One of the worst things about prison, he told me, was the time-wasting. We were standing in a huge barren hall, or maybe it was a baseball court, where we had just meditated with a large group of his fellow-prisoners.
After the profound, shared, sweet silence of the meditation we had a lively discussion about what the inner life on the inside was like and how it could be cultivated. This had graced me with the strange feeling I have often had before in prisons, of being very close to the Kingdom, which Jesus says is always “very close to you” wherever and however you find yourself serving your life-term.
The ugliness and dirtiness of the space we were standing in reminded me of some men’s religious houses I have stayed in which reveal more than anything else how a community can lost hope in the spiritual life and in themselves. It would be hard to keep faith in God or yourself in such an aesthetic inferno. But the prisoners on the whole did not complain about the lack of beauty, maybe because they had discovered that complaining about things you can’t change doesn’t make anything better. Maybe because it didn’t seem the main problem they were facing. They all agreed, however, that the great enemy of prayer in prison is the relentless noise, the continuous sounds of metal gates clanging, loud voices echoing down stone corridors, of the rasping noise of anger or hollow laughter.
It is bad enough to know that many years of your life will be wasted in incarceration. It becomes surreal when you realise that you have become a different and better person than the one who was condemned and excluded from society. Worse still is to fill that wasted time with routines that rob you of what minimal meaning or creativity you might be able to cultivate. Meditation, the prisoner I was talking to told me, had helped him to transform this horrible experience of lost time, as in the hours spent standing in line to be counted. Like monks anywhere he had discovered you could pray anywhere and continuously, even in the worst of conditions, by releasing the prayer already within you. As he stood for his number to be called he let go of his thoughts and his resentment and sadness. Often standing in line, but standing too in his heart, he would fall into the sheer joy of the presence.
Compare this with life in another ‘total institution’ of modern life, a hospital. Doctors and nurses complain increasingly about the stress of their professional lives. Substance abuse, depression, breakdown and suicide are growing factors in the medical profession everywhere. As in prisons, medical stress is a product of bad time-management. It breeds the impression of being overwhelmed, powerless to perform properly; persecuted by colleagues or the people you are supposed to be serving.
A hospital where I was speaking recently runs four meditation groups. When it ran a workshop on interpersonal skills for doctors, they were amazed to be told how badly others perceived them to be behaving - interrupting the patients before they had finished describing their problems, avoiding eye contact, harsh with nursing staff and colleagues, cold-hearted in relaying bad news. They were amazed to be told that if they visited a patient and stood sideways to them at a distance, avoiding personal contact, the patient would either remember the visit negatively or erase it from his memory altogether. If the doctor had sat on the edge of the bed for a few moments, present and attentive, the patient would later be convinced she had stayed for a good twenty minutes.
How much time and resources are wasted trying to achieve what a simple spiritual practice makes obvious? In prisons the ethos of punishment and degradation is blatantly counter-productive. In hospitals the depersonalization of medicine makes no one feel better even if it prolongs life, which it often doesn’t. In schools, government policies impose education as a means of training children as an economic resource for reducing the national debt.
One way or another, we are all processed through institutions today. Wastage of time and resources increase with the diminishing of the human factor. And once the humanity of relationships and the quality of personal attention begins to slide it is hard to reverse the trend. The Nazis perversely mastered this process of self-dehumanization that leads, inevitably, to extinction.
Waste will waste us all in time. Finding how to handle time under stressful conditions, how to manage restraint so as to be fully present, is probably one of the greatest spiritual needs of our time. Regardless of any belief system or management theory the simple human art of being present, the lost art of prayer, patiently calls us home to ourselves.
Laurence Freeman OSB
Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His daily readings for Lent are available online: www.wccm.org