Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

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.

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Why I Am a Catholic

For the last couple days of class for the semester (before preparation for finals), I decided to try something new.  It was an idea I had a while ago, but it just seemed to work to implement it this year.  The section is dubbed, “Why I Am a Catholic.”  After weeks of (hopefully) learning Apologetics, I wanted to have them consider why they are Catholic.  I challenged them to find something beautiful, compelling, or desirable within the Church, even if they struggle with different facets of the faith.

I listed off for them Peter Kreeft’s seven reasons why he is a Catholic.  I read a line from G.K. Chesterton’s “Why I Am a Catholic” essay.  Then, because I wanted this to be real for them, I told them my reason for being Catholic.

In all actuality, it cannot be boiled down to one reason that I am Catholic.  Yet, for the sake of simplicity, I picked what was central to my faith and declared that it was the reason why I was Catholic.  What I didn’t expect, though, was that I would nearly cry in every Apologetics class as I told my story.

Honestly, I was a little annoyed with myself.  “Really, Trish, get it together!  It isn’t as though you have never talked about this before.”  I’m still a little confused, but I think the primary reason is that I was opening my heart to them.

I’ve shared with my students different experiences I’ve had, places I have traveled to, and stories I have heard.  As a Theology teacher, I am daily speaking of persons and ideas that are very close to my heart.  But to open my heart, to share part of “my story,” and to point to something so personal, in a classroom setting, is difficult.

I told them that I am Catholic because of the Eucharist.  Yet I had to give a bit of a back story for why the Eucharist is so pivotal personally, not just theologically.  So I had to go to the beginning of my faith hitting the pavement, nearly the beginning of a heart that aches yet keeps it all tucked away within.

Naturally, it was a story about my sisters.

My two older sisters, specifically.  And my throat became scratchy and I prayed that Jesus would just let me get through these stories without crying.  The feelings I was portraying aren’t ones I typically feel now, but ones that were jettisoned across time from nearly 12 years ago.

When I was in 8th grade, my older sister entered a Carmelite cloister.  She was the one who seemed to know me.  As an introverted melancholic, I’ve always ached to be known.  While she was still my sister, our relationship was dramatically altered.  I could pour out my heart to her in writing, but then I would need to wait months for any sort of response.  I became angry and bitter, yet still had to present a happy exterior, because that was expected of one with a nun for a sister.  When I was a junior in high school, my other older sister joined a different convent about twenty-four hours from home by car.  The feelings of bitterness and anger were once again kindled.

I was teaching myself something that is untrue about God.  Internally, I was learning that God will take from you that which you hold dearest.  Whatever you don’t want to do, He will ask it of you.  I was learning the sacrificial part of Catholicism without the love or joy that must accompany it.

As I’m telling my little stories, I am looking into their eyes.  For once, the classroom is mostly silent and their eyes are on me.  I’m wondering, as my insides quake a little and my hands shake, if they can see that I’m opening up part of my heart to them.  I’m hoping that even though their story is different, that they are open to discovering the beauty of Catholicism, too.

So how do my sisters entering the convent make the Eucharist the reason I am Catholic?  When my sister was entering the cloister, she turned around and said, “I’ll see you in the Eucharist.”  Eighth grade me wasn’t impressed.  That’s nice….but how about you see me on my birthday and at Christmas?  How about you hold my children and are answering the phone when I want to talk?  Despite the minimal impact it made initially, it eventually became a central point of my personal spirituality.

When we go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the Body of Christ.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  When I receive the Eucharist, I receive the entire universal Church, the Church inside and outside of space and time.  As I missed my sisters, I would receive the Eucharist and know that this union that I tangibly experienced in Holy Communion was the deepest union I would have with them.  It was comforting when I went off to college eighteen hours away and I missed my family.  The Eucharist bound me to all my loved ones.  Moving from college back home and being separated from beautiful friends, I found solace in the ties of the Eucharist, bonds that even death cannot break.

Why I am a Catholic cannot be simplified to only one reason for me.  There are many factors and influences, but the central point is the Eucharist, God Himself.

“The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”    -G.K. Chesterton 

In His Hands

I pictured placing my little heart in His hands.  And He held it with a tenderness that could only come from Him.

There it was: small and without adornment.

It was devoid of all excuses or justifications.  Yet it was completely known, in a way that the potter knows every intricacy of the work of his hands.  Even with knowing all that was stored away within it, the little heart was completely loved.

That was true rest.

To be loved, but to know that it is without false impressions or because you have successfully hidden your flaws.  As a member of a family, I have experienced this love to a degree.  But to have your heart laid bare with all of the not-quaint details exposed is another matter.

When the world seems to be too much and I have difficulty taking it all in, I find comfort resting in His hands.  There I am known and there I am loved and those facts still astound me.  To be known to the core and loved to the core is what we all desire.  To know that it is without merit and yet entirely good to be received in such a way is another gift.  Nothing I did caused me to be loved like this, but I am.

For a little heart doing so much seeking, it is good to simply be found.