In general, I have forgiveness and redemption on my mind. What is life if not we are not redeemed? Christian or not, religious or not, I think that the theme of redemption figures prominently in many of our lives, whether we realize it or not. That is because redemption is so tied up with forgiveness. There is a whole other reconciliation piece, but that is really another topic.
Do you think about these things also? Or is it just me being my over-thinky-church-life-nerd-self? Don’t answer that!
It is the 11th Week in Ordinary Time and we had some really good readings on this very topic. Go look at them if you wish, if not, stick around if you will. Maybe we can have a good conversation in the comments, because I am not going to do any big-time scriptural exegesis here today.
Of course I did want to, but I just couldn’t find my mark with the texts, so I planned on saying nothing. I did hear a homily at mass, but I did not really want explore in that direction. Or so I thought.
Today I was in my car listening to the radio. While I love WAMC Northeast Public Radio, I was growing weary of the fund drive. (Thank God it is over now.) So I had tuned into VPR for awhile. They carry WNYC’s great program, On The Media, so I was happy to listen.
The segment that I tuned in on was about Wilbert Rideau, prison journalist, someone I had never heard of until today. He is a prison journalist, because he was in prison.
Yes. He was in prison for 44 years. In that time, he was transformed and that is what his new book, In The Place of Justice, is about. I do not buy new books any longer, or rarely do anyway. This is one I think I am going to try to fit into the budget; it sounds compelling. The NYTimes review is available here.
Rideau’s life in prison is a story of transformation and redemption. While there is a discussion of what happened and how it happened, he robbed a bank and people did die. As a result, in 1961, Rideau was sentenced to death in Louisiana. I don’t think I have to tell you that the court system in Louisiana in 1961 was not exactly fair or friendly to black criminals – especially if they had robbed a bank and people ended up dead.
So Rideau was sent to Louisiana State Prison, also known as Angola, often called the “bloodiest prison in the U.S.”
What, you may ask, does this have to do with forgiveness and redemption? Please hang on, I am getting there.
During his time in Angola, Rideau did a lot of reading while he was in solitary confinement. This was the beginning of a great turning. I got to thinking, as I heard his story on the radio, that sin is a prison. Now I am not saying that all our sinful acts are the problem… well they are, but the real problem is that sin is turning away from God. And to turn away from God is to turn away from God’s people.
This perhaps why solitary is real punishment – worse than death in many ways.
In any case, this is what he says about the impact of solitary and his reading:
“Reading ultimately allowed me to feel empathy, to emerge from my cocoon of self-centeredness and appreciate the humanness of others. . . . It enabled me finally to appreciate the enormity of what I had done.”
It enabled him to finally appreciate the enormity of what he had done. Through words, through books – because people were not available to him, he found empathy. Rideau went on to become a journalist while in prison and his story is astounding. He was the editor of the Angolite, a prisoner produced magazine. While I am taking this in another direction, I do urge you to go read about Wilbert Rideau’s life and work.
Empathy is essential to life. Without it how do we relate to one another? And if we are Christians (and I realize that some of you are not), how can we “do this in memory” of Jesus? How can we feed His sheep, if we do not do it with empathy?
Empathy opens our hearts to a path of connection, connection opens our hearts further to understanding, understanding – or something akin to it, deep within, leads us to forgiveness.
To forgive and to be forgiven – not two singular acts, but a dynamic – are essential to the very essence of Christian life. I would also posit that this is enormously important for all life.
Not unlike the woman in today’s Gospel (thought I had left that behind, right?), Rideau is at the bottom, outcast. When you are out there, there is no place to come but back in. And many of us, myself included, are like Simon the Pharisee. We’re in, we are the “good people,” to do-ers and be-ers of the world. We get things done, we play by the rules, we know what to do and we do it. Yay us!
Maybe not so much.
Faith is not just the work of do-ers and be-ers. Oh – make no mistake, there must be some of that, but we simply have to revisit the story of Mary and Martha to reframe that little idea, not to mention the second reading from today, from St. Paul.(Let’s not forget who Paul was before he was Paul, not exactly a follower of Jesus.)
And look at the first reading, about King David, from Samuel… David did awful, horrible things, yet he was a chosen one of God. We all do horrible things and yet, we are all chosen ones of God!
It is easy to cast aside the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, it is easy to cast aside Wilbert Rideau, it is easy to cast aside pretty much anyone we deem unworthy.
Thankfully, God sees otherwise. Wilbert Rideau learned to see otherwise about what he did. King David learned to see otherwise about what he did. St. Paul learned to see otherwise about what he did.
Can we see otherwise about what we did? About what others do? Whether we are talking about a death row killer or we are talking about a friend or family member who has angered us, we must find our way to empathy and forgiveness in some fashion. This is no easy or automatic thing, that is certain. However, the desire to heal, to restore the tear in the fabric, must be present.
How do we do this?
I’m not sure that I have a clue, but I find that I am always moved by the thought of it.
Father Pat constantly reminds us that we must do the one thing we do – keep coming back to the table each week. Week in, week out. Together we must find some pathway back to that table. And as we do so, we must be find pathways to the tables in our own hearts and the hearts of others.
What are our choices otherwise?
(I heard this great Johnny Cash song today, and it really fit with this post, so enjoy.)