Catholic prisoners ask me every year about the letter of the law for fast and abstinence rules during Lent. Prisoners have no control over what’s served in the “chow hall,” and meals are pretty skimpy as it is without skipping them. I encourage them to consider something proactive for Lent like working on forgiving someone, or a deeper commitment to prayer, or a daily act of kindness.
That last one is a real challenge here. In prison, kindness is too often seen as weakness to be exploited. The Corporal Works of Mercy must take a different form here. Giving away a .20 cent package of Ramen noodles to another prisoner is a violation punishable by a “D-Report” (a disciplinary offense).
Even volunteering for extra work has a negative connotation. Extra duty is a punishment for D-Reports. In the winter, I often volunteer to shovel snow at night. I do it just to get outside for awhile. After a big storm last winter, I went out to shovel snow and ice two nights in a row. Days later, other prisoners were still asking me what I did wrong. It took me awhile to catch on that everyone else shoveling snow was being punished for something.
Prisoners here are allowed to shop for food, hygiene items, postage stamps, and other necessities once per week in the prison commissary. My list of needed items has to be submitted on Sunday afternoons and picked up on Wednesday at 9:00 AM. There are no exceptions. If I am sent a medical appointment for the same time, or have an unexpected visitor, I forfeit the week’s order and have to wait another week for food, soap, and postage stamps. It’s happened many times.
The commissary also sells ice cream, so prisoners are allowed to buy a pint once per week. It’s an indulgence nearly everyone with $1.75 in his account looks forward to. We never know what the flavor will be, so we get what we get. I didn’t order ice cream for Ash Wednesday, of course. I tend to hold myself to rules that I tell other prisoners not to worry too much about. Most took my example and passed on the ice cream this week. It was butter pecan, too. Welcome to Lent!
A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I went to the commissary to pick up my week’s order. The guard who manages the commissary placed ten pounds of broccoli on the counter and handed me a printed slip to sign for it. When he saw my look of horror, he said, “All we sell from now on is broccoli.” There was even a pint of broccoli-flavored ice cream on the counter. I was facing sixty-seven years of eating nothing but broccoli! It was a nightmare! My roommate asked me not to tell anyone else about the dream. “Let’s not give them any ideas,” he said.
YOUNG MEN WILL SEE VISIONS
You might remember my friend, Joseph from my Advent post, “Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night.” Joseph is from Haiti. Though he has lived in the U.S. for most of his life, much of his family lives in Port au Prince and he has visited them many times while growing up.
The earthquake in Haiti last month was devastating for many, and Joseph was not spared. On the day it happened, he came to my cell to watch events unfold on one of the news channels. The week to follow was to be one of the most difficult of Joseph’s twenty-two years of life. After days of intense worry with little news, Joseph learned that some of his family were killed and others were missing. Joseph’s father flew to the Dominican Republic to try to make his way into Port-au- Prince to help search for missing family members.
Joseph’s worrying intensified as he went a week without news from, or about, his father. I spent hours with Joseph as each day’s news seemed to bring something worse for him, and he was inconsolable at first. It was a month before Joseph’s resilience and resolve – like that of the Haitian people – began to overtake fear and anxiety and the bitterness of loss.
Our discussion each day slowly turned from what happened to what happens next. Help for those people was slowed by the devastation of the city’s infrastructure, but the global outpouring of support and aid was powerful and moving.
Joseph slowly began to turn from the pain of loss to a hope that his people and their country could emerge stronger, and that loss could be transformed in time, and under the right conditions. I asked Joseph to give some thought to what he could do in his own life to add to the recovery of Haiti. To his credit, it is his life’s mission, at least for now. There is hope for both Joseph and Haiti. He has embraced something driven home to me by Viktor Frankl:
We get to choose the person we are going to be in any set of circumstances. It’s the essence of freedom, and a choice that can never be taken away.
AND OLD MEN WILL DREAM DREAMS
People who have little control over their day to day lives have a lot of anxiety. It’s what others in prison most talk to me about. Sometimes the people who work in prisons have a prejudice that prisoners are manipulative and intent on plotting and getting away with something. Prisons everywhere are built and managed to manage just that sort of person. All the others – and they are the majority of prisoners – just want to get through each day. These are the people who have the most anxiety. The others create anxiety, but seldom seem to have any of their own. If punishment alone was a deterrent, our prisons would be empty. That’s not the case.
