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Staying Grounded and Hopeful in the Difficult Transition of Long-Term Incarceration

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Ray Leonardini and Michael Lynch explore the impact of a regular contemplative practice for incarcerated men and women in this month’s We Conspire series.

May 22nd, 2023

Many of us have found deep transformation through contemplative prayer. How do we help share this practice with others, especially those society often forgets or shuns? In this month’s We Conspire series, discover diverse practices to help us stay hopeful and grounded. Ray Leonardini and Michael Lynch invites us to learn about the impact of their work with Prison Contemplative Fellowship: 

There are few difficult transitions more challenging than surviving long-term incarceration. Prisoners must daily contend with humiliation, dehumanizing treatment, shaming, discrimination, and isolation. In many US prisons, inmates are in daily fear for their lives as direct target of violence or a witness to violence.  

On first reflection, prisoners are not a group that one would think open to the notions and practices of contemplative prayer. They have little silence in their world. They must get approval with their internal group (gang) to even go to a voluntary prayer meeting where there would be members of another group. Many have spent their lives avoiding the kind of self-reflection that might bring them closer to their inner pain. 

Photo of a man wearing a mask and praying with a quote about feeling grateful for centering prayer.

Yet, there is one disposition of prisoners that renders them well-suited for a contemplative practice: soul-searing suffering. For many incarcerated men and women, the notion of an intimate relationship with the God of their understanding is simply inconceivable. In the criminal justice system, prisoners are constantly reminded of their crime, their guilt, and their shame. They’re identified in prison by what they’ve done, and they identify themselves in the same manner.   

Prison Contemplative Fellowship (PCF) is a small organization (two part-time workers and a volunteer) who have formed a community of prisoners, former prisoners, and volunteers who go into a prison each week to conduct contemplative prayer meetings, and prison chaplains who support the effort.  

Drawing of a Yellow Plant

“For many incarcerated men and women, the notion of an intimate relationship with the God of their understanding is simply inconceivable.” — Ray Leonardini and Michael Lynch

The volunteers who go into prison witness a truly remarkable path to transformation when incarcerated people are introduced to a prayer practice that requires NO WORDS. This silent practice allows them to gently deal with their deepest thoughts and judgements about themselves, especially their sense of self-loathing. It works even when the individual has no relationship at all with God. They don’t have to have a religious background, or call God Jesus, Allah, Father, Brahman, another name or no name.   

We use the simple contemplative practice called Centering Prayer, based on the thoughts and work of Thomas Keating. Prisoners who use the practice can attest to personal changes that come upon them. They find themselves at peace at deep levels; they feel less angry, more capable of avoiding violent responses, more willing to find positive alternatives to frustrating circumstances, and able to address life-long patterns of resentment and grief. 

“This silent practice allows them to gently deal with their deepest thoughts and judgements about themselves, especially their sense of self-loathing.” — Ray Leonardini and Michael Lynch

Drawing of a yellow arch

PCF teaches Centering Prayer at Folsom Prison and collaborates with others across the country who are similarly engaged. Our principal contribution has been to develop a collection of resources, on the contemplative journey specifically for the incarcerated, prison chaplains, and volunteers, free of any costs to the incarcerated and those who serve them.   

In addition to the various books and pamphlets described on our website, we have also created a documentary film Holding Still, Centering Prayer and the Spiritual Journey. The film focuses on a diverse group of men speaking candidly about their years-long journey practicing Centering Prayer while serving time at Folsom Prison. The film is available along with 13 shorter topical films, a course of study, and discussion and screening guides.  

PCF deeply believes, because we are witnesses, in the infinite power of contemplative prayer to transform the hearts of incarnated people. For reasons known only to God, the suffering and anguish of incarceration is fertile ground for encountering a personal, even intimate, relationship with the God of Silence, the God of contemplative prayer.    

Reflect with Us 

Where in your community could sharing contemplation make a difference? Share your reflection with us.

We Conspire is a series from the Center for Action and Contemplation featuring wisdom and stories from the growing Christian contemplative movement. Sign up for the monthly email series and receive a free invitation to practice each month. 

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