldn’t want to meet with me. The few jail visits I’d made without a direct request from the inmate did not go well. “No, he will,” she replied. “I told him about you, ‘the jail chaplain that believes the voices some people hear are real.’”

She’d heard online a talk I’d given. Both prophecy and schizophrenia, I’d said, appear to be more complicated—with more slippery overlap between the two—than either Bible readers or psychiatrists make them seem.

I’d been studying the Hebrew prophets. They heard more than clear, verbal oracles from the Lord. They shuddered with terror and torment, often appearing quite unstable, maybe bipolar, swinging from jubilant praise of God to rage and even suicidal despair, all right there in our Bible’s thin pages. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, looked much like the homeless youth I’ve met: a teen making a nuisance of himself in the city streets and locked up repeatedly by civic authorities. Jeremiah was put in the stocks in the public square, mocked. Ezekiel did strange things like make demonstrations with feces in the street and lie comatose for days while receiving revelations. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spent much of his life studying these figures. Heschel describes the prophets not so much as official spokesmen receiving verbatim divine pronouncements as humans with a severe “sensitivity to evil.” To the prophets, he writes, “even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions,” and the prophet’s “ear…is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others.” They are so sensitive to what we overlook or have ceased to feel, they appear insane.

Heschel says the prophet is primarily burdened with the “pathos of God.” An infinite vulnerability.

When pathos is the root of “pathology,” we are not too far removed from a modern diagnosis of mental illness. Prophets could be called divinely pathological, burdened with a suffering larger than their own. Some of the mentally ill might be suffering from a similarly severe vulnerability to evil.

They could also be more vulnerable than others to divine presence. Paranoid schizophrenics often describe not just being accused, but being followed, pursued. Heschel wrote a book called God in Search of Man. The question of religion in the Bible, he says, is not so much about humans seeking God, but God seeking us. Maybe some people can actually feel that, and can’t shake it.

So Connor’s story fascinated me on a theoretical level. But the situation’s gravity set in when the young friend of the Harrisons emailed once more: “His mother Debbie can’t even legally visit Connor because she was also his stabbing victim that night.” A mother had lost both her husband and son. A tormented son had lost both his father and his mother, at least for now. I rearranged my schedule and committed to visit as a chaplain.

§

I drove through the windshield noise one rainy winter evening to see Connor, alone on the freeway where it curves through the smoky evergreen hills leading out of our valley and into the next county. I passed the Alger exit where, a year earlier, a guy had obeyed local unseen voices and gunned down three neighbors, a female officer who showed up on the scene, and two other drivers on the freeway as he fled down this very stretch of shadowed highway. Weeks before the “Alger slayings,” this young man’s mother had contacted our ministry and pleaded for someone to visit her son while he was doing a few weeks in jail. When I asked for his name at the front desk, the guards came back and said he didn’t want any visitors. Then, when he was released weeks later, the slaughter. That’s what happened the last time I’d tried to see an inmate who didn’t ask for the visit himself.

Tonight was first my time in the neighboring county’s jail, so I slid my ID and visiting slip under the glass to the night shift officer on duty. She gave me a bronze key that I struggled to figure out how to use once inside the elevator. I slid it into the slot by a button for the third floor, turned it, and the doors closed. Visiting Connor Harrison, I was in new territory.

I walked down the cold concrete corridor and opened a door to a closet with a cracked plastic chair inside and a window into Connor’s world for one wall. There Connor sat on the other side of the glass. He did not look like the criminals I meet with normally. I recognized him, but didn’t know why at the time: he looked like me. That is, when I was his age, five years earlier. The year I was unstable, suicidal, seeing counselors and reluctantly swallowing pills prescribed by the university’s mental health professionals. Connor was pale and skinny, with straight brown hair that had grown too long during his first two months in jail, hanging and covering his blue eyes. Like me, he grew up in the suburbs. Like mine, his mom was a schoolteacher, his dad an instructor. He read literary books and played rock music. And now something had gone terribly wrong. It was as though I were sitting down to face my younger hypothetical self—had my own antenna been tuned in to amplify the quieter, darker voices.

