"It's really great to be here": a prison retreat

POST BY SEdmunds

Nine male prisoners mainly in their 20s and 30s, took part in a Week of Guided Prayer in Brixton Prison. One man was in segregation but was able to have a fruitful retreat thanks to daily visits from the chaplain for spiritual direction. The participants were dedicated and attended each day.

God was definitely at work before and during the retreat and will continue to be now it has finished. We had initially planned for four Jesuit priests to help as spiritual guides but three of them had to pull out at the last minute. This provoked a mini crisis: what should we do? Cancel? Postpone? So often in the Catholic Church we think that if we don’t have enough priests then we can’t continue. This was a great lesson in realising that this is not the case. The Spirit was at work in the much bigger retreat team of a priest, a deacon and his wife, four religious sisters, three lay women and one religious brother, ranging in age from 30 – 80! All had their place and all had their particular gifts which were hugely appreciated. It was, in fact, a microcosm of the Church, the Church in all its fullness.

We had four sessions which consisted of a welcome and guided imaginative contemplation on the theme for the day. We had four groups revolving on a carousel basis, lasting 30 minutes. The sessions offered were morning prayer, adoration, prayer through art and one to one spiritual guidance. A welcome coffee break at the halfway point gave a chance to get to know people more. On the final day we closed by celebrating the Eucharist and presenting the men with a prayer book for prisoners with an introduction and blessing from Pope Francis.

I was touched by the prisoners’ generosity, their welcome and acceptance of me and willingness to be led in the time of adoration. I saw a lot of good in these men, in their expression of their prayers for the suffering of others,  to their manners and consideration for each other and the guides. What was important for them was the sense of coming together to pray with that expression and identity of their Catholic faith. I learnt to tailor our time together so as to meet the needs of the individuals: some would prefer quiet contemplation whereas others preferred a more vocal expression of worship with prayers of intercession, faith sharing and singing songs of adoration. What was particularly moving was to have the men ask if, when we were bringing our prayers of intercession before the Lord, we could join hands. This was a sign and an instrument of unity and of peace. I was privileged to listen to their  worries as they presented them to the Lord. This “band of brothers” really is a power house of prayer.

One unexpected gift of the retreat needs to be mentioned. Every morning, a Muslim prisoner would help the chaplains prepare the room. At the end of the week, our retreatants vigorously helped the Muslim chaplains to prepare the room for the Friday service.  The retreat team had a little picnic to celebrate the end of the retreat and the Imam joined us, with two of the Muslim prisoners including the one who had helped us prepare the room each day. This man was silent as he ate a dish prepared by one of the sisters. “Is it good?”, she asked. He said, “this is the first time I have eaten something home-made in eighteen years.”

The prisoners have expressed a desire to be able to pray in the morning and evening together. The team will follow up on a weekly basis with the participants to water the seeds planted in this retreat. One of the highlights was on the last day as the prisoners made and wrote in a card for the Pope. We remembered that Pope Francis has a special concern for prisoners and so we hope he gets the card and that the prisoners get a reply. It gave them joy that they had a voice and could write to the Pope.

This experience shows that with a good team and committed prisoners a fruitful retreat is possible in one of the toughest environments. It was not an exaggeration when one of the prisoners shouted out spontaneously at the start of Mass, “It’s really great to be here.” Peter said the same when he witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. We, too, witnessed a transfiguration. It was really great to be there.

In collaboration with PACT (Prison Advice and Care Trust), Pray As You Go produced a series of reflections for Prisons Week 2015. These are a great opportunity to pray for those involved in the prison system, and for the needs of prisoners and their families, victims of offenders, and prison staff.