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Rev. Canon Petero A. N. Sabune

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Sing Sing Prison and the Rhythm of Prayer

Posted: 06/09/10 03:03 PM ET

There is a rhythm to prayer. Dawn, noon, dusk, night. Morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, compline.

Prayers are like breathing. They are a part of the rhythm of life. Prayers provide comfort and solace, joy and ecstasy, whether silent or aloud.

A prayer life is for everyone. Prayers can fit any schedule, any routine. Prayers can be said in private or in community, alone or with family and friends. It doesn't matter where you are -- on the subway, in a taxi, at home, at work, bike riding, walking the dog, in an office.

Or in prison.

I was the Protestant Chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for seven years. The daily count of the prisoners is at the same time as prayer -- 5 am, 11 am, 5 pm, 11 pm. Dawn, noon, dusk, night. Morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, compline.

During my chaplaincy at Sing Sing, I connected with prisoners and officers daily in prayer. Whether or not we were together, we prayed.

My rhythm of prayer begins at 5 am when I wake up and begin my day in silence before God. My morning prayer is the call to prayer in solidarity with my brothers at Sing Sing. I count myself blessed to be in their company as we pray; we may be separated by space but not by time.

I sit with daily devotions from the Book of Common Prayer.

Open my lips, God ... and my mouth shall proclaim your praise ...

I take the dogs for their first walk of the day and the Lord's Prayer mixes in with sounds of birds waking up to sing their praises to God.

Our Father, who art in heaven ...

Using the 365 days devotional Bible, I then meditate on the passages from Old Testament, Psalms, and New Testament. With a hot cup of tea, the first round is completed and morning has broken.

A 10-mile ride to Sing Sing. The 358 steps from the front door to the Chapel of the Redeemer in Sing Sing. Thirteen gates and five doors are punctuated with inmates and officers calling out prayer requests for themselves and for others. Walking through the first gate by the arsenal, the officer asks for my blessing. "At the window," the keys to the chapel are handed to me and I continue the uphill walk passed Buildings 8, 7 and 5. The narrow corridors pass by A block and B block, the largest cell blocks in the world, containing over 1000 men.

Bless you, bless you, bless you.....to the two officers at the last gate and door. The men are waiting inside the chapel for our daily devotion as a community. At 10:30 am, it is time to go back, and I wait for 11:00 am to pray mid morning/noon prayer.

... at this hour you ... stretch out your loving arms ... Thanks be to God!

I visit the Box, also known as the SHU (Special Housing Unit), where men are in their cells 23 hours a day calling for fervent prayer, between noon and evening.

O lord make speed to save us ... save them from themselves ... And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Receiving death notices was another prayer time at noon. Men come to my office, already suspicious; being called out on the PA system by number to report to the chapel was a sign -- pray my brothers that your sacrifice may be acceptable to God!

As I prepare to leave Sing Sing for the day, I reverse the long walk from the chapel to the front gate, hand in my keys at the arsenal, and head for home. The Palisades sink behind the sun and the Hudson River waves good night. I walk to my car and wave to the gun tower.

Jesus, stay with me for evening is at hand and the day has past. Be our companion on the way...

As the inmates return to their cells for the third count of the day, I pray with them. We part from each other -- may we never depart from your presence.

Thanks be to God!

Slow walk with the birds whispering goodnight and the leaves waving, I drive up the hill past Correctional Way to State Street. At the deli, officers are busy buying lotto tickets. "No, I can't bless your lottery ticket," I tell them.

Now you have set your servant free.

Using a Daily Office from the early church and examination of conscience, I review my day and ask...

Did I laugh enough today ?
Did I cut off anyone on the road ?
Was I kind to the birds and the leaves?
Was I forgiving and grateful?

Guide us waking, guard us sleeping. Keep watch dear God. Tend to the scared, the dying, the weary, the suffering this night.

The birds of the air and the leaves of the trees remind us to sing praises. It is not where we are but who we are that makes prayer possible. Morning, noon, evening and night, we pray to get fed and fortified. Squirrels and subway sounds praise and give thanks. Give thanks on the Metro North, give thanks in a refugee camp, give thanks in a detention center, give thanks in a prison cell. At dawn, at noon, at dusk, and at the midnight hour.

The rhythm of prayer.