Michael kneels on concrete just behind a row of empty folding chairs. One by one, others enter quietly and join him. A few kneel, others sit. All seem to be in an attitude of anticipation. They are accustomed to waiting.

The wail of a steam-powered whistle sounds and the frenetic pace of life in prison slows, falters, halts. It is time for the 10:00 a.m. count.

The vimpa drapes my shoulders; its fringes hang to my knees. I clean my hands and wipe them dry and steady myself in prayer before grasping the base of the monstrance and setting its bottom on my open left hand. I bow my head in supplication before I exit the sanctuary. Michael claps his hands once at the sight of the Blessed Sacrament. We have no Angelus bells, no chimes. When I was a boy half a century ago, the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph’s School would clap to focus our attention, and the same technique works perfectly now. It was unimaginable back then that I would ever come to a place like this, and yet here I am, an old convict serving the thirty-fourth year of a life sentence in Texas.

As I center the monstrance on the altar and genuflect, Michael claps twice more. We are attentive, awed to be in the presence of the Lord. The State of Texas grants us the privilege of adoration for an hour each Monday, schedule permitting. About a dozen prisoners attend. A CD of Gregorian chants plays softly in the background. Otherwise we are steeped in silence in a place known for its perpetual noise.

 

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui...

 

The hour is over in what seems like only a few minutes. I am hardly through the rosary when it’s time to reposition the Eucharist, put away the sacramentaries, and adjust our hearts and minds to the harsh reality of life behind bars.

Every day is a struggle no matter where you live. And yet even here there’s much for which to give thanks. Many of those who attend monthly Mass or come to Catholic services each Thursday night seem serious about making reparations for their sins. They want to take off the old man and put on the new with a kind of desperation I’ve never seen anywhere else. Fear is the greatest impediment to this transformation. Among the endless strangers in what is always a foreign land, the sense of danger and displacement you feel when you first enter prison eventually fades. Life becomes bearable. Once you’ve settled in and found your place in the pecking order of established territories you begin to recognize others not only by name or sight, but by the sound of their laughter, the tone of their voice, how they walk or run, even by their smell. Strangers no more, but by degrees familiar. Which is to say, more like family than not.

Our earlier estrangement from each other mirrors our estrangement from God through sin. Dorothy Day wrote, “No one sins to offend God, but to gain pleasure.” In the many stories I’ve heard here over the years, there’s a common theme: at the root of nearly every man’s fall was a desire for pleasure. Day went on to ask, “What causes us to commit sin? Because we do not love God.” Strong words—and true ones. Some people don’t love God because they don’t love themselves; because no one ever taught them how to love. Some hang on to their sins with determined ferocity, almost a kind of possessiveness—as if without them they would be left with nothing. Just the opposite is true: Without our sins, we would have everything.

I end my hour of adoration with the Anima Christi. My favorite part says:

 

…O good Jesus, hear me.
Within thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from thee.
From the malicious enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me
and bid me come unto thee...

 

The whistle blows twice. Count is clear. Time to leave. We take the silence with us. n

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Philip Brasfield is the author of Deathman Pass Me By (Borgo Press, 1983). 2011 marks his thirty-fourth year in prison.

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