Article for the Newsletter of the Brussels Diocese, May 2022
By Elke D’Haeyer, Catholic Chaplin, Ghent Prison

“This is the only time of the week when I find peace,” says Joachim, after my colleague Daniel has asked if anyone would like to say something in conclusion. Every Thursday evening, we meet with a small group of about ten men in the chapel of the Ghent prison. After twenty minutes of silent meditation, a conversation takes place in which we share our experiences.

Just as the monks did in the third century AD, today we are once again looking for greater simplicity in prayer: simply being present to God, without words, listening to our own breathing, or to a word that we repeat in silence.

Finding God Within…

Driven by our own experiences with this form of prayer, the desire arose to integrate it into our work as prison chaplains. But when we decided to embark on this adventure, questions assailed us. Would it be possible for people in prison to sit for 20 minutes? And would it be a good idea for prisoners to enter into silence in such a threatening environment? We found an answer to our many questions and the confidence to launch ourselves across the ocean. Contemplative prayer groups have sprung up in many U.S. prisons over the past 10 to 20 years. One of the inspirers of this approach is Ray Leonardini, a volunteer at Folsom Prison in California and author of Finding God Within. Contemplative Prayer in Prison.

And so, in early 2019, we launched a meditation group at the jail of Ghent. We felt that Leonardini’s texts could also have meaning for the inmates of the Ghent jail, and we organized a partial translation of his book, both in Dutch and French. In short chapters, Leonardini describes in accessible language the impact on our lives of old experiences stored in our unconscious, what contemplative prayer is and how it gradually unravels our “false self” and finally brings us closer to the true God.

An atmosphere of trust

In the meantime, our meditation group has become indispensable. Not only in Ghent but also in other Belgian prisons, it seems, where the chaplains had a similar intuition. In general, the groups follow a similar pattern. A short introduction and a prayer time of about 20 minutes are followed by a group discussion. Sometimes people share their experiences with this moment of silence, and this forms the basis for an exchange. Other times we read together a chapter from “Finding God Within. Contemplative Prayer in Prison”. Then we ask them if there is a word or a phrase that strikes them. We find that people gradually become familiar with meditation as prayer and with a broader vision of it. The prayer time beforehand makes the exchange different from many other conversations in prison. It is about listening to each other, without judging or advising each other. And in this atmosphere, the trust to talk on a deeper level grows.

We ask a lot of commitment from the men who join the group: the willingness to be present week after week and to sit together, no matter what is going on inside and around them. Or, as my colleague Claude Decocq puts it: ‘Anxiety, pain, anger lie in wait, and make the early days of meditation perilous. And yet, we persevere… To enter and remain in this time of silence is to recover a freedom.’

Elke D’Haeyer, Catholic chaplain at the jail in Ghent
in collaboration with the chaplains and prisoners of the prisons of Brussels, Andenne, Ittre, Merksplas and Ghent

“Meditation gradually becomes a part of you, something you take with you throughout the day (or night).” Simon (Ghent)

“Will something happen or not? It doesn’t matter! As the book has taught us, it is not so much during the meditation itself, as in the course of the days, that we gather, little by little, unexpected fruits. ‘Coming back to the loving Presence’will bring forth something that we cannot necessarily name, but which will be expressed through dreams, or through a different perception of ourselves and our relationships with others, through renewed energy. We can also come back to what is painful during individual encounters at the cells. Because it uses the symbolic rather than theological dimension of language, meditation lends itself particularly well to a practice in interobedience.”

Claude Decocq, chaplain at Ittre prison

“The men are always very grateful for this meeting. They experience it as a time of rest, a time to get closer to themselves and to God. It helps them to get rid of their worries, tensions and frustrations.”

Mark De Cordt, Catholic Chaplain at Merksplas prison.

“Recently, a warden thanked me about an impulsive prisoner in whom he saw a radical change. The latter was testifying to him about the fruits of the contemplative prayer practiced with me. In fact, this experience allows prisoners who have been exiled from their deepest nature, which led them to prison, to find their true goodness and innocence!”

Pascale Goossens, chaplain of the prison of Andenne

“Prayer has always been very important in my life. But in meditation, I see new things happening. There is something that comes to me, something that I would not have been able to think of on my own. And that brings me a lot.”

Laurent (Ittre)

“In life, I am a very anxious person. Meditation helps me to focus on myself, to find the true meaning of life. And then, by meditating together, ‘we are all alone but we are not all alone’, I don’t know how to say it better. Hearing what others say, how others react, helps us to understand ourselves.”

Jean-Claude (Ittre)