(This Last-day-of Lent reflection is a guest post offered by Shannon O’Donnell. She is a longtime online Catholic friend, from the Seattle-Tacoma area, author, and jail chaplain. Her words never fail to move me.) It’s the last week of Lent, the last days, really. Some days I have been aware of the season, other days, not so much. In the county jail where I work, “Lent” describes more than just those six weeks before Easter. Some people refer to it as “Hell on the Hill.”
In mid-February, we distributed ashes at Catholic services. At communion services and prayer groups, at the one Mass, and I carried a small box of ashes with me as I met with offenders for private talks. Ashes were one thing most people could relate to, so anyone who asked received them.
Out in the parishes, Ash Wednesday signals a time to buckle down, to get serious about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Being arrested and going to jail does the same thing, at least when it comes to prayer. Fasting—skipping too many meals—can result in serious discipline. What you call “fasting,” the jail calls “food strike.” Not allowed. And almsgiving? That would be giving something to someone else? That’s viewed with suspicion. Who is doing the manipulating here? It’s a cause for worry, not appreciation or praise.
We had discussions about fasting. When you’re stuck on a diet of baloney sandwiches and someone mentions “no meat on Fridays,” the next comment is usually, “Yeah, but is it meat?” Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes the greater sacrifice is to bless the sandwich and eat without complaint.
Prayer takes on many forms. A group of women in one tank committed to sharing the readings of the day each morning and gathered in the evening to talk about how they’d noticed God throughout the day. Other people decided to take advantage of whatever religious services were available. A few years ago, a man decided he’d say one Hail Mary for every mile between his cell in Washington state and the Viet Nam War Memorial in DC. Some people collected different prayers and more than a few memorized and used Thomas Merton’s prayer that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going.”
I’ve tried to listen to other people as they try to make sense of their lives, to recognize their belovedness as well as their ability to harm others. It has been a season of staying still for just a few more moments, to not prompt or finish sentences. Those who share their stories are my teachers. Again and again, I hear the voice of Jesus.