This is a guest post by Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer, who is a regular columnist in Today’s Parish.
There is a story about a man who built a wooden staircase in a convent chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The stranger’s arrival was an answer to the nuns’ anxious prayers. He constructed an amazing circular stairway without a central post. When he finished the task, the man left without payment or farewell. The sisters concluded that the carpenter was St. Joseph himself.
The people of Sacred Heart Church in Memphis, Texas recently received a new wooden ambo, a handsome, handmade pulpit. Its carved posts, stained and polished, swirl in diagonal patterns unique to the mission furniture of the American Southwest. The ambo’s sturdy frame dignifies its mission: to heft and anchor the Word of God in a community of faith.
Like the mysterious builder who appeared at the Santa Fe convent, the carpenter who fashioned this ambo is –and will remain—a stranger to the people of the community for which it was built. But, unlike St. Joseph, the reason the man’s background is unknown is that he is a prisoner. He is housed in the T.L. Roach Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. His name is a series of numbers. His past contains a darkness that, to this day, haunts his deep-set eyes.
Let’s call him Joe.
Over a period of months, “Joe” toiled in a tight space in a crowded workshop. To his right, an inmate painted team emblems on ceramic footballs. Across the aisle, other inmates hand-tooled leather and crafted cowboy boots. When I would check on the pulpit’s progress, Joe’s arms would be coated with sawdust. He’d smooth his hand across planed boards and talk about the absorbency of cedar as opposed to oak. We’d inspect sandpaper, scrutinize stain samples, sketch designs then measure and re-measure dimensions. The project required more time than estimated. Joe often looked tired and his shoulders slumped more each week. In the end, his hard work produced a stunningly beautiful ambo.
I would like to report that Joe found the work spiritually fulfilling, but Joe is a quiet man and not prone to self-revelation. He is a former Marine. His speech is comprised of short phrases delivered in a staccato pattern. Occasionally he’ll mention a memory from years back—life on the outside—or refer to a member of the family that disowned him after his trial.
I would like to ask Joe what he pondered as he labored on the ambo week after week. Did he imagine himself at work beneath the gaze of St. Joseph? Did the smell of the lumber make him think of the workshop in Nazareth?
Did the ache in his hands seep into this wood that would bear the Word of God who once bore the sins of the world on the wood of the Cross?
Joe was raised in a non-liturgical church. I once asked him why he attended the weekly prison Mass. He said he liked the Catholic notion of sacrament, mainly Confession. Someday he hoped to muster the courage to join up and actually do it.
“The way you describe Confession,” he held out his hands and cupped them. “It’s something solid.”
I once read about a pulpit in a European cathedral that had demons carved in its railing. Their snarling faces reminded the preacher, as he ascended the steps, of the wages of sin. Today, when I approach an ambo built by a convict, I too am reminded of the power of sin. But soon, in the grip of my hand, I sense the power of mercy. God’s mercy. Its promise flowing down diagonal grooves. Its hope as strong and solid as wood.