As Susan and I cautiously navigate the rain-slick cobblestones of Assisi, Italy, our Franciscan guide calls attention to a hinged wooden jib-door fashioned tightly into the wall of the medieval residence before us. In the 1200s, this stone-gray three-story structure belonged to the noble family Offreduccio, the childhood home of the incredible woman now known to the world as St. Clare of Assisi.
Our American purview from almost a millennium and an ocean away attempts to sanitize the memory of the courageous 18-year-old St. Clare by filtering out any notion offensive to our middle-class status quo. Such an endeavor is a failed mission, doomed for sure by her adolescent rebellion against the status quo of her time and place, culminating in Clare’s late night final departure from home through death’s door.
In the complex patchwork of Italy’s 13th-century feudal society, some of the then historic superstitions coexisted quite comfortably alongside the blossoming faith of the common people. Such was the inevitable inclusion in the design of every noble household of a door of the dead. This portal was usually blocked by dirt and debris until needed access for its only proper purpose — to give passage to a coffin for a newly deceased member of the house. Our modern mind struggles to accommodate the avalanche of deep meanings layered into the picture of a well-to-do, highly marriable and much sought-after teenage girl fleeing the material trappings and protections of her society’s good life by declaring herself dead to this world in such a revolutionary act. No speech or declaration could have more impactfully communicated Clare’s total rejection of the privileges afforded her. And because she was Catholic and her revolutionary stance was ensconced in her Catholic faith, it culminated in a tonsure — the shaving of her much-admired beautiful blonde hair.
I have always found the story of St. Clare’s radical conversion much more challenging than even that of St. Francis. Francis’ family was mercantile, in the ascendency toward upper-class. Clare’s family was already firmly established in the wealth and privilege of upper-class nobility. It has taken many years for me to understand that the wealth left behind, whether in hand or on the horizon, is not the point. The crucial insight is to understand what — or put more aptly — Who, both Francis and Clare were moving toward. Namely, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Heavy thoughts to ponder years after that Assisi experience, as I traverse the quarter-mile long hall of Florida’s execution prison, making my way to the final wing known as the death house. The guards admit me to the bottom floor and to the hall that runs along the front bars of the cells holding those who have already been assigned the date and time for the state to kill them.
On this day, there is only one man being held in the Florida death house. He is a big guy known in prison slang as Big Bob. He has requested me as his spiritual advisor for his execution. The wing officer announces my presence on the wing and relocks the massive hall door behind me.
“So, you came!” Big Bob calls out to me while I’m still about thirty feet from his death house cell door. “It’s good to see you.”
I pause at his cell door to take his hands through the bars. “You knew I would come if you asked.”
“Great,” he quickly changes the subject, almost wincing as he talks. “But, I do have a requirement.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“It’s really lonely down here all alone. Just the guards and me. So, I want you to come spend time with me. But I don’t want to hear that god-stuff, and no praying. Can you do that?”
“I’m not sure I know how to do that, Robert. I am here as your spiritual advisor.”
There’s a long awkward silence as we take stock of each other’s determination in this standoff. I blink first.
“Robert, I want to be here for you. But as you well know, we are not here alone. We have a lot of people who are hooked in by audio and video — in real time.” I motion toward the ceiling mounted video cameras and microphones. “Either we are having a spiritual advisor visit or we aren’t. And if we aren’t, I’ll be quickly escorted to the front door of the prison.”
He steps back to the side of his bunk, plops down on the corner of the mattress in a profound statement of disappointment and sighs dejectedly, “Well, I tried.”
“How about if I try?” I ask still standing at his cell door. “At any point, you have the right to say, ‘We’re done!’ and they will escort me out.”
“Sure — You going to give me a speech or something?”
“No, I’m going to ask you some questions about you — about your years coming up in rural Florida and why you hate Christians.”
“You remember I hate Christians, right?” he is now returned to standing at the front of his cell.
“I do remember that you hate Christians; that it’s a real thing with you. But you never told me why you hate Christians. Maybe you could start by telling me why you asked for me as your spiritual advisor in the death house?”
“When they came and asked me if I wanted a spiritual advisor down here, I remembered how you always used to bring me cards on the row to send to my momma for her birthday and for Mothers’ Day and Christmas cards for my family. So, I figured if you would agree to not talk about God, we’d be okay.”
“Understood. Robert, my guess is that a whole lot of people have talked at you for a whole lot of your life.” I motion to the death squad sergeant that I will need a chair, implying to him that Big Bob and I have found something to talk about. “But I’m betting that not too many of them have asked you what it’s been like to be you. I want to hear about what it’s been like to be you — growing up dirt poor and despised in the midst of rich Christians in rural Florida.”
“I hate them all and I hate their Jesus too!”
“Well, Robert, I know of at least two exceptions already.”
“What exceptions! There ain’t no exceptions!”
I pause briefly before responding, hoping our many remote audiences will realize this is a friendly discussion and not an argument. An argument of any kind about anything will shut a death house visit down and fast.
