Marchiennes, February 2022
Dear Father Gailhac,
We would never have thought of writing to you, being used to reading you, remembering your thoughts and being inspired by your ardent faith to live as RSCM. But the opportunity is offered to us, so it is with joy that we will converse. However, as this is not a usual moment, we ask ourselves: What subject shall we discuss with you? Past or present events in our lives would be a good start.
Already, we imagine you sitting at your table, with our letter in your hands, looking at us with kindness, attention and affection.
Since our arrival in the North of France in 2019 and until the first confinement due to the pandemic, we have accompanied refugees, mainly of African origin. One of them, a mother of 4 young children, is now incarcerated in the Maison d’Arrêt de Valenciennes following a family tragedy. This tragedy has touched our hearts. We measured the distress of this woman, finding herself in the impersonal world of the prison, not understanding or speaking French, not knowing where her children were. We went back to our experience as chaplains at the Prison for Women in Rennes. This experience left a deep impression on us. We did not emerge unscathed from this human and spiritual “adventure”. Many people from the “outside” asked us why we had gone to this place, according to them these “people” were not worth it. We answered that it was in the name of Jesus Christ and his Gospel and also that this call was in line with the mission statement of your dear institute. We also said that you yourself had visited the prisoners and that this part of your apostolate motivated us.
We can still see you nodding your head, no doubt it brings back many moving memories!
You know, at the beginning, we could not envisage the extent and the demands that this mission would make on our personal and community life. But we sensed that it was rich and capable of shaking us up and we liked that idea! For us, it echoed what you wrote to your dear daughters:
“The solid rock is Jesus Christ, his grace, his doctrine, his examples. His grace is the beginning and source of all good, with it nothing is impossible” (GS/1/IX/81/A)
This mission, lived in this place in the name of the Gospel, has produced in us fruits of tenderness, peace and joy. It has worked on our humanity and our faith for greater simplicity, truth and humility. We have taken it on with the riches and limitations, the strengths and weaknesses that were ours. We learned to let ourselves be led by an Other and to work in a lace-like manner; that is to say, with the greatest possible delicacy and respect, aware that in the people we met, the face and heart of God were revealed.
All these years (12 years, even 14 years) at the Prison Centre, we have reread them under the gaze of God, following a common thread and relying on an image, that of the body. The body, seen and seen again, is important, especially in prison: the speaking body or the silent body, the loving body or the rebellious body, the unified body or the fragmented body, the body that expresses what we are or that hides what we are. The body that unites and carries differences, the body to live, to love, to rejoice, the body to respect, the living and saved body! In short, the social and ecclesial body that we form, the Body of Christ as St Paul says! You yourself have taken up this image to express the unity that the sisters must live.
In this imprisoned body that is the prison world, the faces caught our attention: the faces, the looks, and the word. Everything is connected.
These faces are beautiful, unvarnished, real faces, which no longer cheat and which, for many women, young and old, bear the scars of a shattered life. We learned to perceive the weariness, the sadness and the despair that are hidden behind the smiling face because the eyes do not cry in broad daylight but in a cell away from others, from curiosity, from violence, to preserve themselves and keep their dignity in spite of everything!
We have learned to meet people first through their eyes.
To look at them to get to know them and to recognize each one of them, to give them their first name and to make them exist in a way other than by a prison number which constantly reminds them of what they are there for. To look at them to love them for themselves, each one in particular, without worrying about what they have done, and to help them to love themselves as they are!
To look at them in order to recognize and love with them those who are different, alone, suffering or less well off, in order to adjust and clarify our vision. Often, new solidarities have appeared through the attentive look at each other: help with procedures, sharing a cake, a friendly presence after a bad visit, a flower picked to brighten up the cell or the heart.
To look at them to discover with them that they are unique in the eyes of God. And we saw, with our own eyes, the birth of newness in them, the desire to live better, the happiness of growing in truth, their will to take a good path and to change their lives and their relationships.
The looks of these women, all their looks that call, that speak volumes and reveal their inner being, have moved us and are engraved in us. Looking at them, listening to them through their eyes (it’s possible!), we said to ourselves that we needed strength and courage to say “I’m fine” when everything is heavy to bear! “It’s okay” when the pain or lack of it is felt more strongly! “It will be all right, sister, you’ll see” when their horizon clears.
