This morning, after piling my 2 fried eggs atop toast and covering it in a glob of green chilies (a taste acquired in New Mexico), I pulled out my pad of lined paper, a plain white envelope and one of the decent pens we own, not one of the cheap 50 pens we’ve acquired from the months we’ve spent in hotel rooms with my husband’s job over the years. I sat down at our dining room table and began to write. I hardly know this guy. He is the friend of a relative of a relative but I know they love him and vouch for him that he’s a good guy, despite his recent circumstances.
This is the second prisoner I’ve written over the past four years. When my friend’s relative spent a year in the federal women’s prison in West Virginia. I wrote her about once a month. I took my cues from her. As she wrote me a letter, I wrote one in response. Honestly, I loved getting back into the habit of writing actual letters again. This is what Pope Francis promises us is part of our encounter with the poor. It is an exchange, where there is something to be found for both people. Its not just a one-way giving spree. There’s satisfaction to be found in the exchange. As a person who is 41, I have had the pleasure of living in both worlds: the by-hand and the digital world. Over the years, I’ve let go of the boxes and boxes of cards and letters people sent me when I lived away from home (Spain at 16, Maine at 17, college at 18, Costa Rica at 20). Those cards accompanied me during my time away from the familiar. My Aunt Bonnie was the best and most consistent card writer. Her slanted left handed scrawl was unmistakably recognizable. In her honor, I bought a box from a yard sale this past Saturday. It will allow me to write down people’s special dates and to sort the cards into folders so that I can be totally on top of these things just like she was. I miss so many birthdays, anniversaries of deaths and weddings that it’s really shameful. I hope this system, bought for $2 will help me be more like Aunt Bonnie.
Since I live primarily in this digital world, it is easy to forget that some folks have been thrown back to 1993, technologically speaking. These include my pal who is in a hospital in Washington, DC, who treasures the cards sent to her by friends and family, my grandma in Wisconsin and this guy who is in prison.
So, what do I write to the guy? Well, I guess I start with the premise that I don’t have to be extra clever or profound or even extra interesting. I just start writing. It turns out that it took me four pages this morning to tell him all about that friend of mine who is in the hospital in Washington, DC. I told him about her lifelong ministry to the poor, something she was doing way before Pope Francis helped make it trendy again. I described visiting her at her office about once a week for over a decade and the circumstances surrounding her recent hospital stay. As I wrote to him, a clever phrase did come to mind and I took the liberty of re-writing it neatly in the margins, “Just because her body is in a prison doesn’t mean her heart and mind have to be.” Nice, I thought. I need to find out if he’s allowed to be sent books or at least photo copies of pages of books (every prison has differing rules). There are probably people with more profound things to say than that, like Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described life in the death camps. Someone like Nelson Mandela. I’ve never read anything he wrote but the guy spent decades imprisoned. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul the Apostle, there are lots of other people. For us, on the “outside” we can read what they have to say and admire them for being so deep in the midst of such desperation. I’m guessing that a prisoner would read another prisoner’s words with an even greater understanding of the journey they are on.
So, when I write to this fellow, I know I’m getting a lot out of it. I got to spend 30 minutes thinking about how much I love and admire my friend about whom I was writing. Re-reading my own writing is a strange pleasure, especially when it has come together and is actually pretty good stuff. In my first letter (this was my second letter, written in response to the one he sent last week), I was very blunt about my intentions for writing to him. Being a Christian is pretty easy sometimes since there is nice, concise instructions on how we are supposed to do this thing. If you look up the 7 corporal (“bodily”) works of mercy, you’ll see that visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned are actually spelled out right there for us. I don’t expect to visit him in prison but my letters are a way to distract and maybe give him something new to think about for a few minutes, which is like a visit. I don’t know where the correspondence will go but I think I will just keep telling him stories about all of the wonderful people I’ve met in my life. I was blunt about my intentions.
St. Francis himself was imprisoned too. That was in the 13th century so I guarantee you he didn’t have a window, 3 hots nor a cot. We could come up with a long list of imprisoned people we’d have loved to correspond with throughout history. In the meantime, if you don’t plan on visiting someone in prison then I suggest you ask God to help you find someone you can write to in prison. I recommend spreading the word around. According to a statistic I just read, it looks like about 1 in every 300 Americans is currently in prison or in jail. Put out an APB on Facebook and ask folks to tell you the name of their aunt, godmother, stepdad or brother-in-law who has been locked away for a time. I rely on the people we know in common to vouch for the guy so I know I’m not getting mixed up with someone who is a danger. If you need help finding someone, I can help spread the word for you. It is taboo to talk about our relatives and loved ones who are in prison but with statistics like 1 in 300, you’ve got to figure that just about every single person you know knows someone who is in jail or prison right now.
So, that’s why I’m writing to a prisoner. It’s also why I think you should write, too.
How this relates to St. Francis:
1. If St. Francis’ prison term was happening right now, how would you get his address? What would write to him?
2. Like Pope Francis, St. Francis was all about seeking out those who are on the margins. Ask God to show you who are on the margins that you can reach out to.
3. In typical colorful medieval metaphor, it is said that St. Francis’ “whole body was a tongue” which means that his whole being actually spoke the Gospel even louder than his voice preached it. As we mediate on the instruction to visit prisoners and we recall that our hero, Jesus was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death, how can your actions speak, telling the world you believe this stuff?