In prison

"I was in prison" and you meditated with me

Wojciech Nowak SJ

“In truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” – these words of St. Peter from the Acts (10:34) read during a Sunday mass in Wąsocz Górny reflect the experience that I went through during one weekend in May, 2012. At the invitation of Urszula Wojciechowska-Budzikur, major and deputy director general of a pre-trial detention centre in Czestochowa, psychologist and psychotherapist, initiator of introducing Christian meditation programs in Polish prisons, I lead the 3rd Meditation Retreat for Prisoners.

In its broad sense, the objective of the program was to prevent aggression, violence and addictions as well as to develop empathy, but for a Christian meditation is most of all a form of prayer, a way of establishing a personal relation with God. He is the Loving Presence available to everyone, in every place and at any time if one decides to open up to it. Therefore, I proposed the following motto for the retreat: You are never alone.

Since I started to consciously meditate on the Gospel, I have been asking myself why Jesus pointing to His presence in every man, next to the hungry, the thirsty, the newcomers, the naked and the sick mentions also prisoners. The first people that He mentioned are the ones that are in need, frequently without their fault. The latter ones are socially condemned for their deeds. We could say that they are behind bars at their own request. However, Jesus says clearly: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). He says: I am there, I am in them – I AM. His presence is therefore the invitation not only for those who cannot leave the prison, but also for those who come there for various reasons for a couple of hours every day. In order to meet Christ, we have to consciously open ourselves to the subtle presence of His Spirit, repeating the words Ma-ra-na-ta or the name of Jesus, and to our neighbour.  The good thing is that not only prisoners but also prison workers and secular volunteers from the World Community of Christian Meditation participate in the retreat. In fact, inside we are all the same: we do not cope with our emotions, frequently we wrestle with anger, we feel the need for take revenge on those who treated us badly, we are tired of the inability to satisfy our needs and wishes… We have the same spiritual work to do in order to become reconciled with ourselves and with God in order to experience internal freedom and form authentic relations with our neighbours. Common meditative practice gives us the opportunity to leave our “roles” behind and to meet others on a more fundamental level, on the level of our humanity that God wants to bless.  The deeper we go inside ourselves the more we discover that no matter what we have done and where we are, there is something that cannot be destroyed, a sacred place inside, where we can find ourselves and our “source from which we can start to drink” (see: John 7:37-38).

When we meditate together, immersed in “here and now”, living through one unique element of our lives, we all become freer. Whether we leave prison for the night is not important NOW, because NOW we are HERE and we have only THIS ONE MOMENT to live through. And the same thing, moment after moment… This is what meditation teaches us. It teaches us the ability to live in presence and to break patterns that are fixed in our heads. It teaches us to accept all situations and all people that we meet without prejudice.

Sitting still, in silence, reciting the sacred word, we learn to accept what we cannot change in this particular moment. Suffering described by prisoners, irrespective of what has caused it, always has the same taste: separation from the close ones, inability to support them and to share their lives, loneliness, lack of understanding, rejection, enduring conditions which were not chosen. By meditating, not verbally but practically, we put into practice the words of the prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. Cheerfulness, spiritual serenity, bravery and wisdom – these are attitudes and values that we get without money and irrespective of social status. We get them opening silently and patiently to the Spirit, whose fruits they are.

For the three days of one weekend in May, we travelled together overcoming barriers that are inside us, between us and between us and God. Have we changed radically? Probably we have come closer to each other in the three aspects that we mentioned earlier. Meditation is the path for whole life. You cannot retire from it. It is a humble path, an extremely “honest” one. Regular meditation shows us the way we live, and vice versa – what happens to you during meditation will influence you life, your next day. In this meditative-existential journey, a retreat is like travelling on a motorway. I have a feeling that this year in Wąsocz Górny, together with the prisoners I travelled far.

The program of Christian meditation is being gradually implemented in other prisons in Poland and this type of retreats is being planned in other places.