Moments of Grace | A prisoner has lessons on the powerful love of Christ
Prisons have served us well as a means of protecting us from individuals who threaten our property and lives. They also serve as metaphors for the conscious and unconscious, real and imagined restraints that make our lives more challenging. St. Paul knew this as he wrote of his literal and metaphoric prisons.
Recently, Bob Connoley sent me a letter about a man he has grown to know and learn from about the powerful love of Christ.
About four and a half years ago, a woman in Bob's parish asked him if he would like to begin writing to someone in prison. She "sweetened her invitation by sharing details of her own correspondence with inmates," Bob wrote. He thought and prayed about it almost every day. He explained, "I vacillated about it. I reasoned with myself that I was now 67 and in a mode of trimming back, not taking on brand-new adventures."
Bob also listened to another side of his inner debate, a voice of compassion, not reason: "Could God be asking me to go in this direction? Don't turn away. That voice never stopped sparring with the first; it was unrelenting. So finally I decided that this task had to be taken up -- and as cheerfully as possible."
Bob requested the name of a correspondent from the Criminal Justice Ministry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and in August 2007 Bob wrote his first letter to the inmate. "The correspondence has continued to this present day because the man in prison has become my friend for life and beyond," Bob noted.
"The life of my imprisoned friend revolves around God," Bob wrote. "He has taken numerous correspondence courses on the Bible. He ministers to others by introducing them to Christian rock or studying God's Word with them. He is confident that every day God will send him the work He wants him to do. He says, 'You never have to doubt God's ability to drive. You only need to relax and enjoy the ride.'"
After a few years, Bob's friend mentioned that for some time he has been following God's direction to write a book about his life. A few months later he suggested that the finished book would need editing because, as he often noted, he is not a writer. "He believed that I was the person to do the job. I wasn't so sure," Bob recalled, adding that he prayed about it and said that he would get back to him. Ultimately Bob decided to do it. And then began what Bob calls "one of those amazing rides involved in a creative project."
"Although my friend had been straightforward in our letters, the book itself was a thorough unveiling of the life he had mostly led apart from God. I easily could have been judgmental about the actions unfolding before me. Instead, I felt the presence and the patience and the mercy of God as I followed the story of this prodigal son who would one day feel welcomed in his Father's house."
As a matter of fact, Bob wrote, "the manuscript did need editing. However, it was not lacking in a strong, personal voice or a gift for storytelling or a strong connection to its audience. I was relieved that it was short on self-pity, sentimentality and the casting of blame on others. Candidly and truthfully, this man was sharing his past, and it was sometimes difficult to read ... Yet I was able to complete the work ... and -- along the way -- be grateful for the many blessings that flowed from that initial moment of grace."
A few weeks ago, when I sent Bob a rough draft of this column, he emailed me: "The book was sent off for publication last Friday. It will probably be available this summer. My friend is working his way closer to release from prison and is very excited about the prospect of holding the finished book in his hands. Things are brighter."
Jobst is semi-retired from St. Louis Catholic and public schools and currently works in the Parkway Schools' MOSAICS program and the Missouri Scholars Academy. He is a member of St. Paul Parish in Fenton. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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