A Holy Instant in a Maximum-Security Prison

By Hans Hallundbaek

A miracle unlocked the hearts of some hardened criminals at Sing Sing prison north of New York City. A light went on there that will never go out.

It happened during one of the classes I taught to a group of twelve incarcerated men.

I’ve worked with prisoners for 25 years as a chaplain and a teacher offering college-level classes to inmates. Not long ago, I was teaching a 10-week class called the Authentic Self.

For the last class of the course, I had prepared a certificate for each class member, and I said to the them,” I am a minister. Before I hand out these certificates, I would like to light a candle so that we together can celebrate your accomplishments.”

One of the men in the front jumped up, “Professor, are you crazy?  This is a maximum-security prison. Candles are contraband here.”

“But wait,” I said, “My candle is different. It is a virtual candle…a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”

They looked puzzled as I reached into my bag and pulled out an imaginary, large white pillar candle. I asked the class, “Can you all see this beautiful candle?”

While obviously still bewildered, several of the men started slowly nodding their heads.

I carefully placed the candle on a virtual table. When I reached into my pocket and produced virtual matches, Tony volunteered to come forward and light it.

This roomful of men hardened by years and decades in prison, quickly embraced the moment. I could almost see the candle flame reflected in their eyes. It was totally still in the room as they recalled the experience of live candles that they had not seen for years.

After a brief reflection on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” I handed out the certificates one by one to the twelve students. After that, we shared a brief social moment with virtual Coca-Cola and Oreo cookies.

Now our class time was up, and the Corrections Officer arrived to escort me out.

Then someone from the third row shouted, “What about the candle?”

Frankly, at this moment, I had forgotten about the candle.

“Just blow it out,” said another.

“No!” came a booming voice from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man and a great student with a forty-five-year sentence.

“Please, please never blow out that candle,” he pleaded in a trembling voice, “I want it to stay lit so that every time I enter this room, I can see hope.”

To this day, I still feel a deep wave of profound connection when I recall that holy instant. And last I checked, that virtual candle is still shining brightly in the Sing Sing school room, while Jerome has become a life-time friend.

“Take this very instant, now, and think of it as all there is of time. Nothing can reach you here out of the past, and it is here that you are completely absolved, completely free, and wholly without condemnation.From this holy instant, wherein holiness is born, you will go forth in time without fear…” (T-15.I.10:4-6)