Humans are surprising creatures.

They have the unique capacity for acts of tremendous, selfless good. Yet they also carry within themselves the capacity for unspeakable acts of horror. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the capacity humans have for change and transformation.

I spent this past weekend helping with a retreat at a men’s prison.

Several times, I was asked by the inmates and the volunteers if it was what I expected. The truth was I didn’t quite know what to expect from the weekend. I was a bit nervous to enter in. Not nervous for the gate to slam behind me or to be locked into the prison. Not nervous that a riot would start. Not nervous that I would be injured or harmed. Rather, I was uneasy about how I would be received. What would we talk about? What would the men be like? Would they make me uncomfortable or would they be kind?

In the reality, humanity inside the prison is very much like humanity outside the prison. Some of the men were very kind and genuine. Others seemed to want an unhealthy amount of attention. Some wanted to share their hearts. Others wanted to stay only on the surface. Some admitted they made mistakes. Others insisted everything was fine or that they weren’t treated fairly. Some respected authority. Others used each opportunity they had to poke at the officers responsible for them. They reminded me an awful lot of my students and the world around me. Which isn’t all that surprising, but it was different to experience it instead of just think about it.

There was a unique point in the retreat when the group reflected on how God uses all for His good. In our small group, my sister mentioned that God uses everything and that even though they were in prison for something wrong they had done, they were still encountering Him on a retreat. Maybe this time in prison was a good, because God can use all for good. And it was beautiful to see at least some of them agree. They talked about how it was likely that they could have been dead if they weren’t in prison. If they continued on their previous course, it was easy for them to see how it would have led to their demise.

They voiced a desire to be better fathers, to be better husbands, to quit their former way of life and live in a new way. Some spoke of wanting to let others know about what prison is like and to prevent them from making the same decisions they made. Others have life sentences and they seek to mentor the other men, gifting them wisdom or introducing them to the person of Christ. There are some beautiful, aching souls in prison. Men who have been transformed and changed by facing their failings and meeting the face of Christ.

It isn’t all of them, of course. Some haven’t met the Lord and some are essentially the same person they were before, minus the drugs and alcohol. But nearly every person I spoke to was revealing to me the face of humanity in the universal desire to want the good for their lives. There is a desire for change and transformation. As a whole, they want to be better, which makes them essentially in the same position as all of humanity.

I was caught in the interesting tension of seeing their humanity causing me to desire mercy and yet hearing about their crimes leading me to call for justice. While I like to approach matters with clarity, subdividing situations into good and bad, I found myself once again at a loss for how to do that with humans. Because the short answer is that you cannot. If St. Paul can be transformed, why can’t the prisoner serving a life sentence? If St. Augustine can be changed, why can’t the man on death row? If Bl. Bartolo Longo can leave satanism for the Church, why can’t the drug dealer or gang leader (in prison or on the street) see the light? Obviously, they can.

Surprisingly, I found hope in the faces of men who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And hope in the men who believe they can and need to do better once they are released. It renewed in me the hope that I can be the person Christ is calling me to be, if only I will cooperate with His grace.

I have a feeling that I will be reflecting on this past weekend for quite some time. A transformation of the heart is something that is open to all and, if we are honest, necessary for us all. During the Sunday morning Mass, we sang Amazing Grace and it was a perfectly odd situation. I found myself praising the Lord in a men’s prison, thankful for the graces that He has poured upon each of us.

With God’s grace, I’ll be praising Him with them for all eternity.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

(Amazing Grace)

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

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