Dominican Nun goes to prison: “The power of prayer unites me with them”

Dominican Nun goes to prison: “The power of prayer unites me with them”

Sr. Maria Grazia of the Dominican Monastery of "S. Maria della Neve e S. Domenico" at Pratovecchio, Arezzo in Italy visited her friends in prison as a gift for her 25th profession anniversary. Her is her testimony.

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten… Don’t worry, I haven’t lost my marbles! These are just the dates on which the verse from the Gospel, “I was in prison and you visited me”, came true for me. It’s true, I was able to visit the prisoners with whom I’ve been exchanging letters for several years. The Letter to the Hebrews says: Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body (Hebrews 13:3). This year I celebrate the 25th anniversary of my religious profession and I decided to ask my Prioress for a present – one that would make not only me, but my prisoner friends happy. She said yes provisionally, and the Master of the Order confirmed the permission.

When you go into a prison and walk down those long corridors, hearing the sound of your every footstep and the sound of keys turning in barred doors, you can’t help thinking that there are two worlds: one “inside” and one “outside”. Yet despite this spontaneous distinction, every time I go into a prison I feel at home. It’s one of a number of feelings that make up a mystery. Maybe I feel at home because I’m a prisoner too, in a way: there is a visible prison, where the guilty are punished (and sometimes, reminding us that human justice is not infallible, victims and the innocent too), and an inner, invisible prison where we all live because of our sins. These years of monastic life have taught me to open my heart beyond the walls in order to embrace all humanity: this is the simple consequence of my struggling to live with God, to know his Love. It is a love that incites love for every brother and sister. I don’t feel superior to others: when I think of my prisoners it’s not their faults that come into my mind but the man who, recognising his mistake, opens up to Christian hope and is supported by it. The power of prayer unites me with them. Among those I write to some are progressing in faith and others, who do not believe in God, are nonetheless happy to have a nun for a friend.

St Dominic is a teacher for me. In love with prayer and with the Word of God, he loved all souls, longed for their salvation and so was open to everyone. One day I read this sentence:  “Praying for people means giving the blood of your heart”. It’s true: when you are in touch with the unhappiness of these brothers, it is not simply a question of praying, but of shouting to God. One prisoner told me that once he was about to fall into the abyss and told me: “Sr Grazia, that day I didn’t pray, I shouted at God!”

Prayer is the means by which I  am united to God and my brothers and sisters, to my neighbours of all races and religions. Prayer is a great source of strength. My talks with them have opened my heart. Their confidences, their discomfort, their difficulties help me to see my own difficulties as trifles, and to understand once again how poor are my offerings to God in the name of love. I have felt joy in the days of my conversations with my prisoner friends, listening to them, not saying much but clasping their hands in a simple gesture of profound solidarity and friendship.

I must admit that this visit to prisons has swept away any possible prejudice. On 8 March, Women’s Day, the chaplain of a prison and a woman who volunteers there decided to organize a meeting with the whole prison population, and to invite me and two other speakers, one a Muslim woman, who told their own moving tales. After we had spoken, a Muslim prisoner took the microphone to thank me for coming among them, expressing the hope that this meeting might build a bridge between me and them. At that moment I somehow felt the universality of humanity: we are all brothers and sisters, all children of God. That might sound as though it’s obvious for a nun, but as the years have passed there has always been something more that God has made us understand and discover as a novelty to rejoice over. I left the prison happy and, smiling to myself, I thought: “Fancy that, it took prison and a meeting with Muslim friends to understand universal brotherhood!”

I want to take this opportunity of thanking the Managers of the prisons I have visited for making my visits to the prisoners possible. I want to thank the police officers with whom I  was able to talk. Thanks to my two very helpful guardian angels, Anna and Danila. And to the prisoners Domenico, Giacomo, Giancarlo, Filippo, Andrea, my friend  Giulio who has now left prison and is living in Fr Mazzi’s Community1 – all of you welcomed me very courteously and joyfully: thank you! I was not able to take my gifts to them, but they gave me so many. I must also thank Fr Beppe who introduced me to the world of prison and gave me the joy of a personal meeting and of hearing his rich testimony. In these days I always kept in my heart the three words that have accompanied my 25 years of religious life: trust, abandonment and desire.

Thank you.

Sr Maria Grazia OP
Monastery “S. Maria della Neve e S. Domenico” – Pratovecchio (Arezzo) Italy
1Fr Mazzi is a priest who works extensively with drug addicts and others in need of help
(12 June 2017)