In last month’s Interim I described life in prison from the negative point of view. The humiliation and degradation of being reduced to the status of a beast—locked behind bars, bereft of normal privacy, which is part of civilized living, spoken to as if one were a dog. That is certainly a very real and tangible aspect of prison life. However, there is another point of view—the positive or spiritual and it is on that I wish to dwell in this month’s article.
…nor iron bars a cage
A 17th century poet, named Richard Lovelace, who was also a prisoner of conscience, expressed the positive side of prison in these memorable words, “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage.” The body can be rendered captive—but not the spirit! If I had been imprisoned for a crime – murder or robbery, — I would have found prison intolerable. I quite understand now, how people who do not have faith, hang themselves in jail. When there is nothing to look forward to but years of degradation, loss of freedom, no privacy, systematic depersonalization, and to add to all this, a sense of personal guilt, what is there to live for? But, being in prison for a cause makes all the difference—all the difference between night and day, light and darkness; I might almost say, heaven and hell. Far from feeling captive, I experienced and extraordinary sense of inner freedom. First of all, I did not have to be there. I had only to request the presence of a district justice and sign the conditions imposed by the judge and I was free. But I would not have been really free. For- in my particular case- I would have compromised my conscience. My body would have been at liberty, but not my spirit. And that is the lowest form of slavery.
Another positive side to our being in prison was the fact that we were walking in the footsteps of the great. This fact came to me with more than ordinary force one morning when I was reading from the Scriptures. I had not chosen the particular passage, it just “happened” to be part of my daily reading. It is in the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians (1:12-14). Written from prison: “I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that is has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest, that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of imprisonment and are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” If my imprisonment was not for Christ, it had no meaning at all. The prison guards certainly knew why we were there and I know that some of them admired our stand for the lives of the unborn. The fact that more than a thousand pro-life people gathered outside the prison for prayer vigils with lighted candles and the hundreds of letters—which I am still receiving –man from people I have never met, are strong indications that our voluntary confinement had a tremendous witness value. All of these things made the positive side of our imprisonment so important that the negative side was almost entirely blotted out.
In the footsteps of the Great
The highways of history are strewn with evidence of the sufferings of those who gave themselves for a cause as prisoners of conscience, rather than compromise their principles. St. Peter, “Are we to obey God or men?” St. Paul, “I am here (in prison) for the defense of the Gospel.” St. Thomas More, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” David Packer, “I will not guard a house where babies are being killed.” Joan Andrews: “I do not need to explain to you why I refused to pay the fine or allow anyone to pay it for me—though it was offered. I always knew what my response would be, but I am even more confirmed in it now, with a renewed sensitivity toward not compromising the dignity of the unborn.” These are but a few of the myriads of people who have written their names in blood and tears in the pages of human annals. Some have passed, but their witness remains like bright stars, reminding us that, though causes differ with every age, principles do not. In every generation, man’s inhumanity to man, whatever form it may take, presents a challenge to those who have learned the truth of the Gospel dictum, “Not on bread alone doth man live.”
Caesar Versus Christ
People, even the best intentioned have been confused recently about Operation Rescue. They say that people have no right to break the law. Our Lord made this situation very clear when he asked in the Gospel of St. Matthew to explain the relationship between the state (Caesar) and God. In other words, which do we obey when there is a conflict of commands? Jesus took a coin of the realm and asked, “Whose image is stamped on the soul of a child? We find the answer in the book of Genesis (1:26- 27) “Then God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” So, God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” It is this fact and this alone that makes human life sacred. The life of an unborn child belongs to God and not to Caesar and when Caesar makes laws “legalizing” abortion, he is assuming the mantle of God. All such laws are totally null and void and we have not only the right but also the obligation to oppose them by non-violent civil disobedience. If fifteen children were being murdered every day in a school, would you “pass by on the other side” because it would be illegal to trespass? I hope not!
The other “Inmates”
Our six weeks in prison gave us time to think and pray and that was surely a plus. But, one of the most positive aspects of life behind bars was surely a plus. But, one of the most positive aspects of life behind bars was the companionship of six wonderful people. We were of different ages, different races, different levels of education and different religions. But the one great unifying fact was our cause—the right of the unborn child to the gift of life. For that cause we were prepared not only to endure imprisonment but even death. And I believe it will come to that. If a husband were to say to his wife, “I shall love you as long as you are young and beautiful and slim and exciting,” he is really saying, “I do not love you at all.” If a soldier were to say to his commanding officer, “Yes, I have joined the army, I shall fight for my country, but I refuse to die,” would he be considered a true soldier?”
If we set limits to our love and fidelity for the unborn child, we are less than fully sincere. We may not be asked to die. But we must be mentally prepared to give our all. Think and pray about it!