Fr Roger Reader advisor on prisons to the Catholic Bishops’ of England and Wales explores the way many prisoners discover the great gift of prayer behind prison walls. He also brings to our attention an exciting initiative between the Catholic Bishops and Alive Publishing on encouraging prisoners to pray the Morning and Evening prayer from the Divine Office.
The adventures of Harry Potter have greatly helped me when I talk to people about prayer. You may think it a bit strange that the adventures of the schoolboy wizard and his friends can help people along the journey of prayer, but there are not many people around who have not either read the books or seen the films of J K Rowling’s character.
So often, when he is confronted by a great beast or needs to get away from a life threatening situation, he will resort to a spell of some sort to get what he wants. This spell then works instantly and the beast withdraws, or Harry flies away, or a sword springs magically to his hand. This is the world of magic, of spells, of making events conform to what Harry wants. He is in charge; he changes things; he gets himself rescued.
A little bit of all us wishes that praying were like this. We want to make something happen, we want someone to get better, we want a marriage to take place, or we want a healthy child to be born. And so we bring these things to God in prayer, and we tell him what to do. This is true of all of us, but it is especially true of people who have gone to prison. They may be there for the first time in their lives; they may be there for a very long time; their lives have fallen to bits. And so, maybe for the first time or maybe for the first time since childhood, a man or woman struggles to find the words to pray. They talk to the chaplain about praying. And it is then I gently tell them that praying is not about a quick fix, it is not a spell, it is not telling God what to do. Praying is a wonderful experience of opening the heart to God, but it is one which takes time, one which we grow into.
The walls around a prison tell us so clearly what prison is all about. It is about isolating people from the world outside those walls. It is about keeping them separate as a punishment and also to keep other people safe. Among the greatest pains of people in prison is the pain of isolation, of being apart from those they love and those who sustain their lives. Suddenly it becomes impossible to care for those they love – maybe the person in prison has been the main carer or the main breadwinner in a family. Perhaps they have young children or elderly parents who mean so much to them. Family contact is reduced maybe to a visit once a month, or even to just a five minute ‘phone call across oceans to relatives far away.It’s is hardly surprising that one of the main questions chaplains hear is ‘how do I pray’, or ‘can you pray for my loved ones who are in such trouble?’
The new life of prison opens the heart of the prisoner to the life of prayer, of thoughts and words which take him or her beyond the walls to those they love. The prayer of intercession, of placing loved ones in the hands of the Lord takes on great importance. One chaplain writes this about the prayer group in her prison: ‘These men pray out loud during intercessionary prayers for their families, the world, the inmates and the officers each week…men have seen the results of prayer here.’ Unable to see people face to face, prisoners place their loved ones into God’s hands.
The Rosary is a great way for people in prison to pray. Many prisoners wear their Rosary around their necks as a tangible sign of God’s love for them. But they will move on often from just wearing their beads to using them in prayer. Another chaplain writes ‘One way we use the Rosary in prison is to combine it with scripture sharing and personal intercessions. The Scripture opens up for us the life and detaching of Jesus and allows his words to influence our lives today. The Rosary allows us to mediate gently as Mary unites her prayers to ours.’
Life in prison opens up to many prisoners the riches of praying the Mass and the liturgical year – things they may have long abandoned in life outside. They are so encouraged when they are told that the prayers and the readings which they hear week by week are also heard by their families as they go to Mass outside – even on the other side of the world. Prayer pierces through the walls of the prison. Prayer unites us all wherever we may be. Maybe there are 40 or 50 people at Mass, maybe just one or two with the priest, but this is still the life blood of the Church; it is obeying the commandment of Christ to ‘do this in memory of me.’
Prison is a place where many different sorts of prayer can be used. One prison recently undertook an open retreat in the Ignatian style, with spiritual guides to help the men as they prayed over ten weeks in this way. In one Young Offenders’ prison every three months there is a time of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. 15 boys will come to the chapel and spend time in silence in the real presence of Jesus Christ and maybe also be moved to go to confession during this time. It is amazing to see the concentration on the faces of these boys, whose lives outside have been in such chaos, and which have often known no peace, as they experience the deep peace of praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
‘Bible Alive’ magazine, of course, provides a wonderful way to pray for so many people in prison today, as, using its pages, they practice the Lectio Divina so precious to generations of Catholics. The daily reflections from the Mass readings open up the ways of God to those who read them.
And now, thanks to the generosity of Bible Alive readers, there is another rich resource which can be opened up for people in prison. The Divine Office, the daily prayer of the church, forms the bedrock of praying for priests, deacons, religious sisters and many lay people throughout the world. It is another way of bringing us all together. But it can sometimes be a bit complicated to use. We are now able to give a simple form of Daily Prayer to people in prison. Beautifully presented, it gives a psalm, a canticle, and a short scripture for every morning and evening of the week. I know that this will be deeply appreciated by those who will use it. It will help them to pray when they cannot find the words to use; it will help them to pray when life seems very hard; it will help them to pray when the prison walls seem so thick and isolating; it will help them to pray for all damaged by crime; it will help them to pray for God’s guiding presence in their lives.
Prayer is the submission of our nature to God. Prayer is the placing of ourselves in God’s hands. People in prison may be doing this for the first time tonight as the door closes on their cell; or they may be doing it tonight as part of their routines after many years in prison. They will be praying for their families and friends, but I know they will be praying for the readers of Bible Alive as well. Our prayer for them and their prayer for us will pierce the walls of the prison and bring each one of us into the presence of God.