I recently read The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail, a light biography combined with light sociology, written by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. The book itself felt, well, light — a bit fluffy and simple, a flimsy biographical sketch followed by a string of stories about Mexican prison life and one woman’s motivating actions to bring comfort to those within the prison system and justice to the system itself. (Hmm … doesn’t sound so light when I put it that way!)
It was when I got to page 112 (of about 200 pp.) that I started to glimpse the radically non-rivalrous nature of Mother Antonia (formerly Mary Clarke), and her willingness to enact her love endlessly, persistently, cheerfully, regardless of risk to herself, regardless of rejection of her message by others or their seeming inability to “get it.” I read how she treated all the prisoners — some of whom, after all, had committed heinous crimes — with respect and dignity, modelling that behaviour for the guards so that that guards would be less likely to degrade the prisoners, and at the same time, she formed ongoing relationships with the guards, who often abused the prisoners, comforting them as she comforted the prisoners.
As she comforted these men (who often had little training as guards, who worked exhausting 24-hour shifts, who took drugs themselves), she also reminded them that they are not judges and that no one deserves abuse.
For her, it was not a question of prisoners vs. guards. She can see each person as holy, with an essential goodness that no number of bad and cruel actions or mistakes can ever erase. She saw the men, women, and children whom others saw as expendable, the criminals whom others believed deserved abuse, the power-wielding, bribe-taking guards and police as essentially good, and as essentially loved and lovable. That’s radical generosity of spirit, not something we see every day!
Some quotes and comments:
- “All people in disgrace are her children” (said by a drug kingpin she befriended) What a great thought — What if we treated everyone whom we see as disgraceful, and/or everyone the world sees as disgraceful (and these might be very different groups, but I bet there is some overlap), as deserving of love, as people to be comforted and befriended?
- “Revenge is wrong and only perpetuates the violence.” God continually forgives all of us every harmful, hateful thing we do and yet we sometimes balk at forgiving just one person one act.
- When a high-powered drug dealer who decides to get out of the business is brutally killed (after his family members are also killed, as a warning to him), along with his bodyguards and a teenaged girl who was just a bystander, most people in Mexico regarded the drug dealer as just a narco killed by another narco — he got what was coming to him, in other words, he deserved to be murdered — whereas it was the innocent, teenaged girl that everyone cared about. But Mother Antonio mourned them all and saw none as deserving of murder. She had a relationship with the drug dealer and knew he was more than the act of dealing drugs, more than any one act or combination of acts. The implication is that even if we don’t have close knowledge of others, we can assume they are more than their acts. Our actions don’t entirely define us.
- Cool ritual: Each Ash Wednesday, Mother Antonia asked everyone in La Mesa prison (the prison she lived in, in Tijuana) to write down the name of someone they can’t forgive, or of someone who did something to them that they can’t forgive or forget. Then she burned those sheets of paper to ashes, and rubbed the ashes from the burned names onto each person’s forehead.
- “Forgiveness is more effective than any punishment at controlling all the hate and homicide. The violence stops only when someone decides to forgive.” It’s tempting to see this teaching as obvious, especially in a volatile jail setting, and yet I would say that embedded in our justice system here in the U.S. and in our personal relationships (certainly in mine) is violence that flows from lack of forgiveness. By violence, I mean actions that flow from lack of love … so rivalry and its attendant comparisons, fear of not measuring up, fear of being envied; envy and jealousy themselves; keeping track of what’s owed (emotionally and materially); assuming the worst about someone because 100 times before those assumptions have been shown to be true; giving someone the cold shoulder, being stingy with affection and openness towards someone, closing oneself off from others due to fear of rejection, fear of pain, fear of not belonging; scapegoating others, excluding oneself before others can do it; addictions and compulsions and obsessions; etc. If we could but forgive ourselves and everyone else everything they’ve ever done “to” us, we could stop the interpersonal violence, which is the worldwide violence writ small.
- “If you can’t pray for him, don’t pray against him.”
- “The act itself is unforgivable” but “if you can forgive the man who shot your husband, great good would come to this world.” I too feel that each act of forgiveness, whether of murder or of some small thoughtless action, brings more light to the world, somehow creates peace or is congruent with peace, in the person who forgives and in the world as a community of interdependent, intimately connected creatures.
- Mother Antonia believes and acts as though goodness is an eternal quality, not something you can have and then lose. Bad behaviour and poor choices mask goodness but don’t take it away.
- She notices that gang members, drug dealers, assassins, etc., originally mimic the violence of others and act with violence themselves in an effort to feel that they belong. They don’t feel they belong where they are born, and they look for ways to belong, for a group to kill for and to die for. Over and over, in every group I’ve ever been a part of (as far as I can recall), I have heard people — sometimes myself — become disaffected and say that they just don’t feel they belong, that they are not understood or approved or loved or accepted. It must be part of the human condition to feel left out, excluded, un-belonged. What if we all knew that we belonged? What if we stopped believing that excluding ourselves and excluding others has the power to bring about peace? What if cutting off a part of ourselves (some part we don’t like and want to deny), or cutting ourselves off from others who don’t seem to love us enough, or cutting off someone else who doesn’t seem to belong to our group — what if all these excisions merely result in phantom pain? What if we can all still feel the weight and pain of those excised limbs, in every moment of every day?