That big sound inside you

Prison life and the language of sighs

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

I was driving my three-year-old grandson from preschool when he asked me from the back seat,

“What that sound, Ja-Ja?”

I thought for a moment. The radio was off. There were no sirens or honks. I was puzzled.

“What sound?” I asked. “That big sound inside you,” he said.

Then it dawned on me what he’d heard. “Oh, that was a sigh.”

Of course he asked me to explain it. I had difficulty thinking of words for such a wordless action, but I tried. “It’s a big sound from inside you that sometimes comes out with your breath when you’re tired, or sad, or frustrated.”

It was enough words before a plane diverted his attention to the sky.

Prison is a place of endless sighs. Collective sighs can be heard from officers with the news of one more state policy to enforce. A staff member sighs when handed yet another report due before the end of the day. Those exasperation sighs are even known to happen among chaplains. It can be sighing time again when the state office asks for five years of attendance records of religious programs.

Yet as chaplains we are most often aware of “that big sound inside” that comes from sorrow. We hear sighs that hold a world of sadness and remorse. Words couldn’t contain the grief expressed by one inmate as she told me about her arrest. Her toddler wanted to get in the police car with her. He wailed, patted his chest and said over and over, “Mommy me go?” She cried in the telling of it, and then left a trail of sighs as she walked out of the chaplain’s office that day.

“If only” are two tiny words that can be stacked like cordwood to burn in an anguished heart. Words of regret have their time and place, but sighs express the magnitude of the ache. Are sighs a way for our body and soul to experience some release, and expand our capacity to breathe more freely?

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to a sighing people. His words were offered to a community overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. He breathed hope into their despair. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen?

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Then he gave wings to their sighs as prayers. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

If the Spirit sighs with us, then the prison is a place of on-going prayers infused with the presence of God. Our prayer is that the sighs of sorrow will make room for sighs of release. Then maybe that big sound inside can become the sigh of God’s Spirit of peace.

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Nancy Hastings Sehested served for 13 years as a prison chaplain in medium and maximum security prisons for men, then two terms as an interim chaplain at a minimum security prison for women. This article was originally published in the "Ministry of Hope" newsletter, publication of the community-funded chaplain's office at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women in Swannanoa, N.C.