The Cold War’s Iron Curtain, a prison Father’s Day event, a knight proclaims the Word of God, a departed friend’s last word, all this week behind These Stone Walls
In “Holy Orders: The Labyrinthine Ways of Divine Mercy,” a recent post on These Stone Walls, I described a time in my life as an older adolescent when the idea of priesthood first entered my mind. It was a strange time, both in me and in the world. Priesthood did not spring up in me out of a religious upbringing, but rather the near total lack of one. As I wrote in that post, thoughts of priesthood comprised my own adolescent Counter-Reformation.
However, I know today that my mind and values were really shaped by the decade that preceded my adolescence. I grew up in the industrial city of Lynn, Massachusetts, about ten miles north of Boston. My earliest memories are of life in a struggling family living on the third floor of a tenement in the inner city. It’s hard for me to imagine today, but my father was barely 25 years old when I was five and those memories were imprinted.
It was then that we moved to an only slightly better part of the city in a small home my parents mortgaged for $11,000. And my father was still in his twenties when, three years later when I was eight, his boss recognized his prodigious skill as a machinist and presented him with a priceless bonus four or five weekends a year at the company’s hunting lodge where the Mugalloway River empties into Lake Umbagog in the deep woods of northern New Hampshire.
One of the great joys of my childhood – and there weren’t that many of them – was to be summoned out of school at noon for a Friday afternoon “family emergency.” The “emergency” was my father’s spur-of-the-moment decision to pile us all into his 1956 Buick for the four-hour drive to the Great North Woods, our escape from the city.
It was the best part of my youth, and what I loved best of all was the lodge’s huge shortwave radio that, at a high altitude far from the city, enabled me to listen in to the entire free world. I spent many nights as a child marveling at that radio’s brightly lit dial bearing the names of exotic cities I longed to learn about: Bangkok, Budapest, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo, Warsaw all kept me awake long into the night.
I learned of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, NATO, the Warsaw Pact, all political terms that emerged on the world stage in the wake of World War II. When I tuned to Moscow and some other Eastern European cities, however, all I could hear was a menacing hum. When I asked my father why, he said it was because they were behind the Iron Curtain.
The term came into the English lexicon when used in a postwar speech by Winston Churchill in 1946. The Iron Curtain was a metaphor to describe the Soviet Union’s barriers to travel and any exchange of information with the Western World. But my 8-year old mind heard it literally. I imagined a towering curtain made of iron stretched along the borders of Russia to block radio waves in both directions.
I thought of the Iron Curtain as something impenetrable, as a force that imprisoned both the bodies and the minds of those whose freedom that wall denied and suppressed. I wanted to know about the lives of the prisoners behind it.
Jump ahead 54 years. Late last month, Canadian writer Michael Brandon posted a beautifully written article entitled “Mercy for Max Leads to Mercy to the Max” at the Freedom Through Truth blog. Mr. Brandon wrote of the impact of the last few years of reading These Stone Walls written from what was intended to be the other side of an impenetrable wall. From in here, I have no understanding of who is listening from beyond this Iron Curtain, but Michael’s words brought me a glimpse of the power of truth to find its way beyond the most impenetrable walls. A letter from TSW reader and frequent commenter also drew back the Iron Curtain of prison:
“You have touched a lot of people out here. I think you may have broken down some prison walls that we didn’t even know we had.”
MERCY TO THE MAX
I am grateful to Michael Brandon for the article linked above because it highlights not only the improbable events that had to be overcome to penetrate These Stone Walls, but also the amazing story – so much of which is yet to be told – that is behind the new site, “Mercy to the Max.” As one reader told me, “No one can read this story and not believe that Divine Mercy is real.” As that story further unfolds, I hope you will visit it often, share it with others, and ask them to click on it and share it in turn. It seems that there are forces out there that want to suppress the story of Divine Mercy that site tells.
I cannot express in words how grateful I am for this site. To demonstrate the tremendous transfiguration of Pornchai, I would like to ask readers to do a very simple thing. Go to Bing.com and do a search (just click on this link): Pornchai Moontri [at bing]. Just peruse the first couple of pages of results for an example of some of the marvelous things being written about this Divine Mercy conversion. The reason I suggest using Bing.com is that Google is currently under law suits for anti-trust violations for allegations of favoring sites that carry its content and penalizing sites that do not when publishing search engine results. Mercy to the Max seems to be one of the sites Google penalizes. Go to google and do a search and compare the results (just click on this link): Pornchai Moontri [at google]. The search results at Bing.com appear to be a far more honest analysis. Thank you and God bless you for sharing a link to Mercy to the Max with others. I consider it an important Corporal Work of Mercy.
What makes “Mercy to the Max” such an important site is that it has both a back story – only parts of which you know yet – and a forward story that is woven with threads that form a wonderful tapestry. When Pornchai Moontri embraced Divine Mercy in his conversion, he committed himself to Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s Militia Immaculata movement as a Knight at the Foot of the Cross. What that fully means for his life in Christ will be told in time, but there have been many hints Pornchai’s life and conversion have had an impact on both sides of the Iron Curtain that is prison.
There are a few prisoners here who have been training and practicing to be Readers at Sunday morning Mass in the Prison Chapel. Pornchai was asked, but he declined. Then I pointed out something that was obvious to me, but not even noticed by him. Every prisoner who had been invited to train as a Lector was a recent convert or revert whose coming to faith was influenced and motivated by Pornchai. These include our friend, Michael Ciresi, whose return to faith was told in a moving post, “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind,” and Alexander Page whose conversion story was told in his own words in “Turning a Page: A Long Lent Toward Easter Sunrise.”
