2017 Ash Wednesday Reflection

January 23, 2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

By: Fr. George Williams, S.J., Catholic Chaplain of San Quentin State Prison in California

Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Once a year we are reminded of the stark truth that our lives will come to an end. The men I work with are reminded of this every day of the year.  They have been condemned to die by the courts of California – all 750 of them on California’s Death Row at San Quentin.

They must live in dark cramped cells, miserably hot in the summer, miserably cold in the winter aware that they have been deemed by society to be unworthy to live. Most are haunted by guilt and shame for the crimes they committed. You would think this must be a depressing place to live and work, and sometimes it is, but more often it is a doorway to extraordinary grace.

I was speaking to a man last week after Mass.  Mass in death row occurs in a large cage where I am separated from the men by a heavy chain-link fence.  I cannot recall what led up to it but he said to me “Every day I wake up filled with gratitude.”

He went on to say that he felt overwhelming gratitude to God because he was no longer the terrible person he was when he committed the murders that landed him on death row.  He felt gratitude because he knows now he is loved and forgiven by God.

This is a man who has exhausted all his appeals and is in the front of the line of all those awaiting execution in CA. We may or may not resume executions – the voters voted to keep the death penalty this last election.  It’s a distinct possibility we will execute more prisoners in the future.  In any event the best this man can hope for is life in prison without any possibility of ever getting out.  He will never be physically free again in this life.  But he may be one of the freest people I have met in my years of prison ministry.  

As we enter into the season of Lent, perhaps we can pause and reflect on all that we have in our lives to be grateful for.  Certainly if this condemned prisoner can be grateful amid his bleak surroundings, we too can be grateful. It might even be a good practice this year to devote our Lent to gratitude.  It’s not about giving up stuff.

If we are truly honest with God and ourselves we will naturally seek healing and forgiveness, just as this prisoner did.