“Welcome to this sacred circle, where each of us is invited to access the silent place within us where the Divine Presence awaits us.” With these words, Fr. Thomas Keating began a conversation with a group of men living behind prison walls.
One by one we are invited into silence, and we are invited to gather. This is the paradox of the contemplative lifestyle: we each consent to the presence and action of God within, yet that consent ultimately finds its foundation, sustenance, and completion in community. Centering Prayer, for instance, is often described using language from Matthew 6:6, where one who would pray is instructed to enter the “inner room” and “close the door.” Here, the Holy Spirit is present and no one else. An apparent antithesis of this lifestyle would be living in community, with its inherent distractions.
In reality, the contemplative lifestyle thrives in—depends upon—community. Small groups are instrumental in providing mutual support, the treasure of group discernment, and tangible witness to the practice. If individual practitioners are cells of the “living organism” that is Contemplative Outreach, these cells depend upon one another for life. In a real and transcendent way, it is through connection that the fruits of the lifestyle blossom; indeed, these days of so called “social distancing” highlight this as we find ourselves turning to Zoom™ to stay in touch.
Contemplatives living “inside the walls” of correctional facilities do not have access to the Internet, nor to video conferencing (pandemic or no pandemic). Guards, fences, uniforms, strip searches, restricted opportunities to gather—the very structures of prison life—impose the distractions that come with close physical proximity, while curtailing what is essential to the intentional fostering of contemplative community (e.g. trust, freedom, authenticity, vulnerability, a shared understanding of the spiritual journey). Rules generally prohibit groups from meeting without a volunteer or staff person present, and members have no possibility of individual conversation with volunteer facilitators outside the scheduled meeting time (even contact between group members may be limited to those who share a dorm).
The Contemplative Spiritual Companionship Program (CSCP or Companions Program, for short) provides a structure, within the requirements of secure facilities in which inmates find themselves, for a joining in spiritual conversation and mutual discernment between committed Centering Prayer practitioners inside and outside the walls. Long-term members of prison Centering Prayer groups are paired with trained spiritual directors on the outside. Participants know each other by first name only, and all correspondence is sent through a central location.
Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI compares contemplative prayer to the oyster shell in which “the day-to-day messiness (muck) of existence” is transformed into “precious wisdom (pearls).” He also points out that “pearl divers dive in pairs.”  The “radical choice” we make by following God’s call to contemplative living, Fr. Renaud proposes, suggests two “basic orientations” for spiritual direction (which is in fact not so much direction as “companionship with a person involving dialogue and non-judgmental, non-directive and non-violent listening”). These two fundamentals—developing resilience and living non-violently—illuminate why such companionship can be a life-giving balm for those choosing to spend their prison time seeking deep personal transformation. One-on-one contact across the walls opens a whole new channel for contemplative sharing. It not only serves as an important complement to participation in a prison Centering Prayer group, but also gives the outside companion a unique opportunity – namely, to accompany and encourage a fellow traveler through consciously consenting, in hopes that the muck and irritation might form truly priceless pearls, made all the more precious through the sharing.
The strength of the Companions Program comes from the participants’ commitment to engaging in the regular practice of contemplative prayer. This strength transcends the necessary limitations on communications with the incarcerated, generally involving regular mail exchanges and always with the thought that they can be reviewed by prison authorities at any time. This format makes the interaction more challenging than that of traditional spiritual direction, which often emphasizes an active listening: There is no immediacy to the back-and-forth movement between the companions.
Participants have observed that these practicalities actually lend themselves to a more direct and less obstructed communication. In the words of one outside companion, “There is often greater honesty, and, with the tightly controlled schedule of meals, work, and recreation, there can be less distraction. The opportunity to live in a prison, not unlike in a monastery, can have the fruit of gratitude for simple daily gifts.”
Companions both inside and outside report that the initial awkwardness passes quickly and speak of how the experience has strengthened their trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. Describing how he handled initial trepidation, one well-practiced in face-to-face direction says: “After reading a letter from my directee I would often take some time to pray and then just trust what the Spirit put on my heart and share it. It has been both edifying and humbling to see how that has played out and how often my directee [has] really seemed to be able to relate to and receive what I was sharing with him.” Other participants have echoed this sentiment, sharing his experience that despite early doubts, “a meaningful and fruitful relationship seems to have emerged!”
The fact that the “cloister” of incarceration is temporary suggests another important aspect of the Companions ministry, since we all hope that those inside the walls will not remain there for the rest of their lives. Recidivism rates across the country spotlight the reality of challenges faced as one’s “end of sentence” draws near. How essential it is for our brothers and sisters who have served their time to be deeply rooted in truly transformational spiritual practices, and to be supported in continuing those practices through their transition! Those outside can engage and foster life-giving hope during a time too often fraught with self-fulfilling fears. Anecdotal evidence seems to point to a direct correlation between continuing one’s Centering Prayer practice upon release and the likelihood of not returning to prison. Choosing to set aside time solely for consenting to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the face of massive practical hurdles, however, necessitates being firmly rooted in experiential knowledge of transcendent realities. It comes into reach when our prayer practice is known to be not one of many in a long list of things to do, but in fact what makes tackling that list possible.
The Companions program is a physical manifestation of what it means to be Church, Christ’s body in the world, in a way that comforts those in need. While the program is implemented in service to those inside, it is also a ministry to those outside, who come to realize that there are few material differences between the incarcerated and those who have not been.
“I was in prison and you visited me.”
The CSCP, a pilot program established under the care of St. Anne’s parish prison ministry in Marianna, Florida, has been in existence since February 2018. It has the blessing of the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and the permission of Chaplains at participating correctional facilities. For more information or to request an application, please contact Chandra Hanson, the program administrator, at email@example.com
 This quote was taken from a video of Fr. Thomas Keating at the Mule Creek State Prison, accessed March 21, 2020, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MHvEaHyDEE.
 See the first guideline in Guidelines of Contemplative Outreach Service (scroll down for the guidelines)
 “Diving for Pearls: Spiritual Direction of Contemplatives,” by Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI in December 2019 Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. newsletter (pp. 11-12)