Tag Archives: Prison

Memorials of faith under oppression in a Baltic state

Guest post by Dr. Chiara Bertoglio.

It is only very rarely that I have time for proper holidays, that is the idea of packing, flying and then enjoying a journey just for the sake of it. Much more frequently, I have to travel for my job, but – whenever possible – I try and make the most of these journeys, particularly attempting to know the places and people I’m visiting.

This happened in the past week, when I had to go to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, for a conference. I was very curious, because I had never been to a Baltic country before. What will follow is just a kind of diary of what I saw, and, of course, I have no pretension to write as an expert of Lithuania or of its history. I’m merely a traveling musician who happened to spend a few days there.

The first thing I discovered was that Lithuania, along with its sister Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, is celebrating this year its 100th birthday. These countries declared their independence in 1918, though the following hundred years were marked by systematic violation of that independence and freedom. They experienced occupation and the deprivation of freedom and democracy, particularly during the long Soviet era.

Though the anniversary celebrations are stressing very strongly that the country’s independence is a hundred years old, and therefore that there is substantial continuity between Lithuania in 1918 and in 2018, they are also not hiding the country’s history and what it suffered in this century.

Just in front of the Academy of Music, where our conference took place, there is a building which immediately caught my eye. It is rather imposing, occupying one whole block; between the Academy and the building there is a small monument, in the shape of a little hill made of rocks, surmounted by a cross and with many flowers and candles spread around and above it. This tiny memorial invites attention, as does a block-long exhibition of drawings by children and teenagers – some of which are really beautiful – and which illustrate the history of Lithuania’s occupation. In fact, the large building a few steps away has had the debatable privilege of being the prison and operational centre of both the Gestapo (during the Nazi era) and of the KGB (during the longer Soviet occupation).

The building is covered in large square stones, on which the names and dates of birth and death of Lithuanian heroes are sculpted; many of them share the year 1945 as the second of the two. Inside the building is the Museum of the Genocide. I must admit that at first I had no intention to visit it. I can’t stand the sight of violence, I never watch horror movies, and I believe that one can learn enough about history without indulging in what I think are voyeuristic descriptions of torture and sadism.

In spite of this, in the end I convinced myself to enter, thinking that I would certainly not miss a visit to Auschwitz if I had the opportunity of going there, and so I had to take courage and enter here too. I was rewarded for this minor act of courage. The museum was by no means a chamber of horrors, even though it was more than a chamber of horrors. In the cellar, the KGB prison has been left as it was; and it is something one has really to see in order to believe it.

For example, you see what looks like a grim but not particularly terrible prison cell, about three by five meters, with three beds with no mattresses. The point is that up to a hundred prisoners were crammed into one of these cells. When you see it and think “well, this must be a cell for three people” and then you learn that a hundred people lived there… it makes you feel how inhuman their condition was. Then you see the showers, which are nothing to write home about, but when you learn that prisoners could take one shower a month you realize how terrible that was (and, incidentally, how the smell of a hundred unwashed people must have been).

There was, indeed, the display of some means of torture, of which I won’t write, but it was not like a splatter movie; rather, it made me deeply touched, sad and intensely moved. I was on the verge of tears when I descended into the execution room. I knew that thousands of people had died there; and while I felt the immense sacredness of a place like that, where heroes, martyrs and common people had been shot and had left this earth, I was also impressed by the “practical details” which made those killings so vivid in my eyes – such as the hosepipe used for washing the blood after the executions. It was like perceiving the reality and the truth of it all, not in the form of a tale, but as a true experience of life.

Similarly, I will never forget some small items which I saw in the museum in the upper floors, where tiny objects from the prisoners’ and the deportees’ lives were displayed. Many unsung heroes of the Lithuanian resistance were in fact sent to Siberia and other pleasant holiday places in the USSR, and, once more, the living truth conveyed by these objects was much more impressive for me than descriptions of tortures or other horrors which these people experienced.

There were handkerchiefs on which a married couple embroidered the portraits of their children: the parents had been sent to Siberia and this was a way for keeping the beloved features of their offspring with them. There were Christmas cards written on birch bark; small bags in which a handful of Lithuanian earth was kept by the deportees. But what most impressed me were the numerous examples of how faith kindled courage and hope in these prisoners.

A rosary made of bread, which belonged to the political prisoner Elena Kirlyte, Kazakh SSR, circa 1954.

