In my work within a prison chaplaincy in the high security estate I became increasingly aware of the real deprivations that are involved by incarceration. Prison is, of course, by it’s very nature, considered to be first and foremost a penalty meted out to redress and punish some wrong doing and personal deprivation is part of that punishment. Choices are stripped away and the relentless monotony of day to day prison life hits home and little by little strips back any humanity that may be present in the inmate.
It became evident to me that making the most ordinary journeys- from bed to bathroom, to kitchen – From home to work, school, church. These simple movements were no longer available to these men and I experienced a moment of deep sadness for them because I understood, perhaps for the first time, how very significant these journeys are to each life. It is through them, in part, that we come to understand ourselves. One day we choose to take a particular route because we love the tree lined avenue that is changing with the seasons or another route because we can pick up a delicious frothy latte from the little coffee shop with the nice barista or there is a hedgerow filled with tiny birds singing, an apple orchard, a friend’s house, a long fast road to drive down….. these tiny almost unconsidered choices shape and inform our thinking, our day, who we are and yet we are barely conscious of them.
I facilitated a Bible Study group that was well attended by a faithful group of men, mostly Christian but open to anyone and undertaken freely and as a choice. It usually meant that they had to sacrifice a gym session to participate (a big thing for a man in prison confined to a small cell for many hours of the day), the gym is an outlet for their constrained physicality and much needed to expend pent up aggression. So choosing Bible Study was a great commitment to God on their part.
It seemed very important to provide a journey for my group, something to restore humanity and at the same time deepen faith. A journey to be shared at the deepest level. I decided to organise a ‘pilgrimage’ to the Holy Land over the weeks of Lent. An invitation ‘Road to Jerusalem – A Modern Pilgrimage’ was placed on the seats at the Sunday services so that they could sign up for the trip by choice.
I prepared for each of them a personal passport for our travels through the various parts of Christ’s own country. It would be stamped each week and special documents enclosed as a record of their visit to Nazareth, Judea, Galilee, Bethlehem the Garden of Gethsemane etc. The picture in the passport was a drawing of Christ that one man had beautifully executed as a gift for his prison visitor and gave permission for me to use. The idea behind this ‘is Christ in us’, that when we looked at our ‘photograph’ we searched for the image of God knowing He is there, that this is our picture. I invited other members of the Christian chaplaincy team to join me and be our guide in the different places we visited each week. We had a map of the countryside we would travel through, with our route marked out on it.
The team leading consisted of a Catholic, Anglican, Quaker, Free Church and Methodist so each week took on a beautiful shape of it’s own informed by the individual and their way of relating to Jesus. We journeyed through Christ’s life from birth to death visiting the places mentioned in scripture, experiencing sights (through pictures and photographs), the smells through herbs and spices brought up from the prison kitchen and a fragrant oil, the sounds through music, prayer and silence, the colour and feel of the place through fabric rough and smooth. Our senses were drenched in the experience. A rarity in the prison where one’s senses are emphatically dumbed down to ensure the men are manageable and kept under control. We explored through our senses, the nature of Christ and His ministry, labyrinths, travelling together and alone, fasting and feasting.
The final part of our journey took place in Holy Week and involved me chalking out a labyrinth on the carpet tiles in the large chapel with a large wooden freestanding cross at it’s centre. We walked the labyrinth together and alone, in our own time but considering another’s pace, arriving at the centre to stand before the cross. Many of the men fell to their knees silently weeping and worshiping the living God. We were provided with a sublime moment of faith on that day and our pilgrimage was complete. We moved into the Easter Triduum with a deeper sense of ourselves and so of Christ, with God at our centre and without circumference.
I know that while making this pilgrimage, the men were encouraged to regard each of the smaller journeys they were making within each day as something sacred, a private prayer. The walk from cell to the workshop, from healthcare to chapel, from corridor to corridor, contained opportunity to meet with Christ, be His feet, His hands and His mouth. To see through His eyes the officers on duty. To really live those small simple journeys in a different way, the Way, the only way. To make ‘doing their time’ different, better. It was a journey I will never forget and one that has proved to leave a lasting impression upon my own walk in faith.
Alice Hoefkens is married to Jerome. They have 4 children and live in the Cotswolds at the heart of the UK. She has worked in the chaplaincy of a maximum security prison providing pastoral care for prisoners and staff, introductory courses to Christianity, devising and facilitating new and imaginative ways to explore and deepen faith and in building unity of faith among her fellow chaplaincy team through creating shared projects. Prior to this she worked in a Psycho-Geriatric Home for the elderly as a carer and was made the POVA representative for the religious sisters who were her colleagues. It has always been important to her to use every and any available tool to reveal the person of Christ to others: music, art, poetry, nature, fabric, fragrance, whatever may present as itself at a given time as a symbol of the love of God.