Dennis McCain (’15) interviews Prison Contemplative Fellowship founder Ray Leonardini.
Dennis: Tell us how the call to serve in prisons began for you.
Ray: Some time ago I read something by Thomas Merton that stung me. He said, in effect, to nourish a contemplative lifestyle one needed to pursue a “seeming aimless leisure, and a thoughtlessness of time.” From my routine, task-oriented world view, I took it as an invitation to “move out of my comfort zone.” Although I had a contemplative prayer practice at the time, I couldn’t find a prayer group suitable for me. I heard a homilist suggest that one ought to “volunteer at nearby Folsom Prison.” This was indeed outside of my comfort zone. I wasn’t thinking of a Centering Prayer group when I told him to count me in and left it at that. Six or seven months passed, and a Folsom Prison volunteer called and invited me to join a Centering Prayer group at the prison. (He didn’t remember how he got my number.)
Before even going into the prison, my fear emerged along the lines of: How will I connect if I have nothing in common with the inmates? More personally, I wondered if I would inadvertently reveal my own inadequacies as a man. Would I overplay my own personal need for recognition and affirmation and make a fool of myself? What I actually experienced that first night ten years ago, and what I continue to experience nearly each time I go to Folsom and other prisons, was beyond my imagination. I needed to have the prison experience to understand how much I did not understand about contemplative prayer and its astonishing transformative power. I needed to sit and meditate with the incarcerated to discover new depth in this prayer practice. These experiences opened my awareness to the great gift of living a contemplative lifestyle in the world. I’m a different person because of it.
Dennis: How has praying with the incarcerated changed other aspects of your life, your relationships?
Ray: Sometime during my volunteering years, I came to realize that the incarcerated, marginalized in every way by society, have their own well-springs of grace. I was less a channel of ministerial grace and more a convener. They draw topics out of me. They spark ideas in me; I prompt them. As they respond, our deeper selves are allowed out of hiding in a relatively safe environment. We are ministering to each other. It gives me a much more comfortable notion of grace and how grace works in all of us, regardless of race, any or no denominational commitments, and personal development.
In sitting with inmates, I found that I needed less “effort” and more “presence.” I learned this is true, not just with prisoners, but also with my wife, family, and friends. I don’t have to earn this presence by “efforting” some state of mind. It is just there waiting for me.
Dennis: What have you discovered, or what insight was revealed to you, about yourself that you may not have had if you did not respond to this call?
Ray: I discovered that the more transparent I become in describing my inner spiritual experience, the more prisoners respond. It’s as if my deepest secret longings are not unique to me, or unique at all. These subtle interior wounds are no different from prisoners’ own deepest longings. My sense of abandonment, estrangement from God, aloneness in the universe matches theirs. What started as self-revealing disclosures ends in a community of relationships that I never expected.
Dennis: How do you deal with what those of us on the outside would imagine as the extreme negativity and oppression of prison life?
Ray: If you mean the negativity of prisoners, I don’t experience their negativity as any different than my own. Without exception I am always aware of the depth of gratitude they have for our coming into the prison. If you are referring to the brutalizing and arbitrary nature of prison life, I often am horrified by the routine depersonalization of inmates. The dehumanizing atmosphere is in the air they breathe. Yet, more astounding still is the common non-violent strategies that prisoners adapt to mitigate the brutalization. I learn a lot from them.
About Ray and Dennis:
Ray Leonardini has taught Centering Prayer in prisons for over ten years and is the Founder and Executive Director of Prison Contemplative Fellowship (PCF), a community of prisoners, former prisoners, prison Chaplains, and volunteers who practice Centering Prayer. PCF sends contemplative books and materials to prisoners and volunteers in over 700 prisons around the country.
Dennis McCain, a member of the 2015 LS cohort, lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife of almost forty years. After his retirement in 2010, he taught centering prayer in Texas prisons for over five years. He continues his ministry by helping men gain parole and providing necessary resources once they are released from prison. Ray has been a valued friend and mentor throughout the entire experience. For further information, please contact Dennis McCain at [email protected].