Yesterday I went to prison. That is, I went to visit someone in prison. When I arrived they were on “lock-down”, so the trip took a little longer than I expected. Once I finally got inside and was assigned my seat in the visiting room, however, it was a meaningful visit. After just under an hour the person I was visiting went back to prison life and I took a seat up against one of the walls to wait for the next shuttle to take me back to the entrance.
As I waited, my eyes panned the room. There must have been 75 people in there, all talking loudly, some with great animation. Prisoner visitation was limited to 2 hours and it was obvious that some intended to enjoy their full two hours with a loved one – a brother, a boyfriend, a son, a husband, or a father – who, for one reason or another was “doing time.” What struck me as I looked at their faces was their personhood, each of them sharing joys, walking through pain and suffering to one degree or another, longing to love and be loved. I reflected on how God looked at that room, what God thought about those sitting there, talking, laughing, filling their 120 minutes with as much life and goodness as they possibly could. God loved them, of course; he looked at them, knew their sins, their mistakes, their faults, their wounds, their potential… and loved them. Period.
God’s love made me reflect on my own attitude toward these prisoners and their loved ones, and it reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the journals of Thomas Merton. On March 18, 1958, on a busy street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had a revelation that redefined how he understood his calling as a monk.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
I’m sure that most people in that visiting room yesterday did not feel they were “shining like the sun,” but to the degree that they bore the image of God, to the degree God loved and loves them still, they did (and do). That room was holy. That space was sacred. And if that space and those people were holy, the same is true of each of us and each person we meet, be they strangers or intimate friends. These encounters we have each day, each moment of each day, are divine. That is, God is in them already, like warmth in sunlight, or depth in darkness. God is in them, and we will see that, if we will stand, watch, and listen long enough.