by Ben Hall
We were talking about life and death with Sister Helen Prejean; about lethal injection, murderers and killers; those seen by many to have lost their humanity. Some of the best friends I call family have committed murder, but their hearts do not line up with the horrible act they once committed by which society still defines them. The heart is such a mystery. I recently wrote a piece about the heart and the connection between the physical and metaphorical. The heart represents life, a hollow vessel which pumps thousands of gallons of life sustaining blood throughout the body each day. The heart is the center; we often say "the heart of the matter" is this or that. Everything in life has its own heartbeat, a tone and some type of sustaining flow. What does this mean for 2000 criminals inside a walled city?
One cannot miss the big penitentiary that sits off State Street sheathed by four cement walls and guard towers like a medieval castle. This prison so obviously visible to passersby yet hidden in so many ways is its own community. Just as every community has its own fragrance, its own heart, so this penal colony too has its own heart. The heart of the prison beats but it doesn't always pump life. I walk around entombed inside the confines of this both living and dead heart. Although my travels are limited, my feet have and continue to beat the pavement of these dimensions again and again taking the pulse of the prison. There are so many voices, mostly loud, boisterous and aggressive, but faintly, faintly I hear the silent cries. Near the softball diamond there is cheering; there's an assortment of activity in this section and some vitality. Cutting off the track, my feet touch down on the asphalt of the handball court. Somehow this area of the heart seems harder and darker. I pass by the many soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, their faces colder. Iron masks of pride presumably corresponding with their hearts...and yet, I always sense deep within the recesses of the hardest heart that fear and ever s slightly, there it is again, those silent cries. Moving back to the track I turn aside my eyes from their watch. Would that I could I'd be invisible so that I could study each face. Maybe I could see what lies behind the masks of cold stares, somehow reaching past it and touching the lost dreams, deferred hopes and tears falling behind their eyes. Lines are drawn in the chow hall, and benches, tables and weights on the yard! Everything about the geography of this camp seems to separate us, locking us out of one another's lives, hiding behind lies.
There are other places in the heart that don't beat so cold. Ascending the stairs through the pathways of the heart passing the descending infected blood cells to the education floor. In class with my friends, you feel as if you're walking across hope and aspirations under construction compartment of the heart but always some fear. The silent cries are louder in this section and louder still as I walk into the chapel. So much so that the silence has transcended and is capable of being heard in some cases as its being healed. This sanctuary feels the softest and safest place inside the heart's chamber allowing you even to see outside and beyond your confinement. There is peace and joy in this part of the heart but the deep silent cry always lingers.
The visiting room seems a different heart altogether. I sense happiness, hope, longing to fall into the remaining space between you and the one you love, and fulfillment mixed with sorrow. In the visiting room there is a silent lamentation of another kind, that of a mother's heart broken, wondering where she went wrong and a child's pain not understanding.
The heart of the prison beats on as night seizes hold, taking this place captive. Those dreadful cries are now the loudest, 2000 different pulses, silent anguish and torment as quiet tears of regret, and shame and hopelessness tarnish pillows. The heart of the prison is broken, but God's grace is pouring through the cracks like a healing balm for those who would look for it, grace brings peace to the silent cries.