They say you can’t find atheists in foxholes. You find even fewer in jail. A soldier can try to leave the battlefield; inmates have no such option. It’s a cliché and hardly admirable, but jail often cultivates “belief” in a power greater than one’s own.
Avoiding prayers to Jesus and other expressions of piety on the prison bus to Niantic, Connecticut, one snowy Friday night in December 2007 seemed nearly impossible. I was riding with twenty other women, whose heads all seemed bowed in prayer. They had traveled this way before and had the routine down pat. But it was my first trip, and my eyes and thoughts were focused elsewhere. I had just been convicted of identity theft and illegal use of a credit card, and was being shipped to York Correctional Institution. So I was searching for whatever reasonable options were left to me to get out of this mess.
God is not supposed to be the last resort, I reasoned. You shouldn’t summon his power only after you’ve landed in prison. I had never been a friend to God, and it’s wrong to treat him like a waiter, hovering there until you need your glass refilled. So praying for deliverance on the way to jail would have made me feel inauthentic; I would have been a user, not a believer.
Later I discovered a small cadre of devout inmates at York C. I. But for the most part, the place was crawling with phony Holy Rollers who would shout, “God is good!” or “Trust and believe!” and then strike out at other inmates or falsely accuse the guards of misconduct. A second chorus of inmates would advise this first group, “God don’t like ugly!” but I soon concluded that God ain’t too fond of the “pretty” group either.
With a five-year sentence and a lengthy appeal in front of me, I was looking at plenty of time to fix my relationship with God. A Princeton graduate with several years of postgraduate study, I was easily the most educated inmate in the place. Still, I hadn’t a clue about how to pray. In fact the only “C” I got in college was in a course on Roman Catholicism, even though I had been reared Catholic and could check off four of the seven sacraments (I’ll never qualify for holy orders, and am awaiting matrimony and “last rites,” probably on the same day). Despite my background, the real reasons for praying or for receiving the Eucharist eluded me. I knew almost no biblical history—who was Baal, anyway? (I did know about the Book of Job, but what self-pitying person doesn’t?) At York, the other women inmates, “fervents” and frauds alike, shamed me with their theological knowledge. For years I had rationalized that intellectuals can’t be spiritual, and I wanted to be an intellectual. I could induce, deduce, analyze, and theorize. I hadn’t a clue how to believe.
I ought to have known something. My younger sisters and I had never fully escaped our parents’ good intentions to impart Catholic spirituality to us. Growing up, we attended Mass every Sunday, but my sisters and I soon balked when we had to get up early after a Saturday night out with friends. Even then, our parents accommodated our brattiness. They found a parish with a 4:00 p.m. Saturday vigil Mass that ran only half an hour. We could be home by 5:00 p.m. to start our primping.
That church was in a former bakery, furnished with folding chairs—no kneelers. Above the makeshift altar hung glittery tapestries and Christmas lights. Old-fashioned spotlights illuminated the place, and a filing cabinet served as the tabernacle. Once we brought my uncle to Mass there. An eminent literature professor, he was accustomed to the Gothic formality of his Ivy League university chapel. “Oh my Christ!” he gasped when he saw the place. Uncle Tom stood to pray while everyone else remained seated and my sisters and I laughed hysterically. “You don’t sit when you pray,” he hissed. “Standing or kneeling only!” But his instruction didn’t take.
The thought of prayer, sitting or standing, rarely crossed my mind. I am sure this was obvious to my godmother, Uncle Tom’s sister, and she must have worried, but she never said a word. She was a third-order Franciscan who conducted all of her affairs according to St. Francis’s admonition to give more than you receive. Aunt Nancy’s faith and goodness were so complete that just hearing her voice on the phone produced instant guilt.
