A Lesson Learned
As I walked into the Women’s Area of the Port Augusta prison, the first words that met me were about going to Hell. Not me, actually, but the prisoner uttering them seemed pretty certain that she was going there. If she couldn’t forgive another prisoner, she argued, the Bible said she would go to Hell.
A few days before this, I accompanied an Aboriginal elder, who is a chaplain from the Uniting Church, to take a service at the Aboriginal Nursing Home. When we came to the prayers for ourselves and others, we each had the opportunity to say out loud what was in our hearts. I began “We pray for you here and your families…” and talked about God bringing peace to the residents, families and staff. But the other chaplain started her prayer completely differently. “Almighty and ever-living God, I bring to you these men and women…” She was praying as if God was present in that room. Which, of course, God was, but my prayer had not acknowledged it. I was praying about and she was praying to.
As I walked into the prison this next time, that lesson in prayer was still turning over in my head. The Uniting chaplain was with me again and her quiet presence was a great support. But as I tried to reassure and calm the prisoner, it turned into the most challenging visit I had ever made.
We celebrated a prayer service, just the three of us, the other prisoners keeping clear for obvious reasons. On the service sheet, I had printed a picture of praying hands, signed with the artist’s name – ‘Gail’. But the curly writing was deceptive and the prisoner was appalled, thinking it read, ‘Jail’. We moved on to the gospel reading which was the Lord’s Prayer. That became more controversial, as it was there that she found justification for her view that the unforgiving would go to hell. However this time when we came to the prayers for ourselves and others, I started, “Good and loving God, I bring to you these women…”
This time, the prayer poured straight from my heart to the God present there with us, rather than a carefully thought-out platitude. It was still a prayer for peace, but it felt like God’s words more than my own. Eventually, together with the other chaplain and the gentleness of a prison staff worker, we made it through the visit. I am not sure how that service affected the prisoner, but I know that it affected me and helped me learn to pray. I do know that during the next week’s visit, I celebrated a service both with that prisoner and the one she had found so hard to forgive. We could come together, united with God, knowing that we are all on a journey; we are all growing little by little to be people of peace.
Messages to Elizabeth Young rsm