Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Yesterday the news broke of Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip’s last-minute reprieve of execution within only hours of death by lethal injection. The reprieve grants Glossip a two-week delay of execution, during which time the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals can consider a last-minute petition by Glossip’s lawyers. (Glossip has been on death row since 1998, reportedly on the basis of another convicted murderer’s testimony alone and little forensic evidence. Yesterday marked the third time Glossip’s execution was delayed.)

And maybe it’s fitting that these latest headlines happen to coincide with the below reflections from friend and fellow saint and sinner Brother Mark. For 44 years, Br. Mark has lived, worked and worshiped in intentional spiritual community at the Roman Catholic Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, Georgia, where I met him last week while on a personal retreat. Before serving as the guest/retreat master there, Br. Mark worked in the infirmary for 30 years.

When I invited Br. Mark to guest post here at this intersection, he graciously took me up on the offer. Below are his reflections on what those behind bars might have to teach us and the life-changing power of a simple but increasingly extinct form of correspondence — letter writing:

“..I was in prison and you visited me.” — Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 25:36)

I am not much of a letter writer; in fact I hated corresponding by letter.  Even after I started dabbling in writing 17 years ago, letter writing for me was very rare.

A couple of years ago, all of this changed.  I’m not sure how I got started, but now I’m writing to six prisoners: three on a very regular basis; the others more infrequently.

And I always let them lead.  (If they write I respond, and if they don’t, I figure they don’t need to write me anymore.)

Simple Words of Encouragement

The prisoner archetype is usually a dark one.  I have been told that “they will only use you for money,” or “try to get you involved in some scam.”  I am sure that is true in some cases. (I have encountered this only once in my personal correspondence with prisoners, when one prisoner wrote asking for money for various items.) Most prisoners just want someone to write them with words of encouragement.

The ones I am writing to are seeking a deeper relationship with God, and since I am a monk that is why they write me.  They tell me about their inner struggles, their failures and their getting up and starting over again.  They don’t need a lot — just to be listened to and some sort of response.  None of the men I am writing to live up to the dark stereotype that keeps many people from writing to them.  |

I’ve been writing to one man who is in for second-degree murder.  He admits to the act and knows he needs to be where he is, but the sentence was severe — thirty years.  He was highly trained in martial arts and self-defense. That along with some anger issues probably got him a stiffer penalty.  The judge told this man that with his training and title he did not need to kill the other man. This man’s wife, the love of his life, died a few years ago.  They had stayed married and close throughout his imprisonment.

And perhaps because this man agrees with the judge, he has not become bitter. Instead he is trying to have a deep personal relationship with God, and prays his way through days that are filled with noise, abusive prisoners, theft, and at times intimidation.

All I can do is encourage him.

Forgiveness From Behind Bars — and the Life-Changing Power of Letter Writing

One situation that was painful for him was when his mother’s rosary was stolen out of his locker.  It was the only item he had that connected him with her and he was very angry about it.  In the past, he would have been filled with rage.  This time he decided to do something else, to seek the road that the Lord wants him to tread.  Below is something that I wrote to him about that:

“I am glad you are praying for the men who have ‘hurt’ you and stole from you.  You do have a hard road my friend, yet to give in to anger would be a harder one I believe.  The love of God heals. The acting out of our inner rage only leads to deeper trouble and more rage and more fierce fighting; it can be unending.  By praying, by keeping your ‘peace,’ you are stopping the cycle of violence in your life…easy?…..of course not, but you have the grace of God supporting you, even if you do not feel it at times.  God is always the same, our perceptions of His presence go from hot to cold, yet the Lord is always ‘Yes.'”

Writing simple letters to prisoners does not take much time.  Being locked up apart from family and friends only to face frequent rejection can be unbearable.  Faith seems to give many prisoners the inner strength to step back and not get involved in gangs, drugs and sexual domination.  In prison the situation can be very black and white; the choices become simple, yet in making them a deep inner struggle can happen.  Writing can help them stay on the road of inner healing that flows from being open to the Holy Spirit.

And life can be funny: a man who never liked writing letters, now writing and perhaps getting more out of it than what I put in.


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