Last week, Americans, indeed, people around the world received a letter from prison, written by Kayla Mueller. Her words arose from the truth and conviction of her life and her decisions that brought her to be where she would prefer not to be. Her letter had an undercurrent of freedom that would not be denied. The human community has a treasure trove of letters written during incarcerations – imprisonments in true, cruel prisons, or in other places where freedom of movement is impossible: long or short periods of time which give rise to new thoughts, clarification, reiterated conviction, instruction for the reader and perhaps an evolving sense of who God is and what faith is. Letters of explanation, remorse, connectedness, and innocence proclaimed fill out the letters from prison for all to read.
Four of the Apostle Paul’s letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon) are called Paul’s prison letters, and are said to be written from Rome. In the years between 1530 and 1700, some 3000 letters from prison were circulated in England to express political resistance and to articulate the reasons for that resistance that resided in people’s consciences. Among the letters from this period, are some from St. Thomas More. World War II produced some remarkable letters from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter and Blessed Titus Brandsma. The Letters from Birmingham Jail are Martin Luther King’s contribution to this genre. We also know Nelson Mandela’s stirring letters from prison. Ordinary people like John Brown, for example, captured by the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War, wrote from prison. Through letters from inmates, social justice groups attempt to tap the power for insight and for good that is in the prisons of our day. In June of 2014, Pope Francis responded to 500 of the letters he had received from prison. And then there are people who were never really imprisoned behind bars, but who were caught, trapped and put to death. Who can forget young Anne Frank, and the Trappist monks of Tibherine, Algeria, who were assassinated in March of 1996, and who left an eloquent community letter forgiving their still-unknown killers.
Now we have a letter from Kayla to be read, studied and committed to our hearts. In it, she sounds like a totally normal American girl, imbued with a burning need to help alleviate pain wherever she was. She went from place to troubled place until the doors closed. That is the common thing about these letters: the doors close. People are alone with themselves and their God. We may never know exactly how she died. As believers, we know that God held her close when no one else did. And we are left with sadness, stunned by the continuing brutality of ISIS which does not value young life, generous life, life at any age.
We ask: what can we do? As Lent begin and we become absorbed in the journey though Lent and Holy Week to Easter, we might embark on a new way to take this journey. Lent is not about self-improvement. It is about accompanying others to Easter – to witness to the Risen Jesus and His gift of fullness of life. What if we centered our energy, focused our prayer daily at 11 am on the people who are near the breaking point in Syria and Iraq? Give a few moments to this prayer….every day. Hurl it to the satellite clouds or the natural clouds and target it back to earth just where it’s needed. We can’t physically go to these places of pain and destruction, but we can be there. It would make a difference.
Below is the link to the letter Kayla Mueller wrote her loved ones while in captivity.