In what seemed to be our most relevant conversations to how The Little Way works in prison and elsewhere, and honestly, my favorite applicable aspect of The Little Way, came in a conversation about how we approach others. The guys had recently been released from a state wide lockdown that came about because of several coordinated gang fights at six different state prisons in Oklahoma. While lockdowns are fairly common, both at this prison and at others, this one was particularly difficult as it went on for over a month. Most people assume that inmates are on lockdown most of the time, because they are in fact in prison, but those who spend twenty-four hours a day in their cells are a very small portion of the inmate population. This particular lockdown took a toll on my friends. They were cut off from all communication with the outside world, they had lost their visitation rights, denied commissary that would provide for hygiene needs and food that is not prison food, they were unable to attend religious services of any kind, and more. They just sat in their cells, and watched the clock for over a month. These conditions no doubt are fertile ground for anxiety and anger to fester.
By the time I was able to meet with my friends again to discuss a young, female nun who they had never heard of, tempers were raw, emotions were high, and gang activity was more rampant than usual. I was slightly concerned that they would have no interest in Saint Thérèse, and was only slightly concerned that they would have no interest in the Buffalo Wild Wings I brought to this particular meeting… but I was not too concerned.
Fredrick however, eased my concerns. He said that there was no better time for him to read about The Little Way, and no better place for it to be implemented than in prison. A lot of them had built up frustration towards others who caused the mayhem, and their earthly selves felt like taking care of it, but surprisingly, this “little bird” from northwestern France helped to sooth their anger.
Much like Saint Thérèse, my inmate friends are confined to live in close quarters with those who may be less than appealing. They share their day to day lives with those whom they did not chose, and most likely would not, haven given the choice. They have daily interactions with the mentally unstable, thieves, liars, murders, rapists, and less-than caring prison guards. If anyone needed some guidelines on how to approach the Undesirables in our communities, it was these guys, who generally want to treat people in a Christ-like manner, but wrestled with it each and every day of their confinement.
Their dilemma however, is not too far away from what the rest of us encounter on the outside. We may not interact with the gangbanger, the sex-offender, or the murderer, but Saint Thérèse still has something to teach us I believe, in how we treat the Less-Than Desirable. We are surrounded everyday by people we would rather have no contact with, and whom we often go out of our way to avoid: the co-worker who asks us if we have a “case of the Mondays,” the boss’s son who thinks he owns the company, the fundamentalist friend who finds something negative to say on everyone of his social media, the man who takes his shoes off on the plane, those who identify sexually differently than us, those who vote different than us, our ex-spouses, our estranged parents, and I could obviously go on… The point is, every waking day we may, and most likely do, encounter those in whom we would chose not to have a relationship with if it were up to us. These were issues Saint Thérèse worked out in her Little Way.
The Little Way, as previously mentioned, was Saint Thérèse’s elevator to the God, and she reasoned that one of the best ways to come quickly into presence of Christ was through her charity. She wrote, “Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.”Saint Thérèsecontinued to lead us towards ways to bypass all of our traditionally accepted ideas that lead us into the presence of God, this time by being charitable to those around us, in particular, those who are hard to love: the Undesirables.
Yes, I feel it, when I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me, and the more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters. When I wish to increase this love in me, and when especially the devil tries to place before the eyes of my soul the faults of such and such a sister who is less attractive to me, I hasten to search out her virtues, her good intentions.
Saint Thérèsewould say that the reason one is closer to Christ when showing love to someone else is because it is Jesus alone who is acting in them. She, who became the Heart of Christ, also become the Hands and Feet of Christ when loving the Undesirables. As shepointed out, we can increase that love by searching for the good in those we are prone to find faults in. We can seek out those who we would normally be repelled by, and instead of focusing on the negative which is undoubtedly what repels us, we can search for and highlight their virtues and their good intentions. She wrote, “…charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtues we see them practice.” Charity is not charity when only afforded to those we love and are attracted too. Charity happens when we realize that people are flawed and weak, but we show love to them regardless; Searching for their good in the midst of their bad and celebrating it when we find it. That’s the essence of Christ-like charity.
I once worked for a fairly large church that is made up of many different campus locations. My particular campus was located in an area of the city that is not known for it’s well-to-do population. We attracted a lot of people our society would consider marginal and lower-class. We served a lot of people who were poor, on drugs, fresh out of prison, or currently in rehab. Because of this, the neediness was higher than most of our other campuses. Each and every Sunday, filling a narrow but long hallway that made up the lobby of our church, would be people who spent their whole life being pushed to the sidelines of society, and would come to church hoping to be noticed and accepted, perhaps for the first time of their lives. This of course, had the tendency to weigh heavy on the staff. Our team was not very large. There were about 300 hundred people who attended our church for every one member of staff, and we had no backup bench. Logistically, it was impossible to spend time with each one of our church attenders, nor did we try. Some of our staff members were better pouring out their time and energy than others, but I am embarrassed to say that I was not that great. Sometimes, not only did I not try to engage with them, I would actively go out of my way to avoid those who would deplete my time and energy the most. There were certain people who I knew were showing up that day, not for the experience, not for the donuts, but for me; to find me in the hallway and absorb the time I was supposed to be doing important church stuff. The work of the Lord for me on Sundays was too important to spend listening about another relationship problem or substance abuse failure.
