Even knowing from experience that "the Spirit can live in the jails," as George Fox once remarked, there are hot summer afternoons when it is hard to find the motivation to visit such dreary places.
"Hello, Mr. Quaker? Are you ready to come out now?" the female guard asked with a slightly ironic smile as I stood behind the bars with a group of seven men in orange jumpsuits waiting to be returned to their cells. "In due time," I answered, beaming back at her, "but at the moment I’m in good company."
A combination of circumstances led to it being an exceptionally good afternoon. Seven creative and imaginative participants responded to the call to attend a program in the chapel. I prepared the space by spreading pictures cut from magazines on three tables. They were eye-catching photographs of mountain landscapes, wild birds, and an assortment of other intriguing images. I suggested they each select one or two of the pictures that interested them, and then share the reasons for their choices.
One of the older men, Riley, started with a picture of someone praying before a large golden statue of the Buddha. He was intrigued by the value of the gold, and also by the exotic nature of the symbolism. Why does the Buddha have so many hands, and why three faces? We talked about the many-faceted nature of the Divine, the omniscience and power of the Spirit. Sharing a little of my Quaker testimony, I commented that the symbolism of world religions only hints at the real incarnation of the Spirit in each one of us. Each one of us is, in a sense, a Buddha, a Christ . . .
The conversation continued as the men commented on their choices. Riley was also impressed by a picture of a hawk standing over the remains of its prey—an image of survival, strength, and yes, freedom. But then Ronald, who introduced himself as a musician and an artist, shared his reflections on the more delicate image of an Eastern Bluebird—a very spiritual sign in his eyes. I recalled the story of a Manitoba-Saskatchewan railway conductor who once encouraged the Eastern Bluebird to return to the prairies by making nesting boxes for the small songbirds and placing them strategically along his route. Baszak eagerly shared his picture of another songbird perched on a strand of barbed wire, the potential hazard a stark contrast to the delicate and apparently carefree songster.
In one bleak winter scene, bare black trunks rise like iron bars from the snow as far as the eye can see; this image of beauty and freedom was not lost on the men in spite of its obvious analogy to a prison environment. Two other pictures seemed rather out of place in the overall selection. The first was a detail from an abstract painting that provided an opening for bitter levity about frying their brains on crack cocaine. The second was a picture of a marathon race. One of the men remembered a time in his youth when, while sitting by a race track doing cocaine, he was suddenly aware of a crowd of people running past him. Though all he could see were their legs, the sound they made as they rushed by made him aware of the comparative insignificance of what he was doing while missing out on the real potential of being in the world.
Finally, Ronald shared a poem he had written in response to one of his cellmates asking for something to send his child. On reflection he thought that the words could just as easily refer to a love for God, so he copied it in beautiful calligraphy (an elegant hand even though copied with a lead pencil). Before the program was over he presented me with this copy:
In many many ways within
The Light of the Sun your face
Does appear and warms me up
And in all that is good and in all
That is right the thought of you
Always seems to shine bright
And within the worries and the doubt
And the pain all I have to do
Is think of you and all that drifts away,
And by the time that I’ve thought all of this thru
Anything thought bad is replaced
By the goodness in you.
We closed with a few minutes of guided meditation. While focusing on breathing meditation some of the guys almost cracked up when I started to chant the Hindu-Buddhist word "Om." I couldn’t help joining in their mirth, being made aware of my own spiritual pretensions in that moment. We closed the program in a spirit of mutual warmth and appreciation.
"Are you ready to come out of there yet, Mr. Quaker?" In some strange way, I sometimes experience a kind of freedom behind the bars that I’m reluctant to give up.