'I met a woman in her cell....' Julian and prison ministry in Australia
Revd Bec Bydder, a Deacon in the Anglican diocese of Perth, Western Australia, has been Ecumenical Chaplain across women's prisons since 2019. She wrote the following devotion after reflecting on her ministry. Bec shared her reflection at a recent meeting of Australian Companions, and we're delighted that she's happy to share it here:
In 2017 I met a woman in her cell.
I could not predict how this woman would go on to teach me, to challenge me and to embrace me.
She led me through a reformation of how I understood myself.
She led me to see how God sees me.
She led me to understand how God loves me,
and held me while I learnt how to believe I deserved it, and how to allow myself to let that love in.
She was a similar age to me, that significant age of 30.
Yet she sat with wisdom and strength well beyond her years.
Society had isolated her, yet many found themselves reaching out for her guidance.
They saw beyond why she was in a cell.
She appeared to lack her own identity; she was merely known by her circumstances.
Yet I learnt to know her so very dearly that names were a formality not needed in our intimacy.
She taught me how to sit,
how to hear,
how to listen,
how to be still.
She showed me love like I thought I had known,
love that I thought I had mastered and could control.
She proceeded to illuminate the truth to me, that such love can never be tamed.
She made me feel foolish, yet never embarrassed.
She taught me how to want more for myself without selfish motivation.
She showed me how inviting God into my life ahead of earthly desires,
supersedes any motive that is self-directed, self-guided and self-understood.
She stripped away at my arrogance.
She showed me all the ways and places that God already dwells.
She opened my eyes and mind
to see that I don’t step into any prison or indeed any place by bringing God with me.
But rather that I am simply playing catch up,
that I will find God already dwelling in the places humans try to control.
Fences, barbed wire, walls, and isolation can be all overcome by the greatness of God’s love.
We are powerless to the extent of God’s grace and love. Thank God.
I am privileged to have met this woman in a cell.
I am privileged to attend and minister among the incarcerated women of the state,
all sentenced to spend time in a cell.
The privilege has been in the lessons I have already learnt, and for the lessons I’m yet to be taught.
Being among the women that our society would rather forget, reminds me just how much God works subversively.
Because those women show God’s love in their actions, hospitality, care, and sharing. The little and the big exchanges of God happen at all times.
For this we know, and for this we don’t understand.
In every moment, every breath of life - whether the beholder knows it or not, they are dearly loved.
In 2017 I met a woman in a cell.
In 2017 I met Julian of Norwich, but it was from within my own cell that we met.
As I read, re-read, listened, painted;
Julian revealed to me the walls I had put up around myself,
Julian revealed to me that I could begin a gentle lift to peek up above those walls,
Julian revealed to me to see beyond, to see what could be.
It took the structures of prisons, and the wisdom of a humble woman
from another time so very distant from my own, to show me how I had built my own prison,
especially around my heart. I was so very broken; I was so very hurt.
Julian helped me to hear the invitation of a question I needed to ponder;
Did I want to be released; did I want freedom from the cell I had created for myself?
Through her words, and her invitation to listen more attentively to God’s words with love for me.
When I was strong enough, I granted parole to myself, from my own imprisonment.
When I was weak enough, I allowed God to be the lead of my life.
Love was God’s meaning, and love is my meaning.