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Pride and Prison: A Dispatch from the Tennessee Prison for Women

Thomas Merton somewhere said that spiritual pride is one of the most dangerous defects of character, and one of the most difficult to root out. We professional scribes and Pharisees who teach theology for a living are thus in especially dangerous territory.

Then I found myself this semester in double-danger of death to my soul. I was invited to teach at the Tennessee Prison for Women, with that not-so-subtle temptation to be proud that one is “teaching at the prison this semester.” 

Lipscomb University’s LIFE Program offers undergraduate education at the prison. The program began a decade ago, by one of my colleagues and dear friends. It is now directed by another dear colleague. They have built something so moving and compelling so as to escape the capacity of words sufficiently to tell. Grace and beauty are always that way. 

My class comprised a number of “inside” and “outside” students (those who live “inside” the prison and those who do not). The assignments were forthright: read and discuss spiritual autobiographies, and write stories of their own lives which related in some way to the book just read. We read Augustine’s Confessions; Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies; Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness; and The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I asked them to treat each of the authors as new potential friends, who are sharing their most intimate selves with us. Then, we used these sorts of questions for our discussions: what passages moved you, or did you find beautiful? What question do you want to ask your new friend? What bothered you, or did you find annoying? And we would sit in a circle, and talk about our new friends, and behind the razor wire and steel doors we would talk about depravity and grace, communism and capitalism, racism and criminal justice. 

Then came the nights the students would share their own stories. We sat in a circle and each student took a turn. Augustine’s honesty, Anne Lamott’s humor, Dorothy Day’s loneliness, Malcolm X’s anger and pain, all this became the soil out of which they each told tales about themselves, often funny, always vulnerable. The vulnerability made space for some to share a sort of devastating brokenness. A palpable stillness would settle on the room. Razor wire coiled in great rolls right outside the window. All creation seemed quiet to listen, that no word would fall to the ground barren.

 

When there were tears—though there were not many, in comparison to the gravity of the tales shared—they lacked pretense and self-pity. I found myself humbled by the enormity of courage embodied in these women: some had been dealt violations of body and soul so grave as to be beyond my comprehension. Then some of them had, in turn, done their own. Then came the grieving of imprisonment, with its anger, fury, denial, and finally, acceptance. 

It is the acceptance that I found so remarkable. It is not despair, suffused with bitterness, which parades as acceptance. It is an acceptance, in spite of the arbitrary capriciousness which often characterizes prison life, which yields courage, and hard work. 

And kindness. I watched one of my students, week after week, a woman incarcerated for many years, have precisely the words to say to her classmates when they had opened themselves in trepidation and vulnerability. She would say her words of compassion and grace without self-consciousness, without the slightest hint of pride or self-satisfaction, and a gentle smile.

And it is an acceptance that could be honest, and become space for maturation and wisdom. One of the LIFE students, whom I taught in the program years ago, walks the halls slowly now. She is growing old in prison. I think of her as the saint of the prison. She carries about a suffusing love, and I look forward to seeing her smile at me. She will speak words of wisdom to me. After eleven years work, she received a Bachelors’ Degree in commencement on the stage of the prison gym last week. She said: “I don’t deserve to be standing here. I did commit murder.” And then she went on to tell of the love of God, and the manner in which human beings in that room had made manifest the love of God to her, and I sat there wiping tears from my eyes knowing that she, in fact, had made manifest the love of God to me.

And it is an acceptance that dramatizes the possibility of the human spirit, enkindled by the goodness of God. One young woman, receiving her diploma, turned to her family and said, through her tears and stifled sobs, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what I’ve put you through. Daddy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And then she held up her diploma and said, “but look at what I’ve done.” 

We all, with all the host of heaven, cheered her, cheered her classmates, cheered all these women.

And I realized that “my teaching at the prison” had, in fact, become a reprieve from my pride, and stupid vanity. And I give thanks.

 

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