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With their white beards and deep lines in their faces, the older men stand out in our jail Bible study’s circle of usually-young men with either tattoos on the outsides of their arms or track marks on the insides. I’m always struck by the old men’s humility, how they don’t tell the whippersnappers to shut up. They listen. There is a sorrow about them.

Take Merle. He’s only in his late fifties, but his questions speak to this sorrow. Someone had prayed for his left leg’s chronic pain in our group Bible study, and not only did the pain go away and stay away, but the healing grew deeper into his heart. Two weeks later he glowed in his red scrubs, trying to describe to us in the circle how he’d begun praying in his cell, how he felt different.

“Yep,” his cellie testified in the chair next to him. “Look, even his skin color changed.” Merle nodded his shaggy hair in agreement, lifting his arms for us to see. His cellie continued: “And he’s…I dunno…softer? Less of an asshole.”

But a few weeks later, in a one-on-one visit at night, Merle told me through the glass that his court case was over, and he’d be shipped out that week. “I don’t know what I’ll do in prison. I’ll be in my late seventies when I get out. I could die an old man in there.”

I was quiet with him. I waited as long as I could to tell him what I’ve been telling a number of guys this year: I told him about monks and monasteries.

That is, how some men choose to live out their days in all-male places wearing the same clothing, eating plain food, growing out their beards, leaving the “normal” world behind, and spending much of their time in rooms called cells, walking deeper into the mystery of God’s heart.

I told Merle about my friend, a former pastor and now university professor who’s gotten deep into Eastern Orthodoxy. He’s been sneaking away to a monastery every chance he can get, praying and bowing and sitting in silence and drinking tea and talking with Elder This and Elder That, with their black robes and canes and wheelchairs.

“He told me,” I said to Merle, “if his wife were to pass before him, he already knows he’d become a monk and move into the monastery to end his days there.”

Merle lit up at this. He sat up in his chair, opened his eyes wider, like he saw a light in the dark tunnel down which he’d been sent. He started gushing about loving other guys in prison—how he’d have nothing to lose. He could use his prison cell like a monk’s cell. Take it back from the Department of Corrections’ purposes and give it new meaning, a new mission.

Several guys—young, old, bearded and white, tattooed and Cuban—have had similar reactions as Merle to this monastic repurposing of their lives inside thick walls away from the world.

I pulled Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning off my shelf this week and wiped away its dust. In the second preface, Frankl suggests the success of his book is “an expression of the misery in our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

This is the question inside the sorrow of the downcast elders I meet in jail.

This is also the question an Orthodox holy elder, Father Maximos, addresses early in the pages of a book I’ve given to several men in solitary confinement, Mountain of Silence. In this pivotal scene, an angry man in the town outside Father Maximos’s monastery—in Cyprus—mocks how useless the monasteries are. Then the elder in his black robe and prayer beads nods and quietly responds: “I have been asked this question before. What does monasticism offer society?”

Maximos says this comes from “a modern way of thinking,” where people are valued on whether they are “useful to society.”

I underlined that part, heavily. When, as a chaplain and pastor, I go with the inmates to their courts, help them get back into school, share meals and weekends and worship with them, I often hear others commend the ministry work in a way that betrays the same “modern way of thinking.” That is, they introduce me to lawyers or churches as a chaplain who’s “helping these criminals turn their lives around and be productive members of society.”

I never know how to correct them. That misses my purpose completely.

“I prefer to see human beings,” Maximos says, “first and foremost in terms of who they are and only after that in terms of their contributions to society…. So what if you do not produce useful things? Does that mean that you should be discarded as a useless object? I am afraid that with this orientation contemporary humanity has undermined the inherent value of the human person.”

Monks have learned in their cells—as useless to society as you can feel—how God delights in them. That is their work, surrendering to an otherworldly love that restores us out of the darkness into which we have thrown each other and thrown ourselves.

Next week I’ll introduce another elder I met in the jail, a haggard old guy from upriver with a shaggy white beard, facing a (remaining) life sentence for murder. He helped me reimagine what the holy elder could look like in lockdown America.


This post originally appeared at Good Letters on February 13, 2015.

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