“Look at every living being with the eyes of God”, these are your words that have resonated with us!
In this body in detention, we experienced with them moments of grace around the table with or without coffee! Moments of sharing the ordinary word, of what’s new today, of the Café Discut and those of sharing the Word of God, a place where something new appears in the life and the heart! We have often been moved and stirred by the intensity of all the sharing. We believe that we really lived moments when we experienced together the presence of God among us in the daily life woven with others, the experience of a possible fraternal life. Paths were emerging to live it as we are in our vocation as children of God. The capacity of women to go to the essential has always challenged us, whereas often the temptation to take refuge in ideas was more comfortable! Our faith grew and was enriched among people facing the same light and the words that came out of our mouths became softer, less insulting, and more loving.
In this body in detention, the hands reveal themselves and work wonders. They become experts in communication, in artistic expression, in resourcefulness. How many wonders are achieved with very little! How much ingenuity is deployed to brighten up the grey days!
One day a woman said to me, “Sister Myriam, when you shake hands, it’s solid and it’s for real!” I had always been fascinated by hands, but I had never stopped to think about what others might think about the use of my hands! So afterwards, I continued to hold women’s hands to communicate tenderness, to wrap my arms around their shoulders to soothe them, to wipe away tears of despair, to write for them, to use my hands for the better, to join them in prayer!
We were marked by the words of one woman as she prepared to receive forgiveness. Our reflection was on the healing hands of Jesus, and she said, “You know my hands, they did the worst, and I couldn’t look at them or take care of them but now I believe I can convert them!”
We saw her hands become beautiful again, open to give and to relieve, to soothe and to love. Converted hands in short! Saved hands! And why not ours to convert in the banality of everyday life!
We also saw hands clapping to accompany and encourage the women who were leaving, and hands standing up and holding each other in a long chain to sing the Our Father. This long chain that builds the unity of the Body.
In this detained body we saw the women’s hearts expand and beat anew! when they thought love was dead forever because of disappointments, because of being unloved or not loved at all.
The eyes of their hearts were opened because time in prison allows them to look back on their lives and see the wanderings to which excess can lead. The silence of the cell and the solitude often have the effect of cracking the confines! How many times have we heard: “Prison was necessary for me, I am free inside! I am learning to love myself, to love and to forgive! Looking at these women with our hearts has allowed us to discover the riches buried in them!
Recently, Marguerite-Marie and I have often meditated on a verse from the first epistle of St John: “God is love. He who loves is born of God; he who loves knows God!”
Another passage that you love and that you have deepened for your daughters to guide them!
All those women you met in prison who keep the little flame of love in their hearts and who maintain it are born of God, are children of God! What good news! Often, we were confronted with the evil that was squeezing the lives of these women and it was a trial for us, but we saw with our own eyes many signs of resurrection of the heart, and we said to ourselves: Yes, it is true, we believe that the heart of God beats in prison!
Finally, we met men and women from all walks of life in prison, Christians, and non-Christians, who came to give time, friendship, joy and consideration to the women, and we saw how vital this was for them. Continuing the letter of StJohn we read and remembered: “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love in us is perfect.
Together, chaplains, women, celebrants and guests, we built the liberated body of the Church behind bars, and this was a real richness of life and faith for us. The image of the body has all its relevance: each one has his or her place for the good of all! May this body grow ever more, may it draw its strength from the Spirit!
At the end of this letter, you may be wondering what has become of the African mother we mentioned at the beginning. Her name is Haoua and she has been transferred to another prison in the north of France. Leaving, leaving again, making new relationships. We continue to support her and with her we will go further on the road to reintegration. Her 4 children are doing well but she still does not have any visits with them. Marie-France and some people from the parish take turns to help them learn French.
Forgive us Father Gailhac for writing at such length. With you we thank God for all these riches of life in the service of the little ones. Your heart and ours are burning with Jesus Christ who is passing by while we follow him!
Sisters Myriam and Marguerite