This is the first in a series of post sharing what I’ve learned from God and from a half dozen or so spiritual friends – who just happen to live inside a state prison. My hope is that you will learn something too.
It began with shift change – staff moving about, exchanging keys and information, reciting and confirming institutional check-lists, radios steadily chattering. Next came the call-out for gym. A hundred or more bored and restless men, eager to burn off some energy and escape confinement through movement and sweat – hustling down the long hallway outside of the chapel.
The prison chapel is on the main hall of Mark Lutterell Transition Center. The chapel wall along that hallway iss ½ Plexiglas and ½ wire mesh. Needless to say, our first attempt at contemplative prayer was not going to be surrounded by silence. No, our silence was pierced by clanging prison doors, shouting staff, and the voices of men eager for the brief freedom to move and be, to think about anything besides confinement.
I can safely say that, in our first attempt a 20 minutes of contemplative prayer, there were never more than a few seconds of exterior silence. To begin with, I was uncertain how the men in our spiritual formation group, Breathing Under Water, would respond to contemplative prayer.
My doubts multiplied as my partner in ministry, Mike, shouted instructions over the din of prison life, “Just let the silence surround you. Tune out all of the outside noise and try and let go of the interior noise.” Yeah, right.
I wasted my prayer time worrying about the experience the thirteen men in our group might – or might not – be having. Once Mike ended our contemplative time by quietly reciting The Lord’s Prayer, I quickly discovered just how wasted my time was – and just how fruitful that time was for most in our group.
“It’s not easy, is it?” asked Mike.
“No, no it’s not easy,” replied Anthony, “but it is worth it.”
“Tells us what you mean when you say, ‘it’s worth it’ Anthony.”
Anthony went on to describe a powerful experience of the Divine, buffeted by the frustrations of the prison ecosystem. An ecosystem still very foreign and unfamiliar to me but an ecosystem Anthony knows intimately after 9 years of incarceration.
“Even with all that noise in the hallway, I found some silent space inside me. It’s always loud in here, 24/7. Even when I have my earbuds in and toilet paper in my ears, this place is loud,” shared Anthony.
“Tell us how you got past all the noise Anthony,” Mike prodded.
“Well, I just did. I don’t know how I did – I just did. After all this time I guess I’ve learned to tune out the racket in here and, somehow, what I’ve learned helped me to pray – or to listen, or is it prayer?”
As the other men responded to Anthony, I discovered that prison life had given most of them a gift I had worked hard for over the past 5 – 6 years – worked for but never received. Contemplative prayer was a spiritual practice I longed to know, but a practice that I struggled to live in to. It’s not the externals that keep me away from the silence – it is the internal noise.
I was so frustrated by my past, failed attempts at contemplative prayer that I knew – when I realized how fruitful this practice might be for men in prison -that I had to find a partner with more experience and more success than me to teach us this practice.
Turns out, my dear friend Mike is the perfect teacher. His 12 plus years of teaching contemplative prayer practices – coupled with his many more years of practicing contemplative prayer – afford Mike the patience and insight required to offer the gift of contemplative prayer to our group.
The reflections of the first experiences shared by the men in our group ranged from the profound to the expected. Anthony was able to rest in silence – at least for part of the session. Dennis had a powerful visual experience, as did Will. Ben was obviously, deeply touched, but he couldn’t articulate his experience. And yes, 2 or three of us were frustrated in our attempts, and at least 1 person confessed to falling asleep.
I was in awe!
I never would have thought that I would have to go to prison – albeit for just 2 hours a week on Monday nights – to learn contemplative prayer. Never, ever would I have thought that the men I was there to teach spiritual formation, would end up teaching me – not just about contemplative prayer but also about the depths of Christian spirituality and the power of true faith.
This group formed after I witnessed a need at MLTC for spiritual formation in the faith journeys of the men living there. Lots of jailhouse preachers show up weekly to lead emotionally charged worship services marked by loud music and sermons filled with shame and guilt.
Plenty of well-meaning volunteers lead weekly Bible studies littered with bad theology, more shame and guilt, and ready reminders of the costs that come with the mistakes that landed these men in prison.
I – nor anyone else – need to remind these men of their mistakes. They live with those mistakes every minute of every day. The institution, and everyone associated with it, completely define these men by the mistakes they’ve made. Their mistakes are printed on their backs, “Tennessee Department of Corrections, INMATE.” Their mistakes are evidenced in the tears of children, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and grandmothers at the end of weekly visits.
No, nobody needs to heap anymore guilt or shame on these men – they have gotten pretty good at doing that themselves. What they need is a shovel – a spiritual tool to dig out from under the shame and guilt life has heaped on them.
The Holy Spirit gave me the idea that journeying with these men through Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water, might provide the shovel or spiritual tool needed for to dig out from under shame and guilt – it had helped me when I was living into recovery.
And, as to be expected, the Holy Spirit was right.
To Be Continued