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Blessings from Behind the Bars: Centering Prayer in Prison
In 2006, my late wife, Kate, four other psychotherapists, a cognitive behavioral trainer, and myself began a program at Travis County Correctional Center in Austin entitled LifeTools©. It provided psychological, cognitive behavioral, and spiritual direction for over 200 men until 2009, when the program ended.
Twelve of the 100+ graduates of the program were convicted and sentenced to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). At their request, I have been visiting them biannually as a TDCJ Chaplain’s Volunteer since 2008, mailing them books and materials on Centering Prayer (CP) as well as the Contemplative Life Program (CLP) in PDF format.
Centering Prayer, incidentally, is an approved TDCJ course and is just beginning to blossom around the state prison system, thanks to the efforts of Sam Mungo and others.
Ten of my 12 "boys", some of whom are serving 20+year sentences, have taken the challenge of CP and practice it daily, along with the Daily Readings for Contemplative Living by Fr. Thomas. Four of these men have been paroled; three have been very successful in their “free-world” lives. The remaining six, while still incarcerated, have gone so deeply into CP that they are sharing with others the enlightenment and breathing space both CP and CLP have provided them - not in a proselytizing manner, but offering insight when asked. Offenders within their dorms have come to them with questions like, "What is it that makes you so peaceful here? Why do you smile so much? Whatever it is, can I have some of it?"
Their “lessons” began with Open Mind, Open Heart, followed in order by The Human Condition, Fruits & Gifts of the Spirit, and The Daily Reader. Once they were able to sit at least once a day for 15 minutes, we moved on to The Spiritual Journey Transcripts and the CLP. Their letters and my notes from our visits portray a spiritual emergence far deeper than the usual “I got prison religion” that appears so frequently in the majority of offenders.
Examples of this emergence are:
“I can finally see others, not as security threats, but as guys just like me but who haven’t found the unconditional love of God for themselves.”
“After so many years of living like an animal, drinking and drugging and hurting people, I actually FEEL the presence of God within me, helping me forward to become a better person.”
“The intense guilt I have suffered because of my deeds has been, for the most part, replaced by understanding of my false self, how it works, and how I can change my programs for happiness”.
The rewards of this ministry are boundless!
It has not been easy - the “unloading” has been tough on them - but they are growing in the Spirit. I can tell when I am being “conned”, and these guys are sincerely changed. What a blessing!
Two men have requested, through their Chaplains, the Open Mind, Open Heart CD set, (which must be played in the prison chapels only), so they can share what they have garnered from Centering Prayer, the Welcoming Prayer, and other CLP modules with those offenders who have shown an interest. These two men are committed to becoming CP presenters once paroled, eventually to provide CP classes in the prison system.
All I have done is open the door; these men have stepped through and seized the opportunity for spiritual growth beyond anything I could have imagined. It is a small start, but shows what an amazing difference CP and CLP have made in the terribly deprecating psychological conditions within Texas prisons. As we Sufis say, "YA FATTAH" (God has opened the Way)!
Rev. Mikail Davenport