There were these crazy people who were living in Jerusalem who were filled with so much joy that those around them wondered who they were. Their style was so different from other people that people wanted to experience some of what they were seeing. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the disciples and to communal life ... and to prayers. Awe came upon everyone and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 3:42-43;13:52)
This is the great message of Easter: that after the One in whom the disciples had put all their hope was cruelly executed by the powerful, Jesus rose from the dead and everything was different.
The sending of the Spirit, the communal living, the breaking of bread and sharing of resources was so attractive that other people wanted to join in the life style that they were witnessing. This small group of once very defeated disciples were now filled with something so special that others wanted some of it.
Today at Kern Valley, the four of us from Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI) wandered in once again to three yards at this all-level-four prison, known for its lockdowns and bloody battles. The last yard, Yard D, contained a group of men with whom we had worked for a number of years. Little by little they have shown signs of leadership.
When we first walked in, José showed me what he had drawn from the assignment that we had left them last month. It was a beautiful drawing he did after reading the meditation of Dimas and Jesus’ mother beneath the cross. I saw that others were finishing the last touches of their drawings, poems and letters. Why not begin our time together with this work?
So those who had done their work began to show what they had drawn and what they had written. What followed is what one might dream about, what one might hope to hear one day: the desire that some tangible results can be articulated about spiritual work that often goes unheard. And here it was.
Ismael showed us what he drew after reading the meditation, and then he read the letter and poem he had written to his mother. This, in itself, was overwhelmingly moving, but then he shifted to expressing how a group of four of the men had for months been trying to do the meditation and then struggled to write about their experience. But it was not until they read the mediation together and reflected together that they were able to be faithful to the Spirit of the exercises.
Then he added what has been so impressive: how many others in the yard have seen that they seem to have something special among themselves. The others have asked how they now can come to the retreats because they want to find some of joy and peace that they see in these guys.
Now, here at a level four prison, I was hearing one of the most tangible Easter stories I have heard in a long time. This was really an example how life comes out of death. Out of the darkness of much suffering came this Spirit-filled experience of hearing how these men, who once had supported each other by sharing drugs and attacks against their enemies, were now sitting and speaking so nonchalantly how they had found something so powerful in being connected to Jesus. They were connected to his joy, and were so committed to spending time in meditation, that others wanted to also experience this very inexpensive “drug.”
After Ismael spoke, the other three men showed us what they had drawn and written and they spoke about how doing the reflections in-group had helped them as well.
Then Joaquin read a poem he had written:
“I was so young and blind to life, so I did not realize the cost. I thought all I did was right, unknowingly placing my mother on the cross. With each senseless act I placed a spike and did not recognize the wound that appeared. I was the one to crucify my mother what have I done?
“Jesus came and took my mother down from that cross and before he left he turned to me and said, ‘Joaquin, now you know the cost. You are still alive and are not dead. You have a choice from this day forth, you are the only one that can make this right. But do not forget Joaquin, you know the cost.’”
Hearing this was so powerful no one could say anything afterwards. Silence. How could such deep, moving, poetic words be uttered on such an ordinary Tuesday afternoon? On an ordinary retreat, in a very ordinary place? Only the Spirit of the Risen Prisoner could create such wonder.
There it was around this circle: the feeling of Jesus not just as the prisoner, but as the risen prisoner. There it was. There he was.
The men had done their inner work, spent moments with Jesus as a prisoner, and now they were speaking about how this one who was laughed at, tortured and treated like an animal, was raised up by his Abba. And now in April 2016, a Risen Prisoner could tangibly touch hearts so powerfully that their lives are different. Their lives look different, feel different and really are different because of this Risen Prisoner who had the courage to go through the darkness to bring us to the light.
The Acts of the Apostles were written many years ago, but miraculous acts such as those in Acts are continually being written today. At this very ordinary retreat, something extraordinary happened.
We who traveled to be with these men were gifted with more than we were able to give.
We experienced the power of the resurrection. This leaves you in wonder, it touches your heart, it burns the heart just as Acts describes what happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There are no words to express this mystery when one feel God’s risen power.
I am grateful for our little team. We are as crazy as those first disciples who believed that from very small and very hidden, places, the Risen Prisoner can create a joy that no drug, no amount of money, and no passing pleasure can ever give.
Jesus, the Risen Prisoner, was present today. He sat with us, and He let us feel the power of His Spirit: a Spirit that can fill discouraged souls with deep and lasting peace.