“You’re pretty comfortable here, Trish,” I was told Saturday night when I visited the prison for Mass.
“Yeah,” I said, “It is almost like I live here.”
This comment was coming from a prisoner who had poked fun at me weeks earlier for how shy I seemed while helping with the prison retreat. While I didn’t think I was quite as reserved as he claimed, I would definitely agree that I have grown more and more comfortable in prison as time has passed. In fact, the most nervous I felt all night was when I walked alone in the dark from the prison building to my car. And as it happened, I had to laugh. I had spent a couple hours in prison without a care and my biggest concern was about someone not in prison. It made sense and yet the oddness of the situation was not lost on me.
Recently, I was talking with a friend about prison ministry. I told him that it felt strange to tell people I was involved with it because I don’t really feel like I’m doing that much. I attend a Bible study in the prison one night a week and I try to visit both prisons for Mass on Saturdays. Sometimes good conversations happen and other times I seem to be just one of the crowd. He reminded me that often that is what ministry actually involves: just being present to others. But I realized in that conversation that while I am not convinced that I have impacted anyone in prison, I know that my heart has been moved through this ministry.
What if that is enough?
In ministry that so deeply concerns the conversion of the heart, there is an indifference one must have toward seeing the fruits displayed. Obviously, good ministry will bear fruit, but so often we fill the role of scattering seeds and someone else is the one who helps with the harvest. We want to see people respond and we want to frequently evaluate what we are doing or how we could be more effective. But conversion is quite often the slow work of God in the soul, something formed through various conversations with others or different experiences. I’m convinced that we will only know the impact the Lord has made through us once we are with Him in Heaven. Considering my overabundant human pride, that might not be a bad thing, even if it causes me to wonder if I’m doing anything productive in anyone’s life.
When I was involved in sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic during college, I never saw my words or my actions motivate someone to choose life. Instead, I was often fumbling for words as my heart overflowed with feelings but my mind struggled to form ideas to share. Yet being involved in that ministry radically transformed my heart. It gave me the experience of aching with Our Lord, of encountering the complete exercise of free will, of truly being persecuted by others for the first time in my life, and of growing in trust that prayer does something powerful even I don’t see it immediately.
I know without a doubt that hearts were transformed and lives changed through the prayer, suffering, and sacrifices made in that ministry, but I will never know the specifics on this side of eternity. If I had to point to one thing that changed my heart most in college, it would probably be the cold hours I spent begging the Lord for mercy on a street in Pittsburgh. Even if I didn’t see others change, I saw a change occur within myself.
Perhaps, oddly, that is enough.
The Lord wants to use me to speak to others, but He might be just as interested in using my interactions with them to speak to me. It sounds selfish to say all of the ministries I am involved in are about me–but, to some extent, they are. Each ministry is inviting me to encounter God in some new way, with some new face, in some new experience. I am called to find God in my students, even when they don’t mirror Him well. I am encouraged to find God in my co-workers, even when difficulties arise. The Lord asks me to find Him in the prisoners, even if the conversation veers towards creative meals they can make with a hotpot, ramen noodles, and precooked chicken instead of ways they’ve encountered the Lord.
Maybe, to a certain degree, effective ministry is based on how much I am being changed. Am I encountering the Lord? Does this ministry help give my soul new life? Does it encourage me to intercede for others? Am I given new things to be thankful for? Does it draw me nearer to the Body of Christ, in word, in sacrament, and in those around me? If so, I would wager the Lord is doing something beautiful, even if it seems hidden and silent.
Those few hours I spend in prison each week help change me. Sometimes, it is a growth in patience, as I get interrupted when I try to answer a question or they are disappointed when we cannot perfectly solve their theological dilemmas. Sometimes, it causes me to grow in wonder, as I see the Lord’s mercy pouring into a place one wouldn’t immediately expect to find it. Sometimes, I am prompted to grow in discipline as I hear about how they are pursuing the Lord and it makes me desire to be more faithful.
It makes me consider a quote from St. John Henry Newman concerning our role and service that we offer to the Lord. The quote is lengthy, but encouraging, so dive in:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel…I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.St. John Henry Newman
So, as the newly-canonized St. John Henry Newman said, God knows what He is about. He uses all things for His will and nothing is in vain. Let us seek to fulfill our service to the Lord by living fully in the place where we are, in our jobs and ministries, in our families, and among our friends.
Keep serving Him, keep allowing yourself to be changed, and keep leaning into the goodness of the Lord. I cannot wait to see in Heaven what loveliness the Lord has fashioned from our littleness.