Friday, November 27, 2009
“John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
“SOUL-SURFING” – December 6, 2009
Second Sunday of Advent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
The desert: it’s where John the Baptist communed with God and discovered his mission; it’s where women and men from earliest Christianity (the Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers) found union with God in freedom from every possible distraction; it’s where even today, free from the lurid commotion of the world, people come close to God and one another. The desert is a holy place where, in the scorching aridity, death is ever close, the potential for new life even closer.
There is a desert of sorts near where I live. At least, it’s a place that offers some of the spiritual benefits of the desert: solitude; freedom from worldly distraction; opportunity for meditation. This desert-like place, though, is not a freely chosen refuge; rather, it is a desert to which one is sentenced. But even in this place, almost against one’s will, incarcerated desert-dwellers are invited closer to God, closer to one another.
A mid-October article in “The New York Times” detailed this experience in a piece entitled “Months to Live: Fellow Inmates Ease Pain of Dying in Jail.” The setting is the New York State maximum security prison at Coxsackie, a facility presently housing approximately 1,000 inmates. I quote from that article:
“Allen Jacobs lived hard for his 50 years, and when his liver finally shut down he faced the kind of death he did not want. On a recent afternoon Mr. Jacobs lay in a hospital bed staring blankly at the ceiling, his eyes sunk in his skull, his skin lusterless. A volunteer hospice worker, Wensley Roberts, ran a wet sponge over Mr. Jacobs’s dry lips, encouraging him to drink. ‘Come on, Mr. Jacobs,’ he said.
“Mr. Roberts is one of a dozen inmates at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility who volunteer to sit with fellow prisoners in the last six months of their lives. [He] recalled a day when Mr. Jacobs, then more coherent, had started crying. Mr. Roberts held his patient and tried to console him. Then their experience took a turn unique to their setting, the medical ward of a maximum security prison. Mr. Roberts said he told Mr. Jacobs to ‘man up.’ Mr. Jacobs, serving two to four years for passing forged checks, cursed at him, telling him, ‘I don’t want to die in jail. Do you want to die in jail?’ ‘I said no,’ said Mr. Roberts, who is serving eight years for robbery. [Jacobs] said, ‘Then stop telling me to man up,’ and he started crying. And then he said that I’m his family.
“John Henson, 30, was one of the first volunteers. When he was 18, Mr. Henson broke into the home of a former employer and, in the course of a robbery, beat the man to death with a baseball bat. When he entered prison, with a sentence of 25 years to life, he said, ‘I thought my life was over.’ At Coxsackie he met the Rev. J. Edward Lewis, who persuaded him to volunteer. ‘You go in thinking that you’re going to help somebody,’ Rev. Lewis said, ‘and every time [the patients] end up helping you.’
“Before hospice, Mr. Henson said he had given little thought to the consequences of his crime. Then he found himself locked in a hospital room with another inmate, holding the man’s hand as his breathing slowed toward a stop. Like many men in prison, the dying man had alienated his family members, who rejected his efforts to renew contact. In the end, he had only Mr. Henson for companionship.
“When the prison nurse declared the man dead, Mr. Henson broke down in tears. ‘They just came out,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know why I was crying. Partly because of him, partly because of things that died within me at the same time. I was just thinking about why I’m in here and the person’s life that I took [that put me here],’ he said. ‘And sitting for the first time and actually seeing death firsthand, being right there, my hand in his hand, watching him take his last breath, just caused me to say, Who are you? Who [are] you to [have done] this to somebody else?’” (“The New York Times,” October 18, 2009)
Indeed, the gift of the desert is the intense confrontation with the most fundamental questions of life that invite one to discover the truth of both oneself and God. It’s the gift that was offered to imprisoned hospice volunteers like Wensley Roberts and John Henson as they struggled to offer compassionate presence to fellow inmates who would otherwise have died alone. Said Henson upon the death of the prisoner whose hand he had been holding, “I was crying partly because of him, partly because of things that died within me at the same time.” Yes, the desert is the place where death and life mingle so closely as to be nearly indistinguishable.
In the gospel passage we hear today, John the Baptist emerges from the solitude of the desert to deliver the Word of God. As St. Luke’s gospel relates, “John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) Indeed, John’s testimony prepared many hearts to receive the saving message of Jesus.
And did not Wensley Roberts and John Henson do the very same thing for the dying inmates to whom they ministered at the Coxsackie maximum security facility? Did not these hospice volunteers, themselves imprisoned inmates, turn hearts toward heaven as they assisted the dying to shed tormented lives? Was not the compassion of Jesus powerfully present in this place so like a forsaken desert?
On this Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist, Wensely Roberts and John Henson invite us into the desert where, with the shedding of tears for lives less than whole and hands outstretched toward other broken souls, we experience once again the birth of something that can only have come from God.
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