By LAURETTA HANNON, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 7, 2023
I traveled to the state women’s prison to give a writing workshop. To hopefully encourage the ladies to reflect on and write about their lives and even gain some insights and clarity.
After getting through security, the prison librarian arrived and walked me to the classroom, where a guard was posted. Before the inmates came in, she warned, “Now, don’t expect too much from them because you’ll be disappointed. Some will be here just because they’re bored and have no interest whatsoever in what you’re doing. Some will challenge you and act up very badly. A few might just go to sleep. I want to prepare you.”
She had the best intentions, but as I heard those words, I knew I had to renounce them lickety-split. They felt like incoming fire from a spiritual enemy, an attack that could derail my mission if I didn’t shore up my fortress.
My mind flew straight to the prayer I’ve sworn by so many times, long before I even became Catholic.
“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”
Instead of heeding the librarian’s words, I vowed to do the opposite. I would expect and demand a lot from the women; they deserved the dignity afforded to any other child of God. However, if someone threatened my authority, I would deal with them and have them ejected from class.
Since I considered this a sort of ministry, I couldn’t allow anyone to ruin it. I would explain it at the outset and attempt to meet them with heart wide-open and fierce. But truth be told, my ticker was quivering with nerves. And the only thing fierce was my mounting anxiety. I didn’t stand a chance without divine backup.
So, I called on the fearless one: St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century mystic, Doctor of the Church, and my go-to when the going gets tough. In a flash she reminded me of a point made in her masterpiece, “The Interior Castle.” It was a statement about being ruthlessly honest and endlessly tender-hearted to the hurting places of oneself and others.
With her help, we would write about—and through—some of our deepest wounds, and we would not despair. It sounds good, but would it work?
Enter thirteen inmates, mostly in their 20s and 30s. One was a mother of three by the age of 14. Another grew up institutionalized. They had an almost pleading hunger to express themselves and to be heard. Well, all but three of them: the troublemakers.
That unholy triumvirate had a mission of its own: to knock me off course and wreck the class by any means necessary. I separated them and employed every strategy I’d learned as a college conduct officer in Southwest Atlanta.
They kept pushing, and I kept appealing to St. Teresa. She must have intervened because they finally settled down—about a millisecond before I was going to have them ousted.
What followed was an avalanche of stories from the class—about being molested and/or raped as kids, about addictions, and about being abused or being the abuser.
Yet I also heard of forgiveness, resilience, hope and a determination to do better.
Good medicine was dispensed in the spilling of those stories. (And it didn’t hurt that this group was nearing its release date.)
I’d been sternly instructed to keep a physical distance from the inmates at all times. I forgot about that when we huddled together at the end for a group photo—in it we are close as sisters and smiling.
I’ve wondered how the workshop would have been different if I’d accepted the words of the well-meaning librarian. If I’d greeted the class in a defensive manner, expecting little to nothing. If celestial assistance had not been sought and granted.
But let me be clear: I’m not the heroine of this story; the ones in the khaki prison uniforms are—along with the two whose invisible presence kicked enemy butt and salvaged the entire enterprise.
It’s no coincidence that I took the name of St. Michael for my baptism and St. Teresa for confirmation. When you place that Spiritual 911 call, you need the big guns to answer.
Lauretta Hannon is a parishioner of St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown. Named the “Funniest Woman in Georgia” by Southern Living Magazine, Hannon is a bestselling author. At work on a new book tentatively titled “A Priest Walks into a Waffle House,” she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.