On March 11, 2005, Brian Nichols was being escorted to a courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia to stand trial for rape. He stole a gun from the deputy taking him to the courtroom and killed the presiding judge, a court reporter, and a sheriff's deputy before stealing a car and escaping. While on the run, he killed one more person, an FBI agent. Late that night, he took a woman named Ashley Smith hostage.
The encounter that followed between Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols was, I believe, a powerful example of what A Course in Miracles calls a holy encounter: an encounter between two people in which they exchange salvation and join through seeing Christ in one another. I'd like to look at that encounter now from the perspective of the Course, with an eye to applying its lessons to our own lives. The following is a brief summary of what happened between them, based on Ashley Smith's first-person account. To illustrate how this encounter is a holy encounter, I've broken it down into four elements.
1. Ashley and Brian have an encounter that, on the face of it, is entirely random and self-serving
The encounter begins when Ashley, returning from a trip to the store for cigarettes at two in the morning, is taken hostage by the fugitive Brian in the parking lot of her apartment complex. He forces her into her apartment at gunpoint, ties her up, and puts her in the bathroom. He says that if she doesn't cooperate with him fully, "I'm going to have to kill you and probably myself and lots of other people. And I don't want that."
As extreme as this situation is, in content it really isn't that different from most of our encounters. We normally think of our encounters as either random or set up by ourselves for our own purposes. "You perceive the world and everything in it as meaningful in terms of ego goals" (W-pI.25.2:1). In other words: What's in it for me? Here, Brian spots Ashley, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He takes her hostage; his goal is to escape the law. Her goal initially is just to survive so she can see her young daughter again.
2. Ashley, though, chooses to see it as a holy encounter in which she can serve Brian
At this point, Brian looks like a monster. Ashley has every reason to fear for her life and no earthly reason to feel anything but hatred toward the man who has taken her hostage. Indeed, she does fear for her life. But in the midst of terror, she chooses not to hate. She chooses a better way.
She had been reading the bestselling book The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, which emphasizes the theme that God has a purpose for everything that happens in our lives. (This is a very conservative Christian book, but theological differences needn't blind us to the genuine wisdom such books can contain.) Chapter 33—the very chapter Smith had been reading earlier that day, a part of which she ends up reading to Brian—begins by saying, "We serve God by serving others." It goes on to say that every single human encounter gives us a priceless opportunity to serve: "You may get only one chance to serve that person, so take advantage of that moment."
In the midst of a horrifying ordeal with her life on the line, Smith sees her chance to serve Brian and takes it. She starts by choosing to see him in a new way; as a Time article by Andrew Sullivan puts it, "She says she saw him not as a monster but as a human being." She sees him as a person who has worth and needs help. In her words, "He needed hope for his life"—quite a thing to say about someone who has pointed a gun at you and tied you up. Relating to him as a human being, she works to earn his trust by telling him the story of her difficult life, and listening to him tell his story. "He got to know me. I got to know him." She empathizes with him.
I think there is something very Course—like in this. Though the Course cautions against "false empathy" (empathizing with another's weakness), it does stress the recognition that your brother's needs and yours are the same: "He asks for what you want, and needs the same as you" (T-31.II.10:3). Though the need "takes, perhaps, a different form in him" (T-31.II.10:4)—even the desperate, distorted form of taking someone hostage—you and your brother have the same basic need: in essence, love. Seeing your common need and answering your brother's call for love, as Ashley does, helps you recognize that "you have come with but one purpose: that you learn you love your brother with a brother's love" (T-31.II.10:5).
But ultimately, Ashley sees far more in Brian than simply a desperate person in need. She sees him as a brother in Christ, a precious child of God who has come to her not at random but for a divine purpose, a person who has been saved by miraculous means and has a special function in God's plan for salvation. She says to him:
Do you believe in miracles? Because if you don't believe in miracles—you are here for a reason. You're here in my apartment for some reason. You got out of that courthouse with police everywhere, and you don't think that's a miracle? You don't think you're supposed to be sitting here right in front of me listening to me tell you, you know, your reason here?
You know, your miracle could be that you need to—you need to be caught for this. You need to go to prison and you need to share the word of God with them, with all the prisoners there.
