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Prison Ministry in the Spirit of St. Augustine

Every person struggles with the search for happiness.  Saint Augustine’s City of God portrays the human search for happiness as a struggle between two loves:  love of the eternal (God) and love of earthly things (XIV, 28).  Only through love of God will we attain true and lasting happiness (XII, 2).  Yet, the passions often cause us to redirect our love away from God (IX, 5).  In the United States there are approximately 2.2 million people who are incarcerated.   The majority of the incarcerated people I work with recognize that their passions and love of earthly things had led to the crimes that resulted in their incarceration.  They recognize a calling to use their time of incarceration as an opportunity to redirect their love towards God.  The purpose of this paper is to leverage some of the theology of the City of God to present a framework from which prison/jail ministers can develop pastoral responses to the spiritual needs of those who are incarcerated.

In my ministry to the incarcerated, I encounter people who are accused of a wide variety of crimes: murder, rape, drug dealing, theft, and arson among others.  Regardless of the crime, the stories I hear almost always follow a similar pattern.  The incarcerated person once chose a lifestyle they thought would make them happy (rebelling against authority figures, drugs, alcohol, seeking fast money, etc).  They got caught.  They realized through the humiliating and isolating experience of incarceration that they had developed an inordinate love for earthly things and abandoned God through the lifestyle they were living prior to incarceration.  In this process they realize a call to use their jail/prison time to return to redirect their love towards God.  

In Books XI-XIV, Augustine describes this same general pattern to characterize the human condition.  Happiness can only be found in God (XIX, 1).  In their search for happiness, people often turn to earthly things in order to make things go well or better for themselves in the midst of the hardships of this world (e.g., accumulation of wealth, material possessions, attempts to undermine or overpower others who appear to threaten our personal agendas, etc).  Augustine asserts that the will guiding such efforts is misdirected towards a love of earthly things and not God and therefore will not lead towards true and everlasting happiness (XIV, 13).

The root cause of this misdirection is a failure to “cling” to knowledge of and love for what is truly good, that is God (XII, 6).  Thus, on earth we have two cities based on two loves (XIV, 28).  The Earthly City consists of those who are immersed in and cling to the cares of the present.  The City of God consists of those focused on and clinging to eternal truths.  

In Christ and the Just Society in Augustine, Robert Dodaro posits that for Augustine, this inability to “cling” to the true good is caused by two key factors:  ignorance and weakness.  Ignorance is the incapacity to know oneself, God, and others with moral clarity and understand what is good in particular circumstances (Dodaro, 28).  For example, someone who grew up in a wealthy family with little exposure to the less fortunate would not automatically have the knowledge of the moral obligation to care for the poor (Mt. 25).

Most of those I minister to grew up in very disadvantaged circumstances.  From their earliest years they experienced poverty, abusive parents, crime/gang infested neighborhoods, lack of educational opportunities, etc.  They became accustomed at a very young age (in many cases before the age of reason) to respond to these types of environments through stealing, using violence to protect oneself from external threats, and use of the illegal substances made so readily available to them.  Overtime, the reliance on earthly things becomes more ingrained in their way of approaching the world around them.  

Moral weakness explains the soul’s overall inability or unwillingness to act justly (Dodaro, 28).  Even when one comes to recognize the error of their ways, the will is reluctant or unable to always follow the good.  I frequently hear incarcerated people quote Romans 7:19:  “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do.” Almost all people I encounter who admit guilt for the crimes they are accused of recognize the error of their ways.  Yet, they often report feeling enslaved to the habits or lifestyle they were living.  In fact, one of the primary fears I encounter in those approaching the end of their sentence is that they will not be able to avoid returning to the same lifestyle that landed them in jail/prison to begin with.

Understanding and naming the ignorance and weakness that is universally present in our shared human nature is often one of the first steps in helping incarcerated people reconnect with their faith.  This inherent ignorance of and weakness to follow the good applies whether one is dealing drugs or failing to fulfill their Christian duty to care for the homeless (Mt. 25).  I have found helping incarcerated people understand their mistakes as part of a condition in which all humans share helps them to regain a sense of dignity, see past what was done, and open up to acceptance of God’s love and grace that is operative in their lives in the present moment.  I will often say “Based on Romans 3:32, if the laws of this land were based on God’s law, we would all be in jail for something.”  

