We can cage a human body, but we cannot cage the human spirit. According to many spiritual traditions, stilling the body can make way for our spirit to speak to us, or perhaps more accurately, for us to hear the Spirit speaking.
Abba Moses, one of the great desert fathers, would counsel his monks, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Once, when I repeated this teaching to an inmate I was counselling in jail, he replied, “You mean, like, listen to my TV?” Not quite what Abba Moses had in mind.
Nelson Mandela, no stranger to doing hard time, once wrote, “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity, and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”
Now I’m not suggesting we should each do a stint in jail as a spiritual discipline, but the path of stillness and simplicity can be a path to greater self-knowledge and self-awareness and lead to considerable personal healing. Jails are places of physical deprivation, but as Abba Moses recognized, confinement itself can strangely yield riches of peace and wholeness in our mind and spirit.
For more than a decade, I taught meditation and centering prayer to the inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, encouraging them to slow their minds and bodies for a moment, and to focus on their breath. We usually began with a full body scan, eyes closed (if they could muster the trust required to close their eyes in jail!). Seated on a mat or a chair in a circle, we would move our attention slowly from our toes to the top of our heads, tensing and relaxing the different muscle groups in turn, and noticing any hurts, resistance or feelings that might arise.
Once the body scan was over and we settled into silence, it didn’t take long for guys to become twitchy and uneasy. Some gave up immediately, choosing to spend the rest of the meditation class reading, or sleeping, or poking at their neighbour. But for those who entered earnestly and sincerely into the meditative practice, noticing the valuable wisdom spoken in the silence by their own spirit was an important first step on their path to healing. Guys would tell me that for that one hour, they were not in jail; they were free. Wherever we are, with eyes to see and ears to hear, Jesus Christ gives us all we need to have life, and have it abundantly.
Some paths through the body onto deeper healing are rockier than others, but the human spirit can always find a way to speak. The artist who created the painting accompanying this article was right-handed and did all his drawing and painting with that hand. He was a regular in my centering prayer group. One very bad day, in a fit of uncontrolled anger, he punched his right hand repeatedly into a cinder-block wall. Broken bones were followed by months of pins and casts and multiple visits to the hand clinic in Victoria.
No surprise, his dexterity and muscle control in his right hand could never be restored. When he created this painting for me, his right hand was scarred and withered, yet on this canvas he taught himself to paint with his left hand. The cacophony of spirit-creatures testify to my friend’s irrepressible passion to create. We can cage a human body, but we cannot cage the human spirit.
It is not easy for any of us, I believe, to intentionally still our bodies and open ourselves to the thoughts, emotions, traumas, and memories we so skillfully try to bury and avoid acknowledging. It takes courage to allow what we imprison deep within us to be free. What emerges can surprise us: all those unprocessed memories, stored in our tired flesh. But when we do make the time and space to listen to the spirit inside, our path to healing and wholeness begins to chart itself. Shalom.