When Did I See Him?: Bringing the Beatitudes behind bars

‘Chris, I brought you some of the material. I thought you might want to....”

“No,” I said, cutting off my sister, Liz. “I don’t want to pre-read any of the material. It’s my weekend—I’m not working.”

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She asked me again a few days later: “Chris?”

“Ugh—” My grunt of negation was meant to be pre-emptive. She addressed me by name only when she was going to ask me for something I did not want to do. She was in profile now, driving through the countryside toward Puget Sound in an S.U.V. she was constantly either apologizing for, because the interior was coated with dog hair, or bragging about because it wasn’t. “Do you want to go over a bit what you’re going to say?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to say anything—I’m not going to do anything except listen to you. You do everything.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure, Liz.” I put in my earbuds to drown out the Christian rock station that she had started listening to. (Christian rock?, I thought, what’s next? Books on tape by Joel Osteen?)

She parked the car in a one of those seaside Washington towns that looked like a typo—Steilacoom—on a day in which the entire Northwest appeared to be staged for “The Truman Show.” The water was glass. The air was still. Trees in the distance looked like fur on the land. A family was throwing crab rings off a neighboring pier, and cars were lining up to board an adjacent ferry.

We walked down the ramp to a pier on which a large white building stood—it had an antechamber with secured doors on either side of a guard standing behind a glass partition. We slid our ID’s through, and Liz picked up the conversation she had left behind the last time she was here—all smiles and laughter with the three guards who signed us in and led us through the metal detector.

The empathic powers Liz deploys in her day job as a therapist in psychiatric lockdown wards border on the clairvoyant: Daily she talks people out of suicide, consoles them as they attempt it over the phone—“Joey, I’m hanging up now and calling 911; I will see you when you arrive”—looks into their eyes as they emerge from their most recent unsuccessful attempts to kill themselves.

When reunited, Liz and I alternately spend our time telling each other how great we are—an adolescent holdover from our attempts to bolster our egos when we were outgunned intellectually in our youth by our two older siblings—and humiliating each other in public, because people who suffer from megalomania are such easy targets.

Liz said I had to watch a safety video before getting on the ferry, so I walked over to the television monitor playing with no sound. I stared at it for a while and then turned around. Liz and the two female guards started laughing at me. “There’s no safety video! Just get on the boat and hang on!”

McNeil Prison grew in size before us. It was closed now, but like Alcatraz, which I spied often through my swim goggles, its hundred-year penitentiary past and current ghost town status were irresistible to me. We were headed deeper into the island to the Special Commitment Center, where 300 level-three sex offenders reside. Most have been imprisoned for decades and will never know freedom again.

For the past decade, Liz had made it her mission to bring the good news to these men—to read them the readings from Mass once or twice a month and bring them Communion from her parish in Redmond, Wash. She had been telling me for years stories of “her guys,” as she called them, and always asked me to come with her some time. I was game.

We entered a building by way of a tunnel that dips beneath the security fences and were ushered into a central area, which resembled the check-in desk of a slightly outdated health club. There were no heavy fortifications inside—no phalanx of 12-gauge-toting guards or steel catwalks up above, which was my preconceived image of the place. Liz and I were ushered into an empty room with chairs and a temporary altar already set up.

‘When Did We See You?’

The men walked in one at a time. Of the eight men, one impressed me as unusually old. Another was so short his jeans had to be hand-hemmed; he looked too young. There were two black men—one older and one younger. There was a rural type with a lazy eye, who was married. And one thin, very quiet man, European-looking, whose speech was so indistinct it scared me a little. One of them, I knew, was a pedophile; I was told not to speak of children in their midst.

After initial introductions, the men took turns at the readings and responsorial psalm and the Gospel acclamation. We stood as my sister read the Gospel. As we sat back down to hear what I assumed would be her reflection, I was about to say, “Liz, please do not be boring,” when she turned to me and said, “Chris, do you want to read the Beatitudes?”

“The what?” I looked over at her.

“The Beatitudes—it’s on the handout I gave you.”

I picked up the paper and looked at it—it was short. So I read it:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth....

I finished. “Can you read it again?” she asked. I read it again. And then looked at her.

