Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Job 10) transports me to the 5 East block of the Buncombe County Jail, where my pastor Steven and I sit in a small room with ten inmates every Monday evening for an hour and a half of Bible study and prayer. The charges the men are facing run the gamut from your basic drunk and disorderly to murder. Some wait there for months, even years, waiting on a court date. Each inmate gets six hours a day of time outside his small cell, so those who are facing prison time long for the transfer to prison, where there is more space and more human interaction. What I have learned over the past couple of years is that the jail functions much as a distillery, condensing emotions and experiences and bottling them in potent quantities. Everything is more intense. The Bible study and prayer have a strong kick to them. The frustration over a system that seems to play games with their lives can be hard to swallow. The cocktail of shame and hope and indignity and resistence is enough to knock your socks off. Steven and I have often talked about how this is the most engaged Sunday School class we’ve ever witnessed. This is all in my mind today, as a group from our church prepares to go down to Marion tonight to provide a Christmas dinner for a couple hundred of the inmates there.
While Job didn’t spend time in jail, I think he could definitely relate to these men. He was certainly victim to a system that seemed to be playing games with his life. He was throwing down the same high proof concoction of shame and rage and confusion and depression as the men I sit with every week. And, like so many of them, he longed for his day in court. He screamed out to the Judge, Tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me? He imagines the witnesses coming forward to testify against him in wave after angry wave, and yet he maintains innocence. The injustice is too much for him to bear, and he questions his very existence, wondering why God didn’t simply carry him from the womb straight to the tomb.
It’s fitting to read Job and to go to the prison today, as it is the Feast Day of St. John of the Cross. This Spanish saint spent more than nine months in prison, in a narrow cell where he received brutal treatment. As terrible as this experience was, it was also what distilled his spirituality into an Everclear-like potency. He wrote the classic poem of Christian mysticism, Dark Night of the Soul, after experiencing the intensity of Christ’s presence in the midst of these sufferings. St. John had been arrested because of his work with St. Teresa of Avila, in founding a reform movement within the Church, an order called the Discalced (that is, barefoot) Carmelites. These barefoot mystics were a threat to the powers of their day. They may not have been drunk, but they were definitely disorderly. St. John teaches us that whatever injustice we encounter, whatever the system does to play games with our lives, whatever dark cell we find ourselves trapped in, whatever shame and rage is forced down our throats, it can all be a portal into the very heart of God. This Advent Season, may the men in jail and in prison who are feeling like Job, poisoned by the vapors of shame and rage and hopelessness, have access to the sweeter darkness St. John of the Cross imbibed. May the words of the old hymn intoxicate their souls: What though the darkness gather round, songs in the night he giveth. . . In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them go winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.