A Glimpse into a Prison no. 1 / by Joshua Banner

This past weekend I sat in spiritual direction in a prison with a muslim and an orthodox Jew.

The jewish man was new to our contemplative prayer group at the EC Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, MI. I saw that he was reading a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I have benefited greatly from Heschel's book The Sabbath, and I was further intrigued to find an inmate wearing a kippah and a long, pointed beard, with tattoos on his neck and hands. He introduced himself as Nate and explained that he was Orthodox but that he likes to read outside of his tradition. I assumed that must be why he would be open to joining a contemplative prayer circle. I thought of the kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Is there some sort of similar practice in Nate's tradition?

I asked Nate how he had learned about our group practice, and he pointed to Jack, our most Jesusy of Jesusy former biker gang members and drug dealers. Jack had just walked into the chapel wearing his usual grin, shaking hands, and passing out the small little slips of paper he always carries. Each slip is cut out from a xerox print with pithy quotes from another prisoner Jack has been inspired by, a man he'd done time with years ago. I told Nate that I too am Jesusy, almost as Jesusy as Jack, quite devoted to Jesus in fact, yet I've learned much about rest from Heschel. I added that I'm grateful he joined us.

Nate valued our morning session enough to come back in the afternoon without an official 'callout.' This risked him getting a "ticket," being written up by a guard since his name wasn't on the Saturday afternoon, spiritual direction practicum callout sheet. I return after lunch two Saturdays per month to lead a smaller group of eight to twelve. The morning circle is often twenty to twenty-five. It meets for an hour. The smaller group in the afternoons is two hours. By January 2018 I'll have been in this rhythm for three years. I keep coming back because I can't get over the idea that there are convicted criminals in the world who are willing get in trouble in order to pray together, to pray with me.

We sat on the floor while I slowly read through chapters 27 trough 29 from The Cloud of Unknowing. These chapters are one or two pages each, short but thick. Mystical writings, like my favorite poetry require us to listen deeply with open hearts. I've discovered that reading a few chapters of The Cloud in succession gives us a chance to get our minds and hearts into the 'spiritual logic' of the unknown author. For this reading I invited the men to listen for the words, phrases, sentences, or ideas that make sense and to not worry about what doesn't make sense. Latorius, my favorite muslim who also wears a long, pointy beard--he had taken his boots off and was rocking gently with his eyes closed in calm, focused composure. I wondered if this was how he might pray in his cell or with other muslims. I pictured them on prayer mats. Latorius chose to re-read the passage I had been most excited to read with the men:

I sincerely believe that Judgement Day will be bright, because we will clearly see God and all his gifts. On that day of ultimate truth, many of the “nobodies” of this world, now despised and neglected as lowlifes and hardened sinners, will get their right to sit beside God’s saints in God’s sight. On the other hand, some who now seem holy, and who are honored as if they were angels, and who perhaps never did commit a deadly sin, may find themselves sitting beside hell’s devils in complete misery.
— The Cloud of Unknowing

Geary is Geary and Jack is Jack, but then there is Greedy, Tone, Narrow, Baby Boy, Texas, Florida, AX, Kagali and other nick names. Latorious is known in the prison as "Muslim" and is highly sought after by many of the prisoners despite their religious or ideological differences.  They confide in him and ask for his wisdom. It makes little sense to divide these men even in prayer practice here in a prison since fundamentally they share something I can never understand, incarceration. So many forces have worked to separate them and create violent divisions between them. The men need each other. They need Latorious and his clam, grave, bright, beautiful face. I need them too. I continue to be surprised how much I need them.

In the afternoon practicum we practice spiritual direction with each other. For over a year Latorius has resisted going to the middle to serve as a director. I assume he has resisted partly because he is humble and partly because he is already tapped by the men for so much. He seems content most of the time to sit quietly, to share with us a knowing smile and a chuckle, but this Saturday afternoon I invited him to the center to act as director. He obliged. I then turned and opened the invitation for another to join him. Without hesitation Nate sat down in front of Latorius to be the directee. They sat facing each other just a few feet apart. Their discussion lasted maybe fifteen minutes, but it seemed lovingly like a half hour or more. Before that afternoon, I'm not sure Nate had ever heard of spiritual direction. Under Latorious' gentle yet firm guidance Nate opened beautifully detailing how rough his life has been, institutionalized since middle school, different children with different mothers, drug addiction, a sincere desire to return to a child-like innocence free and full of love.

There we were, Christians, agnostics, Muslims and Jews, sitting in our sock feet on the carpeted floor, practicing silence, listening for God in each other's lives.