The other side of the steel door

Lent has begun in a more thought-provoking manner this year than in prior years. Ash Wednesday was very early, February 6. It is doubtful that it can ever be much  earlier. Easter falls on March 23, and the formula for Easter Sunday placement requires that a lot be squeezed into a very short time span.

Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon which follows the vernal equinox. In 2008, spring begins on March 20 which also helps. That, at least, allows two days for the full moon to appear.

So, in the dark and cold of winter,  we held an Ash Wednesday service at the prison from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. I have a pile of transparencies for doing a group Stations of the Cross. We found an uncluttered wall in our small room which would be visible to all 18 offenders in attendance. There is a set of small ceramic stations for hanging on the walls of the main chapel. Instead of hanging them up, we passed them out at random. The holder of a particular station would read the “Christ speaks”  part for the station with the corresponding number shown on the transparency. Everyone else would read in unison the “I reply” portion. Reading the parts aloud can be difficult for some due to the emotions expressed in the writing.

When we finished, I asked a general question, “What did you think?” After a few brief responses, one offender began to share some very, very deep concerns in his life. I just listened. After a pause, one of the others responded. And then another. After 15 minutes, or so, most had offered  very supportive, encouraging, and understanding comments and suggestions. I had very little to say – even at the end.

A couple days later, on Saturday the 9th, I participated in our third Catholic Lenten Seminar at the prison. That session ran from 1:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. Again, I found myself speechless as thoughts, concerns, struggles were revealed and shared. Powerful moments were present during the seminar as during the Ash Wednesday service.

I must be getting old. All during my professional life, those who held positions like mine were expected to solve problems, fix and run things. In an environment like a prison, there are few things that can be fixed, and very little flexibility to “run” anything. It seems the only options are to be present, to listen, and to do what I can to help others take a different look at what’s going on in their lives.

The biggest single barrier is my lack of having experience in an offender’s reality. Particularly those in isolation. I don’t have a clue. There are times when I may get a glimpse at what it is like, but do I really have the foggiest idea? No.

My first conversations with incarcerated men were in December, 2000. Over these more that seven years, I have learned a great deal from hundreds of men. But on the other side of that steel door is a life I can’t even begin to imagine. The circumstances surrounding the lives of those men are beyond my comprehension. Being systematically abandoned, forgotten, despised by society – and often by family – is a condition unavailable to me … at least at the present.

As Lent moves forward, I will continue to reflect on what’s going on around me in my ministry.

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