There was one individual in particular who was slightly mentally handicapped, who I could not get within twenty feet of without him calling me over to soak up the next fifteen minutes of my weekend duties away. I was a quasi-pastoral celebrity in that long corridor for a few minutes in between our church services, and I had things to do and volunteers to recruit. I am ashamed to say, not only did I passively avoid them, I even developed system of avoidance. For example, there were four entrances to the auditorium that perforated the long hallway. If I needed to get from our offices on one end of the hallway, to the coffee and donuts at the other, and I saw a sea of neediness waiting to tackle me, I would juke into the first door, sneak through the auditorium, and come out on the other end to crab a coffee and a donut, successful avoiding all those who wished to stop me. However, I did get caught, and got into a situation where I was pinned down with an Undesirable, I would pull on the lanyard around my neck, thus signaling to my co-workers that I needed to be rescued. This was my attitude and it pains me to write about it. It has been actions like this that have haunted me for much of my Christian journey. It has been feelings like these that make me personally feel like the Undesirable.
Yet, the Undesirables were exactly who Jesus sought out. Not only did he not avoid them, he actively looked for them. Jesus was never too busy doing church stuff that failed to have time for Broken and Needy. Jesus, as successful as his ministry obviously became, was never in a hurried rush. He would never dip out of a hallway to avoid those who longed him. He would never pull on a lanyard like me, to be rescued from a conversation from an Undesirable. He would be drawn to them, and he would be the one doing the rescuing. In The Art of Neighboring, Jay Pathak wrote, “Jesus got a lot done but he never seemed to be in a hurry. He lived a passionate, purposeful life but was never in a rush. The question for us, then, is how can we live like Jesus?”
Saint Thérèse answered that question:
One feels attracted to this sister, whereas with regard to another, one would make a long detour in order to avoid meeting her. And so, without even knowing it, she becomes the subject of persecution. Well, Jesus is telling me that it is this Sister who must be loved, she must be prayed for even though her conduct would lead me to believe that she doesn’t love me.
We can live like Jesus, not by seeking those who the world finds attractive: the ones who will raise our social status, give the most donations, or pad our volunteer numbers. We live like Jesus by proactively seeking a relationship with the Undesirable, who, as Saint Thérèse pointed out, have become the subject of persecution without even knowing it. We do not avoid them. We set our minds to seek them out. “I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan,”Saint Thérèse wrote, recalling the famous story Christ told, in which religious people went out of their way to avoid the broken and robbed person on the ground, leaving the responsibility to the Samaritan. The Samaritan who actively walked towards the poor man, soothing him, and giving up his time, money, and energy, to mend his wounds. Charity, to SaintThérèse, meant not being nice to people when afforded the opportunity. The Little Way is actively pursing the Undesirable, and letting them disrupt our lives. This was her elevator to God. This was her Little Way. This was how she made up her mind to be the most Christ like she could be. This was how she became a saint, both in the eyes of her church and in the eyes of her God.
These acts of avoiding the Undesirable are no different in prison. My friends agreed that they are prone to avoid those who will steal their time and energy, while simultaneously be drawn to those in whom they will benefit. David talked to me about how strong the pecking order is, and how most of the relationships formed behind bars stem from what can be gained though the relationship. Everything is transactional. Relationships are formed for the selfish benefit of both parties. If one is not going to gain something from an individual, chances are they will not be drawn toward them. David echoed what Miroslav Volf wrote in Exclusion and Embrace,
“Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business. If others neither have goods we want nor can perform services we need, we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them so that their emaciated and tortured bodies can make no inordinate claims on us.”
In prison it is all about protection, identity, what goods or drugs one has access too, sexual favors, and more. All the relationships are for business purposes. Much like the outside world, quite frankly. But The Little Waytells us not to shun the undesirables, who will surely take our time, energy, emotions, and resources, but to embrace them.
David talked to me about how much this impacted him, being an inmate of reputable status. He is constantly surrounded by mentally unstable people or just people who have no friends or outside family who care about them. These are the ones routinely asking for his time and friendship. These are the ones who drain him on a routine basis. Yet, David said something that stuck in my soul. Something I was quick to write down, and will never forget. He said, “I have nothing to give them. I don’t have any real money. I can’t help them get out of prison. I don’t even have junk food or stamps sometimes. But the cool thing is they’re not asking for that. They just want my friendship. They just want a bit of my time. And the funny about it is, that’s all completely free, and it’s the only thing I have to give… All they want is the only thing I have to give. Why wouldn’t I go out of my way to give it to them.”
