Catholic Free Press

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  • Nov
  • 14

Scholar goes to prison, forms Thomas Merton Society chapter

Posted By November 14, 2014 | 3:29 pm | Featured Article #4
Merton WEB

By Tanya Connor

SHIRLEY – The only chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society that is located in a prison is at MCI-Shirley, according the 83-year-old who started it there.
John Collins, a member of St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury who writes columns about the popular Trappist monk for The Catholic Free Press, said this chapter is one of 43 in the world. He rejoiced that in January three of the prisoners are to have essays published in The Merton Seasonal, which contains articles, book reviews and other information of interest to members of the Society.
The prison chapter is an outgrowth of a talk about Merton that Mr. Collins gave at the request of Catholics incarcerated there.
Prisoners said they learned about him, and other speakers they’ve invited to come talk to them, through The Catholic Free Press and The Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, in which the prison is located. When they read about something of interest being offered somewhere nearby, they send the hosting parish a letter for the speaker, or their chaplain makes a contact, to request a similar presentation for MCI-Shirley’s Catholic community.
Mr. Collins went to talk to the prisoners, but one talk wasn’t the end of it. He said they asked him to come back, so he started a monthly discussion of one of Merton’s books and formed the chapter.
He said the essays the prisoners wrote for The Merton Seasonal include what they’ve gained from that book, “New Seeds of Contemplation.” The prison bought 20 copies for the program when he started it in July 2013, he said. He talks of finishing the book discussion, perhaps next month, and shortly thereafter beginning another Merton book with them.
“I was inspired, I’m sure, by the Holy Spirit,” he said of starting the program there. He said he led one at his parish for 11 years, and formed a Merton Society chapter there, which no longer exists.
“Somewhere around April of 2013 I said, ‘I think I’m going to let this go,’”he said. He wanted to spend more time on writing, teaching religious education and participating in his Shakespeare group. More recently he and Bruce Andrews, from the St. Mary’s Merton group, started a program about Merton on Channel 28 in Shrewsbury, he said.
Shortly after ending the St. Mary’s Merton program, Mr. Collins said, he received a letter sent to him at the parish. In it Shawn Fisher, a prisoner and secretary for the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at MCI-Shirley, said they’d been reading his Merton columns in The Catholic Free Press and asked him to speak about Merton there, he said.
“The guys scour that paper every week,” said Deacon Arthur Rogers, Catholic chaplain at MCI-Shirley, noting how he and they contact presenters of interest.
Mr. Fisher said that when they contact politicians, fewer than 5 percent respond, “but when we do it through The Catholic Free Press in this fashion, our success rate is about 90 percent.”
Timothy Muise, who also claimed a part in getting Mr. Collins to come speak to him and his fellow prisoners, said they got the Marian retreat “33 Days to Morning Glory” there after reading about it in The Catholic Free Press. The newspaper had published stories about it being used at Worcester County Jail and House of Correction and St. Joseph Parish in Auburn.
Speaking of Mr. Collins’ program, Deacon Rogers said, “The men took to it, and he took to it.” He and Mr. Collins said about 12 to 20 medium security prisoners attend the third Wednesday of each month.
“What I want to do is a book that will help them in their prayer life, and I wanted to go beyond devotional prayer,” Mr. Collins said, explaining why he chose “New Seeds of Contemplation.” “I wanted them to have an appreciation of quiet, interior prayer, just waiting for the Lord.”
“It challenges the minds,” Deacon Rogers said. “Some of these guys are pretty sharp. They like to be challenged.” He said he’s never seen anything like this in the prison system.
What’s different about it?
“Jack,” he responded, using Mr. Collins’ nickname. “It just focuses on one train of thought. It’s not just worship services. This is something they can continue on for life – reading and studying and practicing the spirituality they learn.”
Joseph Labriola, incarcerated for 41 years, said prisoners don’t have many things like this, and called Mr. Collins “a real special man” for giving them his time.
“I push for … programs like this,” he said, explaining that the more education people get while in prison, the less likely they are to return if they are released.
He has an additional reason to rejoice in this program. He said when he was in “the hole” in MCI-Norfolk in the mid-1970s, prisoners there were allowed only a Bible. But he found “Seeds of Contemplation” in his cell.
“I used to read passages out the window to other convicts and I’ve been addicted to Thomas Merton ever since,” he said.
“My first introduction to Thomas Merton was two years ago,” before Mr. Collins started the program, said Scott Bolton. He said while he was in segregation a friend attending Catholic services sent him “New Seeds of Contemplation.”
“A lot of it was so deep I couldn’t understand it,” Mr. Bolton said. “I would reread a line probably three or four times and I would pace back and forth and I would think about what it meant.” Now, with Mr. Collins’ explanations, he sees it in a new light.
“This is one of the biggest things I look forward to every month,” he said. “I haven’t been in trouble for over nine months. I made first Communion and confirmation.”
The Merton group “affords men the opportunity to change, to re-evaluate their life in God’s light,” Mr. Muise said. He finds this important personally as he looks toward a release date in three years, after 16 years in prison, he said.
“It gives me hope that if someone like Jack, with his pedigree, believes that I am worthy” to be part of the group, “I am worthy of the good things in life,” he added. (Mr. Collins has a bachelor’s and a master’s in history, and a doctorate in education, and worked as a school superintendent and adjunct professor various places. He has also written chapters for various books.)
Mr. Muise said he wants to bring other prisoners to Christ through the Merton society.
“It’s … sent me down a path that I didn’t know existed, because it’s really deep,” said Michael Skinner, another of the prisoners. “I’m always looking for more in my spiritual journey to walk closer with Christ. … Merton says, ‘I don’t have to tell you how to pray.’ … I believe there’s no such thing as a bad prayer, so I don’t have to beat myself up … that I’m up to par with the rest of the guys. I’m O.K. just as I am.”
“I’m happy I’m doing it,” Mr. Collins said of the program for prisoners. “By teaching it I’m actually learning. I don’t see myself as any sort of guru. I’m one of them. I’m a prodigal in a distant land trying to come home. … I enjoy being with them because they’re so enthusiastic.”
He said his next program at the prison will use Merton’s “The Sign of Jonas,” which he read when stationed in Korea during the Korean War. He said that by the time Red Cross donations got to him, it was one of two books left. That, he said, is what started his interest in Merton.