Rosary: A Spiritual Journey out of Prison

In 1990, I married a man in prison. I had been a volunteer for many years for the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which teaches nonviolent conflict resolution skills in the prison where he was held. I had been friends with this particular man for three years, but fully expected I would stay a volunteer forever. To my surprise, I realized that this man, Kevin, had the qualities I wanted in a mate. Our marriage was also an affirmation of my belief in transformation.

We anticipated that Kevin would be released the year we married. However, as part of a complex political matter regarding Washington state changing from non-determinate to determinate sentencing, the Parole Board gave him four more years. This was disappointing, but Washington allows conjugal visits for married couples, so we simply proceeded toward his release. I think some of our best times happened while Kevin was imprisoned, which is very instructive about love, freedom, and our own states of mind.

In 1993, Kevin began a year-long process of moving to four places with lessening levels of security: to a "farm," a pre-release facility, a work-release facility, and then parole. This is a story about that year and the spiritual journey of finding "freedom." It is the story of how I received my own personal "rosary," each bead a reminder of a word or concept that helps me center into prayer. I received four great lessons during Kevin’s journey out of prison, to which I return for re-centering during times of trial and tribulation.

Kevin’s first move was from the prison, his residence for a decade, to a prison farm a few blocks away. The move was approved except for receiving the final paperwork, which seemed like a simple process to us, but took the Department of Corrections (DOC) two months. Knowing Kevin’s final release date was one year from his first move, and with four such paperwork hurdles ahead, I was anxious for the process to get underway. I began calling various officials in the DOC, receiving the usual run-around answers.

In a state of distress, I went to see a therapist who facilitates a prison group therapy seminar on love and forgiveness. I unloaded all the anger, powerlessness, and other negative emotions I was feeling. He led me through a visualization process during which, to my surprise, I confronted the Grim Reaper, and connected my current painful feelings with the death of my mother when I was 11. In the visualization I confronted the Reaper with a cosmic, "Why?" His response was, "Because you chose this before you chose this life." I replied, "I did not choose a life of pain and suffering." In a tone of bored amusement, he said, "Then heal."

Heal became the first bead of my rosary. My visualization taught me that pain and suffering are a distraction from my purpose on earth. They are mostly a false consciousness. Truly painful events in life deserve grief, but I realized that to heal and go forward is the only sensible choice. Getting lost in the pain is a waste of life. This was a profound insight, giving me clarity about the spiritual purpose of my marriage to a prisoner. In many ways I was in my own emotional prison, and through this experience I might learn about freedom. Two days after my insight, Kevin was transferred to the farm, in time to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Kevin’s release plan specified a transfer to the pre-release facility after four months, but the paperwork snags repeated themselves. Fearing another delay, I made multiple phone calls. I spoke to each DOC person calmly, keeping in mind that each one was a child of God. I projected the expectation that each would respond humanely. I got nowhere except frustrated and upset. This time Kevin’s paperwork had literally been lost. Each person claimed the paperwork was on the other person’s desk. I stewed over their incompetence, and suppressed my desire to yell un-Quakerly things at people who had a great deal of power over my husband and me. I tried to think about "heal," but it did not seem applicable to the circumstance.

Just hours after hanging up in despair on a DOC bureaucrat, the True Administrator spoke to me through the vessel of a friend. She told me about her experience of seeking guardianship of her husband’s grandmother, speaking enthusiastically about the judge’s heart and ears being opened to the truth of their testimony and about his decisions on their behalf. I felt happy for her, but even more frustrated about my lack of success in "speaking truth to power." She interrupted my tirade about the DOC and said, "Lynn, you have to speak to that of God in them." I replied, "I believe in that of God in them, but I don’t think they listen to that of God in themselves." She insisted that I simply had to be faithful. The rest was in Spirit’s hands, and I could not presume the outcome.

In my frustration, I had made synonymous the connecting with that of God in others and what I considered a just and proper outcome. Consequently, I created for myself an image of an impotent God, and made a mockery of my own faith. I realized that I must speak to that of God in others for affirmation of my own faith, not for a desired outcome. This affirmation is the real act of shining Light on Truth. And so the second bead of my rosary became "witness to your faith in that of God in others."