What strikes me most about this encounter is that Ashley's loving perception of Brian is expressed in the form of ordinary human kindness. To me, that is the central feature of this story. She gains his trust simply by being kind to him. She shares her life with him and lends a compassionate ear as he shares his life with her, just as a good friend would. She shares her faith in God with him and encourages him by telling him that he is a child of God with an important role in the divine plan. She cooperates with him fully, but does even more than that: she demonstrates Jesus' "go the extra mile" teaching in the gospels by giving him more than he asks for. In the morning, she cooks him a delicious pancake breakfast. (He had untied her earlier.)
The Course contains passages that are snapshots of what a holy encounter might look like, and they too depict ordinary human kindness. For instance, in the Manual, the examples given are two strangers in an elevator smiling at one another, an adult not scolding a child who runs into him, and two students walking home together and becoming friends (M-3.2). Even though the content of these encounters (if the two people truly join) is nothing less than the salvation of the world, the form often looks very mundane.
3. Through this vision, Ashley saves Brian
Early in the encounter, it is clear that deep down, Brian himself thinks he is a monster. Imagine how you would really feel about yourself if you had done what he did. Would you not feel like a worm who deserves to die? Indeed, Brian speaks of killing himself. Later on, he says to Ashley, "Look at me, look at my eyes. I am already dead." He even asks her to shoot him. She responds by saying, "I don't want anyone else to die, not even you."
But as the encounter progresses, Ashley's actions have a miraculous effect on Brian. He begins to see himself as a person of worth and value. As she lends a compassionate ear to him and listens to his personal story, his trust in her grows. As he listens to her story of pain and personal tragedy—her own husband was murdered and he died in her arms—his heart begins to open up and he empathizes with her. He comes to care about her and her family, as well as the people he shot. I was particularly moved by his response to her family photos. As Ashley puts it, "He looked at pictures of my family. He asked…if he could look at them and hold them." There is such tenderness in that response.
But ultimately, he sees far more in her than just a desperate woman who has had a rough life. He sees her as a sister in Christ. This is evident in this beautiful passage from her account:
He said he thought that I was an angel sent from God. And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people. And [my role was] to let him know how [those people and their families] felt, because I had gone through it myself.
He sees her as a child of God who has come to him not at random but for a divine purpose, with the special function of helping him to learn compassion and love.
Brian is immensely grateful for the gift of love Ashley gives him, as the passage quoted above indicates. Her kindness completely disarms him in every sense of the term (he ends up putting his guns under her bed). He is "overwhelmed" even by her simple gesture of making breakfast. You can feel the awe and wonder in his voice as he says, "Wow,…real butter, pancakes?" The Course often speaks of the gratitude we receive when we extend true helpfulness to our brothers in need: "The sick, who ask for love, are grateful for it, and in their joy they shine with holy thanks" (T-13.VI.10:5).
Just as Ashley's love takes the form of ordinary human kindness, so does Brian's response to that love. Of course, taking someone hostage at gunpoint and tying her up is the very antithesis of kindness—behavior worthy of the monster Brian initially thinks he is. But as Ashley's kindness to him does its work and he comes to trust her, an amazing thing happens: he responds with acts of kindness himself. Even early on, he's kind enough to cover her head while she's tied up in the bathroom so she doesn't have to see him take a shower. Later, he unties her and puts his guns away. Finally, he spares her life and releases her so she can see her daughter. As he releases her (he remains at her apartment while she leaves to see her daughter), he offers her money, asks if there's anything he can do for her while she's gone, and even offers to hang up the curtains he had earlier used to tie her up. In the end, he turns himself in to the authorities peacefully. He now acts like the Son of God he truly is, instead of a monster. I hope that once he goes to prison, which he certainly will, he will remember this and be a light to all the prisoners he encounters there.
4. Through saving Brian, Ashley herself is saved
On the most literal level, of course, Ashley's life is saved through her holy encounter with Brian. He lets her go. But the Course speaks of salvation in a different sense, saying that our salvation from the nightmare we seem to live in comes through giving salvation to others:
This is the spark that shines within the dream; that you can help [your brother] waken, and be sure his waking eyes will rest on you. And in his glad salvation you are saved. (T-29.III.5:6-7)
Has Ashley experienced salvation in this sense? Has her life been transformed as Brian's was? While I can't find any explicit statement of how she feels about herself now as a result of this experience, I think we can reasonably surmise that she has experienced salvation, at least to some degree. She is clearly someone who could use some saving, as we can see in the following passage from a Newsweek story:
Ashley Smith knew plenty about shame and despair, and about grace. As a teenager, she had been arrested for petty crimes. In her early 20s, she was charged with drunken driving and assault. She had held her dying husband in her arms, the victim of a stabbing. She lived apart from her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, who is in the custody of Smith's aunt. At rock bottom, Smith found help during a two-month stint at a Christian clinic for drug abusers, and worked to get her life together.
