that’s how the light gets in

i’ve just spent the afternoon at the Melbourne Assessment Prison (MAP) in the Acute Assessment Unit (AAU) – which houses men with acute psych conditions.

these are some of my reflections. i don’t have time at the moment to make them poetic or politically / theologically correct. i’m just writing them as they come out of my head…

margaret, the chaplain, led worship with the four men who came to church (a small room, approximately two metres by four metres – normally used for drug education).

talk of Jesus unearths all sorts of delusions, and in this environment worship is always participatory – all sense of ‘worshipful behaviour’ goes out the window – or maybe it’s just re-defined. talk where you want, argue as you will. let it rip.

Robert won’t shut up. his conversation goes all over the place, but is littered with astute and wise statements. there are glimpses of acute intelligence, lost through the destruction of mental illness and drug dependence. at one point he storms out, only to return a minute or two later, repentant, eager to worship again.

david is heartbreaking. i’ve heard it said that people with mental illness are just like everyone else, but without the capacity to pretend… while i think that definition is an insult to the hellishness and complexity of mental illness, it does express a little bit of david’s reality. his body and expressions mirror his emotions exactly. he’s living a roller coaster – when he talks of his baby son his whole body lights up, and when he talks of what faces him when he leaves prison, he folds. Much of the service doesn’t connect with him, but at the end he falls with relief into saying the Lord’s Prayer, and crosses himself with a well practiced gesture. as we’re about to leave, he comforts Robert by reciting entire verses of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’. at that point I had to blink back the tears.

margaret and i talked afterwards about worship. stuff’s beginning to shape in my head – we need to find rituals that set aside the 30 minutes of worship from the rest of the week. the worship isn’t about teaching or preaching or exhorting people to live better. it’s about making a space that’s different from the rest of life.

we talked about whether this was a group with whom the avoidance theology of Hillsongs music might actually be appropriate. I never thought I’d say that.

and then we sat in silence, wondering what hope was for these men. we could easily predict the lives they would be returning to when they were released, and the hopelessness of their situations. nothing will change. there is no cure for their illnesses. they will return to crumpled families who do not know how to live with them – and they carry the stigma of two of societies most despised labels – being prisoners, and suffering mental illness. to think there will be a happy ending is an absolute denial of reality.

I’ve said before that every time i go into prison i’m converted while i’m there. my theology (which is already pretty earthy) crumbles in the face of what I see. so far I’ve been surprised by the hope I’ve discovered, the promise of redemption. I’ve seen grace, and witnessed transformation.

here it’s just desperately sad. I’m not sure what faith offers to these men. while I’ve spent much of the last years trying to strip away my faith so that it’s not simply a projection of my own desires, I’m having to learn again to pray for those things that cannot be of human making. on the walk back to the office I find myself praying for a life beyond this one where these men will be subsumed into God’s heart.

and maybe faith offers something in the immediate. for half an hour each week, from 1.30 until 2.00, there’s space for these men to remember they are loved beyond their imagining by God, and a table to sit around where they are always welcome.

I hate that for me it seems so pitifully small, but that for them it’s everything.


  1. Blair

    I read through to the bottom of this post, and thought that the title of the last one was the most appropriate response.

    It makes me wonder if we have to connect the hope we locate in God with the reality of life as we experience it. Do we have to? I think so, but in what way?

    Is it a trap to expect that faith [or the ‘good news’] will necessarily generate lives that look from the outside to be hopeful? As you said, “for them {having space to remember being loved} is everything”.

  2. Dave w

    salvation from what, to what??? hell on earth??? I want to curl up in the comfort & promises of eternity that i so often seek to shed, redefine and ‘make-sense’ of.

    thanks for such an honest and vulnerable disclosure…

  3. angry young thing

    as always thank you so much for your ongoing work, and sharing your experiences with all of us.

    one thing that struck me so much about this recent reflection was;

    ‘here it

  4. angry young thing

    Oh and as a little asside, a quote from the ‘gospel according to Dean.’
    scribled on the sahara drug rehab notice board;

    “blessed are the cracked for it is they who let in the light.”

    Blessed indeed.

  5. Blair

    I don’t think it’s a cop out to believe in a place where tears will be wiped away and death swallowed up. Isn’t it so much easier to *not* believe when we’re confronted with the hard aspects of existence? I wonder if believing in ‘heaven’ is less intuitive, but incredibly more important?

  6. Cheryl

    gosh, and i thought the hillsongs music would be the talking point in this one…

    blair, i think one of my problems with christianity is that we find it too easy to believe in life beyond death when we’re confronted with the hard aspects of existence…

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