“Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but what is worse, as many masters as he has vices.” —Saint Augustine of Hippo, City of God
Two years ago, I was a prisoner.
Sometimes, I looked up at the tiny window, the ray of soft light grasping at motes of dust, and I considered what it would be like to escape. I had some idea of what life on the outside could be. At one point in time, it felt like a future I would reach, when I grew up, when I got the right job, when I met the right guy, when I was ready. My parents were still together, my grandparents were still together, and I just took for granted the idea that one day I would have what they had. Not a perfect family, but a family. A simple blueprint of a life, the kind of life that man has always had, however the accidental details may have shifted.
Incarceration hardens you. I saw and experienced things far from the life I had always expected. What had once seemed assured faded away into a dream, reduced to wistful moments scrolling through a Facebook page in the middle of the night. An anonymous, happy Christian family. A husband and a wife and kids, a simple life that felt as if it was building toward something. Something I was missing, something I couldn’t even define, a hole in my heart that gaped and bled whenever I thought about it.
My commitment to certain sins against chastity, beginning at a young age, helped to solidify what may have been a temporary confinement into a life sentence. How could I even attempt to escape, when I had chained myself to the corner of my cell, with fetters that seemed to grow heavier day after day, and year after year?
As the years marched on, I fell more and more into step with my fellow inmates. This inner longing to find the truth and to live the life prescribed by it would ebb and flow. Any thoughts of eternity were pushed away by thoughts of bodily needs and seeking pleasures on top of needs fulfilled. Childhood nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, wondering, worrying, “What else is after? Will I be nothing, will it be like sleep?” became shadowed memories of another life. Not even the once all-consuming terror of contemplating potential nothingness remained.
Yet still the mountains, the meadows, the constellations unencumbered by ceilings and walls, the hope of everything I could remember to hope for would cry out to me. That spark of a journey awaiting me, that quest that I knew I must at some point undertake… I couldn’t rid myself of it. It was easier to put off the questions for some unseen future self to deal with. The walls pressed around me, and instead of planning my escape, taking the risk, and paying the price, I chose sedation. Counting backward from ten, going under, kisses that weren’t mine to take, lies to get ahead, books and earrings smuggled through metal detectors.
Sin pushed me farther toward maximum security. The windows were smaller, the bedfellows stranger. My examples of what a normal future looked like grew more warped as I got older; circumstances piled on circumstances, rooting me to the concrete floors of the garden I had chosen. When I was faced with an abnormality that challenged even my dulled, sedated morality, I broke my bones until I could make myself fit. I tore myself into pieces for men who wanted to do things I didn’t want to do, who talked about other women as if I weren’t in the room, who basked in the degradation of other men’s daughters caught on film, stitching my heart back together only when they couldn’t see me weeping.
“You were made for something more than this.” A whisper at the edge of time, peering down into my little cell as I curled into the wall, hiding my face, exhausted and ashamed. I knew about God. I had grown up believing in Him. I wanted to believe in Him — I realized, wondered, worried. The sedatives had become less effective somehow; the summoning for me to undertake the great quest was growing louder all the time.
But things were different now. In my mind, God was tangled up inextricably with the life I had planned to tumble into, so very long ago. Some part of me at the early stages of each new romantic entanglement had hoped that this man or that one would be the one to carry me back to that path. I looked up at the imposing walls. I couldn’t climb them alone; I was sure of it. And what would await me on the other side? That life — that simplification of how I would live as a Christian that had come to represent the quest itself in my stubborn heart — it required the cooperation of someone else. It required a man, a protector, a provider. I had given birth behind bars to my sweet little boy; how could I carry him out of this place all alone?
By some mercy, I was granted yard time. A week of it, far away from the latest man that I thought I loved. A house surrounded by budding trees, comfort food for breakfast, coffee drunk in a rocking chair on the porch. I found myself surrounded by people who weren’t so shattered and lost, people who had undertaken the great quest manfully. And yet, something was new about these examples. Their lives looked nothing like the blueprints I had envisioned, nothing at all.
A fearless leader who had made grave mistakes.
A fierce and gentle mother who was alone, like me.
A brilliant bachelor torn between religious vows and fighting a war that would outlive him.
I was right, as it turns out. I did need a man to make my escape. I needed two of them, in fact, to carry me over the wall. But I also needed a woman to pass my son to me, to help me stitch my heart together one more time, and to stop me from looking back at the burning penitentiary I would be leaving behind. I needed the prayers that had been offered for me and for my son, known and unknown, in Heaven and on earth. I needed to let go of my fear of the unknown ground far below, to let go of this ideal future that was holding me back from God’s true plan for my life, and to jump.
The angels bore us up before we even had a chance to hit the ground.
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.