I was sitting in the waiting room outside of the visitation stalls at the Parish Prison before getting to have a face-to-face phone visit with my friend. He had been a resident there for six months of a one-year sentence. The time for our visit was drawing close.
I had worked with him in psychotherapy for a while after he had been charged with a crime and had come to me for counseling. Then I had invited him into the Mankind Project men’s group where we work on our lives in community. He had gone through the initiation weekend we call the New Warrior Training Adventure. He had adopted an animal name symbolic of his new path of personal growth. He had begun to build some trust in the follow-up group which met every other week. In time he worked on his life and began his own transformation. Eventually he shared with us about the formation of a life mission. Then he was convicted and sentenced.
Now I was waiting to go in and see him during the weekly visiting hour. I had 30 minutes to wait while another visitor saw him, and eventually realized this was an opportunity to hold space for the Sacred right there. For a second I felt self-conscious about meditating in that place with other visitors and the staff all around. Then I thought, “What better place?” I needed some time to center myself in hopes that I could drop my concerns about what to say and just radiate loving-kindness during our visit.
On that Friday, I learned that the gate of heaven is really everywhere, even in a prison. After 20 minutes of practicing the centering, breathing in and out of that sacred center, I was allowed to go in, sit on a stool, see my friend through thick plexiglass, and talk with him over a phone. Instinctively, I put my hand up to the glass on my side and he did the same on his side. In that moment I felt the Great Love present between us. It no longer mattered what we said really, for the gate of heaven was right there. Right there!
Can you sense the impact of what I am saying? Thomas Merton wasn’t being metaphorical or symbolic when he wrote that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” He was speaking from the mystical-literal truth: the gate of heaven is really everywhere. That moment of connection between two men in the oddest of circumstances was really just one of the millions of instances in which we might be blessed, as the eyes of the heart are opened, and we realize we are standing at the very gate of heaven.
That moment of connection in a prison also fit Merton’s insight that our inner sanctuary is a place of nothingness, of absolute poverty. Maybe we need to experience such places which are barren of the myth of power and control so that we can learn to depend on the appearance of undeserved grace. Maybe we sometimes have to experience our own nothingness before we can get it that heaven’s gate can only be discovered in the simple act of opening the heart.
Let’s hope you don’t have to be visiting a prison to realize the extent of Thomas Merton’s truth: the gate of heaven is really everywhere. It’s just that places where we know we are not in control make it easier for us to realize we must depend on a Power Greater than ourselves. Facing our own “nothingness” and “absolute poverty” can actually help us make space inside for the Sacred to appear. May you find a gate of heaven opening in whatever places you find yourself, even if they are places of feeling powerless. And may you stay there long enough to hold the space for the Sacred to appear.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.