Inmate David Young proceeded to tell me a story of a prisoner named Max. Max wasn’t there anymore. He did his stint in prison and got out to, hopefully, become a functional member of the outside world. But during his time at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, Max weighed heavy on those around him. My inmate friends described him as childish. His mental-maturity was not quite where it should have been and he was seen as the prison’s, quote, “biggest child.” But the thing about Max was his lack of social awareness was not seen as a negative in his own eyes. Max was one of the happiest prisoners ever to step into the Oklahoma DOC. He acted small and childish, but loved large and loud. He routinely asked for random hugs and often busted into other people’s cells uninvited, asking if he could pray with the residents. He would draw and color pictures for other inmates without being asked to do so, often drawing too many for an individual inmate, causing the pictures to immediately be thrown-away. He would draw pictures for God and leave them outside to let the Lord (or the guards) take them away. Max was the definition of an Undesirable… but he did not know it. He was happy to be alive, happy to be surrounded by people he sought as friends, and happy to know God.
David had highlighted a line in Story or a Soul that reminded him of Max:
Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed. I have no other mean of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.
Max had nothing to offer God but his love. He had little belongings, even less so than the typical inmate in a medium security prison. He had nothing to sacrifice. He probably did not have “correct theology” and probably did not understand much of the Scriptures. But he loved God with all of his heart and he proved it by the way he loved others. He hugged and colored his love for God every day. Giving random people a hug who might need it is one of the simplest offerings we can make to God, but it’s socially the one of the costliest. Not for Max though. He loved the embrace of the stranger.
David spoke of Max with a smile on his face, reminiscing about how special he was and how much he strangely missed him. He was torn though. He had admittedly treated Max with less than loving enthusiasm. Max was a nuisance that David and his counterparts went out of their way to avoid. While Max would have welcomed them in at any moment, the inmates in whom Max was proving to be a nuisance, never welcomed them into their “home,” their groups, or their lives. David wish he had another shot at Max. But all three discussed how large of an opportunity they all still had to welcome the Undesirables into their lives. There was no short of strangers to welcome in prison. Instead of becoming morose about the opportunities that had passed them by, they became joyful about the opportunities that were still in front of them.
Richard Beck wrote that, “Hospitality is, at root, an emotional and psychological activity. It is a willto embrace. A will that actively seeks to overcome the emotions of otherness.”A will is something that can be harnessed and adjusted. It can be pressured to learn and adopt what does not not come natural. Welcoming someone like Max into our lives might not come naturally. It may not be a part of our will… but our will can be changed.
Kindness flows toward my kin, my kind. Beyond those borders are strangers and monsters. And our feelings toward these “outsiders” range from blank indifference, to disgust, to contempt, to hatred. Hospitality is the fight against these impulses. It is a deep psychological struggle, fought tooth and nail every second of the day, to make room for others within the borders of my selfhood… Hospitality is about selfhood. It is that space where the dignity of every human person is vouchsafed, embraced, and protected deep within the heart of the church.
The Little Waytells us to we seek those the world does not; those who are not part of our kind or tribe, and those who are not one we would naturally enjoy welcoming into our lives. We do however. We make room for them. We do this often. We fight against our will as much as necessary until there is no struggle of the will left. Instead of tugging on my lanyard to be rescued from an Undesirable, I could have forced my will to embrace them. Instead of ducking out of the hallway to avoid the sea of neediness in between my office and my coffee, I could have dived in feet first, and gave the first needy person that approached me my undivided and complete attention. I could have used the opportunity to sit down with them over a cup of coffee. I could have done a number of things. The only thing they wanted from me was my attention and acknowledgment. That should have come easy for me. It was cheap and in well abundance. I praise God my will has been bent in a different direction since then.
Saint Thérèse recalled a time she had to deal with a very disagreeable Sister. She did not get along with this fellow nun and went out of her way to avoid her. Her words, her character, everything about this particular person was displeasing to the future Saint. She felt little positive feelings toward her, yet forced her will to change, finding good is the most ungracious soul. Saint Thérèse wrote,
I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing this for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most. Each time I met her I prayed to God for her, offering Him all her virtues and merits. I felt this was pleasing to Jesus, for there is no artist who doesn’t love to receive praise for his works, and Jesus, the Artist of soul is happy when we don’t stop at the exterior, but, penetrating into the inner sanctuary where He chooses to dwell, we admire its beauty. I wasn’t content simply with praying very much for this Sister who gave me so many struggles, but I took care to render her all the service possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her me most friendly smile…”
Saint Thérèse continues her story about forcing her will to change by recalling a story about recreation, where the two nuns found themselves working side by side with one another. This Sister, whom SaintThérèse used to avoid, was unware of the negative feelings other felt towards her. In fact, eventually she assumed the opposite. She asked SaintThérèse one day, “Tell me, what attracts you so much towards me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?” Saint Thérèse recorded her response in her autobiography:
Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul; Jesus who makes sweet what is most bitter. I answered that I was smiling because I was happy to see her (it is understood that I did not add that this was from a spiritual standpoint).
Saint Thérèse was not smiling at the person, so much as she was smiling at the work of art in front of her. Jesus, the great artist, had found redeemable qualities deep within the soul of this unpleasant person, and chose to die for her regardless. If he can find good qualities hidden within the spirit of everyone, we should be able too as well. And even if we do not see them upfront and personal, we still have the choice to smile at the work in progress deep within. Even the most annoying, unlovable person, deserves our hospitality, whether its simply a hug, a smile, our time, our resources, or our friendship.