When I was first sent to prison, my mother visited me weekly. She lived North of Boston, about a ninety minute drive from Concord, NH. She was usually brought here by my sister and her husband or by my younger brother. I was very concerned about how my imprisonment affected my mother. The mothers of most priests enjoy a sort of vicarious respect that they cherish with pride. My mother was visiting her priest-son in prison.
My mother was painfully aware that I could have left prison after only one or two years had I been willing to plead guilty to something that never took place. I knew she knew this. One day when we were alone during a visit, I took her hand and asked her if she was disappointed that I did not take a “deal” for the easy way out. She pondered this for a moment, squeezed my hand, and said,
“No, I would have been disappointed if you lived a lie. There’s no freedom in living a lie. I want you to fight for the truth.”
I was very proud of my mother, for in those few simple words she, too, put herself and her pride aside for principle. A few days after our visit, my mother sent me a simple card. It was a quote from Winston Churchill, plain white text on a black background, “Never, ever, ever give Up!” It was one of my treasures. The card spent several years on my cell wall, then disappeared one day, lost – as are many such things when I was moved from place to place in the prison.
In the years to follow, my mother became very ill. Her visits were fewer and further between. I witnessed the digression as she appeared in the prison visiting room one day with a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair – and then I saw her no more. Over the next two years, I could only speak with my mother by telephone. In the last year of her life, my mother and I could not speak at all.
It was a special agony to know that my mother was dying just seventy miles away. As her son and as a priest, I had lost any means to offer support for her except through prayer. I wrote to a priest-friend in Boston, Franciscan Father Raymond Mann, who graciously prepared my mother spiritually for death in my stead. I was most grateful to him, and to my sister and her family who cared for our mother every moment of her last years in this life. On November 5, 2006, my mother died.
Most of you cannot imagine being unable to see or comfort a loved one dying just seventy miles away. There is a barrier between the imprisoned and the free – almost as impenetrable as the barrier between the living and the dead. My duty as her son and as a priest would be carried out in silence in my own heart.
When I saw the Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ,” I was struck by the powerful, silent scenes in which Mary viewed her Son’s path to Calvary from a short distance, and yet could not touch him, could not speak to him. I felt as though I was living the reverse of those scenes, that I witnessed from the far side of an abyss the suffering and death of my mother, and could not be present. It was as though I had died before her – already, but not yet.
I was angry. As her son and as a priest, being present to my mother in death was a sacred duty, but one denied to her and to me through the false witness of accusers and the enticement of money- an enticement that has played a far greater role in the Church’s scandal than our bishops and the plaintiff lawyers will admit. How could I not be angry?
One of the great temptations I have had to face in prison is the impulse to keep a litany of losses. It is a naturally human response to injustice, but the resentment to ensue would be a spiritually toxic weapon of self-destruction.
My first post on These Stone Walls was “St. Maximilian Kolbe and the Man in the Mirror.” In it, I described something that occurred just six weeks after the death of my mother. I had been standing at the mirror in my cell shaving on the morning of December 23, 2006. I suddenly realized that the equation of my life had just changed, that on that very day I was a priest in prison longer than anywhere else.
The sense of loss and futility was overwhelming until later that same day when I received in the mail an image of Father Maximilian Kolbe in both his Franciscan habit and his prison uniform. You’ll have to read my first three posts to understand this. It may be a good way to begin Advent. Don’t worry, they’re brief. I was less long-winded then!
I described in those posts my encounter with St. Maximilian Kolbe just at the point at which the equation changed – the point at which more of my life as a priest was spent in prison than in freedom. Father Kolbe’s sacrifice of his life for another made me realize the power that exists in sacrifice and especially in the sacrifice of unjust suffering. I have come to know without doubt that suffering offered for another is redemptive of both.
It’s a difficult concept for someone on the wrong end of injustice to grasp, and I struggled with it at first. I began to offer my days in prison as a share in the suffering of Christ in the final weeks of my mother’s life. It was all I had to give her.
My mother, Sophie Kavanagh MacRae, emigrated to the United States from Newfoundland at age 22 in 1949. The oldest of six, she was close to her three sisters and two brothers who remained in Newfoundland. My mother was closest in age and in friendship to her sister, Frances, two years younger.
In 2003, my mother visited her childhood home for the last time. She sent me a terrific photograph of herself with her sister, Frances at Logy Bay, just north of St. John’s on the Avalon Peninsula where they grew up.
