I suppose I was not sure what to think as we drove around the solid prison walls into the gravel lot.
Parking the car, the sisters from my community and I grabbed our music folders and headed for the first security checkpoint. We had eaten dinner early this particular Easter Sunday because we’d received a special invitation for the evening, which left us both excited and nervous.
I had never been inside a prison before, much less a high-security men’s prison housing over 3,000 inmates. As we made our way through the second and third security checkpoints, I could tell by my sisters’ faces I was not the only one going back and forth between enthusiasm and uncertainty.
Finally making it through the innermost gate, we stepped into a large courtyard and were greeted by the prison chaplain and several inmates. Father had invited us over six months before to offer an Easter concert for his men. We readily accepted this opportunity to share the love of Jesus inside the prison walls.
The men were overjoyed to see us and they proudly walked us to their chapel. They pointed out the purpose of all the surrounding buildings. I learned that the largest brick building in the center of the yard housed death row.
Saying a quick prayer, we made our way into the chapel, and it was here that my fears were completely put to rest. This was one of the few prison chapels in that state that permanently houses the Blessed Sacrament. The Presence of Jesus was palpable, not only in the tabernacle but also in the faces of the men who welcomed us with open arms. The humility, the gratitude, and the childlike delight in every interaction was disarming. Whether Catholic or not, these men showered us with respect and love, practically tripping over each other to give us anything we needed.
Our concert went well. We sang through many of the Lenten and Easter hymns of the Church, watching over one hundred men silently praying, eyes closed, some quietly singing along. Afterwards, each man came up to personally thank us, shake our hand, and share a bit of his story. Many brought tears to my eyes. Here were men who had made mistakes and knew pain, loss, and utter rejection, yet had learned how to love like Christ because of it. They readily loved “their Sisters” without asking anything in return, grateful just to be noticed.
In the years since this life-changing encounter, I have come to realize a profound truth: while I believed I was bringing the light of Jesus Christ into a place of darkness, I did not understand the gift that was awaiting me. Yes, I believe we brought Christ’s love to these men. However, Jesus was waiting for me within the prison walls. His humble, hidden Eucharistic Presence was waiting to give himself to me in a place I naively would not have thought to find him so completely. And, he looked on me with love through the eyes of his beloved sons.
In their document on the Eucharist, our bishops have reiterated what awaits us at the end of time: Christ will reign in every heart, pain and sorrow will be no more, and “(w)e will be able to love each other in a way that reflects the way God loves us,” (Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, no. 41). Amidst the suffering and violence of our world, I can sometimes find it difficult to see or even imagine this mutual love. During these times, I try to remember that within the confines of solid prison walls, I caught a glimpse of how much God loves me.
Human nature being what it is, we often find ourselves at odds with others around us. Many times, those closest to us can be the hardest to love. Who in your life are you struggling to love right now? Ask the Lord to reveal to you how he wants you to love them as He loves them.
LOVE IN ACTION:
I was once told by a very wise Sister that true joy and authentic love flow from gratitude. While taking time each day to examine our conscience of sin and failings, it is also essential to take some time to thank God for his love and blessings. Take a few minutes each day, maybe as you unwind in the evening, to think of one way someone showed you love that day; also think of one way you showed love to someone else. Try and think of different people each day. Thank the Lord for these encounters, calling down blessings on those people and their families.
PRAYER: Prayer to the Heart of Jesus by Bl. Miguel Pro, S.J.
“Does our life become from day to day more painful, more oppressive, more replete with sufferings? Blessed be he a thousand times who desires it so. If life be harder, love makes it also stronger, and only this love, grounded on suffering, can carry the Cross of my Lord, Jesus Christ.
“I believe, O Lord, but strengthen my faith... Heart of Jesus, I love Thee, but increase my love. Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee, but give greater vigor to my confidence. Heart of Jesus, I give my heart to Thee, but so enclose it in Thee that it may never be separated from Thee. Heart of Jesus, I am all Thine, but take care of my promise so that I may be able to put it in practice even unto the complete sacrifice of my life.”