One summer day in 1993, my mother and I drove to Aunt Nancy’s house outside Washington, D.C. We found her on her front lawn, hosting a weekly prayer session encircled by a group of swaying supplicants. A tent revival in upscale Bethesda, Maryland. It was an incongruous sight, and at first my mother and I declined to join. But eventually peer pressure won out and I wound up holding hands with two strangers, a situation that inexplicably made me laugh. Because I tried to stifle the sound, it came out like a dog’s yelp. Convinced I had offended them, I was shocked when they all laughed with me. Aunt Nancy clapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s OK. God loves laughter.” Getting whipped would have felt better, I thought to myself. Nothing works quite as well as unconditional love and forgiveness to make a person feel like crap. The idea that someone’s love and concern would never waver no matter what I did—be it busting up her prayer circle or laughing in her face—unnerved me. I thought it was impossible to deserve something unless I earned it, and nothing was earned unless I first excelled at it.
I did not come to kneel at this altar of achievement by accident. My parents expected nothing less than excellence, and they were willing to do anything to help me and my sisters attain it. They recognized that the admission ticket to success was good grades and accolades. So we became poster girls for meritocracy. We were in control; we set goals and met them. There were no accidents, pauses, or acts of God in between. Just like everyone around us, we surrendered to a higher power: the god of ambition.
When I moved into the freshman dormitory at Princeton, I spied an orange, custom-painted BMW sporting a bumper sticker that said, “The Meek Don’t Want It.” This became my fellow students’ motto, despite the fact that we attended classes under the school’s official motto Dei sub numine viget, “Under God’s power she flourishes.” Overachievers don’t place their fate in others’ hands, not even God’s; they trust only themselves. For me, humility was blasphemy.
After receiving my degree in philosophy, I was able to reconcile logical paradoxes with the best of them, but I still had an impossible time understanding Jesus’ maxims. Whoever seeks to save her life will lose it? The last shall be first? Not where I came from. I thought more along the lines of Matthew 5:48—“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I can do that, I thought. Unending hymns of praise would eventually be reserved for me.
Fifteen years later, as I stood in line for my maximum-security prison ID, something else started to sink in. I hadn’t managed either the achievements or the white-knuckle grip on life that I had anticipated. Nor did I have a relationship with the Man Upstairs. So I rebuked myself for that as well. The root of the problem was I had never been able to buy into the egalitarian nostrum that everyone is equal before God. Without my own superior effort and achievement, I reasoned, what value would “being spiritual” have?
Divine intervention arrived wearing topsiders and khakis, carrying a canvas tote bag, and chewing gum. Enter my spiritual replenishment, Deacon (Greek for waiter) Dennis F. Dolan. As religious coordinator for Catholic inmates at York C.I., he was both educated and brilliant. He had decided against potentially lucrative careers to become a prison chaplain, for he was happiest ministering to some of the worst women in Connecticut. He also had a gift for explaining theological somersaults, like sanctifying grace, to a subliterate population, and for getting through to these women’s impermeable hearts, including mine. Deacon Dolan isn’t just a preacher, he walks the walk. He believes.
In yet another church with folding chairs (this time the prison’s school hallway), Deacon Dolan taught me to pray and to believe, segueing into the “Our Father” by asking, “Who’s your Daddy?” He would give a woman who was being released from prison his “Walmart Blessing” (“See you in Walmart, not back here”). And his ticket to admission was the penitential rite: “Admit you’re a screwup.” He taught us to celebrate human fallibility and helped me forget my toxic concept of God: No, I didn’t have to be flawless before gaining God’s love. I didn’t even have to be better than everyone else at praying in order to pray.
Some people say you can find God anywhere, if only you look. I found faith through Deacon Dolan at York C.I. He helped me laugh, appropriately, and helped me realize that the wounds we all bear—the fact that we are not and never will be perfect—are a part of life. “Mistakes are expected,” he explained. And that word “perfect”? In the Bible it means merciful. Forgiving. Even of yourself.
Deacon Dolan told me that the best prayer is “Thy will be done” because God is infinitely smarter and more competent than the rest of us. It is when we want our wills to be done that we become undone, staring skyward from our own personal foxholes.
The prison library is full of inspirational books, many of them about inmates who found God in prison. My own conversion story is far from complete. Now, trying is enough, failing is OK—especially for those of us who believe.