I went to see a friend of mine today who is in the local detention center here. John (not his real name) is 50 years old, intelligent, yet he seems to have a knack on how to get into trouble. DUIs, that kind of thing, then jumping bail and getting out of town hoping never to be caught; which in his case never seems to happen….he always gets caught eventually. So I have been here before visiting him. The last time about 9 years ago, though it does seem like it was just last year.

A new section has been built, bigger, more modern, but still looks like a prison. The waiting area is a very big room with very few chairs and next to that is the visiting area, glassed in. You can see the people in front of the monitors (yes it is all on screen), talking and some of the children touching the monitor trying to get closer. I am sure it is painful for all involved, yet I can see the necessity of such a system, keeps out contraband, etc.

The first time I went in to try to see John, I knew that I would not be allowed. I have to go through one of the officers there to get the permissions that I need. I was trying to get a pass to be able to have a pastoral visit with him. So I went in and they gave me a number to call. In a day or so the officer called me back and said I was set up to see John. He was very easy to talk to and told me if I had any other needs to please call him.

So the day came and I took with me two religious books that John wanted, but was not sure they would be allowed. One was a bible the other the “Christian prayer book”; the divine office that many lay Catholics like to pray. They told me that they would make sure John got the book … I was very pleased with that. Sometimes literature has to be sent via the publisher.

I sat down to wait for them to call me. One of the guards came out to get me and after I left my phone and ID behind, accompanied him inside. He had to pat me down and while he was doing so offered his apologies, saying that everyone had to be patted down. I told him no problem; this is a prison after all. It was strange though having to place my hands on the wall and being patted down. It was non-intrusive so not a problem. He seemed to be about 25 years old, certainly not older than 30 and I asked him how long he worked here. He responded that he was new, working there only 9 months. In my heart I wished him luck, his kind of job can burn you out and make you mean. I have seen that in a few professions, care giving being one of them. So he led me down a long hallway into the living area where John was staying.

The living area was large, with bunks around two sides, tables in the middle and a TV high up in which some news program was being played. I would think there was at least 80 men there, probably filled to capacity, but not overcrowded, just no privacy. They brought me to a sound proof room and brought John in.

He was thinner than last time I saw him but over all he looked to be in good health. He told me that the unit he was in was minimum security, which I deduced as soon as I was brought in. I doubt they would bring in someone from the outside into an area in which they would be in danger. We had 30 minutes and on this first pastoral visit we just filled each other in on what was happening. At one point he broke down and started talking about how wasted his life was. As we talked I mentioned that it was never too late to make a new beginning. He had friends and a woman who still backed him up and if he could continue with that after he got out, his life would not be a failure. I then told him that I would find out if I will be able to bring him the Eucharist when I come next time. He seemed pleased with that. I also said I will leave some money up front so he could buy some items that would make his life a little more comfortable. We got up and embraced and I left, a little sad to see him there. As we walked back, the same guard accompanied me and I thought what a difficult vocation that was to work in a prison. He seemed to be very serious; he never smiled, but friendly none the less. He greeted the prisoners that were working in the hallway and they seemed unafraid of him.

After I left, I called his girlfriend and we talked a bit. She is also in a lot of pain over this and does not really now which way to go. We talked on about how she and John would laugh so much together they would gasp for air, how her dog loved him and how much she loved his dog. John also helped her get through a very difficult situation, so yes they are close. She is also taking care of his vehicle. I could tell she was a very nice person and was still a little shocked on the turn of things. She told me that when he gets out, if he comes clean with her she will continue, but if not then the relationship, at least as it stands now, will be over.

Trust has to be earned. I suppose it would have been better if John just told her up front, but he is so used to hiding, that it is second nature for him to hold things back….this time it was a mistake on his part. How it will go, who knows. I felt sad for her also and wished I could somehow relieve her of her pain, but no one can do that for another, at least in a case like this one. After the talk, I also called Mary, a friend of his who has helped him out. She is very sick at this time, on hospice, but living much longer than the doctors thought. She is even gaining weight! So I called her for a while and asked how she was doing. I know she is not doing all that well, but she shows a good face and she is lucky that she has such a loving husband who does all he can to make her life more comfortable. John has nothing but good things to say about her.

There is a lot of sadness in the world. Sometimes I feel like I am swimming in it, still afloat, not drowning or anything like that. People are good swimmers… most stay afloat and run the course until the end. Others grow tired and sink, I pray for both types, for all are loved by God. One of my greatest sorrows is to think that some people after a long hard life die alone, with no one to be with them, at least on this level of existence…..the chalice we drink is bitter, but we are all brothers and sisters in the fact that the chalice is there for all of us.

The Eucharist for many Christians is participating in the suffering and death of Christ as well as the resurrection. They cannot be separated. Christ was fully human; his heart filled with compassion for all and drinks with us the seeming bottomless chalice ever empty and ever filled. The chalice we drink is what Christ also drank; it is also what is offered in the Eucharist. God becoming food for his creatures, bread his body, wine his blood……so no matter how lonely one is, or filled with pain, or filled with remorse over a life of failure, Christ is there loving his fallen creatures that have yet to reach the state of perfect humanhood. A state where we can love and suffer without fear and not need anger and contempt to protect us from the deep suffering and wounds of others. A friend of mine was gave a talk and he said that in the Body of Christ there is only one wound and we all partake of it. His name was Tom S. That was said almost 40 years ago yet I have never forgotten it.

So my greatest fear that some die alone after a life of pain is unfounded. It is not a happy ending, but one that has closure, in which love is offered and hopefully received with a heart breaking and becoming true flesh, just as Christ heart is true flesh.

My heart is still mostly stone, but at its center Christ’s heart beats, and one day my cold fearful heart will burst being reborn into a state that I have longed for all of my life but still struggle towards. This struggle is in itself a grace, for the invitation is always giving first by Christ, it is all grace. Any one whose heart is growing, no matter how slowly, (like mine) in love and compassion and empathy, has on some level responded to God (Christ) call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Most of the pain that comes to humans flows from the failure to see others, no matter who they are as “Thou’s”, brothers and sisters along the way. Yes as Frost said “I have miles to go before I sleep”

PS: The man I have written about (John) is a sociopath, so I know that he will most likely not change and will probably, eventually die in jail, or perhaps be murdered. However, he is human, even if perhaps I feel society would be better served if he stayed in jail for the rest of his life.

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Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.