The next step is usually helping them to identity opportunities to develop virtues to replace the vices that led to the crime.  For Augustine, the will that is vitiated by ignorance and weakness has a weakened capacity to govern and control human passions (IX, 4).  Many of those I minister to speak about how they have always been an angry person, overly anxious, overly attracted to nice things, or someone who lusted for power and control.  These passions led to the crimes they were convicted of and are deeply ingrained in how they interact with the world around them.  Their first impression incarcerated people usually share with me is that turning their life around means complete abandonment of these passions.

On the contrary, Augustine asserts that these “passions” are not in themselves bad since nothing created by God can be solely evil (XII, 3).  What matters is how we use the passions (IX, 5).  In Book IX Augustine speaks about how anger could be used for something good such as motivation to help relieve the afflicted or to save the perishing (IX, 5). The passions are evil when the will that governs them abandons what is superior (God) and turns to what is inferior (XII, 6).  The passions are good when we put them “on par” with heavenly things (XII, 4) by using them to imitate God (XIX, 4).  

The task for the incarcerated person (and all sinners) is therefore to redirect their passions towards deepening their knowledge of and imitation of the ways of God (XIX, 4).  Namely by putting the passions towards love of God and love of neighbor (XIV, 6).  Thus, as the incarcerated person begins to process their past criminal behavior in light of their growing relationship with God, the minister often finds themselves in a position to help them name the passion(s) that led to their criminal behavior and how they can be used for something good.

This often helps the incarcerated person develop a sense of vocation.  The majority of those I work with indicate a desire to become a mentor or teacher to help young people avoid the mistakes they have made.  Others will begin to take a leadership role in organizing faith activities inside the jail or prison such as Bible studies.  This sense of vocation enables them to recognize and reach acceptance of the fact that the true and everlasting happiness they were seeking in their prior lifestyle will not happen in this life.  This acceptance opens them up to the virtues of faith and humility.

For Augustine, it is faith and humility that counter the vices of ignorance and weakness (Dodaro, 30).  The forced captivity that incarcerated people face often seems to nurture these virtues as they lose access to old pleasures, surrender control of their lives, and live minute by minute in a threatening and hostile environment.  All of which cause them to become completely reliant on God for any sense of meaning and security.  As Augustine says, “we not do not yet see our good, and, as a consequence, we must seek it by believing” (XIX, 4).  As their faith grows through reliance on God in the harsh conditions of incarcerated life, they grow in their trust of the higher goods in place of the lower goods they once placed their trust in for happiness.

The second virtue, humility, enables them to acknowledge and accept their limits.  Doing so enables them to rely on God who alone can help them to live rightly (XIX, 4).  It helps to redirect their clinging from self to the clinging to God in the midst of the harsh reality of jail/prison life.  Many report a new ability to “walk away” from people who cross their paths in the jail/prison that they normally would have engaged in a physical altercation.  Many others who cultivate this virtue over time report a readiness to accept treatment for their addictions or programs such as anger management.

To summarize and conclude, I wish to share an encounter I had with a detainee a few months ago.  We were discussing the parable of the fig tree (Mt. 24:32-35).  I presented the group with two images. One of a fig tree that was barren.  The other of a fig tree in full bloom.  I asked the group to identify which of the two images they identified with. One gentleman raised his hand and pointing to the image of the barren fig tree said, “that was me before I was arrested.”  Then he pointed to the image of the fig tree in full bloom and declared, “this is me after spending a year in here.”  We then took some time to discuss why he felt this way.

He indicated that he was arrested after years of dealing drugs and living a luxurious life with cars and clothes.  After he was arrested, he began to read his Bible and participate in faith sharing groups where he discovered all the peace and joy that he had missed out on all those years he was chasing money instead of “chasing God.”  He recognized he no longer needed money to feel secure and worth something.  He indicated that he will likely spend several years in prison for his crime and wishes that he could be released in order to talk to young kids who are beginning a career in drug dealing to convince them otherwise.  In the meantime, he has begun a Bible study with other detainees on his deck and the size of the group is growing.  Some of the people who participate in this group his leadership abilities and how they often count on him for advice and counsel as they struggle with the cases they are fighting.  

This man is clearly using his time of incarceration to build the City of God in inside the jail.  I therefore close with a question:  what can incarcerated people teach the Church about the City of God?  Faith and humility lead us to the true eternal love that we are all seeking in our search for happiness.  Faith in the good we do not yet fully see; humility in acceptance of our own limitations in this world.  Together these virtues help propel us to build the City of God in a world based on two loves.


Dodaro, Robert. Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Saint Augustine of Hippo. The City of God: De Civitate Dei. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998.

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