Verse – We never saw the stars

In memory of Rev. Milton Carothers

As two Protestant pastors, we had no
desire to become eremites, but went
to the monastery  to try to slow
our hectic campus lives in a retreat.
The Benedictine Retreat Master split
us quickly.  I was sent to spend the week
with an old monk–a former architect–
who now designed the gardens for his work
(all of the men must sweat as well as pray.)
We carried rocks; he talked incessantly.
Inside the borders made of stone, each day
we’d pull the sinweeds (never silently.)
At all the common  meals there was no talk
allowed–and in our cells, we were alone,
of course.  At 3 a.m. the bells would wake
us for a walk inside the walls (of stone
also) to sing, to pray the Psalms each night.
We saw no sky:  stained glass kept out starlight.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana IL

Editor’s note: I know Milton only through Steve’s tribute to him, but those who have served as campus ministers intuitively understand each other in ways that are unique t those who minister within the walls of the ivory tower. Milton, Steve and I share that history. Milton served in North Carolina, Steve in North Carolina and Champaign-Urbana, IL, and I in Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio. Like Milton and Steve, I have known the need to retreat to the Benedictine retreat center to restore my soul in the solitude and rhythms of Benedictine community.

Although I’ve never risen to pray the Psalms within the walls of stone at 3:00 a.m., I’ve often found myself awake within the starless walls of stone my hardened heart has built. Sometimes at 3:00 a.m. I’m lost among the sinweeds. A Psalm rises up within me to melt the stone, release me from the inner prison, remove the starless plastered ceiling. “When I consider the works of your hands, the moon and the stars which Your fingers have made, what is man that You think of him… and yet” and yet.

Escaping the Inner Prison

Corinthian Avenue Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

I once worked outside this prison as a street worker in North Philadelphia. Young gang members and I played “stickball” on the lawn outside the prison wall. I thought then that the prisoners were inside, and that the gang members were headed for the inside. The rest of us were free…on the outside. Now I see it differently.

We’re all in prison. Yet we’re free. We’re in the prison of deregulated corporate capitalism.We’re back in the Roman Empire, where Paul and Silas were thrown in prison because they dared to interfere with the free market. They freed a young slave-girl who had been put on the street corner as a fortune-teller. She lived on Main Street; all the money from her fortune-telling went to her slave owners on Wall Street.

By rescuing the slave-girl, Paul and Silas were challenging the morality of the prevailing economic system. So the folks from Wall Street seized them, dragged them “into the market place” before those in power and the judges — who were in the hip pocket of those who owned the marketplace and the market — beat them and threw them in prison for advocating “customs and practices” that were unlawful, according to law of the Roman empire. It’s all there in the New Testament Book of Acts. It was unlawful to be moral, unlawful to mess with the economy of a free market.

After beating them to a pulp, the judicial system ordered the jailer to lock them up in the most secure part of the prison — “the inner prison.” It’s always “the inner prison” — the one in our own hearts and heads — whose walls are the thickest. The people who challenge prison security are put in the “inner prison” — solitary confinement.
As Paul and Silas sang and prayed “at midnight” from their inner prisons and all the others were listening, there was a kind of earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. All the prison doors swung open and everybody’s chains fell off! Everybody’s! And when the jailer woke up to what was happening and drew his sword to commit suicide, Paul and Silas declared that he, too, had been set free from the prison he had guarded.
In September-October 2008 an earthquake rocked the foundations of deregulated corporate capitalism. The earthquake, of their own making, shook the prison walls owned by the big investment brokerage houses and the big banks and AIG, and the inner cell doors had begun to swing open in the hearts and minds of the American people.
But instead of leaving the prison, we stayed in the “inner prison.” We rebuilt the prison, gave the keys back to Wall Street, and chose three square meals a day, a roof over our heads, some chump change for candy and cigarettes, numbed ourselves TV entertainment, and gave the slave-girl back to her owners so we could all dream about a different future. We rebuilt the Wall Street Prison.
What to do? For me, this is a matter of faith. I’m still an inmate of the Wall Street Prison, but my “inner prison” is free. I’m going to keep singing out loud at midnight about human freedom from the prison economy of a deregulated corporate free market that is anything but free. I’m going to walk out of that inner prison by taking my chump change out of the big banks that give $1,000,000 bonuses to the very people who foreclosed on the family of that slave-girl, and I’m transferring all it to the local credit union which belongs to the people. Then I’m going to invite everyone else to do the same.
I’m going to join Paul and Silas and song-writer Timothy Frantzich until everybody’s chains fall off and all the prison doors swing open.
Questions for comment and discussion:
  1. What is “the inner prison”?
  2. How does “the inner prison” work?
  3. Do you agree, in part or in whole, with the commentary?
  4. Where do you agree and disagree?

I’d love to hear from you. Others would, too. Thanks for coming by.