The fifteen years since my conversion have found me testing and confirming Fr. Thomas Keating’s assertion that, “the false-self accompanies us, implacably, into whatever lifestyle we choose” (1). Raised in middle-class suburbia by highly educated, Enlightenment-influenced parents, my false self is prone to intellectualism and self-reliance: “If only people would just think clearly and choose well, the world would be free of its troubles!” This perspective puts me dangerously in league with the elder brother in Luke 15, outwardly obedient while inwardly mired in—and acting from—self-righteousness, resentment and envy. The Gospel parable leaves the question open: Will the elder brother go inside the house? Will he join in celebrating his brother’s return home? As one pastor said, “Will he? I don’t know. … Will I? And will you?” Centering Prayer is gradually breathing life into the hard heart of this “elder brother,” making my “yes” increasingly possible.
I had long been curious about Jesus’ often-ignored instruction to visit the imprisoned (Mt 25:37) but hadn’t managed to make it a priority. God provided me with a two-fold nudge. First, a casual friend of mine was murdered – and a week later I learned that the suspect was also a friend. Then, the smiling face of Mother Antonia Brenner and the title, Prison Angel (2), beckoned to me from a rural Wyoming library shelf. Mother Antonia’s radical life of service living inside a Mexican jail spoke the same truths that I would later find in Fr. Keating’s writings: Choices and actions can be “bad,“ but the people who make them should not be judged; who we are as human beings can never be entirely defined by what we have done; forgiveness (of oneself and others) is the only real path to freedom. In one particularly moving story, Mother Antonia questioned whether she could have compassion for the men who massacred seventeen family members, whose surviving children she knew and loved. After visiting these men, she cried tears of joy: “I was so happy. I knew that once I choose who I love and who I don’t, I am no longer God’s servant.” (3) Her story put flesh on the Gospel and gave me courage to visit my friend in prison.
Navigating the complexities and the far-reaching consequences of this unexpected tragedy coincided with a chapter of my life filled with experiences of betrayal and feelings of personal failure. I was shaken to the core and could no longer deny the capacity for evil in myself and others. Fr. Keating’s words capture it well: “The damage that our emotional programs for happiness are doing to us and to our relationships becomes apparent. From this perspective our good deeds look like piles of dirty dishrags” (4). Somehow, as my illusions unraveled, a seed was sown for what would become my passion. Whereas I had initially sought to know, love, and serve God by “doing the right thing,” these events made quite clear that no amount of rule-following could produce the peace and happiness I desired. I finally loosened my grip on self-reliance enough to find the inch of surrender that grace can transform into a mile: “Starting today, God, my focus will be on loving the people you put in my path; I’m leaving the big picture questions to you.” With this change in attitude, doors previously unseen began opening, including the opportunity to volunteer on a Catholic prison ministry team.
In the Foreword to Ray Leonardini’s Going Inside, Fr. Keating perfectly describes what I experienced as a volunteer within the walls (before even having heard of Centering Prayer):
“Your presence is bearing witness to their basic goodness. This is what God does whenever he reveals his mercy. In visiting the imprisoned, you are manifesting the mercy of God to them just by being there. You are sharing with them the divine mercy that you have received and that they desperately need.” (5)
The men who visited the chapel knew I could spend my time elsewhere; that, unlike them, I was choosing to submit to the metal doors slamming behind me and to being trapped inside, if only for a few hours at a time; that there was very little I could do for them, besides simply testifying that they were not forgotten – that regardless of what has brought them to this place, they remain precious children of God whose human dignity matters. I have learned, and I hope they have, too, that we all share the same desire for intimacy with God, the same hunger for truth, for light, for love – even as we share the same struggles with selfish decisions and doomed attempts to satisfy emotional programs for happiness.
Serving on a team for Catholic worship and as a volunteer teaching in the prison faith-based program, I’ve seen a hunger for God that some may be tempted to write off as “jail house religion.” Like the younger brother in Luke’s parable, many of these men have squandered an inheritance. Some then “come to their senses” (cf. 15:17) and are led by intense desolation to turn their footsteps back toward home. Fr. Keating’s teachings have helped me understand: Are these men’s motivations mixed? Of course. Are they driven by unconscious programs of which they are unaware? Yes. They are human. What’s more, they survive in an environment diametrically opposed to the culture of God’s Kingdom – and for many, such influences were established long before the prison sentence. None of this makes that hunger for God any less real. In fact, those in prison who are willing to face their hunger and allow God’s love into their hearts seem to grow by leaps and bounds on the spiritual journey. Theirs is the joy of the lost who’ve been found, the dead who have come to life (cf Lk 15:32). And mine is the joy of an “elder brother” who has managed, by God’s grace, to get off my high horse and join the celebration.
Sharing Fr. Keating’s wisdom teachings inside barbed-wire fences is the key that has unlocked true healing. There is a grace-filled synchronicity of consent in our circle. It gains momentum, fed by our individual and collective willingness to open our hearts to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the silence. To bear the gift of Centering Prayer inside prisons is to say “yes” to being a conduit of God’s love to people whose suffering uniquely disposes them to consent, whose isolation from temporal connections gives them readier access to the transcendent, many of whom are in great need of healing, and all of whom have time on their hands. I now know the joy that comes from putting myself in the path of mercy, from starting to heal ruptured relationships – both paternal and fraternal.
Pursuing a contemplative lifestyle with those who are incarcerated has drawn me in through the back door, to a far deeper intimacy with my Heavenly Father. The ever-so-gentle return to the sacred word, like the willingness to simply show up, helps me let go of the self-righteous judgments that keep me far from God and neighbor. Embracing the reality of my identity gains me freedom to choose how I live out this “elder brother” status; it helps me see that I squander my spiritual inheritance when I share a roof with my Father without sharing His heart. Christ gives me a model of what true intimacy with God (i.e. Sonship) makes possible: not only going inside to join the party, but actually seeking out the lost sheep (Lk 15:4) and ministering to the “least” in the Kingdom (Mt 25:40) (6).
(1) Keating, Invitation to Love (20th Anniversary ed.), 15
(2) The full title is: Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.
(3) Prison Angel, 208
(4) Invitation, 79
(5) Ray Leonardini, Going Inside: Learning to Teach Centering Prayer to Prisoners, xi
(6) Credit for the reading of Jesus as the elder brother goes to a beautiful paragraph from p. 25 in Raniero Cantelamessa’s, The Gaze of Mercy
Chandra Hanson has been practicing Centering Prayer since November 2012 and has been facilitating a group at Graceville Correctional Facility since January 2017; she is currently serving on the Servant Leadership Team for Contemplative Outreach Tallahassee Area.
Chandra can be reached at email@example.com and is always glad to talk about the great blessing of Centering Prayer inside prison walls.
For information and support starting a Centering Prayer group at a prison near you, contact Prison Contemplative Fellowship: firstname.lastname@example.org.