There’s freedom in your cell – Pastoral Backstory – July 13th, 2017


July 13th, 2017

Think for a moment about the place you live–your residence. Just a quick mental tour of each room and hallway.

Now imagine that space without a stitch of carpet anywhere, such that no foot fall by anyone goes unheard or unnoticed.

Imagine also every room lacking full enclosing doors, denying you the privacy you sometimes prefer or just the ability to shut out the noise from the rest of the home.

Finally, imagine every surface and every piece of furniture made of some metallic substance that allows everything from your fork, to your wedding ring, to your hairbrush to make its corresponding sound wherever making contact.

In that dreadfully re-imagined renovation of your home, you might have the same layout and square-footage. But it would be a vastly different experience to live there because it would doubtless be something far less of a refuge from the din of the world all around.

Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, Mississippi

You’ve just imagined what it’s like every day for an inmate in any given correctional facility. No soft floors, no full doors, nothing to muffle the numberless sounds attendant to basic living.

Now, after all, it is prison. Those convicted of crimes forsake their rights to the comforts of home for a long time if not forever. But while the incarcerated experience still provides the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, have you ever considered the significance to one’s own soul for both space and time to be still in an uninterrupted quiet?

Near the end of last Sunday’s sermon, we mentioned (again) Rev. Sarah Coakley, who’s study of the 19th century monk, Abbot John Chapman, served as an introduction and personal apprenticeship to her practice in prayer of silence. (You might be surprised to know that monks lived and prayed in what they called “cells.”) Entering into a new discipline of sitting quietly for even twenty minutes, twice a day, proved far more difficult than Coakley imagined it would. But the effort to still herself, and to swat away like flies distracting thoughts, resulted in a transformative kind of engagement with God–so consequential that she began to introduce others to the practice.

And her most remarkable and affected “disciples” ended up being incarcerated men for whom silence is but one more of the freedoms they’ve had to sacrifice as a penalty for their offenses.

Rev. Sarah Coakley

You can read here about Coakley’s experiences with inmates, many of whom in time became ardent evangelists for the practice with their more incredulous peers. As the title of her essay explains, the prisoners’ decision to carve out a regular time for silence was an act of soul-nourishing subversion against the unalterably noisy reality of their detained existence.

But what made the practice of silence so endearing to men whom you’d least expect to find it so was its communal exercise. Coakley didn’t give them directions to be followed in their solitary cells (though doubtless some did), but rather invited them into a shared experience: men the world only knows as “hardened criminals” sitting in a circle composing themselves collectively in abiding stillness. And when some would become exasperated by their inner noise amid the few moments of permitted stillness, others would encourage them to hang in there and persist.

Do you sense here the astounding irony? Here are men who must obtain permission for a time of silence; they forsake other recreations and other opportunities for a little autonomy in their existence to make time for such. And many crave it. Whereas so many of us who possess abundantly more access to times of stillness end up, when those moments avail themselves, craving distraction or some kind of noise if only to drown out what we fear to hear were we to sit still for a moment. (That irony strikes us even more since this week we’re reading Andy Crouch’s newest book on ensuring a proper use of our technological tools, The Tech-Wise Family.) What do our fellow citizens now incarcerated understand that we so-called free people don’t (or won’t)? What did monks like Chapman know that they had no trouble thinking of where they lived as the cells in which they found their freedom?

Both in this column and from the pulpit, we’ve underscored Jesus’s call to abiding prayer by noting how it’s in finding words that forces us to be attentive–present–as prayer requires. Uttering words in prayer serves both to bring the disparate and unsettling internal murmurings into greater clarity, but also helps us relinquish them as we confess them to God. So words matter.

But to Coakley, and Chapman before her, so does silence in prayer. And they both (and others) look no further than Psalm 62 for its warrant:

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.  (vv. 1-2)

In a world full of stimuli and a brain so easily enchanted by this world’s allurements, silence at first agonizes before it’s ever greeted with relish.

What if any place does silence–real, practiced stillness–play in your practice of prayer? For those of you for whom it is a settled dimension of your interest in seeking the presence of God, what has come of those times that you’d be willing to share with those of us who feel imprisoned in our preference for noise?


This Sunday we continue in the series on the parables of Jesus–“Stories in Between.

This week’s parable is almost too familiar to us. As for introductory intimations to an upcoming sermon, this one may be the most enigmatic. But we think it works:

Author: Glenn Machlan

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1 Comment

  1. I wonder how one silences the voices in your own head when you hear the words ” you are terminal, you have less than a few months to live.” The prisoner has constant noise and distraction that they are trying to escape. This condition has been brought about by something they have done in breaking laws. Tragic that their once promising lives have been reduced to the bleak jail cell. Praise God for those that have found salvation in prison in Jesus Christ and can find purpose in their life. The terminally ill or elderly patient, generally through no fault of their own, is now faced with the end of their life, sometimes in the bleak, barren institutional room in a hospital or a hospice center. Not much different than a prison cell. They can’t go outside, they can’t leave their room, sometimes they can’t leave their bed. When family members ( if they have family members or friends), leave them to go home, in the darkness, alone with their thoughts, they are praying for a miracle. They may not have the noise and commotion of a prison, but initially the thoughts in their own mind must be deafening. This is the same as the relatives of a terminal family member. Your own thoughts are so loud , trying to reason with what is happening . The initial “why is this happening to my loved one, and to me too?” To the Christian, the hope and promise of going home to Jesus, can replace the fear and doubt of the loss of one’s own earthly body. But initially, there may be no outside noise or distraction, just your own thoughts that don’t allow you to have quiet to hear and remember God’s promise for salvation.

    I was told recently in a hospice center by a nurse that many patients will pass away when the room is empty, silent. The thought being that the patient is a private person and wanted to pass alone, in the quiet. I know that to the believer in Christ that they are never alone. But reading the word of God in this situation to me, is a reminder that they will be welcomed soon into heaven, and for those believers left behind, that the promise of seeing their loved one again will happen.

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