There were rosary beads made of breadcrumbs (and one can only imagine how precious a breadcrumb could be for these people in forced labor at the end of the world); tiny holy vessels with which the priests celebrated Mass, sometimes even on the trains which brought them to Siberia, as witnessed in a “Mass diary” kept by a priest; minuscule crucifixes made from toothbrushes (!); portable altars carved in wood, or Lilliput prayer books written by hand. There were also some exquisite Christmas decorations which a deported bishop, from his internment at a kind of lunatic asylum, sent to his little niece; her picture was found in his own portable altar, so that he celebrated Mass for this little child.

I emerged from this visit with a full heart. I was impressed by some dates, telling me that some of these events happened during my own lifetime; in fact, I can distinctly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, though I had forgotten about the human chain made by some two million inhabitants of the Baltic republics in 1989 (the “Baltic way”).

Outside the museum, I found a vibrant city, with a wonderful Old Town which is part of the Unesco World Heritage and modern shops like those I find in the major Western cities (though whether this homogenization is a positive aspect is debatable). But I also found an elderly man who sold simple bunches of homegrown flowers, tied with a shoelace – a touching reminder that freedom is not the same as well-being, and that consumerism is not the antidote to past abuses. The true antidote, I think, is in the deep faith and values of the Lithuanian people, some of whom I saw praying in the Cathedral church of Vilnius. I will not forget an old nun, who was so beautiful in her prayer that I couldn’t resist taking a picture of her.

The country, along with the other Baltic countries, will be receiving a visit by Pope Francis in a few days; possibly he will also go on pilgrimage to the Hill of the Crosses, a place I longed to see but which was too far from Vilnius to be compatible with my schedule. But I hope to be able to visit it in the future: it is yet another living witness of the power of faith and love to heal the deepest and most painful sorrows of humankind.

Dr. Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Originally published at MercatorNet.

Featured image: Hill of Crosses, Lithuania / PD-US
Photos: Chiara Bertoglio.

The Gift of My Presence

Loneliness is something every human being has to face, for it is the hunger for perfect union. Even happily married people know this loneliness, for we cannot penetrate another’s innermost being. Loneliness ultimately comes from not knowing that God loves us, for as St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Dearly Beloved (Volume 1)

In regular life one may feel lonely at times, and appreciate the company of friends. But I have never quite felt the enormity of the gift of human presence until recently, especially on the day I visited both my fiancé in prison and my friend in a psychiatric ward.

When visiting a prisoner, you cannot bring anything with you — no gifts, no cards or letters (mailed and examined, as in a convent or monastery), no food, no books. All you bring is yourself.

For an hour twice a week, family and friends can visit their loved ones in prison. This begins with non-contact visits, through a glass. After background checks have been cleared — usually after a month or more — we can have contact visits. The gift of human touch is never so appreciated as when it has been denied for awhile. My fiancé could barely contain his joy, saying, “I feel like running around the room in excitement!”

One of the first things in facing loneliness, especially that of old age, but any kind of loneliness, is to understand that Christ calls some people to share His loneliness. This calling is redemptive! For if we share in the loneliness of Christ we can also share in His redeeming of the world.
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Doubts, Loneliness, Rejection

Each time you visit, there is a chance you may not see the person you have come for. After being identified, you have to check that you have nothing prohibited on your person — no watches, no phones or tissues in your pockets, no bobby pins, no jewellery except wedding or engagement rings. A lady’s first contact visit with her son was almost cancelled when she realized she still had her watch on, under her sleeve.

Then the drug-detecting dog sniffs you; you have your shoes scanned; an officer examines your hair, your heels (not sure why — if someone wanted to hide anything in his socks, it would be between his toes, right?), your pockets, your ears for piercings, and your mouth (recently added to the litany of places to check for contraband). Then you step into a machine which checks your fingerprint (which regularly malfunctions), and on the other side an officer with a wand checks for drugs again. The other day a high school teacher was unable to have a contact visit with her son because the wand picked up something on her clothes.

Finally, you step through a series of doors into the visiting area. Then you have one precious hour to spend with the person who has been anticipating your visit all week. In this corporal or bodily act of mercy, you truly realize how humans are made for communion, especially through the physical presence of another. We can receive phone calls daily and letters weekly, but nothing compares to actually being with someone and being able to comfort them with a simple touch.

Prisoners are often moved from prison to prison, and some visitors sadly miss seeing their beloved. On two occasions I witnessed or heard of a visitor traveling from afar, only to find their loved one gone — and with the booking system, you often have to book visits a week ahead. I found a lady sobbing outside the reception area — she had driven an hour to see her husband, only to find that she had been mistakenly booked in for the prior visit and the bookings system did not allow her to enter for the current one. She also discovered that her husband was being moved to a prison much further away. With children to care for at home, she was overwhelmed at losing this precious hour, and completely brokenhearted.

