Amanda's View: Opportunity to be

By Amanda Knox
I remember how Don Saulo, the chaplain at Capanne prison, visited every cell each morning and greeted every prisoner by name. He brought in movies for us to watch, and each one—Kung Fu Panda, Avatar—made him cry. He told the prison staff that he needed me to spend a few hours a week in his office helping him prepare for mass, when really he let me pass the time singing and playing Beatles songs on the guitar. When I crocheted him a bracelet, he took it, thanked me, and said, “White. The color of resurrection…” When we first met, I was freshly imprisoned and afraid and surrounded by strangers, and I told him I was innocent and I knew he, like everyone else, didn’t believe me. He replied, “I can’t say if you are innocent, but I believe you are sincere when you tell me you are innocent.”
Which is to say that, from the moment we met, Don Saulo was always a man of kindness and integrity. That very first day, he showed me his brutal, compassionate honesty, and it was because of this honesty that I knew it was true when he eventually told me he believed me, years later.
In prison, Don Saulo was my friend. Each week, we spent hours talking in his office about philosophy, life, the prison, the Church. We debated gay marriage, adoption, the role of women in religious doctrine, vegetarianism, life after death. We disagreed, amicably, about many things, he being Catholic, and me, atheist. But we also agreed on a surprising number of existential truths. Above all, despite our differences of belief, Don Saulo was able to give me a most important gift: help in translating my suffering into meaning.
We were talking about prayer. I didn’t understand the point of it. If you believe in God, and that God has a plan for you, and that God will always provide for that plan along the way, then why pray? Why do what I saw many other prisoners do—cry out to God for relief, for freedom, for money, for cigarettes? Why bother, when God never answers? Why bother, when your undesired lot was part of God’s plan in the first place?
As an atheist, the question about prayer (which didn’t affect me) was linked to the question about purpose (which greatly affected me). Imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit, I realized that freedom was never a given. Nor, apparently, did there have to be a reason for suffering. Senseless suffering had suddenly descended upon my life from nowhere, for no reason. What I deserved, what I wanted, what was true even, had nothing to do with it. What was prayer or hope next to that? Wasn’t I powerless?
Don Saulo listened and gave me his warm, sad smile. Then he said, “When you pray to God, He always answers your prayers. Just, you may not recognize his answer. If you pray for strength, God doesn’t give you strength. He gives you the opportunity to be strong.”
Don Saulo’s words rippled through me, ringing true. Life itself is the opportunity to be everything you want to be. Life doesn’t promise you anything but that—but the opportunity is already everything.
Let me explain. Wrongful conviction and imprisonment had taken away from me everything I held dear, everything I thought belonged to me—my home, my freedom, a future where I could have a career, a family. But it hadn’t taken away my life—me. If I could divorce the specific terms and expectations of what I wanted from the essence of what I wanted, then I could be myself in any circumstance. Even in the midst of suffering, especially in the midst of suffering, I could still be smart, kind, generous, curious, creative, funny, sane…
Seen in that way, prayer is an evocation of choice. The choice to not let suffering get the better of you. To hang on to what matters to you. To intend upon certain values and principles that ultimately define who you are. Next to that intention, painful circumstance is just white noise.
So often, it felt like Don Saulo and I were speaking different languages, but understanding each other all the same. And that understanding helped save me.

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