God's grace alone can set us free

A team of Jesuit novices with Fr Simon Bishop SJ and Vron Smith recently joined a group of prisoners in HMP Hewell in the West Midlands, to accompany them on a week of guided prayer.

It was a week of surprises, with prisoners from a wide range of age, race and even faith background. Novice Luke Taylor nSJ explained, "We offered a variety of Ignatian ways of prayer. Some prisoners shared one-on-one with a prayer guide while others drew their own spiritual journeys. Some entered scripture through imaginative contemplation while others dramatised biblical scenes. "  

Muslim prisoners were included in the group, which gave the week an extra dimension for Luke, "These men expressed an open and articulate interest in both the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. The team felt honoured to share with them."

With a real concern about the radicalisation of prisoners 'inside', when conditions are not adequate and opportunities for authentic spiritual growth are restricted, perhaps this week could be seen as a model for other prisons to copy. The famous Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said in an address to prison chaplains, "When you go from your own surroundings into a prison, you do not go out of a world of harmony, light and order into a world of guilt and unfreedom: you stay where you have been all the time. It is merely made clearer to your bodily senses what has been surrounding you all the time: the unfreedom of guilt, the imprisonment from which God's grace alone can set us free into the freedom of the children of God."

Luke reflected that feeling when he referred to the prisoners as being 'prisoner disciples'. It is often noted that on a week of guided prayer the distinction between those accompanying and those being accompanied breaks down when you witness God working in people's hearts.  ''One morning, we enacted Jesus inviting Peter to walk on water. Our Peter not only walked, but tap-danced his way back to the boat – a spontaneous demonstration of joyful faith. My favourite comment of the week came from another prisoner disciple: “we are all in the same boat,” he pointed out."