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Freeing the Human Spirit:
Carrying out the Life Work of Sister Elaine MacInnes
(c) Shannon Parsons 2007

"We are all doing time, imprisoned by blocks, hang-ups and tensions. Meditation and yoga help us become free".

(Excerpt from Freeing the Human Spirit's founding principles)

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.


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