From Death to Life
The Story of John Wannop
‘Inmate but free Man, through Master’s Grace’
On an April day in 1959 a man stood before a judge in a courtroom after being found guilty of murder, and heard this sentence:
You shall be taken from here to the Okalla Prison and there you shall wait until the 23rd of July, and then you shall be taken to a place of execution where you shall be hung by the neck until you are dead – and may God have Mercy on your soul.
With this sentence passed, the Judge ran from the courtroom with his wife following close behind to be with him through the distress he felt in reading the sentence.
I was the man who stood before the Judge, and with the sentence he passed began the awakening of knowledge and life for me.
I was taken to Okalla and put into the Death Cell to await the end. While there I began to think about many things, of my life and what my death would be. I was looking for something to die for even at this late stage – and couldn’t find a thing – not even with the help of the priest and minister. I had gotten hold of a booklet called ‘Yoga Life’ and through this booklet I came into contact with Dr Ananda Bhananda who worked with the Yoga Foundation. He visited me and loaned me the Gita and some other books to read. In the process of reading these books I had copied the symbol ‘OM’ and placed it on the wall of my cell.
One day, while I was sitting and thinking about what was said to Arjuna by Krishna in the Gita, that
if a man has me (Krishna) in his thoughts when his material body dies, then he will come to me,
a wonderful thing happened.
The ‘OM’ symbol began to grow and glow in the brightest yellow colour, and with it was a hum – like an A-flat on the musical scale. These things continued to happen until I was bathed in a golden radiance and heard a Sound that transcended anything that I knew or felt before. It permeated me and engulfed my senses and I felt a total peace that was beyond understanding. While in this state I met an entity/man Who told me not to worry, for everything was going to work out and I would have something to live for and to die for. This was a month before I was to be hung.
The day after this experience Dr Ananda came to see me and I told him about it and we worked in and out around it for long hours over the next two weeks. Finally, Dr Ananda told me that he could no longer help me any further and that I should write to Kirpal Singh in India for He alone could help me. I wrote to the Master one week before I was to be hung, and three days later I was told that my death sentence was changed to life imprisonment. I had been commuted.
They took me to the British Columbia Penitentiary and I went through the formal entrance testing and placement area in July 1959 and heard from Master in August. The letter told me of a path I could follow and be wholly in tune with life. I was to get in touch with Betty Shifflett, but she got in touch with me first and sent me a book – the ‘Jap Ji’ – which I read like a drowning man clutching a piece of wood.
The first sentence that hit me was the statement,
God made man, man made religions;
this worked into me with such force that I thought about nothing else for days. I saw a picture in the book that took me back. It was a picture of Master – He looked like the personage that was in my experience, but not quite. This troubled me. I didn’t know Who He was other than the title under the picture. He looked familiar but remained a stranger. It was not until later that the full import of His picture came to me.
I was transferred to Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba in February 1960 and there settled down to do the major portion of my time – ten years. Further contact with the Master came with and through that dear soul Betty, who sent me more books. In one of the books I saw the picture of Hazur – Baba Sawan Singh Ji, Master’s Master. I began to think that He might be the personage of my experience, and this troubled me: I opened the books at two pictures and saw two men, different – but the same; They were both the personage of my experience. But how could that be? I saw only one man.
While mulling this over, dear Mr Rattray – now deceased, he was Master’s Canadian Representative – came to see me. This was in 1961. Mr Rattray conveyed initiation to me on behalf of the Master and though I did not have the Golden Sun experience again, it was an experience I would not soon forget. I went back to contemplate the pictures again after initiation, and while sitting looking at the two pictures they grew together and became one. This was the Man. He was a combination or an interweaving of my Master and His Master. This knowledge sustained me in the years to come.
There were times when I could not get anywhere with my meditations, and these became more frequent from 1963 through 1965. Doubt descended into my mind and I figured that I should start searching again. I joined various groups, took a course in comparative religions, bought the scriptures of the Twelve Great Religions and studied them for about three years, seeking understanding; though I never abandoned the teachings of the Master. In all my studies I could not find the peace which I had found in the Master; in fact, all the studying that I did reinforced the Master’s teachings.
I became deeply engrossed in Master’s books and all that was written about Him, and things began to happen – little things like the Custodial staff trusting me; other inmates coming to me for advice and understanding of their problems; some members of Staff using me as liaison, an unofficial Inmate Committee member to make sure events such as Sports Day, concerts and special programs ran smoothly. I was given the Radio Room job to run the radios of the institution, and this gave me an open cell so that I could get to other inmates who had troubles of any sort. I had this for the balance of the ten years I served before I applied for parole. But the parole was denied. This troubled me some, but not for long as I had many things to do. In 1970 they transferred me to Matsqui Institution in British Columbia.
Here I came in contact with Arran Stephens and the Satsang group in Vancouver. I was now able to attend Satsang on an infrequent basis. The staff here was unsure of me, and they had to take a year to get to know and understand how I was and what they could expect of me. I came up for parole again in 1971 and again was deferred for two years. During this time I came in contact with a field that I had often heard about – retarded children – and set about feeling my way into it. In January 1972 I was asked if I would consider working voluntarily for an Association school in Surrey. I jumped at the chance. Now I am going back to school so that I may become more able to help in this field.
I have deep regret for some of my actions, and a deep respect for the results of those actions; I have tasted both sides of the pill of life. The culmination of this tasting came for me in November 1972 when the Master came to British Columbia. I could not get to see Him arrive, but the next three days I was with Him.
On Friday night I was at the Unity Centre in Vancouver and finally saw the Master in person. Meeting some of the many friends I had made over the years – dear Betty Shifflett, Mrs Lucille Gunn, Mr Khanna – at the same time brought together all the years of waiting. After Master’s talk, Barry and Cathy Cantor and I went to the motel where Master was staying and awaited the arrival of Arran Stephens and Ted Cropp – the Matsqui Institution Christian chaplain. Through Arran’s intervention I was given the honour of seeing the Master in His bedroom. Ted Cropp and I were brought into the room and sat on the floor in front of the Master. All of the questions that I had wanted to ask Him for the last thirteen years were answered by my just being able to sit at His Feet and gaze into His wondrous eyes. Words seemed too inadequate for from His eyes came the answers to my every thought. I went to the other talks and each time I saw the Master I was lifted further into the state of total immersion. I did not realise how total it was until the Sunday He was to leave.
Ted had driven me to the airport to see Master off and we got there just as He was getting ready to start to the plane. I stood beside the door He was to go through and as He passed He seemed to look at me deeply. I followed Him down the ramp with the other Satsangis and watched as He went through the customs formalities. A feeling came over me then and I walked back to the vestibule window and watched His plane as it taxied out to the runway and finally took off. I watched it out of sight in the sky. I felt that I had lost a part of myself that was precious and dear to me as I stared into the empty sky, and I began to walk. I walked until I came to a point of land called Wreck Beach – about ten miles from the airport – where I sat and stared out over the ocean trying to resolve the feelings within me. I walked to the bus depot and after phoning Arran and the Cantors I got the bus back to the Institution.
On the bus ride, staring out the window not seeing the passing landscape, I became aware that I had lost nothing, only physical contact with Master. He was with me – within me – and standing at the point where I had seen Him and Hazur that day in 1959, I realised what He means when He says that physical presence is not enough: we must be together in thought and in spirit to be truly united.
Source: Sat Sandesh / December 1973, pp. 18–20.