Prison Contemplative Fellowship is an affiliation of prisoners, former prisoners, their families, volunteers, and prison chaplains whose focus is the support of Centering Prayer practice in prisons and jails. Prisoners are a distinctive population for receiving the fruits of Centering Prayer. While they generally do not have a high formal educational status, prisoners hold more experiences of life at its depth. They carry deep material of suffering, emotional trauma, early childhood abuse, abandonment, betrayal, and lucid memories of the devastation caused by rampant addictions. Living in prison is a daily experience of suffering that must be included in their prayer practice.
When the principles and practices of Centering Prayer are offered to a prison population, the remarkable fruits of the Spirit of Contemplative Prayer are experienced in abundance. What does that look like? Those formally without any religious affiliation become open to another way of relating to the Divine, as they see themselves and their world from a new perspective. Those who never thought of prayer as a means of discovering their deeper self, find themselves now praying in Silence as a daily practice. Those who in their early life experienced severe trauma and abuse now begin the slow, dramatic process of gazing again at their trauma and abuse in the context of the spaciousness of Divine Therapy.
The reality of the new way of seeing themselves comes with an entirely new way of viewing their God. The “outside God” of authority, merit, formal denominational rules, guilt and shame, now becomes the “inside God” of unconditional love and support as the only God that makes any sense now. Prisoners now seem more willing to see that God is not the cause of their suffering. Their world gets turned upside down by the radically simple act of holding still in Silence and allowing the God of Silence to meet them at their center.
For the volunteers who see these enormous changes we too are impacted by their transitions. We seem to “cross over” into another dimension of our own practice of Centering Prayer as we witness the way the Divine works so gently in the lives of deeply wounded persons. We feel a kind of privilege to be able to sit with prisoners as God works profoundly in their lives.
We watch in amazement as the external manifestations of their new way of looking at their lives plays out. Religious and racial strictures, so tightly enforced in prisons, begin to soften and dissolve. Prisoners often comment on the peace they feel when they are able to sit in a group and share and listen to each other bring up their own personal inner material.
For many prisoners, especially those serving long terms, family members may not maintain a relationship with them. Depending on the enlightenment of the authorities at a particular facility, they may have meager programs for advancement or self-discovery. Because most prisoners have little money for even the bare necessities, they have difficulty accessing resources from outside their institution. In such a context, Centering Prayer principles, particularly the notion of Divine Therapy, is a spiritual life-line of energy and vitality. It becomes Hope at once realistic and personally attainable.
This is the world of Prison Contemplative Fellowship, an organization dedicated to bringing the resources vitally necessary to these persons, living as outcasts, on the margins of our society, so beloved of God.
The chief means of instruction for the prisoners is the book Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners, by Ray Leonardini, who has been teaching Centering Prayer at Folsom Prison. (See the review by Sister Catherine Marie Bazar, O.P., a former C.O. board member, and a volunteer in prisons and jails for over 17 years.) This user-friendly book presents Centering Prayer through the familiar notions of Contemplative Outreach. The book also includes many quotes from inmates themselves on how Centering Prayer has helped them endure penitentiary life, including time in solitary confinement.
Prisoners send the book home to their loved ones so that they can understand the fullness of their transformation. Families become interested in Centering Prayer as a way of relating to their loved ones behind bars. It gives them something to talk about of substance and significance.
Prisoners also use the principles of Centering Prayer expressed in the many books of Fr. Keating as a way of articulating the transitions necessary for Parole Boards. They are able to describe themselves with honesty and insight, and own their experience with integrity.
Excerpts of Finding God Within are going into nearly 6000 facilities through out the country with materials that include practical ways to start a Centering Prayer group in a prison or jail. Books are sent free to prisoners.
Contemplative Outreach is partnering with Prison Contemplative Fellowship to recruit volunteers to meet the increased demand for Centering Prayer groups in prisons. It is a natural fit for existing Centering Prayer groups near a prison or jail to provide volunteers necessary for the teaching and training of prisoners. The gifts of the practice become clear to prisoners. Less clear, but of equal value, are the gifts of a deepening practice of Centering Prayer for volunteers.
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