Miracles are natural: Our visit with Mother Antonia

With Mother AntoniaOn August 21, Patricia and I had the great honor of visiting Mother Antonia, the “prison angel of Tijuana.” It was a beautiful experience. As we saw how totally devoted Mother Antonia and the sisters who serve with her were to their mission of serving “the least of these,” we felt like we were witnessing a snapshot of the Course principle that “miracles are natural. When they do not occur, something has gone wrong” (T-1.I.6:1).

Who is Mother Antonia? The following is from a description of a wonderful book about her, entitled The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan:

At the age of fifty, [Mary] Clarke [Brenner] left her comfortable life in suburban Los Angeles to follow a spiritual calling to care for the prisoners in one of Mexico’s most notorious jails. She actually moved into a cell to live among drug king pins and petty thieves. She has led many of them through profound spiritual transformations in which they turned away from their lives of crime, and has deeply touched the lives of all who have witnessed the depth of her compassion. Donning a nun’s habit, she became Mother Antonia, renowned as “the prison angel,” and has now organized a new community of sisters — the [Eudist] Servants of the Eleventh Hour — widows and divorced women seeking new meaning in their lives. “We had never heard a story like hers,” Jordan and Sullivan write, “a story of such powerful goodness.”

We visited Mother Antonia and some of the sisters at the convent of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour — a place called Casa de Corozón de Jesús (House of the Heart of Jesus). Now in her eighties, she can no longer live in the prison due to poor health, but she still visits it two or three times a week. (She told us that she dearly wishes she could still live among the prisoners, and “misses them every day.”)

When we arrived we were first greeted by some of the sisters. They told us that Mother Antonia wasn’t feeling well, but she was looking forward to meeting us. Then Mother Antonia came out and greeted us warmly. We told her what an honor it was to visit her, and she said it was her honor to see us. She was very interested in us, plying us with many questions. We told her about our mission to help migrants, and she was very happy we were doing that. In fact, she strongly encouraged us to dive into that mission fully, asking us what we were doing to help the poor each day. As she reminded us frequently, even seemingly small efforts make a huge difference.

At one point, she asked me what I did for a living, and I told her that I was a teacher of A Course in Miracles. I described it as a spiritual path which teaches that the way to God is through giving love, help, and forgiveness to others. Without missing a beat, she said, “There is no other way.” She didn’t ask any more questions about the Course; I don’t know why, but my impression was that in her mind, if it encouraged us to help other people, that was good enough for her. As she said later, “God is pleased any time you help another.” Helping other people seemed to be her whole gospel, the very air she breathed.

We then went to the dining room to have coffee, pastries, and fruit with Mother Antonia and some of the other sisters. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. I especially remember Sister Mary Lawrence, a woman from Mississippi who offered “southern hospitality.” After I told her that I loved cantaloupe (when a plate of it was going around), she insisted that I take one piece after another. I didn’t think they were going to let me leave until I finished the plate.

We continued the conversation there. At one point, Patricia and I brought up forgiveness. Mother Antonia said forgiveness is absolutely essential, reminding us of the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” She told a great story about St. Vincent de Paul who, when asked if he had forgiven all the people who offended him, said “No. No one has ever offended me.” She quoted the famous “love” discourse of 1 Corinthians 13, in which Paul says, “Love does not count up wrongs.” She even said that forgiveness keeps you young and handsome, so if you need a strong motivation to forgive, there you have it, straight from Mother Antonia.

The place was very busy during our visit, which gave us an opportunity to see Mother Antonia in action. Both Patricia and I were impressed with her combination of deep love and no-nonsense practicality. Her cell phone rang several times during our visit, and we watched her handle situations with practical counsel and gentle firmness, even confronting and correcting a few people who were doing something she didn’t agree with. This was a woman in charge — but a woman whose love was obvious, even when she was correcting someone.

She reminded me somewhat of Mrs. Albert, in that she said what she believed, without hostility or embarrassment. She definitely “preached” at times, but it was not an obnoxious preaching like the kind you so often hear. It was just the direct sharing of a loving message, spoken with the conviction of a person who was really living that message every day. Like Mrs. Albert, she and her fellow servants are working miracles every day.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. Mother Antonia expressed how wonderful it was to meet us, and challenged us again to do more to help others as the Holy Spirit directs us. (She had told us earlier that the Holy Spirit was “a great gift from God,” and we should always turn to Him for guidance about what to do.) There was a real urgency in what she said, which reminded me of Helen’s “celestial speed-up” guidance. She said several times in different ways, “Don’t waste time. If you listen to the Holy Spirit, He’ll give you a lot of work. Get busy.” She blessed our mission and wished us God’s blessing, as we did for her and the sisters as well.

Afterward, we were driven to Casa Campos de San Miguel, located just three blocks from the La Mesa prison. The Casa is a refuge for women leaving prison and for women visiting incarcerated family members, as well as a shelter for women and children who have come to Tijuana for cancer treatment. They also give out food to homeless people, who can come once a day for a small bite to eat.

There, we met some of the other sisters, and had a long conversation with a delightful woman named Sister Aisha. (Well, the conversation was mainly with Patricia, since it was in Spanish.) During our talk, many homeless people rang the doorbell for their daily bread. Sister Aisha showed us a photo album of women who had visited Casa Campos from all over Mexico. We won’t soon forget her, a tiny woman with a huge smile who probably would have talked with us for another six hours if we didn’t have to leave.

Finally, it was time to go, and Sister Aisha called a taxi for us. Because we wanted to see the prison from the outside (we weren’t allowed inside), she instructed the driver to take us onto the avenue directly in front of the prison, which is now called “Avenida Madre Antonia Brenner.” He took our picture in front of the street sign, and I took a few more pictures of the prison until the armed guards told me to stop. (There’s really no law against taking pictures, but when a guy with a machine gun tells you to put your camera down, there is only one healthy response: “Sí, señor!”)

Patricia and I have thought a lot about Mother Antonia since that visit. A friend asked me if we felt like we were in the presence of a living saint. I would say yes, but it’s not what I expected. Usually, when you use the word “saint,” you’re describing someone extraordinary, and indeed she was. But what struck Patricia and me most about her was her ordinariness, in the most positive sense of that term. To coin a phrase, she was extraordinarily ordinary. On the one hand, she was extraordinarily loving. On the other hand, she was very down-to-earth. She was so matter-of-fact about the work she did that it was as if devoting one’s entire life to extending love to others (even if it meant living in a prison cell) is the most normal thing in the world.

So, both Patricia and I came out of this encounter with the sense that Mother Antonia and her sisters, as unusual as they may appear in their habits walking the corridors of a filthy prison, are actually just doing the most normal, natural thing a human being can do. Helping others, in whatever form we are called to do so, is what life is all about. The mission is everything; we are never off the clock.

This may sound like a dreary sacrifice, but what we saw in the faces of Mother Antonia and her sisters was joy. There was a lot of laughter in that place. True, there are concerns, especially about Mother Antonia’s health and what will happen when she passes on. But while no doubt the sisters are human beings with inner struggles like the rest of us, my impression was that here was a group of women who had truly found their calling. As the Course so often tells us, helping others is the way that we find the help and happiness that God wills for us.

Patricia and I want our lives to be like that: lives that are all about the mission, the joyous mission of helping our brothers with small but mighty acts of love. We want to be in Jesus’ party of “active workers,” as he said to Helen and Bill. What could be more natural and more fulfilling? As I said at the beginning, in our eyes Mother Antonia and her sisters gave us a shining example of the Course’s statement that “Miracles are natural. When they do not occur, something has gone wrong.” As she herself said, “There is no other way.”