“Ending up here saved my life, literally.” These were the words of a bright, faithful woman living out her incarceration in hope. We had an intense conversation one Sunday afternoon following a deeply moving prison Mass celebrated by a Jesuit priest. Her witness was nothing short of staggering in the eyes of a world which sometimes values superficiality over authenticity. In an effort to protect her dignity and privacy, I will call her Holly for the purpose of this blog.
“Even those on the margins, even those who are rejected and despised by society, are considered by God worthy of His love.”Pope Francis
Holly’s story is not unlike many struggling women in today’s society. I’ve come to discover this sad reality while volunteering with folks living on the margins, as Pope Francis has called the overlooked. The fact is that without a supportive family or network of stable friends, Holly ended up in a situation where “falling through the cracks” wasn’t so hard. At her lowest point, Holly was on the verge of ending her life. But somehow, in the moments before that devastation happened, God’s grace broke through to save her. Ending up in prison was the event that actually saved her life. It is hard to understand, but the thing that most of us would think of as the end, was actually the beginning of a new life for Holly.
In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Sometimes I think that we forget all people are all made in the image and likeness of God – ALL people. God does not discriminate. He genuinely seeks to be in relationship with every person – there are no exceptions in the Kingdom of God. Like the loving father that He is, God is always seeking us out, the challenge is that we don’t always respond to His promptings in our life. As for Holly, she began hearing His voice clearly when she landed in a place which seemed like hell to the outside world. But it was there, in the coldness of the concrete prison walls, where she heard Him calling out to her.
Through her willingness to be open and receive love from the people God put into her life at the prison, Holly grew strong, faithful and confident that God has great plans for her life. She has worked and prayed hard each day. Looking back, she realized that she had to hit rock bottom – finding God in the depths of her despair – in order to find Him at all. Perhaps Holly’s story is not unfamiliar to many of us – though not as dramatic. Many of us travel through life freely and forget that there is a God who loves us unconditionally. Then when we encounter suffering, the One who loves us breaks through mysteriously – probably because we are vulnerable. And in the midst of our great pain, God’s grace reaches us and we are able to hear His voice in a new way. It’s only then – at the bottom – that we are able to begin again, forging ahead to build a relationship with Him as a new creation.
In today’s society, we are taught to avoid all suffering and pain. But I believe that our suffering is the very thing that allows us to become the people we were meant to be. When we embrace our suffering, we slowly evolve, grow strong and resilient – if we surrender it all to Him. The story of Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph is a wonderful example of this. After his brothers had left him for dead, because he was their father’s favorite son, God never left him. Joseph was taken into slavery for years and yet still trusted in God. He eventually became a great ruler in Egypt who saved many people from famine. Then, upon seeing his brothers again after many years, he said, “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end, the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50:20)
Being open to suffering does not make sense to us in this life but it is necessary as St. Paul reminds us, “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) Holly has discovered this truth and to converse with her in person is like seeing the face of Jesus himself. This woman has experienced horrific suffering yet she shines with the light of Christ. When life is difficult, we must trust that God will see us through the darkness, like Jacob’s son Joseph. It is in that darkness when we are refined and made new thus becoming a shining light of hope for ourselves and others – just like Holly.