mid-winter in the prison

I went back to Port Philip Prison last night to see the men in the Marlborough Unit. Ross, the chaplain, and I decided that we’d like to do some midwinter services, so last night we were planning to write some prayers and psalms with the men, which i’d then take away and use to design worship for two weeks time.

It didn’t quite work like that, but as with all things in the prison, it worked in its own way.

It was a very different group to last time I was doing writing in there. We read a couple of psalms, we talked about the solstice and the longest night, we handed out the templates… and then there was silence, and blank looks. We offered the option of people taking them away and doing it themselves, later in their cell, and there was enthusiastic nodding… so we’ll see what comes out of that! Quite a few men who didn’t come to worship came up afterwards and wanted copies of the templates to write their own as well, so we’ll see whether they come back too… It’s always unexpected. I have a backup plan for the worship, if we don’t get anything – and either way it’s going to involve lots of candles and communion at the end…

Last night worship was planned for 5pm, but dinner was late, and then medication… so it was about 6 before we started. And then two minutes in, the dessert message came across the loud speaker, so the men traipsed outside, got their icecream and brought it back in… By the end of worship, those who had had their medication for depression were completely zoned out and nearly falling over.

I haven’t been back there since christmas day, so in the hour or so that we were waiting around for dinner and medication and whatever else, they were asking questions about what i’d been doing and where else i’d been. I mentioned i’d been in the women’s prison over Easter. I was sitting next to Craig, who shivered and said ‘I’ve heard they’re scary in there’. It was like i had instant [undeserved] street cred for daring to go in there. It was somewhat ironic coming from someone as big and threatening as him, who has spent his life in and out of prison, is decorated with prison ink and battle scars – the kind of person i would instinctively cross the street to avoid outside [in fact, the kind of person who makes me catch taxis home so i won’t even be walking on the same street]. The truth is indeed contextual…

I’ve been reading Marilyn Robinson’s book Home for the last few days. I was talking about it yesterday to someone, saying that it’s everything she doesn’t say that makes the story so beautiful – that the space she leaves between words and sentences is filled with this kind of fragility that leaves us aching. As we were leaving the unit last night, Alf appeared. He’d waved at us from his cell door earlier in the night, and then he came down and sat outside the room where we were holding worship, i think to wait for us to come out. He told me that he’s decided to give up his medication, to try to manage things on his own. It felt like there was such importance behind those words. I don’t know what it was – that he was taking responsibility for himself in a new way? that he’d decided that he wanted some kind of different future? I don’t even know what the medication was for… But in the silence between his sentences, i felt that same kind of aching i’ve been feeling as i’ve been reading Home. That sense of the other that’s found in the meeting point of resilience, fragility and longing. Maybe it’s that sense of holiness that comes only in the encounter with that which is most broken and is trying to be human.

So we go back in a couple of weeks to think about the longest nights again. And i feel so lucky that i get to encounter human existence at its most raw and most fragile. Who would ever want to be anywhere else?