Last night I got back from my visit with Monk Anthony. Monk Anthony is a prisoner in the Super MAX federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. He is sentenced to life in solitary confinement. Although his only presenting crime (the crime for which he was originally arrested) was to forge his step-father’s signature on a $150. check, several foolish actions after he was incarcerated--actions of a confused and angry young man--have added up to life in solitary confinement in America’s most secure penitentiary.
After ten years in prison, Rodney was baptized under the ministry of an Orthodox priest who has devoted his life to visiting and corresponding with prisoners. Almost immediately he began painting icons in his cell--using his hair to make brushes and mustard, coffee grounds, ketchup, etc. from his food tray as pigment. A priest in the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry asked Bonnie, my wife, to correspond with him to teach him the techniques of iconography. Along the way, Rodney was tonsured (in prison) “Monk Anthony” by Metropolitan Isaiah of Dallas. Today, Monk Anthony paints beautiful icons using pastels and children’s paints (the only “craft” supplies he is allowed).
Monk Anthony’s solitary life has set him on a path of spiritual trajectory that I, as a married priest in the world, have no direct experience in. So in God’s providence and love I have been able to meet a hermit monk and through letters introduce him to Monk Anthony. Fr. Gregory was so moved by the simplicity of Monk Anthony’s love for God as evidenced in his letters and icons, particularly considering the dry and oppressive context in which this flower of God’s garden grows, that he submitted to the long and invasive process required by the U.S. Department of Prisons to become Monk Anthony’s “minister of record” just so that he could visit him once a year. This process now complete, I took Fr. Gregory from his hermitage in the mountains of British Columbia to meet Monk Anthony in the Super MAX prison in the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado.
Bonnie and I had visited about a year and a half ago--having corresponded regularly for over ten years, we qualified as “friends” and were able to become “approved visitors”; so I knew how to get there and could walk with Fr. Gregory through the procedure of entering the prison, coaching him on what is and is not to be said and done. After about a half hour of checking and double checking our identifications with their computer records, stamping our hands, taking our pictures and passing through various gates, steel doors that open and shut automatically and a very sensitive metal detector, we descended a long flight of stairs underground into the visiting room: a series of painted cinderblock stalls (if you put your hands on your hips, your elbows touched both sides) with two telephones attached to the wall on either side of a large plexiglass window. And there stood Monk Anthony in a white prison jumper, all smiles, on the other side of the plexiglass.
St. Paul said that where sin abounds, there does Grace much more abound. Here Grace was abounding. For six hours I saw the Light shining in the darkness. Just driving onto the prison grounds, you could feel the oppression. No one smiled: the guards, the administrators, the lawyers, the little pack of FBI agents who were “touring” the place. And yet, Monk Anthony smiled. He smiled the smile of a man who is at peace with himself, who wanted to be instructed, who was eager to hear from another human being what God had already spoken to his heart.
For most of six hours I watched. I could hear only Fr. Gregory’s side of the conversation, but I saw Monk Anthony’s face and gestures. And as time went on I was struck with what seemed to be a glow coming from Monk Anthony—“glow” really is the only word for it, for his facial expressions and gestures caused me to feel a peaceful, intimate, holy Presence, as though we were having the same conversation in the sitting area of the hermitage, not in a vault surrounded by cinder block through a telephone behind plexiglass under the U.S. Super MAX prison.
And then the guard said that our time was up. Our six hours of sweet communion were over. We put our hands on the plexiglass and pushed against Monk Anthony’s hand pushing from the other side. We blessed, we waved, we watched until the guard closed the door behind us. But it was not over. Even now Monk Anthony is in my heart and the peace of his presence--the peace of a very bright light in a very dark place--is still shining in my heart.