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A few months ago, I visited a retreat center with this circular labyrinth for walking meditation. I doubted its ability to provoke in me any serious reflection, but as I followed the winding path, twisting and turning and often wondering if I would ever reach the center of the labyrinth, some light began to dawn on me. At the beginning of my journey, the path hugged the center of the maze, but obviously, I still had a ways to go. Then it spun me around the center, sometimes taking me farther away from it and sometimes nearer. I never knew how far I had yet to go. After a while, the path took me to the outer rim of the circle and then suddenly cut inwards and brought me to the circle’s center. After all that time of wondering when I would finally reach the center, the path took me as far outside the center as possible and then surprised me with my journey’s goal.
The Gospel passage for this second Sunday of Advent reminds me of this experience and of my time in prison ministry because it also depicts movement away from the center to the margins in order to learn more about God, who is the ultimate “center” of existence. In the passage, we read, “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” As they seek repentance, as they seek to live more authentically in God, they leave Jerusalem and the temple, a central place of worship for the Jewish people. They seek out not scholars and religious officials but John the Baptist, an unconventional holy man living on the outskirts of society, whose literal proximity to the center of worship is not an accurate portrayal of his real closeness to God.
In this same way, I have experienced greater closeness to God and learned more authentic truths about God from many of the prisoners I have encountered in my own prison ministry. Prisons, in my view, are some of society’s farthest margins, and yet I have not witnessed elsewhere such authentic connection and closeness to God. In the kinship that I have shared with prisoners during my time in prison ministry, I learned in my heart more about God than I ever had before. In this Advent season, I would invite you to consider how God has shown up for you in your encounters with people on the margins of society.
The above reflection was written by Jake Theriot. Jake is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2022 with his bachelor’s degree in English and theology. From August 2022 to July 2023, he served as the Assistant Catholic Chaplain at California State Prison-Sacramento through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He is currently working towards his Master of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago, and he hopes to continue working with individuals affected by incarceration.