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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Fullness

I’ve learned some lessons the hard way.  As a teacher I’ve done things that I thought would work really well but did not.  I’ve said things that I thought they would understand and yet I could not believe how horrible they would misconstrue them.  So sometimes I am left understanding that I made a mistake yet not certain how to actually do it the correct way.  That obviously didn’t work.  But what will?

My first year of teaching (way back last year) I talked to my classes about objective truth, subjective truth, and how the Church has the “fullness of truth.”  The phrase rolled off my tongue easily after hearing it said with great love and passion at Franciscan.  Little did I realize that this was, to some of my students, a very offensive thing to say.  Some were pretty upset with me and I was baffled as to why they would feel such emotions.

The Church has the fullness of truth.  Wouldn’t nearly 12 years of Catholic school lead them to see the beauty of such a statement?  I said it as fact and they resented it.  I paid for my “sin” the rest of the semester.  I was a new teacher, a bit timid, trying to preach the Gospel, and ending up making students dislike me and the Church.  That was how I felt, at least.

So I became a little gun-shy of the statement “fullness of truth” because I knew what a powder keg it could be.  Yet isn’t the truth of the Church supposed to be explosive?  It radically transformed the world as it was and, if unleashed, can do the same thing in our modern world.  Yet I waver.  I wonder if I will push the students away more if I speak too strongly.  Yet I refuse to water Theology class down to “Jesus loves you.”  I want to delve into that truth.  “Jesus loves you and so He gave His life for you.  Suffered and died for you.  His human heart ached for you.  He loves you at every breath you take and wills your very heart to keep beating.  That is what I mean by love.”

So when the “fullness of truth” phrase came up today in one of my classes I was hesitant yet determined to speak clearly.  While being gentle and charitable, I wanted to not be apologetic.  I didn’t want to say:

“Yes, the Church believes she has the fullness of truth but I am very sorry that she says it like that.  She could just say she thinks she is correct…it would be essentially the same thing.  Let’s just say the Church is a really good institutional body but sometimes we let it go to our heads.”

OK, perhaps a bit dramatic but I didn’t want to give them the wrong impression by swinging my gavel down and condemning the rest of humanity to Hell.  I don’t think that but students can conjure up rather impressive falsehoods in their minds.

I said the Church has the fullness of truth.  That to hide this truth or to claim to be just another church, any one of which would be fine to join, when we believe that it was instituted by Christ Himself would be a lie.  Christ was pretty dogmatic.  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  That statement doesn’t leave much room to follow some other way.  He also was known to anger people and to upset modern notions.  Perhaps that is what we need today.

Tomorrow I might be facing a class full of students who have thought about what I said and have thrown me in a camp of Catholics who think they are better than everyone else.  Maybe I will find another tempest brewing for this semester.  Whatever may come, I hope they know of my sincerity to teach the truth and, despite all of my fumbles and quirks, that they will come to know Jesus Christ in a deeper way.  The real Jesus Christ who desires to break into our lives, wreck havoc, and bring us to Heaven.  The fullness of Heaven.

Another Weary Day in the Battlefield…

It has been a rough day and a long week.  One of those weeks where I look at how many months it is until summer break and I realize that I have only just begun.  My thoughts should still be turned to those of excitement and eager anticipation of the events yet to come.  Maybe I feel so worn down because I’ve been lacking in prayer.  Perhaps I’m simply tired.

At times I feel this weariness deep down in my bones that shouldn’t be found within the person of only 23 years.  I long for Heaven.  At times, I seem to ache for it.  I’m weary of life.  Already this year I’ve had my fill of teenagers and they are the source of my job.  I’m tired of rolling eyes, softly muttered comments, overly talkative classes, looks of pure boredom, and the list continues.

Last week I asked my students if they would rather work a job where they make lots of money but hate it or a job where they make more than enough to survive but have to forgo fancy extras but love their job.  In one class the majority chose to work a job they hate so that they could have all the things they want, take nice vacations, and retire early.  I always figured I would rather work a job I love but this week confirmed it.  Sitting at the dinner table, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to sleep for a week, I thought of what a horrible existence it would be to spend 8 hours at a job I hate, spend the rest of the day tired and dreaming of sleep, only to wake up and do it all over again.  Not for nine months but for the entire year.  Where is life in that?  Where is the time to actually live and be with people?

I do not hate my job.  On some days, I love it.  On days like today, I go to the chapel, beg the Lord for help, and return to the street/battlefield/classroom.  And this idea begins to grow in the back of my mind–what if the Lord desires something else from me?  Maybe He doesn’t want me to teach next year but rather to……  And I draw a blank because there isn’t exactly an application for “wife and mother”.  [And I would cringe at the thought of answering that kind of help wanted ad. “Help wanted: woman to marry and rear children.  Will be paid in a decent house, being woken up in the middle of the night to feed/change/rock child(ren), and beautiful drooling smiles.  Mail application and sample of chocolate chip cookies to…..”]

Lord, I pray, I’m lonely.  I want a “kindred spirit” or a “bosom friend” with whom I may pass through this world.  What a feeling it is to be surrounded by people all day long and yet desire to be alone, but not truly alone, just away from the maddening crowd.  Sometimes I blame God because I feel that He should have made me more adaptable to this world.  My heart shouldn’t get hurt so easily by a few rude looks or a handful of subtle attacks.  I shouldn’t long for solitude so much if I was to have a profession that deals with so many people.  I know God didn’t make me for this world but it seems I could have been made with slightly more skills suited to life on Earth.

Convents sound like beautiful places at this point.  Not because I believe they are easy but because in many ways my heart feels very much aligned with it.  I like to be quiet and by myself.  I enjoy work and prayer.  I would love a community of sisters.  My two older sisters in religious life have made me quite aware that there is more to monastic life than that.  Nevertheless, I desire it.  Yet not the vocation itself.  I desire marriage.  I am a contemplative thrown into the world who seems to not find time to pray.  I am a fish thrown out of the water and I refuse to admit that the water is my source of life.

I’m unsure if any of this makes sense.  All I know is that today I nearly cried during a class and I’ve thought several times over the past couple days, “What if I didn’t come back next year?”  My spiritual director has been helping me find areas of hurt and bring healing to them.  We are trying to make my heart whole again.  Today I began to believe that teaching was simply destroying the whole process.

Maybe I love far too many ideals and not enough realities.  I love my students–as they should be.  Yet when faced with a teenage girl who is subtly mocking me in front of the class, I have to keep myself from crying tears of rage.  I love teaching–on the days when things goes perfectly and my students radiate with kindness and sincerity.

Heaven help me.  So if you are reading this, stop right now and say a prayer for me and my students.  We can definitely use it.  For all of those out there facing far more difficult battles in the streets, know that my little sufferings and prayers are with you.  And let’s all get to Heaven so this can all just look like one inconvenient night in a hotel (thanks St. Teresa of Avila).