I wrote this piece for the Age today. Apparently it’s online, but I can’t find it…
On Christmas day each year I go into one of Victoria’s prisons to spend some time with some of the men in there. The unit I go into houses some of the more vulnerable men in the prison – most have acquired brain injuries or intellectual disabilities. After my first visit a few years ago, I recall thinking it was the most godforsaken environment I’d been in, and Christmas day only makes it more so. The day is as lonely and desolate as you can imagine, and then some.
Their regular chaplain and I offer those inside some meditation and the chance to light some candles. Last year the men requested that we sing carols. Musical accompaniment isn’t possible in this part of the prison, and I doubt that any of us were used to singing in a group, but we handed out the lyrics to some carols and tried our best. The words were of use only to those who could read, but those who didn’t sang the first verse of Away in a Manger three times over, and hummed along to Silent Night, joining in the occasional familiar line when they recognised it. ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’, we sang, discordant and tuneless. I swear it sounded like angels.
‘It’s good of you to go in there’, the woman in the café told me this morning, as she made my coffee and we talked about our Christmas day plans. Without thinking I responded, ‘It’s good for me to go in there’. It’s not that going in makes me appreciate the friends and family who surround me for Christmas – that would come uncomfortably close to pity or charity; it’s not that I discover the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas in there, because there are many real meanings to Christmas. It’s that in the prison, like no other place, I recognise my own fear and darkness sitting alongside that of the men, and I find it transformed. It seems that in honouring another’s humanity in the most godforsaken places, I’m given the chance to discover my own.
And at Christmas, if the stories of the Christian faith are anything to go by, finding our humanity becomes the most divine task. I love the stories of faith, if only as beautiful mythology, where we are invited to believe in the possibility of love that pulls us into our human-ness – not away from it – and then transforms it into something beautiful. That’s the miracle of Christmas in the prison: it gives the gift of human-ness. It says that the most divine act is to live with the degradation and shame of being somewhere and someone who is abhorrent to all that is glamorous and beautiful. And it’s only when we live with that, in the midst of desolation and desperation, that something of glory is given the chance to be born.