Ross and I went into Port Phillip as planned on christmas day… I took the printed orders of service complete with their carols, only to discover that the cd player that was going to accompany the singing was commandeered by the catholics who were leading a service in the mainstream chapel [which was fair, it’s their cd player]… ‘Well,’ i said, with much more enthusiasm than i felt, ‘we’re going to sing anyway. The worst that can happen is that it’s a disaster.’
I’ve learnt, over the last few months, that the expected never happens. I’m used to the significant moment in the worship being when we light the candles, or when we’ve finally finished all the words, and after the blessing there’s a long period of silence. That’s the point at which peace seems to descend. But this time it was in the a’capella renditions of ‘Away in the manger’ and ‘Silent night’ – songs chosen in the hope that the men who can’t read would at least know the first verses, and could simply repeat them as often as the carols required. They did. And we stumbled through the verses with infinitely more enthusiasm than ability, stopping between them to listen to the loudspeaker announcements about medication, breakfast, and the morning program… Forget any cathedral children’s choir, in spite of it being hopelessly out of tune and out of time, I have a hunch this was as close to angels singing as you could ever hope to hear.
I still don’t think we could sing on any other day but christmas – but there’s something about christmas in the prison that makes everyone who’s at the service determined to make it work. And perhaps there’s something about being used to having no dignity that lets you sing as though no one is listening. In most of the events that I’m part of, I assume that my ‘audience’ is cynical – that i will have to break through that cynicism in order for people to engage. I think the cynicism is justified [though perhaps i’m justifying my own by saying that!] – we’ve been offered cheap cliches and hackneyed promises too often – but i’ve also realised it’s a luxury of those for whom faith is an option. In the prison, the men are on side from the moment we walk in the door. They want – need? – it to work much more than i do, which makes, as i’ve said before, an overwhelming responsibility. They’ll search out the moment of transcendence in the most awkward of liturgies. Just the fact that we’ve turned up means it’s christmas… People kept insinuating that i was doing something noble by going into the prison on christmas day, but in reality it’s hard to imagine anything more humbling, or any role more privileged. How very lucky i am.