“Robert, I think of you as my brother. I believe maybe you don’t hate me.”
“I want to hate you when you defend Christians.” He is clearly mad enough to bite heads off of nails. Even so, he returns to our topic. “You said two exceptions. So who do you think is the other exception?”
“I think the other exception is Jesus Christ.”
He throws up his hands in absolute silence, shaking his head in total disbelief. Clearly an explanation is in order.
“Robert, you cannot hate someone you know nothing about. And you have no idea who Jesus is. You have never met Him.”
He is too flabbergasted to speak. I will need to push this conversation forward.
“Have you ever heard of C.S. Lewis?”
His shrug and total lack of interest all add up to a no, and I don’t want to hear about him now.
“C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian authors of our modern age. He loved to tell a parable that sheds great light on our situation here. May I share it with you?”
Big Bob doesn’t say yes but he doesn’t say no either. I think to myself, in the death house, an amber light is as good as a green one. There is no hurry — we have plenty of time left in our visit. So, I paraphrase the story as best I can with full affect and a generous sprinkling of my inherited Italian gestures.
There was a woman who took great pride in being a model Christian, even down to tithing the full ten percent on all her income. She never used foul language, never arrived late to church, and never left early. She took great pride in making sure that everyone who came to her little church was good enough to be allowed there.
As it happened, one day a street beggar sat in the back pew of her church. He was noticeably unbathed and his clothes were rags. Fearing that his presence would discourage more socially acceptable prospects from coming to her church, she had the pastor put the beggar back out into the street. She was quite proud of herself for having protected her church from less worthy participants.
Ultimately, it came her time to return to the Lord. She died peacefully filled with the expectations of finally getting her reward for all the vices she had abstained from in her earthly life.
“Yup, that sounds like a Christian,” Big Bob snarls, giving me the first indication that he has been paying any attention.
Well, when this righteous woman is admitted into heaven, she screeches to a dead stop. To her shock and disgust, the stinky beggar that she had caused to be ejected from her church is sitting right there on the ground inside the gate of heaven.
‘This will not do!’, she screams. ‘This filthy bum must be removed immediately. Who let him in here?’
‘God let him in here,’ her escort angel explains. ‘It’s God’s decision.’
‘Well, you tell God that I will not stay in the same heaven as this man. Either this man must leave or I will.’
When her escort angel returns, the righteous woman demands to know God’s answer.
‘God said you are welcome to stay in heaven and so is this man. If you choose to leave, there is an exit right over there. It leads to the other place called hell. But the exit only opens out. Once you leave, there is no coming back into heaven.’
Without a moment’s hesitation, the righteous woman storms out the exit from heaven and into hell.
“Yup, that sounds exactly like the Christians I have known,” Big Bob sums up his life experience in a single phrase. “So, what’s your point?”
“The point is that you can’t hate Jesus for the way His followers fall short of God’s desires. The desires of Jesus are in perfect unity with the desires of His Father in heaven. But we human beings sometimes choose to go against those desires. That’s not on Him. That’s on us.”
For the next three days, I listen to Bob’s experiences growing up dirt poor in the middle of rich Christians in rural Florida. Rich Christians who believe their good fortune is because God loves them better than He loves the poor. Who believe that God has cursed the poor and His will is for the poor to suffer. Who believe that God has predestined the poor for hell and anyone who tries to relieve their suffering is going against God’s will.
Finally, he passes the hot potato to me. “So what is your spiritual advice, Brother Dale? Something crazy like I should forgive them?” He laughs out loud scornfully.
“Well, Robert, I know you are a country boy through and through. Fishing! Hunting! Fighting! But I grew up first-generation Italian in a city-neighborhood. I learned on the streets of Detroit: don’t get mad; just get even!
“For real Brother Dale! Do you realize where I am? How do I get even from here?”
“Give me a second. Hear me out.”
He sits back patiently and allows me to share a brief recounting of St. Clare’s decision to leave behind the hypocrisy of the “respectable” people by exiting through death’s door.
“Robert, in about two weeks, you will be escorted through that door right there into the execution chamber. That is your death’s door.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Neither do I. But we need to talk about what’s waiting for you on the other side of death’s door.”
“I’m not scared of hell. I’m not scared of anything.”
“Robert, I don’t want to talk about hell. I’m talking about setting things right between you and all the misguided Christians who tormented you in this life.”
He stands up impatiently and barks at me through the bars, “You have got two minutes and then you’re outa here!”
“That’s all I need. You remember the righteous Christian woman C. S. Lewis told us about? Picture all those misguided Christians who made your life a living hell. Picture each of them showing up at Heaven’s gates to claim their eternal reward. And when they walk into Heaven you are there to greet them.”
“What? Are you nuts? Is that even possible?”
“It’s not just possible, it’s guaranteed.”
The death house sergeant suddenly appears, “Sorry, Chap, time is runout.”
I wrap up quickly. “Robert, I’ll be back after the weekend. I’ll need your decision then.”
By Dale S. Recinella