I waved and we both picked up the black phone receivers on short metal cords, like the ones in old payphone booths. As we introduced ourselves, Connor looked down, then back at me with a shy smile and nervous laugh. I felt the description of him in the email was right: “At the same time,” she’d written—that is, she meant, aside from the tormenting voices and savage stabbing—“he is a very likeable person, easy to talk to when he’s not comatose, just really confused, really oppressed by what he senses, and really protective of his inner universe.”

So on this first meeting I told Connor a bit about myself. I told Connor about my cautious exploration of the charismatic Christian conference scene lately. How so many people I’d seen there, doing things like “prophetic activations,” say they struggle with their inability to hear God’s voice better. They get seriously discouraged, I told him, sometimes weeping after years of closing their eyes, relaxing their minds and trying to be open to the faintest of impressions. “They’re dying to hear a voice,” I said.

Connor laughed at this.

“On the other hand,” I continued, “I meet guys in jail or young women on the streets of Seattle who have the opposite problem: they’re crying ’cause the voices won’t stop.”

We laughed together.

I said most people, of course, see these as separate worlds. They raise their eyebrows and tell me I should be careful not to confuse contemplative listening with serious mental health issues. I confessed to Connor that not only did I suspect they might have serious overlap, but I myself was one of those people who wanted to hear more, who wouldn’t mind getting clearer messages.

Then Connor nodded at me deeply. We had gotten somewhere. Or maybe Connor thought I was crazier than he was.

Either way—out of fellowship, or pity, or warning—he shared his experience.

“I killed my dad,” he began casually, “because of messages I was getting that…that I had to pass a test and prove myself. And that I had to save the universe.” His free hand smoothed his hair over his forehead and he closed his eyes. “Gosh that sounds…weird.”

Not that weird, I said. I told him a Bible story.

Abraham hears a voice that tells him to take his firstborn son Isaac to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him to God. The old man—reluctantly, obediently, silently—leads his son up Mount Moriah with a knife and wood for the pyre bound to his son’s young back. When he ties the boy down and lifts the knife, “an angel of the Lord” swoops in to stop him. The angel then directs Abraham’s attention to a ram stuck in some nearby bush as a substitute. The traditional interpretation, I said, is that Abraham passed this ultimate test of faith by being willing to offer up his own son, and that the angel is essentially God’s announcement of “Just kidding!”—a whistle blown at the last second before he carries out the grisly order. But some scholars point out—and this interested Connor more than anything—that it was normal religious practice for the Chaldeans in that region to sacrifice their children on those same hilltops, to the god Molech. And this: in the text, the voice that tells Abraham to carry out this very common religious practice in his culture is identified in the Hebrew only as elohim, the more general term for “god.” The presence that stops the violence, however, is not called elohim but something entirely different: “an angel [or messenger] of the Lord,” or Yahweh (YHWH), a distinct and mysterious deity who would go on to liberate Abraham’s many descendents from slavery in Egypt. So maybe, I told Connor, Abraham was not being tested by one God but was caught between two opposing and very real voices. Maybe one saved him from following the bloody orders of the other. Abraham could have been the patron saint of schizophrenics.

A guard tapped on the window behind Connor. Time was up. Connor nodded his head. He looked back at me through the hair covering his eyes and told me to come back, soon. He was ready to do the talking, to open up his internal universe.

§

As I drove through a few more dark winter nights on the evergreen highway to his jail, taking the elevator up to the top floor and talking through the glass with a young man still trying to reckon with his own horrific violence, my goal in meeting with Connor, my schizophrenic peer, became the same as in my conversations with any inmate, with any friend, with my wife, and with myself: What do we listen to? Amidst so many spiritual currents in our age—where even the charismatic Christians at those conferences I attended, who believed they could hear God’s voice, also supported sending thousands of our young men and women to two different wars cased in flak jackets and trained to kill—the problem remained the same as what Abraham faced long ago. That is, hearing voices and messages is one thing, but discerning which to follow is another. What Connor needed, medicated or not, was what I needed, what I was learning in my jail fellowships: to learn to pray, with broken hearts, together.


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