Perhaps it was fate that brought me a copy of The
Fires That Burn. Perhaps it was just good fortune.
Whatever it was, watching this documentary about the
inspirational Sister Elaine MacInnes and her work with
prisoners changed something in me. It wouldn't be
long before I would find myself volunteering with her
organization to help continue her amazing life work.
Sister Elaine is a remarkable woman, a rare
combination of a Catholic nun and a Zen Roshi. She is
also a woman who doesn't like to take no for an
answer. As a young woman growing up in New Brunswick,
she claims she always had a desire to know more. It
was a desire that would turn into a lifelong quest for
truth and meaning. After the love of her life died in
WWII, Sister Elaine's life took a very different path.
Instead of marrying and settling down to what would
have likely been a quiet country life, she found
herself moving to Manhattan to study music at
Julliard. From there, she would try her hand at
studying philosophy at university. Still not quite
satisfied by these studies, she found within herself a
calling to become a nun. But she still wanted to know
more. So she decided to go to Japan where she
undertook studying Zen for over 15 years.
She would become Canada's first Zen Roshi and from
there she would find herself in the Philippines
teaching farming to the locals. While in the
Philippines, Sister learned of some political
prisoners being held and tortured in a prison there.
She felt she had to do something, so she went to the
prison every day and asked if she could at least talk
with the prisoners and teach them about meditation.
And every day she was turned down. Finally after much
perseverance, they permitted her entry and thus began
her first experience working with prisoners. It would
become her life work. From the Philippines, she went
to England where she visited various prisons seeking
to teach a similar program to the inmates, but the
staff were highly sceptical. So, Sister offered to
teach the class to them, convinced that if the staff
experienced the program themselves they would see the
benefits and approve it for the inmates. It worked.
And thus began the Prison Phoenix Trust, a program of
yoga and meditation. Currently, the program runs in
over 80 prisons throughout the UK and the individual
results have been incredible. In 2001, Sister Elaine
was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in
recognition of her work in the Philippines and the UK.
In 2004, she came back to her native Canada and
founded Freeing the Human Spirit, a similar program
for inmates in Canadian correctional facilities.
This is where I come in. After watching The Fires That
Burn that day I said to myself "I want to do this
work. I want to be a part of Freeing the Human
Spirit". After all, I have always had an interest in
working with prisoners, but not in the Correctional
Services sense. Still, it seemed like a bit of a
dream. After all, I didn't even know for sure that the
program had come to Ottawa or that I even stood a
chance at becoming a volunteer. Despite my doubts, I
made contact with the office in Toronto and again as
fate or good fortune would have it, the voice on the
other end of the line told me that my timing was
excellent as they were just starting up the program in
Ottawa. Then before I knew it, Sister Elaine herself
was calling me to do a brief telephone interview. When
I told her that I run a meditation program at work for
people living with severe and persistent mental
illness, she congratulated me on the great work I am
doing. Me? A woman of Sister's calibre was telling me
that I'm doing great work? I was so flattered I'm sure
I blushed on the phone. And thus began my volunteer
work with Freeing the Human Spirit.
Along with two other volunteers, I have been going
into the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Sunday
evenings since February to bring Sister's program of
yoga and meditation to the female inmates. We are
currently the only team in Ontario that works with
women. Our vision is to expand the program to the men
and the youth who are incarcerated at the OCDC and our
recent acquisition of five new volunteers may well
enable us to do so. It is wonderful to be a part of
this work and to bring a little light into such a
bleak and often hopeless environment. The response
from the inmates has been overwhelming at times. I
have never before worked with such grateful people.
They are teaching me all the time. Our belief is that
our program will help to provide the inmates with a
sense of hope and a new set of tools for their
personal growth and healing. As Sister says, "The
opportunity for spiritual growth exists in a prison
cell". She suggests to prisoners that their cells can
be viewed as ashrams where they can practice
meditation and get in touch with who they really are.
And the inspiration continues for me. Because of my
work with Freeing the Human Spirit I have developed an
interest in Restorative Justice, a process which
focuses on healing the damages caused by crime. So
often, crime polarizes people and creates much fear
and anger. Restorative Justice offers the victim and
the offender a chance to be heard and to try to
restore a sense of balance and healing to their lives
and to the community as a whole. Sister Elaine is a
strong advocate of Restorative Justice, and she made
it the focus of our teacher training session last
November. I was very inspired by the work of guest
speaker Peter Wallis who does Restorative Justice work
in Oxfordshire, England. The success stories he shared
with us left us all deeply moved and realizing just
how powerful and valuable a process Restorative
Justice can be.
So, as a result of the fate or good fortune that
brought me a copy of The Fires That Burn, I have been
granted the opportunity to help carry out Sister
Elaine's remarkable work. If I am carrying it out with
even half of her grace, wisdom and compassion I would
consider myself a very lucky woman.
To find out more about Freeing the Human Spirit and
the life of Sister Elaine MacInnes, please visit
Freeing the Human Spirit.