Few go willingly into the desert. It is a harsh life, more about survival than comfort. The silence can blister like the noonday sun. But harsh does not mean empty, nor does silence mean one is alone. We are people of the prison wilderness, children of the desert of the Real. We are young and old, male and female, slave and free – all connected by the unifying life we find in what is often perceived as a wasteland.
What is it about the prison wilderness that lends itself so well to Centering Prayer? There is something unique found here that is perhaps absent elsewhere. What is this subtle quality that deepens our contemplative practice?
Some believe it is the nature of the environment. One quickly learns who is in control; guards, fences, and rules demonstrate that power belongs to another. We enter the system – we are searched, stripped, and given a uniform. This exposes the illusion, and we see truth: we are not in control of our lives. We never were. Now, our assumptions have been shattered by circumstances. All alleged control was nothing but smoke and mirrors.
For others, it is the monastic quality of prison life that deepens our contemplative practice. We lack many of the usual distractions: no internet or social media, no clubs or events, no bills or obligations. For us, this simplicity of life becomes lovely. One group member says:
“During routine headcounts we are locked in our cells for an hour, several times a day. These are opportunities to practice our prayer and devotions. Some of us endure a more difficult challenge. We must learn to block out the distractions of open-bay dorms shared with 70 other persons. It is an exercise of patience and restraint.”
Another quality present is the abundance of time. A common complaint among those living outside prison walls is that they are too busy to pray. Here, time is a luxury that we have in excess. But the gift of time is a two-edged sword. Some fill it with distractions, ignoring the passing of the hours. Some obsess with the past, trapped by regret. Others become mired in fantasy, the days passing like a sigh while nothing changes. The press of years will either bring you to yourself or send you screaming from yourself. We have been drawn by the Spirit to resist the urge to run from reality and choose instead to open our minds and hearts for prayerful reflection on the truth and the healing that comes from a deeper intimacy with God.
To complement the first question we can also ask: what is it about Centering Prayer that so suits prisoners? Why does Centering Prayer speak so strongly to those behind bars?
Perhaps the greatest gift of Centering Prayer is that it exposes our true prison, the false self, and reveals to us the human condition. The struggle with the false self is universal, but the plight of the prisoner is darker than most. Many of us have committed great evils, and the lies of the false self are virulent. The capacity for self-condemnation is great when you have done monstrous things. One describes this burning despair:
“I had a very low sense of self-esteem and blamed myself for ending up in prison, for my little brother’s suicide, and for the shattering of my family. I suffered greatly over my brother’s death, having nightmares and terrors from a deep and profound well of guilt.”
Many have similar stories about the wrecked lives they left behind. But what can you pray beyond, “I’m sorry, please forgive me”? We repeat it over and over until the words fail us. We are reduced to silence.
In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton explains the success of Centering Prayer for those who walk in such desolation:
“Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need for forgiveness. A life without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”
We know this despair better than most. Yet, together we are discovering a path to real peace and freedom. Centering Prayer transmutes our self-loathing into joy and serenity through the power of consent to the Holy Spirit’s presence and action. We are more than the sum of our past experiences. In the classroom of silence, we are taught by the Spirit. God is healing us through the indwelling Spirit as we learn to surrender and to trust the process of becoming who we actually are, of entering into transforming Love without limits. We are joyous from the knowledge that even though our true selves remain shrouded in mystery and often out of reach, God reveals us to ourselves anew each day.
We find in Centering Prayer a great opportunity for healing and growth, as these witnesses share:
“I felt the rage ebbing away, as God wiped it away slowly and surely. It finally dawned one day in Centering Prayer when a little voice said, ‘He is in control. Surrender. He has you.’ “
“Centering Prayer has slowly persuaded me to be healed by Abba’s love … Transformation is a long, slow process. The false self was not built overnight, nor will it be dismantled in a day. His love is healing me through the divine Presence, dismantling my false programs for happiness.”
We are separate from society. No longer desired and usually ignored, yet we discover we are not cast off. Instead, God is drawing us, inviting us to join something far greater. We love the fellowship of our group! Together, we have found God and discovered that it was God who was looking for us. We have a place where we belong, a place of unconditional acceptance. The belonging is not because of what we do or what we bring, but simply because of who we are. Our group rejects no one; all are welcome. This is a first for some of us, a new experience that is counter to a life on the fringes. Such acceptance is transformative, a desert rain that causes everything to bloom riotously. Our eldest member describes it best:
“Centering Prayer answers our desire for community, the oneness with others that springs from a shared vision, shared goals, shared memories, and a shared hope. We could just seek solitude in our cells by reading, thinking, meditating, and praying. But then our desire for community would be unfulfilled. God said it is not good for Adam to be alone; likewise with us. Therefore, our life in the desert is not individual but mutually communal in brotherhood and fellowship, with shared visions and hopes to become the divine beings God created us to be.”
There are a few who, though free, venture into this wilderness by choice. Having volunteers willing to travel these paths alongside us is essential; indeed, prisoners normally cannot gather in groups without a staff member or volunteer present. Our group is blessed to have one such seeker who guides us in our prayer experience. She braves the desert on a weekly basis, putting her faith into action by saying “yes” to sharing the new life she’s been given. Our lives are better for her generous spirit. We are grateful, too, for the other friends who accompany us – those we have met and those we have yet to meet.
Some beauty can only be found in the wilderness – a beauty not easily seen with worldly eyes. Few of us can say that we chose this path; rather, we were led into exile by the One who seeks to free us from the attractions of the world. But, as it says in Hosea 2:14-16, God has led us here to speak tenderly to us, to win us back to Himself. Some of us are new arrivals, others long upon the path laid down by the Spirit’s call. Led by pillars of cloud and of flame, we have all discovered the wonders seen far from the beaten path.
In January of 2017, Chandra Hanson somewhat reluctantly agreed to facilitate a Centering Prayer group at the Graceville Correctional Facility in the Panhandle of Florida, with the support of the chaplaincy staff and much encouragement from Ray Leonardini (Prison Contemplative Fellowship). The group meets weekly and has ranged from 18 to 35 members. Chandra now encourages others as Ray encouraged her: the essential criteria for facilitating a group inside the walls are faithfulness to one’s own daily practice and the willingness to share honestly from that experience. You can contact Chandra at email@example.com
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. Go here for more information.