Kevin transferred a week later for a four-month stay at a pre-release facility. This was the final place before the "big move" to work-release, when Kevin would be able to go special places with me. Finding a job was a prerequisite for social time, but I still longed for this change and the opportunity to do normal things together. I dreamt about going out for dinner on our fourth wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, new paperwork delays made the fulfillment of this dream unlikely. Again I found myself in a state of distress. I reviewed the two big lessons I had learned: heal and witness to your faith in that of God in others. Neither of these lessons seemed to speak to my longing or to quell it. The source of my unhappiness seemed to be my longing for a specific outcome, which brought to mind Eastern teachings that say it is our longings and attachments that are the root of our unhappiness. Eastern followers are taught to release this attachment.

Release attachment became the third bead in my rosary. As soon as I let go of my expectations, Kevin’s papers came through! He transferred to work-release on our wedding anniversary. We did not go out for dinner that day, nor was I even allowed to see him, but having him in Seattle for the first time in our marriage was itself a gift.

Kevin found a job on his first day of searching. We went to movies and restaurants and for walks around the lake, with a midnight curfew looming over us that interfered with Kevin’s ability to relax. We both looked forward to the day he would not have to "go back." By the original time frame, Kevin was to be out at the end of September, but with the delays that had occurred, he would be free shortly before Thanksgiving. We had told our friends who were unable to attend our marriage ceremony that when Kevin got out we would have a delayed wedding reception. We began to plan for that event, a gala weekend that would include a day for the reception, a day to celebrate Kevin’s freedom after so many years, and a day of Thanksgiving. We put a lot of time and thought into planning our celebration, and into creating and mailing the invitations.

Then the paperwork problems began yet again. I was fuming that we were denied the right to have a final date, to know an end. Thinking that Kevin might not be free on the day we planned to celebrate his freedom made me feel ill. The consequence of this last paperwork delay was possibly disastrous. Apparently, despite the fact that Kevin had done everything required during this stressful year of great change and transition, and despite remaining infraction-free, his parole was not an assured fact with the Parole Board! First the Board had to receive the paperwork documenting that Kevin had done all these things, and then it had to meet and make the final approval of his parole. While there was no reason to believe he would not be paroled, there was also no paper anywhere guaranteeing his release! We found out that the Parole Board only met once a month, so if the papers didn’t arrive in time for the November meeting, I’d be lucky to have him home for Christmas!

I was disgusted that after all my spiritual insights I was again in such a state of anger and distress. I reviewed my learnings and insights, but I felt unable to release attachment because I wanted Kevin free for his freedom celebration! I did everything I could to be sure the papers arrived in time for the November Parole Board meeting, but they didn’t. Kevin’s case would be heard during the December meeting. I would indeed be lucky if he was home for Christmas.

My first reaction was despair. However, as I listened to other prisoners’ wives talk about various difficulties they were having, I found myself wondering what I was so anxious about. I was incredibly lucky that Kevin was as free as he was and that we could do so much together already. After all, I could spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with him no matter what. I remembered something the therapist told me during my first learning step: "Be grateful for your life exactly as it is." I had tried to be grateful during this whole process but my spirit had always rebelled. Now I found I could finally surrender to it and appreciate my life exactly as it was. This became the fourth bead in my rosary. Obviously, none of these four lessons alone was enough to get me through this rough time. Each bead complemented the others and made the rosary complete. I needed all four of them to cope with the challenges of my life.

Our revised Thanksgiving weekend celebration was as fine as our original plan. We had a meeting for worship to celebrate Kevin’s freedom and asked in worship-sharing format for Friends to share what they have learned about freedom. We discovered there are many beads to many rosaries! Kevin was finally free on December 21.

If I were to end this article right here it would have a traditional happy ending. However, life has its own reality and its own flow. Kevin and I did not live happily ever after. We conceived a child and lost it 20 weeks into the pregnancy. There were job losses and other struggles. We eventually had a beautiful daughter, Sara, and experienced the joys and trials of all parents. In our struggles we lost each other, and experienced the painful process of divorce. As I went through these ups and downs, my rosary was there for me to hold. I could finger the beads and ponder my life and center, and it became clear to me that my rosary was a gift to prepare me for all that was yet ahead. It taught me to distinguish between my plans and my time versus those of the Creator. Just this year I realized that much of my distress over Kevin’s additional four years was caused by my desire to have a child as soon as he was released. Because my plans were postponed, I earned a master’s degree in Counseling instead, something that I would not have done otherwise. In the Creator’s time I now have both a child and a profession, which is far wiser.

Lynn Fitz-Hugh

Lynn Fitz-Hugh, a member of Eastside Meeting in Bellevue, Washington, is a psychotherapist in private practice and coordinator of the Quest Program, a Quaker voluntary service program of University Friends Meeting in Seattle. © 2002 Lynn Fitz-Hugh