Fr. Dale Matson
I had an opportunity to take a tour of Alcatraz this past weekend and realized that confinement is mainly a state of mind. As I walked through the cell blocks it dawned on me that prison life is a form of monasticism. There are the prisoners who take temporary vows and ones that take on permanent vows based on their past life and the strength of their convictions.
Alcatraz was a kind of monastery situated high on a rocky island surrounded by the San Francisco Bay, which is connected to the Pacific Ocean. There is a barrenness and bleakness to the main structure from which it was reputed that there was no escape. The wind was constant and the cold sea surrounding it eternally formed a moat that discouraged the prisoners from escaping. Even with the prisoners no longer there, I could sense the hopelessness and desperate effort to cling to their humanity in this place. Their names had become numbers.
I visited Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of France a few years ago and Alcatraz reminded me of it by its setting and structure. It too is an island fortress but intended to keep people out. There was a monastic community within these walls also and their warden was an abbot. They were a community of men who lived and died within the walls of Mont St. Michael. There was however a different sense about this place. As I walked around the drafty heights I could visualize monks occupied by the task of illuminating manuscripts, prayer and the daily office. Their life was routine, confined and dedicated to poverty chastity and obedience. Their life had purpose and meaning and their vocation sought after holiness. They took on new names in accord with their station.
In Alcatraz, the solitary confinement cells 9-14 in “D” Block were considered the harshest living conditions for those who refused to obey the rules of the order of prisoners. Their cells were carved out of the wall of the prison which forms the back of their cell. They were only allowed out of their cells for a weekly shower. Their vows were similar to the monks but imposed on them for a similar reason by the prison warden. The rules are for conversion of manners also. Those in solitary confinement lived the contemplative life with opportunity for visions. Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud was probably the most famous of the unrepentant residents of D Block.
Anchorites lived in a cell formed from part of a monastery wall. The door to the cell was permanently sealed with bricks and they lived in this cell until they died. Their bodily waste was removed by a chamber pot and they were brought food and fed though a small opening in a common wall. My wife and I visited a church in Ireland that had a cell in the sanctuary wall for an anchorite. St. Julian of Norwich was an anchoress in the medieval period that led a contemplative life and experienced visions. An anchorite was considered a source of spiritual advice and counsel to abbots.
Some monastics eventually leave the order because they find the life too limiting. Some prisoners return to prison because they find freedom too confining. Each of us lives much of our daily life in a cell of similar dimensions without walls, sometimes with partitions. Are you in prison or are you free? “To know You is eternal life and to serve You is perfect freedom.” (Book of Common Prayer, from "A Collect for Peace” p. 99). Amen