On Wednesday of Holy Week I visited prison with some friends from a group called Bethany. They are made up of lay people and the most extraordinary women of the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth, who have been ministering to men in prison for over 20 years.
Because the men will celebrate Easter Sunday on Saturday morning, I thought it might be helpful to go through the Triduum with them so they could reflect on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the quiet silence of Holy Saturday.
What touched me most was our reflection on Good Friday. I brought a crucifix from home, held it up and said, “We adore you O Christ and we praise you,” and they responded somewhat sheepishly, “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
I then passed the cross around for the veneration of the cross. I then asked that if they wished, they could share a cross that they or someone they loved was carrying.
They held that crucifix with the utmost reverence, they hugged it, kissed it, upheld it. And then they shared.
“Addiction,” says the man to my right.
“Depression,” a smaller young man with thick glasses. He looks straight at me, “I just wake up every day so sad.”
“Anxiety,” says another, tight-lipped.
“My sister has cancer. She’s the only family I have left.” And elderly man shared. “If she dies I’ll have nowhere to go when I get out.”
“My anger,” says a new man. He just got out of the hole.
“I can’t forgive myself for what I’ve done,” says a large tattooed man, on the verge of tears. “I know God forgives me, but I can’t.”
“Cancer,” says an older man with an Irish accent. “I got it in submission, but it’ll be back.” His prayer was to be well enough to bake again. Now he’s back in the bakery and sits proudly next to a large pan of cookies he made just for us.
“Anxiety, uncertainty.” I share. They nod.
I share with them a teaching I’ve always found helpful. That when Jesus died and descended into hell he experienced every sort of sin and suffering imaginable. So though Jesus never had cancer or addiction in this life he knows every sort of suffering we experience. Our God is a God of unending vulnerable love.
I hold up the cross again, the cross we’ve all touched, the cross now linked with our own crosses.
“We adore you O Christ and we praise you.”
They respond, louder this time: “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
For Holy Saturday, I invite them to share about the good in their lives. The light in the darkness.
“I heard a voice when I was in the hole,” says one of the more dedicated members. “It said: follow me. I didn’t know who or what it was. Then I found out that Jesus said that to Peter. When I read that I got goosebumps.”
“And if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here,” says the man to his right. “I’ve been to church all my life and never felt nothing. But this guy invited me to this callout one night, and every reading was like it was meant for me. It hit me right here.” He points to his chest. “Something changed and I started praying again, and all the guys around me could tell it.”
Others share stories of their parents and grandparents going to church, praying for them. Others have had loved ones die while they were inside, and after that they felt God calling them.
“I woke up near dead,” shares the baker. “And you and your wife, God rest her soul, were waiting next to my bed.” He’s talking to the the group leader and founder, George. He and Sister Arthel have been going in for over 20 years.
We pass around more cookies. We end by talking about the obstacles in our lives, the stones we pray God will roll away this Easter. We share a few common stones and pray for help: in resisting despair and temptation, in reaching out to others, in trusting God to help us heal.
We shake hands, we wish each other a Happy Easter, and then we leave. And praise God, there’s enough cookies to share with the Protestants next door.
The volunteers leave the prison, walking through a several gates, and drive to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity to share a meal, recap how our night went, and talk about what’s going on in our lives.
We are near the Passover so we share a brief Seder meal. We eat the bread in memory of the slavery and suffering of the Jewish people, then we drink the wine of freedom, the wine of the Promised Land.
As I eat the bread I think of all the suffering of the men behind the walls, I think of my own suffering, the suffering of friends and loved ones, the suffering of the whole world, the suffering of Christ. I chew and swallow.
I drink the wine of freedom, the wine of new life, and see for a brief moment the other side of suffering, death, and pain. I feel a stone roll away within me.
Here at the Motherhouse basement, surrounded by candlelight and a Love beyond measure, I see the deep joy in the faces around me. Joy deepened by suffering, joy deepened by a lifetime commitment to charity, to prayer and friendship with God, to visiting the lost and broken, to binding up the wounded, to visiting the prisoner. In their smiles and laughter I see the invincible Love of God incarnate in our world.
They are the most incredible people I’ve ever met. Without them I’d be bowled over by despair, by the crosses of the world, the crosses we all have to carry. Crosses that can, at times, overwhelm all the goodness we know.
This Saturday morning the guys behind the walls are celebrating their Easter and all their small victories against the powers of sin and death, strengthening their camaraderie and devotion in the midst of the countless stresses of confinement. They are reverently receiving the risen Christ into their hearts, and they are carrying the Gospel message on, completely hidden from they eyes the world, and the love that touches many of their hearts is contagiously saving the souls around them.