Thinking Anew: ‘Stone walls do not a prison make’

“The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, a woman of faith, was sentenced to seven years of hard labour in her mid-twenties for writing poetry.” Photograph: iStock

The 17th-century English poet Richard Lovelace is perhaps best remembered for these lines from his poem To Althea, from Prison. “Stone walls do not a prison make, /Nor iron bars a cage:/ Minds innocent and quiet take/ That for an hermitage.”

Lovelace wrote the poem while in Gatehouse prison near Westminster Abbey in London, where he had been detained because of his opposition to the Clergy Act of 1640. It was passed at a time of controversy as the Church of England sought to absorb positive elements of the Reformation while retaining essentials of its catholic heritage. The Act limited the power of bishops who were not popular at the time. Several of them had been despatched to the Tower of London for opposing legislation.

From early times, church leaders who argued with civil authorities ended up in prison.

Tomorrow’s reading from the Book of Acts reminds us of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Philippi. Their trouble began when a disturbed slave girl pursued them as they went about their business. We are told that Paul healed her, and this annoyed her owners who made money by using her as a fortune teller.

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When their business interests were threatened, they had Paul and Silas brought before the authorities and imprisoned.

That pattern of exploitation is alive and well in today’s world where, too often, material interests take precedence over human dignity and human rights.

The slave girl represents millions, mainly women and children, who are exploited in clothing and other industries across Asia, captives to the financial interests of big business and the demands of people in the West, like many of us, who never seem to have enough.

“Stone walls do not a prison make.” Those words rang true for Paul and Silas as they exploited their captivity. They refuse an opportunity to break out of the prison; instead they are in high spirits as they put themselves in the hands of God. It has an immediate effect on the jailer and his family who are converted and baptised.

Bishop Michael Marshall commenting on this passage wrote: “The record of the saints through history is not the story of escapism. Far from running away from life and conflict it is the contemplatives throughout our history who seem to have got to the heart of the matter. It is the contemplatives who change the world – from Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They have not broken out, but rather they have broken in and where most people have found bondage, they have found freedom – even within the prisons of this world.”

Jesus said that the truth would make us free, the truth being that God cares for every aspect of our lives including the hard times. The life of Jesus Christ reveals God’s love as the controlling principle of God’s care, and knowing this has enabled countless people throughout history to challenge and resist evil wherever they encounter it.

The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, a woman of faith, was sentenced to seven years of hard labour in her mid-twenties for writing poetry.

In a special unit for political prisoners, she suffered beatings, force-feeding and solitary confinement in brutal freezing conditions but she never lost her faith and they could not break her.

She became known when a book of her poems was smuggled out of the prison, published under the title “No I’m not Afraid”.

What follows is part of a poem she wrote in a KGB prison in Kiev as the winter snows fell in December 1982: “It’s all so absurd, so capsized, laughing,/ As though the angels were sprinkling white breadcrumbs on us./ There are enough for all the prisoners in the world!/ In a most generous ration – a fluffy layer:/For all the kids – like sweet cotton wool,/ For all the murdered ones – behind the fence like the whitest down;/ For me – like Spring.”

Even the most brutal oppressor does not control everything; God is ultimately in charge.