“Can you tell the guys what it means?”

“What it means?” I wondered.

I looked down at the words. And they began to swim on the page. The tears in my eyes caused everything to blur, like saltwater had seeped into my swim goggles again. I am a professional speaker, but words could not come. The harder I tried, the less I could see and the more impossible it was to speak. Tears dripped on the paper. One of the inmates to my right put his hand upon me. He was a serial rapist, who had attacked female guards when he was first imprisoned.

He rubbed my back—this was against the rules. “It’s O.K.,” he said.

It was not the Beatitudes that were making it hard for me to see and speak. It was some other words that came to me: “When did we see you in prison and come to you?” “Truly I say to you, as you have done it for one of the least of my brothers, you have done it for me.”

This thought, of being face-to-face with Jesus, of sitting across from him here on this remote island, in this Special Commitment Center—of having him listen to me in the flesh—this tore through me. I did not lift my eyes. He might be sitting there right now before me, it seemed. He might. How would I know? I continued to cry.

He would not find me now meek, pure of heart, a peacemaker or particularly merciful—as he might have when I first read these words, as a boy in parochial school. At this age he would see me as I actually was and not how I hoped I would one day be.

I think I wanted to visit McNeil Island partly to see a freak show. I think my curiosity got the better of me. Orange being the new black, I aspired to improve my wardrobe. But sitting there, among those men, unable to speak, I realized that I was the freak. I was the oddity: a free man imprisoned at this moment by his emotions—by a part of me I did not understand or was scared of or wanted to go away. Everyone remained silent. My sister did not say a word.

On First Hearing

I cleared my throat.

“The most astonishing account of Jesus I have ever read,” I said, “is from a history book written by a husband and wife couple named Will and Ariel Durant. A volume of theirs entitled Caesar and Christ illustrates how revolutionary was the appearance of Jesus during ancient Rome’s domination of the world.

“The Beatitudes represent an inversion of what was then the human condition. The concept that the poor or the meek or the persecuted or the mournful had any value at all—or would receive some reward, in time, owing to their condition—was incomprehensible at that age.

“What always struck me about this passage, because it is so short, is that thoughts of this inversion must have come to Jesus one by one. He didn’t begin preaching at 17. He was a tradesman. We have this quaint notion of his hammering wood in the dirt of some backward town, but he grew up just one hour away on foot from an exceedingly cosmopolitan city [Sepphoris—which itself looks like a typo]—but this fact is lost on us. He was exposed to the best of Greek and Roman sophistication. He saw an upscale but corrupt city, where he probably had a lot of customers—makes sense, doesn’t it? I imagine as he walked back home and compared what he saw with the people he lived with these thoughts came to him—‘Blessed are the meek, etc.’

“So these thoughts, I think, came to him, one at a time, as he pursued this particular line of reasoning until it made such an indelible imprint on him that he was able to recall each of these inversions in a lot, almost as a poem, when pressed by the multitude to speak.

“For their part, these words must have been so radical to hear initially that some of the people who heard them committed an individual line or two to memory at the hearing of it. Imagine being a kind and generous person in an empire that extracts blood from men and hearing that one line, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ Wouldn’t you walk home after hearing that one sentence and repeat it to everyone you met, rejoicing that of all the things Jesus could have said, that he included a description of you and your life in his revolution of the status quo? The things Jesus said were unforgettable at their first hearing.

“I, of course, haven’t heard anything he said myself. I haven’t met him, but as I look at these words I realize someone conceived them. Historically, they are ascribed to Jesus. In my heart, I recognize these words as God’s.

“So, Liz,” I said, looking back at my sister, “that is what the Beatitudes mean to me.”

“Thank you,” Liz said. She smiled a large artificial smile at me, developed decades ago in our near Irish-twinship to communicate nonverbally that something we did was really stupid or that we were probably in big trouble again with Mom. “Thanks for preparing!”

By preparing, I presume she referred to my 16 years of Catholic education versus her 18, including her master’s degree, which, to my mind, was being diminished minutely by her exposure to Christian rock.

“You’re welcome,” I said, returning that smile in kind.

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