Friday, December 30, 2011
Super Max Visit
What do you talk about for six hours with a man in solitary confinement?Yesterday Bonnie and I visited Monk Anthony at the Super Maximum Security Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Monk Anthony is 45 years old; he went into prison when he was 23 and has spent most of that time in solitary confinement. There is a good chance that he will spend most of the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Bonnie and I began corresponding with Rodney (before he became Monk Anthony) about fifteen years ago. At that time Rodney had begun painting Icons in his cell using his hair as a brush and pigments made from his meal tray: mustard for yellow, ketchup for red, coffee for brown , etc. Fr. Dwane, the head of the Antiochian Orthodox Prison Ministry asked Bonnie if she would begin corresponding with soon-to-become Monk Anthony to teach him the basics of Byzantine Iconography. Shortly after we began corresponding, Rodney was tonsured a monk while still in prison by His Eminence Isaiah, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Dallas. He was the first person ever to be tonsured in prison in the U.S. Over the years we have shared our lives with each other: the marriage of our children, the death of his mother, our struggles in a small Orthodox mission church, his struggle to love the men who want to kill him. That's right, kill him. For several years there has been a contract on his life by the Arian Brotherhood (a white prison gang) because Monk Anthony is kind and "talks to" blacks, Moslems and Jews. Of course there is very little talking in solitary as we on the outside know it, but there are ways: sign language, tapping code, talking through plumbing and venting, and shouting to other cages when out for 30 minutes of "exercise" three times a week (assuming good behavior--yours and others--and good weather). You have to shout in the cages because the concrete walls are ten feet high covered with chain link fencing: you can't see who is in the other cages.This was Monk Anthony's main concern when we spoke yesterday. Last week in the cages a prisoner in the next cage kept saying that he didn't know how and didn't know when, but one day he would kill him. Monk Anthony wasn't bothered by the fact that these men want to kill him; he was bothered that it was hard for him to find the same love in his heart for these men as he could find in his heart for others. He wanted me to help him. "How do you love everyone like Christ asks us to do?"Just to be with him (on the other side of poly glass and through a fuzzy speaker phone) I felt like a liar. I am a priest. It is my job to help others grow in Christ. I had to say something to encourage him. I struggle to love rude drivers and unhelpful clerks. What do I have to say about loving those who want to kill you because you are too kind to blacks, Moslems and Jews? I shared what came to my mind knowing that I was speaking pure conjecture, not from experience as the Fathers exhort, and hoping that somehow the Holy Spirit would use the fuzzy speak phone to morph it into what he needed to hear. We also talked about food. It's one of the only bits of variation in his life: the guards had given the prisoners "Christmas bags" of candy and crackers and fruit juice boxes. Monk Anthony's favorite was the Cheese Its. We talked about crocheting and the sweater he had made for our little rat terrier. We talked about the technique of making prayer ropes and put in our order for the upcoming year. He particularly likes making prayer ropes. He can pray and make knots and "the time flies by." Bonnie and he spoke for at least an hour on the finer points of iconography. And we stopped at intervals to pray first, third, sixth and ninth hours together.We had to pray ninth hour early, so that we would not be interrupted when the guards came. After nineth hour, Bonnie and Monk Anthony were having a lively conversation about the best possible pattern to crochet a tea cozy when the guards came to the steel door behind Monk Anthony. He stood and put his hands behind his back and out the slot in the door so that the guards could handcuff him before they opened the door. Monk Anthony winked at us. I blessed him with the sign of the cross. And he was gone. Bonnie started "leaking." I was lost in thought. Two guards came and escorted us back up the two or three flights of stairs and out of the maze of steel doors to the reception area. We could go home. No one wanted to kill us.