It was the only photo I had of my mother in her last years. I put the photo away, and then lost it. When my mother died, I searched my cell for the photo, but it was gone. It’s difficult for prisoners to hold onto such things. Prisoners’ cells are routinely searched – sometimes even ransacked in the process – and we have very little ability to preserve items we treasure such as photographs. The photo of my mother was lost.
FATHER LONGENECKER’S “WEIRD THINGS”
In the July/August, 2009 issue of This Rock magazine, Father Dwight Longenecker has an interesting article, “Weird Things Happen: How Catholics Should Deal with the Paranormal.” He wrote of an experience in the Chapel of the Convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers, France as he prayed before the uncorrupted body of St.Bernadette:
“I kept silence there and noticed a beautiful fragrance of flowers. As I prayed, the fragrance grew stronger, and I felt transported by a presence that was beyond my understanding.”
Father Longenecker – who hosts the Standing on My Head blog – wrote 0f 0ther phenomena that defy logical explanation in our repository of faith experience. He wrote of Padre Pio’s stigmata, apparitions of the Blessed Mother, healings in the presence of sacred relics. In a later issue of This Rock, Father Longenecker took some heat for what was wrongly interpreted as his dismissal of such experiences.
I found his article to be respectful and serious, with but one small flaw. Father Longenecker later questioned what, exactly, happened to him in that chapel before the body of St. Bernadette, and suggested that we need to be both believing and skeptical.
“Whenever a natural explanation for a seemingly supernatural event is available,” he wrote, “it is to be preferred.”
But why should natural explanations preclude the miraculous? Naturally occurring events can be powerful catalysts of actual grace, and as such they seem miraculous. We have all had the experience of coincidence that is so unlikely, so personally shaking that it defies explanation. Who hasn’t picked up the telephone to call a loved one only to find that person already there calling you?
It seems a minor miracle when it happens, something inexplicable and astonishing, then the experience slowly diminishes as doubt and natural skepticism reinterpret the event for us. The task of getting on with life causes us to shrug off the experience over time. Sometimes the balance between belief and skepticism in the modern world can lean too heavily toward the latter.
I wrote of such an event in “A Shower of Roses” in October. While accompanying teenage Michelle through the last weeks of her life, I spoke of St. Therese, the Little Flower, who promised a shower of roses. Michelle, a day away from death, pointed at the ceiling where drifted a helium balloon with a vivid rose imprinted upon it. It left me stunned – for awhile, but in time the trials of life diminished the light of that event. How common are the signs and wonders that come to people of faith? Can we always see them when they arrive?
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Shakespeare called death, “The Undiscovered Country.” I know many people who have suffered the death of someone they love. Think, in the midst of that suffering, of the incredible gift that it contains. Loss is not felt at all but for love, and love is a direct result of grace. It is what folds back a corner of the veil – what links the living to the dead. We have something very special to share with those whose physical life is lost to us: the grace of redemptive suffering, the hope of our prayers, the sacrifice of our trials.
Eight months after my mother’s death, I learned that her beloved sister, Frances, died in Newfoundland. She died on July 10,2007, but I did not learn of it for several days. Prisoners cannot be reached by telephone, so it was July 14th when I received my sister’s letter about the death of my aunt. The next day, July 15th, was my mother’s birthday, the first since her death the previous November. A few minutes before 8:00 AM I turned on my small television to celebrate Mass with the Franciscan community on EWTN. I wanted to offer Mass for my mother and her sister whose death I learned of just the night before.
Just as Mass began, a prisoner came to my cell to borrow a book. I was irritated. Couldn’t he wait? I had to pull a foot locker from under my bunk and rummage for the book. I found the book and handed it to him. Turning back to EWTN, I said a silent prayer of intent to offer the Mass for the soul of my mother on her birthday, and for the soul of her sister Frances.
Then the other prisoner was back! “This was in the book,” he said as he propped a photograph against my small TV screen. It was the photo of my mother and Frances that I had lost four years earlier – the photo I searched for in vain when my mother died. Just as Mass began on my mother’s birthday – at the very moment I was offering the Mass for her and her sister – their last photograph together found me.
An accident? Mere coincidence? It’s a greater leap of faith to dismiss such events as coincidence than to accept them for what they are: personally miraculous gifts of actual grace.
When I looked at the photograph, it was as though someone had lifted a tiny corner of the veil between life and death. I saw something in the photo I hadn’t noticed before. The two sisters stood side by side – my mother on the right – on the shore of a new life, being prepared for the Presence of God. I never saw my mother look happier. I never saw more contentment and hope in her eyes. I never felt so happy for her, so filled with promise that her journey is near its end: Home, her New Found Land.