Letter from prison

One of us (abc) is a voluntary refugee from St. Boniface Church, a Catholic parish in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Last year our pastor, Fr. Louis Vitale, a priest of the Franciscan order, moved on after 13 years at St. Boniface to work full-time for peace and justice. A committed activist, he has been arrested more than 200 times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Nevada Test Site, on the streets of San Francisco, and most recently at the School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia. In November Louie was arrested for crossing the line at the SOA (his second offense at that site) and in January he received a six-month sentence, which he is serving in the Crisp County Jail in Cordele, Georgia. During his incarceration he has sent back messages to his friends and supporters, and the latest is copied below. Receive it as a gift of this season of Lent, and join me in gratitude for this living saint!

Reflection on a Lenten Wilderness Retreat in a Georgia“desert”
March 2006

“LIGHTNING EAST TO WEST”

As Lent 2006 began to dawn on my Crisp County hermitage cell I felt a call to a deeper Lenten Experience. I had received a letter from Jim Douglass offering his phone number for a collect call. Early Ash Wednesday morning I placed a call to him asking for some spiritual additional food for Lent. (Jerry Zawada and I shared a Lenten retreat last year with the Douglasses’ community in Birmingham, Alabama, on the theme of the wildernesses of life where—as Jesus and John the Baptist—we discover God.) I recalled to him how during a three month “retreat” at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur California I had a great spiritual theophany while reading his book Lightning East to West. Two days later I had the book as well as the finally published Peace in the Post-Christian Era by Thomas Merton. I was ready for the 1st Sunday of Lent.

The title recalls Mt. 24:27: “The coming of the son of man will be like lightning striking in the East and flashing far into the West”—an image of the second coming of Christ. I had been through the experience of our dear Friar brother Ed Dunn dying a couple of weeks earlier. I experienced, locked in my cell, his life pass and merge into the resurrection of Jesus and felt his presence fill the sky from the Coast of California to my eastern presence in the State of Georgia—I also experienced his life as one engrossed in the very human struggles of the family of God in Latin America, on U.S. borders, and in the labor of farm workers on the streets of our cities. Ed had joined our Las Vegas community when we were engaging that lightning force of nuclear weapons that Douglass traces to Einstein’s discovery E=mc2 –that taking even an infinitesimal mass to approach the speed of light (c2) can bring an eruption of almost
infinite energy. Our desert in Nevada had experienced that and its deadly traces were only too evident—not only that (the history of testing nuclear bombs) but also there is continual tension towards repeating the 2 times we unleashed such a diabolical force deliberately targeting the people of Japan. The clock ticking towards this re-enactment of the end-times is by viewed by many as the threshold of nuclear holocaust. We witness the tensions with Iran, between India & Pakistan, the well-known desires of many to obtain nuclear weapons as a national goal or as leverage to address grievances. The U.S. has moved from a defensive posture to an announced willingness and ability to engage in successful pre-emptive nuclear attack against other nuclear powers and even against a nation without nuclear weapons. Again and again even those who have armed and targeted such weapons of mass destruction (such as Gen. Lee Butler) warn us that once we cross this line the “lightning flash” encompassing the world is near inevitable. This readiness and for some eagerness to bring on the endtime has been well attested by experts (cf. for example “The Perils of Primacy” by BenjaminSchwarz—Atlantic Monthly Jan/Feb 2006). My last sojourn as a federal inmate was on the border of the Nevada Test Site as we prepared such weapons for the emerging war in Iraq.

The spectre of the world on “hair trigger alert” for nuclear holocaust once again fills the void of my incarcerated life and so I turn to Douglass’ search for/promise of an antidote—Douglass turns first to Gandhi (also drawing from Einstein’s conviction that there is a continuous harmony in creation) and the awareness of an equally near infinite spiritual power—that within a person or even more a community lies an equal lightning energy. Hebrews Ch. 1 quotes Ps 104:4: “God makes those who serve to be like flashes of lightning.” Gandhi speculates just as the speed of light—the activator for physical energy—there is an underlying reality that can project even a single human thought into a world engaging spiritual transformation. For Douglass and Gandhi this is seen in Jesus’ life beginning with his time in the wilderness where he foregoes the temptations to “worldly” power and possession for a life totally given in selfless love & service. This life of total nonviolent love of “God” and neighbor continually transforms aspects of our world.

During my retreat here in my own wilderness of my Crisp County cell I reflect deeply on this nonviolent love demonstrated by Jesus. Jerry Zawada and I began our follow up in Jail to our School of the Americas protest by commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the massacre of 4 religious women (Ita, Maura, Dorothy & Jean) in El Salvador. They had forecast this in a prayer service the night before their death that to share the life of the poor in El Salvador meant to experience their fate: capture, disappearance, torture & death. We also recalled Sr. Dorothy Stang recently killed in Brazil while defending in total nonviolence the rights of rubber growers. As she knelt and read Jesus’ words of mercy and forgiveness she received their bullets in her face and died in a total act of love and acceptance. We also continue to walk a journey with 4 members of the Christian Peacemaking Team in Iraq who went with acceptance & nonviolence as involuntary guests into the hands of frustrated Iraqis who do not seem to recognize their gift of their lives to them (so similar to Jesus). On and on these stories flow and many more of every day people caring for loved ones, sharing their goods and lives with others. And they pierce the sky like lightning. Thomas Merton discovered this energy as he engaged the spiritual force in total self-emptying that comes to those who pierce all self-centeredness, selfishness, greed and violence by an inner transformation in contemplation. They carry out Jesus’ search in the wilderness to find the underlying reality of goodness/godness that most religions and spiritual people see as the unifying source in which we all participate. We experience the merging of the inner and the outer in all encompassing nonviolence seen so well in the lives of Francis & Clare of Assisi, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, the women were called above who serve, suffer, go to prison (we recall Sisters Ardeth, Carol, Jackie recently released from 3-4 years in prison for pouring out their own blood & energy to say “no” to the
nuclear holocaust.)

Douglass concludes by recalling one of Merton’s final experiences. A week before his death as he experienced great stone Buddhas in Ceylon and was struck by “the Great Smiles”; knowing everything, rejecting nothing—radiating peace—Merton realized their peace & smiles came from a radical self-emptying that reflects the total reality—‘everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.’ Douglass concludes “In our resistance to humankind’s destruction, we need to live and act in the spirit of ultimate perfect emptiness and compassion if we are to experience a way of transformation.” As I read these words, Sr. Mary Litell wrote me of a Lenten reflection she was leading in a socially conscious parish on the theme “awe (what remains when we achieve emptiness) and compassion.” Yes it is on the threshold of our consciousness and when persons and communities truly live this we will approach a critical mass that can bring about that lightning flash of the second coming, not by mass destruction imposed by a vengeful God or destructive human and technological “progress” but an emergence of love embracing all from East to West & West to East.

I hope to experience this emptying and compassion here among those considered least socially desirable in our U.S. community (such that we have 2 million locked up in seemingly endless and inhumane imprisonment and in the Guantanamo Bays and ghetto prisons, and on and on–). Yes we need to see & experience all creation in awe and with compassion and the peaceable kin-dom of which Jesus spoke—and so many other religious seers point us to with Hope—will come to be. May we all pray together during these forty days and be visible signs of Alleluya when the glory of the promise of Resurrection (or whatever fulfilled spiritual goals we embrace) draws us into the one Reality from which we all come, in which we all live.

Peace and all good, Louie

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