Living the moment

Mary Ellen Dougherty

February 19, 1993|By Mary Ellen Dougherty

EVEN in the dead of winter you can hear the inmates of the Maryland State Penitentiary calling through the open windows of the old building along Eager Street.

There's something poignant about prisoners calling to people on the street, often to children who lineup along the fence, listening for the voice of a father or brother and calling back messages from mothers and grandmothers.

The other day, I heard my name called. I stopped. The voice was that of a favorite (but former) student of mine in the classes I teach in the penitentiary. I called back, saying I'd missed seeing him in class, and I hoped he was all right.

I went from the prison to an appointment I had with a retired professional man who is doing some work in the West Baltimore neighborhood where I live. I told him I had just come from the prison, and he asked me if I had any men from the neighborhood in my class. I said I did, and when I mentioned the first name (there are several), he recalled the criminal history of the man.

While I knew that everything he told me was a matter of public record, I resisted hearing it. I said, "I know him as a man who is intent on two things: learning to write and playing football. And," I added, "he seems relatively happy."

This man whose profession necessitated a very different experience with criminals than mine, shared an insight which I instinctively knew to be accurate, that this student of mine and many like him have a gift for living in the moment. Although many of them have life sentences, they do not project; they survive by paying attention to the present and living it as fully as the system and their ingenuity allow.

That insight gave me clarity into one thing that has always puzzled me: What sustains men and women in prison, what prevents many of them from becoming overwhelmed with discouragement?

For years I have been re-reading a small book written in the 18th century, "Abandonment to Divine Providence," by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a Jesuit priest. His thesis, reiterated on every page of the small classic, is that the secret to a full spirituality issues from the grace of abandonment to God, and the formula for abandonment is to live by what he calls "the sacrament of the present moment."

It struck me as a grand irony that my students in prison know instinctively how to do this, while many of us dedicated to cultivating the spiritual life miss the moment. For my students, a central element to living in the moment is desperation: Survival in prison depends on paying attention to what is immediately at hand.

Mary Ellen Dougherty, SSND, teaches English at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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