In the book Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. II, there is a description of a prison called Doge’s Palace, located in Venice. A man named Joe Avila, who was convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of a young woman who died in a crash caused by Avila, who was drunk at the time, has a remarkable story of his experience and of how he learned about love and God and forgiveness through his ordeal. At Doge’s Palace, Avila recalled, he and his wife were shown dungeons and prisons, and while there, they walked the “Bridge of Sighs.” This was a bridge a prisoner walked right after receiving his/her sentence for having done something wrong. The purpose of “the walk” was to allow the new prisoner to reflect on what he/she had done, to realize the consequences, and to “sigh.” Wrote the author, “His sighs are his fears.”
Avila recalled that after he was sentenced to 12 years in prison that he walked a long, underground tunnel at the Fresno County Jail, which is a quarter-mile long with no windows. Prisoners in Fresno, he said, walk that tunnel; “that is where we reflect on what we have done and what is in store for us. I never want to walk down there again. That was my “bridge of sighs.”
There are ways we can respond to our shortcomings and our “falling out of grace” that are helpful and ways that are counter-productive. To deny what we have done only keeps a wall between us and God, the God who can and will show us our shortcomings with love and with grace. Our country lives in denial when it comes to racism and white supremacy; between us and God there is a wall that keeps America from healing and wholeness that comes from facing the truth, and from owning and embracing it, thereby being released from its power over us. Denial of our shortcomings is counter-productive to our own soul’s health and in the case of the United States, to the health of the nation.
The most helpful way to deal with our shortcomings, however, seems to be to face it, to name it, to look it in the face and to place ourselves where we are within the broken picture. It hurts to admit we have done wrong or made a bad move, decision or turn, but we all do. We receive “sentences” from ourselves, from our churches, from society, and they are all painful. Nobody likes to pay for what he or she has done, but we all are called to do so. It is in the facing of our shortcomings, however, that we are forced to walk our “bridge of sighs,” remembering our lives even the day before, when everything was “normal,” contrasting it to our present moment, when everything has fallen apart. When we are there, we are crestfallen, disappointed in ourselves, and above all, afraid…afraid of what is in front of us, afraid of how we will survive, afraid of what and/or whom we will lose in our lives. We are afraid of the consequences of our actions. We walk, and we sigh …but when we walk with God, or when we realize that God is with us on that shaky, yet firm bridge, we do keep walking.
The value in facing our fears is that we are liberated. Once we name them, once we inhale and realize that we will suffer for a while but that suffering is a part of liberation, we are freed up. No person can put us down or shut us out because of what we have done. We gain the strength to tell our own story, with remorse and with conviction and with power. We are able to connect with others who have been afraid to approach the bridge. We no longer fear the consequences of what we have done, because we are living in the consequences, and we have learned that God is an “on –time, ever-present” God. We learn personally the testimony which we have so often heard told by other people. We realize that some will always hold what we have done against us, but we realize that there are far more who will not care.
Avila served his time. During his trial, he had an encounter with God and realized that, more than manipulating “the system” so that he could walk free, he wanted to change his life. He changed his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty,” received his 12-year sentence, endured the hatred and anger of his victims, walked through that long tunnel, and came out of prison seven years later a man made over by God.
Walking the “Bridge of Sighs” pushes our fears out of us; while they are inside of us, they kill us and steal our capacity to trust God and see how God works, even and especially in times of dark and tumultuous times. Walking that bridge says to God that we truly believe that “in the time of trouble, God will hide us in his tabernacle.” In the tabernacle there is pain as our weaknesses are exposed and excised, but after that spiritual surgery, there is also healing and wholeness, and a joy that comes only when we realize how skillfully God excised our rotting parts and replaced them with new life, new possibilities, and new power and grace.
The “Bridge of Sighs” is a gift. For it, we are thankful.
Amen and Amen.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith –Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” which won the 2009 National Best Books Award. Follow Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/cassad