Now, imagine you are the person described here. You don't feel very good about yourself. You probably think of yourself as a pathetic loser, a failure, hardly a beloved child of God. You're trying to get your life together and then, all the sudden, you find yourself at the mercy of a killer. Where the heck is God?
But in this darkest pit of despair and terror, to your amazement you do something extraordinary. You practice exactly what your Christian books preach. You're able to extend love to and join with the person who's threatening to kill you. This person's gratitude shows you beyond a shadow of a doubt that your love has transformed his life. You've been miraculously released from this terrifying ordeal, and the entire country is now praising you as an exemplar of goodness, an inspiration to all. How would you feel about yourself if this happened to you? Would you not feel less like a loser, and more like a holy child of God?
I think Ashley has probably been transformed. I suspect that at least to a certain degree, as she saw Brian she's seeing herself. As she treated him, she's treating herself. As she thought of him, she's thinking of herself. I think this encounter has helped her find herself. I think saving Brian has indeed saved her.
Applying this extreme example to our own lives
The holy encounter between Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols is an extreme example that can inspire us to have holy encounters with people in our lives—even our "attackers." Fortunately, we don't have to wait until someone pulls a gun on us and ties us up in the bathroom to extend salvation to a brother in need. The Time article by Andrew Sullivan puts it this way:
That was an exceptional moment of redemption. But every day we have smaller, calmer chances to turn another's life around, to serve, to listen. How often do we simply not see what is in front of us? How often do we believe that the world's evils—from terrorism to crime to emotional cruelty—are beyond our capacity to change? Or that there is no one in front of us whom we can serve?
The world abounds with brothers whom we can serve, brothers with whom we can have "the holy encounters in which salvation can be found" (T-13.IV.7:7). The Course puts it this way:
Your brothers are everywhere. You do not have to seek far for salvation. Every minute and every second gives you a chance to save yourself. Do not lose these chances, not because they will not return, but because delay of joy is needless. (T-9.VII.1:4-7)
What are we waiting for?
Exercise in having a holy encounter (by Robert Perry)
In this exercise, you imagine having a holy encounter with another person, as a prelude to having an actualholy encounter with that person.
Select some upcoming encounter, preferably one today or tomorrow, which you are reasonably certain will take place and which you think is likely to be an unholy encounter. It will probably help if you close your eyes.
Step 1. Make having a holy encounter your primary goal for the encounter
Ask yourself, "What have I been seeing this encounter as being for? What have I been hoping it will accomplish for me?" Is it to get some sort of business done? To convince the person that you are right? To get out of the interaction in a minimal amount of time? To come off looking smart or witty or capable? To be liked? To survive?
Whatever that goal is, try to set it aside. See it as either secondary or altogether unimportant, whichever seems appropriate.
Then tell yourself that there is a potential the Holy Spirit has placed in this very encounter. Be determined to actualize it. Say to yourself, with as much sincerity as you can muster, "My main goal is to have this be a holy encounter."
Step 2. During the encounter, silently repeat something that affirms this goal
You can use whatever words help you, but I'll suggest some. Now imagine that you are with this person, actually in the midst of this encounter. To carry this goal into the encounter and actually make it happen, see yourself silently saying these words to the person you are with:
"As I see you, I will see myself."
As I treat you, I will treat myself."
As I think of you, I will think of myself."
These should shift your perception, so that you take the person more seriously, give him or her more respect. See yourself repeating these words when there is a lull in the conversation, or when things get a little tense, or when you feel judgmental.
"As I see you, I will see myself."
As I treat you, I will treat myself."
As I think of you, I will think of myself."
I find this part to be essential. If I don't carry some words like this into the encounter, I will probably forget entirely about my goal of having a holy encounter.
Step 3. Find ways to convey your new perception to this person
The above steps will hopefully allow some spark of love into your mind. Now see yourself finding ways to express this love. See yourself expressing the love in your mind in whatever form seems appropriate, especially in the form of ordinary kindness.
Now see this person showing signs that they received your gift Maybe they thank you, or just show it in their body language or facial expression. But in some way imagine this person showing that your gift has been received.
Now try to imagine how you will feel at the end of this encounter if you actually carry through with all this. Note to yourself how you imagine yourself feeling. See this feeling, which is almost surely being shared by the other person as well, as your goal. Amen.