Indeed, prison is hard on the families of the incarcerated. So is hospitalization. When I visited my friend, the other patients crowded around us, thirsting for human connection. From their manner of speech, I discerned that they had lived rough lives, and they probably didn’t receive many visitors. How many solitary people are out there in institutions, aching for a friendly voice? In prisons and in hospitals, chaplains bring the precious gift of their presence and the Real Presence, a selfless act which in turn acknowledges the inherent worth of each prisoner and patient which cannot be erased by sin, sickness or suffering.

Love is not abstract; it is a fire. It must spend itself in service. What you and I have to be is a flame, a lamp to our neighbor’s feet, a place where he can warm himself, where he can see the face of God.
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Restoration

Can you think of someone who may need your presence today? Find in him the Face of Christ, as he will find Christ in yours.

For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
— Matthew 25:35-36

Image: Saint Paul in Prison

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

I have been working with this coworker for awhile, he was hired around the same time that I did. He was hired as a maintenance worker and quickly became my favorite one, because I felt comfortable asking for help without feeling as though I was being an imposition. In exchange for his help, I gave him some extra samples of the pastry I was planning to sample that day. We would joke that he was the official taste-tester and if he dropped dead I would know that I shouldn’t sample that pastry.

Over the course of our time working together I developed the suspicion that he had a “colored” past, as they say. He went to Las Vegas for his birthday and let’s just say he was not going for the shows. I never asked him for details because it was not my business to know. On Tuesday he was sporting a freshly-shaved head and I commented on how dapper he looked. He smiled and thanked me, he then added that he did it every few months to keep him humble. I asked him what that meant and he admitted it helped him remember what life was like for him when he was in prison. Looking in the mirror everyday and seeing his shaved head was a good reminder of where he came from and to be thankful for the life he had now. It is easy for him to forget how terrible life was in prison. He confessed that he can easily fall back into his old ways and lose control with money; he needs to constantly check himself. He can receive a lot of bonuses at his other job and the temptation to use them to go back to dealing drugs can be hard to overcome at times. He needs to see his shaved head to remind him how awful his life was. He never wants to go back to prison — he has a better life now with a son that he needs to provide for and set a good example.

After telling me his story, I think he recognized how vulnerable he was being and tried to joke it off saying that he knew how weird it sounded. I told him that it didn’t sound weird at all and I admired him for being so aware of his limits. I said it was great that he took active steps to keep himself from giving in to temptation. The fact that he is smart enough to recognize that he still has the impulse to misuse money and shaving his head helped keep him from repeating his mistakes was a great accomplishment. I thanked him for sharing his story; he was an inspiration. He is a blessing in my life because he reminded me what a gift my life was and not to take anything for granted.

___

Originally posted at Kitty in the City.
Image: PD-US

Moments of Grace in Prison

Guest post by T.E.W., a brother in prison.

A few new men have entered our unit and one of them is Catholic. We were having a chat about prayer time and the shows he watches on TV. He likes watching (Pentecostal preachers) Joyce Meyer and Joseph Prince; I personally don’t. I was sharing my sentiments about this, saying that I prefer to listen only to Catholic sources of teaching. Then he told me that there is Mass televised at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings on Channel 10. I am praying that the Lord wakes me up in time to be there with Him at the Mass (since we do not have alarm clocks in our cells).

[Continued the following day]

I was so happy this morning, because just as I had asked in my heart, the Lord woke me up at an appropriate time to be able to spend a few minutes in prayer giving thanks for the day before Mass started at 6 a.m. on Channel 10. The Lord is looking after me so well in here, giving me the gifts I need at just the right time, gifts which are beneficial to my developing trust in Him, however slight and gradual that trust may be.

On another day, I went out to the oval for some sun and exercise. After we finished, I struck up a short conversation with a guard about his beard. A ladybug landed on my arm. I couldn’t help but just look at it and see it as a sign of God’s abiding presence with me while I’m in here. Although I know that God is always with us, it was a nice little reminder that He is looking after me.

What I think really made the moment special is that I usually never go out to the oval because it means forfeiting “Access” to our cells. The most wonderful thing happened. I was really tired, and resigned to waiting around for access to my cell, but the guards gave us another “Access” at 3:15 p.m. until dinner. This was an exceptionally blessed day.

