“From Behind the Walls” is a series of stories and prayers on encounters Michael McRay had while serving as a volunteer prison chaplain.
He leaned over and whispered to me, “What the hell does prison even mean right now?” It was perhaps the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.
The chapel in Building 11 was full. Incarcerated and free-world brothers and sisters interwove on the wooden pews. Hardly a seat was vacant that Friday night. At the front of the chapel, Anthony had spread a spectacular arrangement of cloths, rugs, and papers, ornaments that brought color to an otherwise colorless concrete chamber. Sitting on the decorations were four musicians, each dressed in the attire appropriate for a service of Indian Hindu music.
The leader instructed us. “Chant in unison: OM. Sustain this sound. Try to still your whole being. Center yourself. Find your center through that sound and focus on that. Feel the vibrations in your whole body.” Over the next half hour, she led us in various Hindu chants and rhythms, but we continued to circle back to “OM.”
I closed my eyes and straightened my spine against the hard back of the pew. I rested my feet flat on the floor and could feel the vibrations from the room traveling up my legs. Time seemed to stop. My whole being resonated with tremors of “OM, ” produced from my lungs and those of fifty others. I had no idea how long we had been chanting; my focus held like a laser point on the all-consuming sound reverberating throughout the chapel.
Thirty minutes into the service, my dear friend Jay, a man already incarcerated for 16 years with the rest of his life to go, turned to me and said, “What the hell does prison even mean right now?” I felt I could cry it was so beautiful. It was beautiful because it was true. It was beautiful because he said it. It was beautiful because I felt it. For Jay at that moment, imprisonment was nonsensical. It did not compute. For me, all the weight of my own burdens of fear and shame disappeared, swept up in the swirling sounds of instrument and voice. The music had moved us, in emotion and dimension. We were no longer where we were when the service began. The sounds stirred our being.
What the hell did prison even mean then?
In those moments, prison didn’t mean isolation. It didn’t mean exile or punishment. It didn’t mean suffering. Really, prison didn’t mean much of anything. The vibrations of the music collapsed the walls and transported us somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. We sang “OM” and we were lost, immersed in a sea of tranquility. I have heard that “OM” is the central sound of the universe – the sound from which all sound comes, and to which all sound returns. It is the auditory source of everything, the deep container that unites and holds all sonic utterances. That night, it united and held us, and transported us beyond. Jay’s question said everything – what did prison mean right then?
In those moments, we were all free.
O God, in you we live, and move, and have our being. I am grateful for the blessing of music, its transporting and transforming power. It liberates us when we are enclosed. It lifts us when we are depressed. It humbles us when we exalt ourselves. It gives us energy when we have none. It heals us when we are broken. It moves us when we are too still. It stills us when we are too active.
I want to believe in your spirit the way I believe in music. Help my unbelief.