Doctor Johnson is on his travels in the Isle of Skye, in Autumn of the year 1773. The places named were homes of the local gentry who unfailingly welcomed Johnson and his friend James Boswell.There were no roads on Skye at this time and a trusted guide was absolutely necessary for safety.
More than 200 years later, I cannot help but think of the violence, terror and uncertainty that so many unwilling travellers have experienced in recent months, and the welcome they have received from strangers in their unexpected hour of need. Let us hope and pray that a ‘degree of cheerfulness’ may be granted them through the kindness of others, enabling them to sustain their children and vulnerable dependents.
In our way to Armidel (Armadale) was Coriatachan, where we had already been, and to which therefore we were very willing to return. We staid however so long at Talisker, that a great part of our journey was performed in the gloom of the evening.
In travelling even thus almost without light thro’ naked solitude, when there is a guide whose conduct may be trusted, a mind not naturally too much disposed to fear, may preserve some degree of cheerfulness; but what must be the solicitude of him who should be wandering, among the craggs and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone? The fictions of the Gothick romances were not so remote from credibility as they are now thought.
In the full prevalence of the feudal institution, when violence desolated the world, and every baron lived in a fortress, forests and castles were regularly succeeded by each other, and the adventurer might very suddenly pass from the gloom of woods, or the ruggedness of moors, to seats of plenty, gaiety, and magnificence. Whatever is imaged in the wildest tale, if giants, dragons, and enchantment be excepted, would be felt by him, who, wandering in the mountains without a guide, or upon the sea without a pilot, should be carried amidst his terror and uncertainty, to the hospitality and elegance of Raasay or Dunvegan.
Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson.
For forty years now, Prisons Week has encouraged Christian individuals and churches to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people caring for those affected by crime inside and outside our prisons.
Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind.
Today is Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marking the beginning of the week of prayer, which runs until Saturday.
Here’s a reflection from our friend Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, which supports Irish prisoners in England. It shows how effective this ministry can be, in God’s good time.
“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.
One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.
With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.
My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”
Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”
(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)
Volunteers have a vocation which they might admit to, if pressed. Here is part of what the London Irish Chaplaincy has to say for itself.
The Irish Chaplaincy today
Today, we continue to meet and walk alongside Irish people, especially those most isolated and vulnerable such as Irish prisoners, older Irish people and Travellers. Our work stems from our spiritual roots, embracing the core meaning of Catholic, which is ‘universal’ and ‘inclusive’. We work with people regardless of their religious background.
Who said innovation was the only route to revolution?
Although the term ‘innovation’ seems to be the buzzword, we’ve found that most of the time it’s the little things that make a big difference. For example, simply talking to someone, holding a Travellers’ forum in a prison to offer someone a voice, or writing a letter to a prisoner are the most effective ways to lift their spirit. We know people’s needs change over time and we’ve carried out plenty of research to be sure we’re offering the most helpful services. But the message is clear, that in most cases simply being a kind friend is powerful enough to change someone’s life. For us, these simple actions have stood the test of time.