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Ink Slingers Mary S. You Did It To Me

You did it to me: Visit the Prisoner

Welcome to the series “You did it to me” where we will be discussing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. This will be a twice a month series from March to September 2015. We hope you enjoy!

11021044_1457331471223989_325798669104677386_nA day after I agreed to write about this topic, I thought about it for a minute and part of my brain went “wait, what did I sign up for?!? What am I going to write about?” The closest I’ve ever come to visiting someone in prison was when I toured the local police station with my Moms club and got a picture of my two kids chilling with some friends in the cell there. My husband and I have talked about someone we know who regularly does prison ministry, but have never really considered doing it ourselves. So as I considered what to write, it was from a position of essentially zero experience or knowledge about actually visiting prisoners.

(yes, I know there are other ways of interpreting “the imprisoned” as meaning those imprisoned at home by infirmity, in their own minds by mental illness, or in a poor situation of life, for example. I also know that, depending on where you find a list of the Works of Mercy, sometimes this one is listed as “Free the Captives,” including the image made for this post by our awesome graphics gal! But I’ve always learned it as “Visit the Imprisoned”, and wanted to approach it from a more literal viewpoint of actual prisoners. Disclaimer over.)

I don't think this visit qualifies me to pontificate about visiting prisoners!!
I don’t think this visit qualifies me to pontificate about visiting prisoners!!

But then one day, right in the middle of Mass (far from pondering this post, I was focused on the fact my nephew was about to receive his First Communion!), some thoughts and ideas just hit me, and I admit I grabbed pen and paper from my purse and jotted down a few thoughts during the homily.

As I mentioned, my husband and I have discussed prison ministry several times, and most of the time our conversation only serves to illustrate the two main approaches to the imprisoned. The interior conflict I feel when I consider helping with prison ministry is really a struggle between these two “sides”:

  1. the very human urge to decide that these people did something terrible to deserve being placed in prison, and it doesn’t serve Justice well to seek them out to minister to, making their sentence even that small bit easier to bear. Especially when there are others in difficult situations, pointedly not due to their own actions and choices, who seem like much more worthy subjects of my concern and assistance.

  2. The knowledge that Christ would have given his life for even the basest of criminals, in hopes that that person would one day be in Heaven. God’s mercy overflows, and the whole point of mercy is that it is something we don’t deserve. Even when someone has made terrible choices and hurt others, the fact that Christ loves them enough to lay down his very life for them ought to move me to be willing to lay down our desire for Justice and even vengeance, and minister to these souls. And I do want to be a pathway for His mercy to reach anyone and everyone.

It can be so difficult to balance Justice and Mercy, especially when we read stories of people who were given a merciful early release from prison who then went on to hurt more people and land back in prison. Or when we see some people who are strongly called to prison ministry seeming to argue that if an individual repents and turns his life over to God, that perhaps his civil penalties ought to be lessened. It is natural to want a full and tough punishment (or vengeance) for the perpetrator when we hear about horrible crimes against children or the defenseless, and it is so difficult to get past that to the point of being able to offer them even the tiny mercies of a kind word or a smile, let alone the great graces and mercy God offers us all.

I could quote bible verses about vengeance being God’s, or about his Justice and Mercy. I could cite passage from the Catechism about how prisoners should be treated, or the value of every human being. Several ideas such as those came to me that day in Church, and I had several possible posts half-written in my head to choose from. But the final thought that hit me that day erased them all. Because I realized I had been lost. And not lost in any major way, but simply at a loss as to what to write for a blog post. Not exactly earth-shaking, and I had volunteered for it, after all. But God cared. He cared that I was afraid of looking foolish, and he helped me see several ways to intelligently and thoughtfully approach the topic.

He had Mercy on me.

And while I intellectually realize it is a tiny action of Mercy compared to the fact that he offers forgiveness for all my sinfs and eternal Joy in Heaven, this tiny Mercy was easier to wrap my brain around. And it dawned on me that visiting a prisoner was a similarly tiny act of Mercy. Prison ministry doesn’t require a laying down of my life, but perhaps only a few hours of time and a willingness to simply be a conduit for God’s love. It doesn’t mean breaking out that murderer or drug dealer or convincing myself or others that they are good men, but offering them the knowledge of the amazing invitation God offers to each of us, to be His. Helping them to find that greater freedom that God wants for every one of us.11008560_1457331431223993_4168276712896781398_n

How selfish of me to keep that to myself when we have been given so much Mercy, even to cover such minor needs as what to write in a post. While it is human to want Justice and punishment, God’s grace and Mercy can and should flow through us to others, regardless of whether we believe a person deserves even a kind word. And as the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are really all about sharing God’s Mercy with our fellow man (even though none of us deserve it), we must strive to offer that Mercy most especially with those who least deserve it.

Will I be joining the prison ministry in our area?? Probably not. I have other ministries that I feel much more called to. But I am much more open to it now, and have added prisoners and prison ministers to my daily prayer list. Even if it is only in context of a discussion with a friend or loved one, it always helps me to realize that I deserve death for my sin, but have received God’s Mercy. And that now I have a responsibility to offer that same Mercy to others.