Jesus in the Prison

Guest post by T.E.W., a brother in prison until All Souls Day.

Today was a wonderful day. I had an opportunity to speak to the Catholic chaplains, one whose name was Deacon Russ and the other, Mary.

I received some Catholic daily devotionals entitled The Word Among Us and Living Faith. I also received a prayer book titled Pray in the Spirit, and Mary is going to bring me a Catholic Bible that I may keep.

While we were speaking, God touched her heart, because she happened to ask whether I would like to receive Holy Communion and I said yes. Mary said that she happened to have two hosts with her, when she usually only visits one inmate who receives Communion!

So while Mary went to ask permission from the guards and clean her hands, I sat and prayed to prepare myself.

I couldn’t believe it, I wept a little at Our Father’s love and the extent He will go to bring His Son to us.

The really amazing part is that they turned up before “Access”, when usually the Catholic chaplains arrive after I go into my cell for “Access”!

Praise God.

____

Editor’s note: Please keep this young man and his fellow prisoners in prayer! He is a new Catholic and is really missing the Mass.

Blessed feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe!

Image: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Pope Francis, Sin & Creepy Fish

Pope Francis, Sin & Creepy Fish

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin … You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.
– Micah 7: 19-20

In college I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I am not much of a science geek so I thought I would be bored, but I ended up being drawn in by the deep sea display.

As I wandered through the exhibit gaping at the ugly, otherworldly creatures that inhabit the deepest areas of our oceans, I thought, “If God exists, (I was an atheist at the time), He definitely is creative and has a sense of humor.” Just gazing at these absurd creatures made me laugh. (I think someone needs to write a proof for God based on the humor in nature, but I digress…)

So where do these strange creatures hang out you ask? Well, the deepest part of the ocean is the Mariana Trench near Japan. If Mount Everest were put in this trench there would still be over 7,000 feet of water above it! That is just astounding to me. There is another world in our oceans, with creepy looking creatures floating around, and we think we know it all!

In the book of the prophet Micah, we are told that God does not persist in anger when we sin. Rather, He casts our sins into “the depths of the sea.” When we read Scripture, do we ever pause and sit with the most literal sense of things? Of course, Scripture is not really meant to be read literalistically but in the true literal and spiritual sense. However, reading in a literalistic way can sometimes unearth insights that help us understand the true literal and spiritual sense of the text.

So, the other day I sat with the image of God throwing my sins into the depths of the ocean. I gave Him the deepest, darkest memories of sin and He threw them with all his might into the ocean. I imagined my sins sinking at the speed of a bullet, far from my memory and His.

(Then I imagined my sins floating by those creepy fish and my prayer time got a little weirder but I digress….)

Do we believe in God’s mercy?

I thought I did, but the more aware I become of my own sinfulness, the more aware I am of God’s unending mercy. I know it sounds terribly negative to talk about sin all the time. But (most) Christians do not speak of sin in an attempt to make people feel terrible and guilty. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus exhorts us, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Jesus makes it clear that repentance is a necessary first step before we can believe in the Gospel.

Why?

So, we can fully experience God’s mercy and goodness.

If we don’t think we are sinners then Christianity loses its meaning (hence much of modern, “sinless,” secular culture). When we buy into the lie that we are not sinners it does not make us better, it just makes us conflicted, miserable liars.

Christianity also loses its meaning if we think that good behavior can open the gates of heaven for us. When we separate ourselves from others, when we put other groups of people into the “worst sinners” category and leave ourselves separate, we lose the message of the Gospel.

Pope Francis recently confirmed this truth in a talk to chaplains when he revealed that he still calls the prison in Buenos Aires on Sunday afternoons. He described his connection with prisoners by pointing out that we all have the wound of original sin that can potentially lead us to make terrible decisions. He said, “Thinking about this is good for me: When we have the same weakness, why did they fall and I didn’t? This is a mystery that makes me pray and draws me to prisoners.”

What a beautiful sentiment that is worth taking some time to take in. Pope Francis reaches out to sinners because he recognizes that he himself is a sinner. But Pope Francis and other Christians do not declare: “We are all sinners!” because we want to stop there. Christianity is about the next step. Yes, we need to recognize that we sin in order to experience the truth of who we are but after we recognize our sinfulness then we can move to the best part – God’s goodness – that is what the Gospel is all about!

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ: God forgives our sins.

He died to forgive our sins.

(And He throws them into the deep sea to chill with creepy fish)

Amen.

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This post is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on Sr. Theresa’s blog: Pursued by Truth