ACK IN 2008 AND 2009, I spent a lot of time in prison. I was not an inmate, but a visitor assisting the full-time chaplain. My visits were part of my seminary’s apostolate program, designed to give us pastoral experiences of all kinds. This was one of my favorite apostolate assignments, and it was one that gave me many memories and grand stories.
Prisons are not beautiful places. In this particular facility, the walls were uniformly painted with an unremarkable shade of off-white. Long corridors bled into more long corridors, without any flourish or attempt to break up the architectural monotony. The sparse windows were narrow and filthy. The pitiful library was stocked with dusty law codes and worn dime novels. The air was stale, and it perpetually smelled of abandoned laundry. None of the common categories of art & beauty were present in this jail: painting, architecture, fashion, literature.
Except for music. With daily religious services and choir practice three times a week, the prison chapel was often filled with the melodious praise of keyboard and voices. Only a few weeks into the apostolate, I had learned all the words to Blessed Assurance and It Is Well With My Soul—the house favorites. The hymns could be heard some distance down the hall, too, which seemed somewhat to irritate the guards. Was choir practice simply an excuse to get out of the cellblock for an hour? Maybe for some, but I don’t think that was the motivation for most of the choir members. They seemed genuinely to want to praise God.
It can be hard to keep faith in a space that it so adverse to the aesthetic, so devoid of decoration, so bereft of beauty. Despite the barrenness of the place, though, there was still beauty to behold in that correctional facility. As I like to say, I met many very good people in prison. The beauty was in the inmates.
There was a strong Catholic outreach to this prison. In addition to regular visits from a priest, the prison allowed weekly visits from a few laymen from the local parish. These men were members of the Militia Immaculata, and they would lead the rosary and a Bible study every Thursday morning.
The thought never occurred to me at the time, but would it be possible to form a chant schola in prison? There was no shortage of inmates ready to join the choir. I’ll bet they would respond to the invitation to try chant. Chant is basic. Chant is universal. Chant requires nothing but a human voice. It may be the perfect music for prisoners.
The experience of beauty is rehabilitating. I believe that the converse is also true: the privation of beauty is debilitating. Shouldn’t civil authorities, then, want to inject some beauty into the otherwise sterile prison environment? If the purpose of “correctional facilities” is truly rehabilitation, what could be more rehabilitating than beautiful music?
More and more sacred musicians are promoting chant at their home parishes and cathedrals. What if we also volunteered our time to lead a primitive schola in our local prison? Doing so could serve as a grassroots way to promote chant while improving the quality of life for those so often forgotten by the outside world.
Prisons are not beautiful places. Chant, however, is beautiful no matter where it is sung. And, as Prince Myshkin observes in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world.” Introducing chant to prisoners might not save the whole world, but might it not save a soul or two?