The Prophet in Solitary


What if you were locked up for twenty-seven years?

I am listening to the radio, and a man is talking about his advocacy for prisoners in solitary confinement. He receives, he says, fifty letters a day from men in solitary. He reads from several letters.

The one that has my jaw hanging slack comes from a man locked up with no human contact for twenty-seven years. He asks for a picture—and the man says, He doesn’t ask for a picture of something big and remarkable, like the Acropolis. He wants a picture of a hometown street. That’s all. He doesn’t know what life looks like anymore, and he just wants to see Main Street anytown.

Suddenly I start looking around. I am in my car. There is a CVS and a Dunkin Donuts and Jiffy Cleaners. A man on a bicycle waits for the light to change. A light mist clouds the windshield and the wipers clunk once and back again and everything is clear.

I mumble some words I know of Wendell Berry–

what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven [or some Acropolis], but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

For some reason I have to receive a letter from a man locked in a concrete box for twenty-seven years in order to quiet my heart and clear my eye.

17 Responses to The Prophet in Solitary
  1. Matt
    February 17, 2016 | 8:51 am

    I write to a guy serving 40 years in TX for some horrific event (I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t murder)done to a family member. And sometimes it strikes me how he seems more free than me in how he is dealing with prison life and his decisions and forgiving himself.

  2. David Anderson
    February 17, 2016 | 10:35 am

    Yes, this must be why the Bible keeps telling us–commanding us–to visit those in prison. It must be that WE need the visit more than they.

  3. Kathy
    February 17, 2016 | 11:10 am

    Oh my! Yes, David, this is so true. I read somewhere a long time ago that, like Paul, the apostle, we can learn contentment, and it starts, as you say, by appreciating the little things of everyday life: the first cup of coffee in the morning, the call from a friend, the comfortable presence of your wife or husband. These aren’t an acropolis in magnitude, but in many ways they are more important than any acropolis. What we need, indeed, is here. Thanks for reminding me!

    • David Anderson
      February 17, 2016 | 1:05 pm

      True–it just takes a lot of prayer to get to the place where we can see that ‘what we need is here’ even though a lot that we THINK we desperately need is not here and seems not to be coming any time soon.

  4. Ann
    February 17, 2016 | 12:50 pm

    An icon that fits today’s post is “Jesus of Maryknoll.” It is by Robert Lentz and you can see it at

  5. Karen Dewar
    February 17, 2016 | 2:32 pm

    David – you always know what to say. I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s quote: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

    • David Anderson
      February 17, 2016 | 5:24 pm

      Thanks, Karen–I’m saving that Buechner gem.

  6. Ann
    February 17, 2016 | 5:17 pm

    I go back and forth. Is he inside looking our or is he outside looking in? Or both depending on where I am in my life?

  7. Leslie Smith
    February 18, 2016 | 8:02 am

    Pleased for you to have Finding Your Soul back again. Best, Leslie

  8. clark johnson
    February 18, 2016 | 10:33 am

    DavidI second and third Leslie’s comment! Great to see him back again also! clark

    • David Anderson
      February 18, 2016 | 11:59 am

      Yes, nice to have you and brother Leslie in the circle!

  9. Jim Wheeler
    February 18, 2016 | 10:37 am

    David, the PBS story reminded me of a powerful and disturbing book, which I received for Christmas, that I just finished – ‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson, activist lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. The book gives a broad perspective on the horrific injustices in our criminal justice system. One of his clients had been in solitary confinement for 20+ years in a Florida prison, convicted as a 14 year old of a crime he most likely was convicted of only because he was black.

    The injustices he deals with are staggering and still happening and should be of deep concern to us all.

    Thanks for sharing your story.


    • David Anderson
      February 18, 2016 | 11:58 am

      Yes, I couldn’t really go into the whole tragedy/outrage of mass incarceration (and speaking of books–“The New Jim Crow” deals so powerfully with this issue), and the dehumanization of millions of us.

  10. Johnna Fredrickson
    February 18, 2016 | 2:20 pm

    Sometimes it takes being “not in Kansas anymore” to see home – and perhaps seeing a street at home tells us as much about ourselves as it ever will the prisoner who began this conversation. Peace, Johnna

  11. Michael Anderson
    February 19, 2016 | 9:12 pm

    Thanks, David. This really resonated with me. Every time I visit my two friends in the Wisconsin prison system–I say what Matt said: how am I using my freedom?

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