I am not at all spared anxiety in prison, and the place where it most manifests itself is in dreams. I have very vivid dreams since I have been in prison, and they have not abated over the years. I have two recurring dreams that are haunting and clear displays of my own anxiety. They make some nights more… well … Lenten than others. I have had each of them in one form or another many, many times.
In one of the dreams, I am about to celebrate Mass in a church. As I begin the Mass, the people in the congregation become hostile. They brandish newspapers and begin to shout as I start the Eucharistic Prayer. Sometimes they are just a crowd of silent, angry, condemning eyes. Sometimes they stand en masse and turn their backs on me. Every version is painful, but I must proceed with the Mass. When the time comes, no one will take the Body of Christ from my hands.
The other recurring dream is worse, and I’ve had many versions of it. One of them was a few nights ago. I am lost at night in a city I once knew, but no longer recognize. I am walking alone at night, and it grows increasingly dark and ominous.
Every corner I turn takes me deeper into the city’s unfamiliar streets. I become aware that I am lost, and I become aware of a crowd collecting behind me. As the crowd grows they become ever more hostile, and evolve into an accusing mob. I walk away from them, but never run, and they continue to follow me.
Then I come to a church and climb its steps. The church doors are locked and there is no way in. I am trapped on the outside, and now the mob bars my way.
One night I awoke in the darkness muttering what I later learned was a line from Psalm 69:
“Must I restore what I did not steal?”
During Lent last year, I had another very haunting dream. I was present at a Passover meal. When a plate was placed before me, it contained nothing but a pile of bitter herbs. I looked around the table wondering if I should say something.
Everyone else had lamb and unleavened bread, matzo, but I had only bitter herbs. I tasted them, and they were very bitter. In the dream, I wondered if I could bring myself to eat them, but I had to. I looked at the plate with dismay.
Bitter herbs – “maror,” in Hebrew – are included in the instruction for the Passover meal in the Book of Exodus (12:8). The maror is to be eaten as a symbolic recalling of the bitter treatment the Jews received in captivity in Egypt (Exodus 1:14). The symbolism for own reality is clear.
THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
If nothing else, I know well what other prisoners mean when they speak of the anxiety they have at night. It comes from the knowledge that, in an instant, everything can change for the worse and we are all powerless to stop it. Anxiety is the natural result of an environment in which trust and hope are the rarest commodities. None of us is ever free of anxiety. It’s for good reason that a priest always prays at Mass:
net ab omni perturbatione securi: expectantes beatam spem
et adventum Salvatoris nostri Iesu Christi.”
“and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Now there’s a Lenten challenge: To wait in hope in the face of anxiety. No, it’s more than that. The challenge is not just to wait in hope. It’s to wait in “joyful” hope as though both joy and hope were things we can just choose to have.
When I have those really painful “priest dreams” I wonder if I could reasonably expect to spend the next day waiting in joyful hope. It seems such an unnatural response to the experience of trauma, of false witness, of scapegoating. I want to just dismiss joyful hope as beyond my reach – beyond anyone’s reach.
But even as I write this, Joseph stopped by. A month after the earthquake that left him and his country so devastated, I just witnessed in him something that sounded almost like joyful hope. How, then, could I not at least try?
So that’s my Lenten challenge to myself – and, if you are open to it, to you: To accept that we do not have the ability to simply choose joyful hope. It is given, not taken. But we do have the ability to at least make room for it, to cut a path through the thick skepticism that continually tempts me to feel as though I am relying solely on my own resources, and they are depleting fast.
So, I AM giving something up for Lent this year. I’m giving up the notion that there are no miracles to be had, the notion that there is no reason for joyful hope because the earth shook and everything toppled over, because mob justice has ruled the day, because many turned their backs on me. I’m giving up everything that now fills that space where joyful hope should be, and could be, and might be if not for my well rehearsed skepticism. I’m making myself ready for it, clearing away the debris in my soul that might keep me from seeing it when it arrives.
I’m expecting joyful hope, and I’m going to spend Lent waiting for it. Want to join me?
“Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter on Christian Hope (Spe Salvi), 39.