Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Profound Blessing

Johnny Cash, I have heard, sang a concert at Folsom Prison.  He went there once, in 1968.  And, of course, he won a Grammy award for the song that bears the name of this strange destination.

Cash was an uncommon artist, and it is no small indication of the uniqueness of his talent that saw him actually recording a concert at a maximum security prison.

The Notre Dame Folk Choir has a lot in common with Johnny Cash.  Not that its director wears black (never; he prefers, I am told, a vest).  But we visit a prison, just like the Man in Black did.  And we've been doing so for some twenty years or so, not just once.

So it was that, two weeks ago, our ensemble went through four security checkpoints on Mother's Day, and eventually wound up deep within the confines of Indiana State Prison, ISP, Michigan City, for what has become an annual tradition.

It was, as always, a powerful, amazing day.  A day that really was an embodiment, a tangible touching of the face of Jesus, in being in the midst of and singing for the imprisoned.  Stories were told, hopes of release were shared, "God bless you!" was shouted to the ensemble, time and time again.

It takes an hour to get into this place – even with the able assistance of Frs. Dave Link and Tom McNally, c.s.c.  And after that, an hour to share song, talk with the men, remind them of their humanity, offer them some hope.  And then, just as quickly, it was time for us, to bid good-bye.  I have no pictures to share in this post – they're not allowed.  But you can imagine, with me, the searing intensity of such a pilgrimage.

As we were getting ready to exit the beat-up, bedraggled auditorium that had become our concert hall, one of my astute student officers whispered over to me.  "Steve," he said, "ask them for a blessing."  It was the perfect request.

And so I did –  I asked a blessing from the prisoners.

When I did this, hundreds of men stood up and raised their hands in an arc of protection over these young singers: their rough, tattooed, calloused hands, hovering in a gesture of gentility.  One of the men stepped forward, and prayed for our successful travels as we head to Australia (a trip we will embark upon this very week).  There were resounding, gruff, tearful "Amens!" to each of the invocations by the young, imprisoned man who led the benediction.  I don't remember a blessing ever feeling so powerful.

And tomorrow, we begin the first day of a forty-one thousand mile pilgrimage Down Under.  We will be all the more ready for this, because of what happened in a dilapidated assembly hall behind razor-wire and security towers: this most profound blessing, a blessing for our pilgrimage from men who helped us see the face of our Redeemer in their midst.

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