For someone on the outside looking in, it must seem an odd place to begin. Virtually every prison cell has one: a small stainless steel sink with a matching toilet welded to its side. Bolted to the cinderblock wall just above it is a small stainless steel mirror, dinged, dented, and scraped so badly that the image it reflects is unrecognizable.
I begin each day at the break of dawn in prison by shaving in front of that mirror. This morning ritual has repeated 5,412 times. I seldom cut myself shaving — a minor miracle as I can see very little of me in that mirror. I often think of St. Paul’s cryptic image in his first letter to the Church in Corinth (13:12):
“For now I see dimly, as in a mirror, but then I shall see face to face.” It is a hopeful image.
I sometimes find that my mind calculates dates and their meanings on a sort of autopilot. There came a day when I stood at the mirror to shave and realized that on this day it was Dec. 23, 2006. I have been a priest in prison for the exact amount of time that I was a priest “on the streets” as prisoners like to describe their lives before prison.
From that day until now, I wonder which I see more of in that flawed mirror. Do I see the man who is a priest of 27 years? Or do I see only Prisoner 67546, the identity given to me inside these stone walls?
A strange thing happened on the day after I first reflected– as best I could in that mirror — on who I see.
It was Christmas Eve, December 24, 2006, the day that the equation changed. That was the day that that I was a priest in prison longer than anywhere else. That night at prison mail call, I had a few Christmas cards. One of them was from Father James McCurry, a Conventual Franciscan priest who once visited me in prison.
Inside Father McCurry’s Christmas card was a prayer card that is now one of my enduring treasures. It is taped to the stone wall just above the shaving mirror of my cell and has been there ever since the day I received it.
The holy card has an image of St. Maximilian Kolbe who offered himself for execution in place of another prisoner, in Auschwitz in 1941. The card depicts Father Kolbe in his Conventual Franciscan Habit. He has one sleeve in the striped jacket of his prison uniform with the number 16670 emblazoned across it. There is a scarlet “P” above the number indicating his Polish nationality. He was also a Priest and a falsely accused prisoner. Does either designation extinguish the other? Father Kolbe is at once both, though only one identity was chosen by him.
The image is a haunting image for it captures fully that struggle I have so keenly felt. Father Maximilian appeared in my cell just a day after I asked the question of myself. Who am I? I thought at the time, that it was a rhetorical question, but it was a prayer.
As such, it begged a reply — and got one.
Have you experienced a crystal clear response to a prayer? Please share it below in the comments area.