“Sit in thy cell, and thy cell will teach thee all.”
 - Abba Moses, Desert Father

February 5, 2015

Sometimes experiences happen so closely to one another they end up interpreting one another, shedding light on particular aspects of the experiences you might not have noticed otherwise. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I spent three days at Avila Retreat Center with the Duke Chapel PathWays Fellows and then a day later traveled with a church and some students to a prison for a worship service. 

During the Fellows retreat, we prayed in a variety of ways, spoke often about life in Christian community, and ate together. As part of our discussion of Christian community, we read parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic on Christian community, Life Together. This book no doubt had in mind the various “rules” written to other Christian communities. Monastic communities use their rules to guide their daily lives. These rules concern topics from prayer to eating to practices of gratitude. Similar to these rules, Bonhoeffer writes of what days within a Christian community might consist. He writes about time in prayer, reading scriptures, singing hymns together, and having meals with one another. 

As I read Bonhoeffer’s book again, I was struck by a couple of points. First, Bonhoeffer goes to great lengths to stress that fellowship with sisters and brothers in Christ is an extraordinary gift. It is not to be taken for granted that we have the opportunity to live the life of faith with others. It’s a blessing and privilege many others in times past (and in some cases still today) have not been afforded. Second, he emphasizes gratitude as a posture or disposition of thanksgiving and praise. This gratitude comes in recognizing the gift of others, of food, of God’s presence. For someone writing with the dissenting and underground church in Hitler’s Germany in mind, he gave a lot of attention to thanksgiving, as if to say, in times of trouble thanksgiving is all the more necessary and powerful.

The Sunday after I was on retreat, some students and I joined a local church—Refuge Home Church—in its regular worship service at Butner Correctional Institute. As a church, Refuge gathers in the homes of its parishioners for weekly worship. So when Refuge goes to prison for worship, the church is going to the “home” of some of the participants in its worshipping community. It’s a profound action. It’s a deep act of solidarity and community with brothers in Christ who live within the correctional institute. 

What’s more striking to me than the fact that the church travels to prison for worship is that the Christian brothers who are housed in the prison invite Refuge in as if it were their own church. (This may be because in a deep sense it is their church.) This is dramatically displayed through hospitality and remembering, prayer and thanksgiving. The men of the Butner church greeted Refuge the way you might greet a friend you’ve not seen in a couple of months but who you’ve been praying for regularly. “Everyone wants to know. Tell us about how Missionary Dana is doing in Nigeria. We’ve been praying for her.” “How’s your baby? Was it a boy or girl? We’re so glad you all are healthy.” “Where are Adam and Jackie? Oh, I hope their move went well. We’ll be praying for them.” “It’s so good seeing you all again. Thank you so much for coming.”

In a way, the Christian men of Butner prison act as those who live according to monastic rule. From the conversations I had with prisoners about their daily lives and from what I heard in the worship service, I gather that many of their lives are characterized by simplicity (obviously mandated), constant prayer, regular thanksgiving (even for things like breath, any friends or family they have, and the times they’ve laughed or smiled recently), scripture reading and study, and fellowship—all marks of monastic life, all marks suggested by writers like Bonhoeffer for the organizing of Christian life together. Of course, there are dramatic and important differences between men who choose to live in monastic communities and those who are forced by rule of judge to live under the watchful eye of correctional officers. I won’t try to name all these differences—you won’t have to ponder long to consider the differences—but if I were to begin I would need to think deeply about submission, choice, race, class, religious traditioning and hierarchy, and the social, political, and economic structures of crime, punishment, and prison. Beyond these differences, I neither want to glorify prison life as if these men would rather be incarcerated than live free from the strictures of prison, nor do I want to romanticize the experience of inmates, nor do I want to ignore that, at least in some cases, these men have committed particularly grievous offenses. Yet, I want to think about how these Christian prisoners’ particular acts of thanksgiving and prayer, which are similar to monastic life, might serve as encouragement and challenge for those of us who are “free.”

First, challenge. I’ve written recently about finding joy and thanksgiving in life situations filled with distress and destruction. And though I’ve written this, I don’t fail to be surprised—or should I say shocked—when people who seem to have no reason to express thanksgiving are the ones I hear giving God thanks most frequently. Imagine for a second words such as, “Give God thanks for any time you’ve laughed or smiled today,” coming from your lips the way they did from our inmate worship leader. I can barely imagine it. While worshipping in prison, I found myself compelled to give thanks in the prisoners’ thanksgiving. I found myself longing for the kind of simplicity of life and God-ward focus that allows for paying attention to the smallest details of life in thanksgiving. Our incarcerated brothers at Butner are giving thanks to God even for the gift of breath—I am challenged to thank God half as much as they.

Second, encouragement. The writer of Hebrews admonishes the community to which he writes to “remember those who are in prison as if you were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3).  The converse of this happens regularly with our Christian brothers at Butner; they constantly remember in prayer those who are beyond the prison walls, as if they were outside the walls themselves. Just as monks spend their days praying for the church and the world as a vocational task, the Christian brothers at Butner spend their days praying for the church (at least for Refuge Home Church) and the world as if it were the vocation they inherited upon their imprisonment. I suppose not everyone finds encouragement in the fact that she is being prayed for—and by prisoners none the less—but this is deeply powerful to me. Our incarcerated brothers at Butner are praying for the church beyond the prison walls—that means they are praying for you and me. Thank God.

By Bruce Puckett, Director of Community Ministry, Duke Chapel

Return to the Community Connection blog