What about you? Have you ever visited (or freed!) a prisoner?? What was it like? Do you agree with my thoughts on it??

Categories
Ink Slingers Lent Leticia Liturgical Year Spiritual Growth

Time to Walk the Walk

From the moment I watched Pope Benedict leave the Vatican for the last time and speak for the last time as Pope, I had a feeling something big was about to happen. My opinions about popes has been a conversion in and of itself. Having been a Baptist most of my childhood, I had Protestant views of the papacy, but there was something about Pope John Paul II’s face that really made it hard to believe that he was the anti-Christ. As he grew older and suffered more and more I loved him and yet I still thought it was crazy that people would believe he was actually running the show. When he died I was one of those people who watched the conclave only in passing on the secular news outlets.

Then there was Pope Benedict. I did not think that I would ever really care for him. Like ever. But then I saw him in Rome. He won my heart. The thing about Pope Benedict is that in person he looks nothing like his pictures. In person the fact that he is an introvert is very clear. But what else is clear is that he is a kind and gentle soul. I don’t really know how to explain it, but from the moment I laid eyes on him, I loved him. I read his writings and loved him even more. I cried the whole time I watched him leave the Vatican. I long to see his face and to know what he is doing now. And I hope he knows how much we all love and miss him. I really do miss him.

And now Pope Francis. *sigh* What is there to say that hasn’t already been said in a million blog posts? He’s his own Pope. And I like it. My inner rebel is cheering him on, getting involved in liturgy wars that I have no clue about, talking when I shouldn’t, and making rash judgments against people I love and consider friends. (All of which, I just wrote a blog post about and I said not to do that. I need to take my own advice sometimes.) But all of that came to a screeching halt when I read the news that he will being celebrating Mass on Holy Thursday in a juvenile detention center. That was the beginning of my conversation with God today. He did not hold back either.

I’ve been to jail. Not just once, but 12 times. The longest I’ve been in jail is 16 days. It was in the Amarillo City Jail, which is old school. There are no TVs, no outside, no nothing. Just sleep, books, cards, and crappy food. The thing that sucks the most about being in jail is you feel that everyone else is going on with life on the outside and they aren’t even thinking of you. It’s as if you’re dead but nobody is mourning you and there is nothing you can do about it except wait. You wait until you get out so you can do better next time, but really you know that you will always hold a grudge against them for living life and against yourself for being the loser who got locked up in the first place. And the cycle continues … it’s like a circle of hell. You know that you put yourself there, but you make excuses. Everyone is out to get you. Life is out to get you. The people who are supposed to care about you don’t, because if they did, they would get you out. The thoughts of self-loathing in jail are intense. From where I sit now I know exactly where the voice of those thoughts comes from: the accuser. His voice is loud in jail: telling you how terrible you are, how much of a failure you are, how everyone is a liar, how they don’t love you, how you are worthless, how you have a right to hate everything, and on and on. You start to adjust to it and start making friends and trying to make the most of your time. And then comes Sunday. The church people come in and stand there and preach at you about how you’re a sinner. I would always just pretend to be asleep with a towel over my face but under the towel I was crying. Because I knew what I was, I didn’t need anyone else telling me, I had that voice in my mind that wouldn’t shut up from telling me. What I needed to hear was about Jesus and how Merciful God is.

Today, I cried thinking of what it would be like to be in prison and have the Pope say Mass and wash the feet of prisoners in there. Currently I have two cousins in prison, my oldest son’s uncle is in state jail, and my kids’ father is in jail. All of them are there because of bad choices they made. Regardless, I know all of them are loved by God. Who is going to tell them that while they sit in there with that voice accusing them of being nothing and unloved? The evil one is there no matter what. Who is going to take Jesus to them? Many people have opinions about what Pope Francis is doing. Some of those opinions are rooted in selfishness of wanting the papacy to be run their way to make them feel better. (Anytime people center their opinions based on their feelings it’s rooted in something that is not virtuous.) But as someone who has been in jail and knows what goes through the mind of someone in there, I think what he is doing is showing the rest of us, by his example, that the time for talk is over. It is time to walk the walk.

That is what Holy Week is all about, isn’t it? Jesus walked the walk. He spent three years talking, on Holy Thursday He instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the following day he walked the walk carrying His cross all the way up until He was crucified on it. What scares me is that this is what Pope Francis is all about. He is all about the Cross and I am all about talking about it. I’m not about carrying it and letting anyone hang me on it. But isn’t that the point of Lent? To die to self? Some of us need to die to our feelings, some need to die to self by not making rash judgments of others, and some of us need to die to self by giving up the talk and start walking the walk.

I would suggest that we all follow our Pope’s example this Holy Week and practice some Corporal works of Mercy:
feeding the hungry
giving drink to the thirsty
clothing the naked
offering hospitality to the homeless
caring for the sick
visiting the imprisoned
burying the dead 

May God use us to take Christ to those who need him the most.