So Pornchai relented, and last Sunday stood at Mass for the First Reading proclaimed from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel:
“As the Lord spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking say to me am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me. Hard of face and obstinant of heart are they to whom I am sending you … and whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 2:2-5)
MICHAEL CIRESI AND THE FATHER’S DAY EVENT
A year ago I wrote a post entitled, “Father’s Day in Prison, Consoling the Heart of Jesus.” A part of that post was about the importance of fatherhood to one of our friends, Michael Ciresi, who struggles against many obstacles to be the good father that is his reason for being. If you have followed his story on These Stone Walls, especially his guest post, “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind,” then you already know of the importance of what little precious time he has with his family.
On June 23 this year, the prison Recreation Department, where Pornchai works as an assistant, hosted its annual Father’s Day Event for some 200 prisoner-fathers and their children. Held in the prison gymnasium, the Rec-Department workers spent a week setting it up to resemble a county fair with games and activities sponsored with the help of the prison’s Family Connections Center.
Michael Ciresi is in his eighth year in prison, and he became eligible for parole this past year. The Rhode Island Parole Board held a hearing at which Board members openly marveled at Michael’s achievements in prison, at the many programs he completed, at his leadership in assisting as volunteer in a multitude of programs and events that help other prisoners. The Parole Board remarked that his accomplishments were simply outstanding, and all that could be asked of a man and father in prison. Then they denied his parole.
So for this father, days like the recent annual Father’s Day Event must form memories and strengthen bonds that will last until the next effort toward justice tempered by mercy. Divine Mercy reaches into hearts and souls from another source, and both Mike Ciresi and his sons have embraced it. One of the memories of that day was caught on camera as Mike Ceresi and his sons Michael and Steven along with their mother were mugging for Pornchai Moontri who manned the ‘Monkey Business’ booth.”
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
Kewei Chen, a 19-year-old prisoner from Shanghai, China, had never picked up a baseball bat in his life, but nonetheless he was drafted to play for the Legion of Angels intramural team for which Pornchai Moontri is captain and coach. I wrote of this team’s championship season last year in “Prisoners of Summer.”
Our friend, Chen, came to the United States on a student visa last year. At age 18 in a foreign land, Chen spoke no English and was entirely unprepared for the duplicities of life on an American college campus. Thus, somehow, he landed in prison. We know not what he did to land here, and it matters not. All we knew was that Chen was an alien in a strange land, still a teenager, unable to communicate, and struggling against great odds to adjust and survive in a U.S. prison.
With a little effort, we helped Chen get into a better place, then Pornchai, who seems to have no difficulty communicating with Chen, drafted him to play baseball this summer.
Chen stepped nervously to the plate in his first game. It was his first time at bat in this, or any, country. The team spread word that in China, Chen was known as “The Shanghai Slugger” so the opposing team’s entire outfield backed up to the high prison fences as Chen stepped to the plate.
They couldn’t tell from that distance that Chen looked utterly terrified as the first pitch came flying past the plate. “Strike One!” Then came another. “Strike Two!” On the third pitch, Chen closed his eyes and swung the bat wildly. He somehow connected, and a ground ball went speeding past both the startled pitcher and short stop. With lightning speed, Chen was on First Base to cheers that might have been heard in Beijing. I told him their team had been “Shanghaied,” but it’s a trick that will only work once.
Chen comes to Mass with us, finds it wondrous, and otherwise spends his days studying English, math, science, and survival. He is safe – safe at first and safe in here – and for now that is all that matters.
A DEBT OF GRATITUDE
Many readers ask for news of our friend, Father George David Byers. He is alive and well, and has been kept busy as the dedicated pastor of a parish in Andrews and its mission in Robbinsville, North Carolina. Over these years, Father George has helped much behind the scenes of These Stone Walls, and he was the driving force behind the recent launch of Mercy to the Max.
With great joy, I want to report that Father George has once again taken up his pen to post at another new site, Arise! Let Us Be Going! Father George says that Saint John Paul II’s book by this name is close to his heart. The site takes its name from a line in the scene at Gethsemane in the Gospel of Matthew 26:46, just prior to the arrest of Jesus. I wonder if a hint to its content might be found in the preceding line in Matthew, “Behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners,” and in the following line, “Behold, my betrayer is at hand.” Given the state of affairs in both Church and state of late, what with the SCOTUS decisions and the tumultuous preparations for the Synod on the Family, I can’t wait to read what Father George posts there. He tells me that while it is no endorsement of any kind, he was happy to receive the personal, express invitation of Pope Francis to speak with parrhesia on the working document for the Synod, particularly the neglected paragraphs of article 130. It’s time to Arise! Let Us Be Going!
HAVING THE LAST WORD
Most TSW readers know that I work in the prison library. It’s actually a modest “small town” library serving about 1,500 prisoners who come to check out its roughly 17,500 volumes of fiction, literature, science fiction, non-fiction, and reference books.
The prison library has a computer system with a database that keeps track of it all. As a library clerk, part of my job is to monitor the several thousand books that are checked out each week, and to send overdue notices to prisoners in the various units when they don’t return them on time.
Whenever a prisoner has been released from this prison without returning a library book, the computer at my desk generates a notice exactly one week after his departure. The notice includes the prisoner’s name, his current status, and the title of the book so we can try to retrieve it from wherever it was last checked out. On June 25, this notice popped up on my library computer screen as I was sitting at my desk:
ANTHONY BEGIN –
STATUS: GONE/RELEASED –
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL!