Anyone Interested In A New Ministry? Turning Prison Cells Into Monastic Cells

Offering the Incarcerated a New Freedom

I was interested, along with many others, judging from the response of readers, to hear that a regular Latin Mass is to take place in San Quentin State Prison in California. What was especially exciting about the story was that 25 men from the prison volunteered to learn Gregorian chant and form a schola for the Mass (I understand even more turned up for the first practice). Read about it here: Twenty-five Inmates to Form Chant Schola for Regular Latin Mass in San Quentin Jail.

Let’s hope that the momentum for such a wonderful intitiative will continue after such a heartening start. This story sparked off an idea in my mind for a ministry that could work in harmony with this, ( and which is a development of something that I done in the past for veterans at the VA Hospital in Manchester, NH) .

Wouldn’t it be great if prisoners were able to sing the Liturgy of the Hours and could be taught to do so without anyone from outside participating? The Liturgy of the Hours is, as the Catechism tells us the most powerful and effective form of prayer that there is after the Mass. This would enable them to sing in community if permitted, or individually.

 A Carthusian cell

A Carthusian cell

 A cell in San Quentin

A cell in San Quentin

I know that there a many prison ministries doing good work, but I don’t know of one that is liturgically focussed in this way. (Please do let me know if any already exist.) Also I do not have a lot knowledge of what prison life is like and so it may be that I am being naive about the possibility of this happening.

Nevertheless, I am wondering if enough people in the East Bay area, where I live, would like to meet regularly to form a small group to practice singing the Liturgy of the Hours; and then we can offer ourselves as a group to any institutions that might be interested - who knows perhaps even San Quentin!

You don’t need to be an expert singer or even know how to read music. If you can hit a note and have the confidence to sing loudly in the shower that’ll be fine. And, if you like the idea but live somewhere else…then perhaps you can take the initiative and do it yourselves. The more the merrier.

I envision that our group would sing in English and work with the Anglican Ordinariate translation and psalm cycle - its the simplest arrangement of the psalms to use if we have take materials in to the the people we work with.

Musically, I intend to using the Way of Beauty psalm tones, which are traditional gregorian tones developed for English, and to use a drone and in some instances sime four-part harmonies (Paul Jernberg’s wonderful arrangements). These all work naturally with mixed or all male voices and are easy to sing. My experience is that even the four-part harmonies are easily taught to singers at the level I have described.

The first goal is to establish a group of singers as a teaching choir which can sing the Office confidently, and then we will approach a variety of institutions with a view to passing on to others. The hope for the prisoners is first to make it possible for everyone to sing with us, then to train them to a level where they can do it without us, and then they could even teach new recruits to join in without any help from us. These materials are simple enough for this to be possible and good enough, I believe, that they will want to make it happen.

If we get this far, then I see no reason why some of the people who want to go this far with us, would not also want to learn other forms of prayer that complement the singing of the Office, for example contemplative prayer; and undertake spiritual exercises that will enrich their lives ,such as those described in the Vision for You book. We could also offer some basic instruction in scripture so that they can understand the texts they are praying.

There are no vows here, no obligation to do anything we offer them. People go just as far as they are willing and able. But given that they have so much time, I suspect that those that feel the benefits of a little, are as likely to want to do much. There is, one might argue, a strict Rule of community already present, albeit enforced by rule of law. If this is informed by a program of liturgical, paraliturgical and personal prayer then the impact through grace might, I believe, be profound: on the individuals, on the community as a whole, and even on the society outside the walls. It would create, almost of necessity, a Carthusian-type spirituality, where most is done in solitude and the men or women occasionally come together to pray in community.

Some might wonder if the prisoners would want to do this. Well, the only way to find out is to offer it to them and see. I believe that some will want to given the enthusiasm for chanting the Mass. By God’s grace some will have happier lives and so seeing this will want to go deeper. After all, we worship God for our own sake, not for God, because we are happier for doing so. And this point can be made directly to the inmates: that all the personal prayers and exercises offered will deepen and enrich that act of worship and in turn its effectiveness in transforming their lives.

This ‘try-it-and-see’ approach, a bit like Pascal’s wager, can work. I know because it worked with me. This is the evangelization tactic used to convert me 20 years ago.

This ministry has to be worth a try!

The first step is for a group of volunteer singers to meet and become proficient at singing the Office, leading others and teaching them to do it. (Any who think they would like to get involved, please contact me: davidicons@gmail.com).

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