If you have known the suffering of alienation, loss, or sorrow, then enter this Advent with a spirit of expectant hope, and be a beacon for those still held captive.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
(12th Century Advent Chant with roots in the prophet Isaiah)
Prisoners everywhere long for any connection with the outside world. Each day’s Mail Call brings with it a hope that “today might be the day.” And so when a stack of mail is pulled from a mail bag, the crowd around me tightens in anxious expectation. In a cellblock of 24 prisoners, there are often 20 items of mail. Then comes the chorus of groans when 15 of them are addressed to me. (Don’t forget to review the “Mail Rules” at the Contact Page).
There was a chorus of cheers at “Mail Call” one recent night. A prison guard took great pleasure in announcing that there is a healthy stack of mail, “and none of it is for MacRae!” Everyone erupted in laughter. I get a lot of mail – more perhaps than any other prisoner here – and among all that mail the most frequent message I receive comes from readers who stumbled upon These Stone Walls while enduring their own dark times.
Whatever the source of our inner darkness, it is magnified at this time of year from Thanksgiving (in America) through New Year’s Day. ‘Tis the season of torment for those who mourn in lonely exile here in the commercial reduction of secular America’s “The Holidays.”
I try to respond to such letters quickly – which I hope helps explain my delay in responding to most others. The stories of pain, loss, and isolation do not fall on deaf ears with me. Among the most painful are from single mothers of sons who have gone to prison only to be swallowed up there, and changed for the worse, and from absent fathers who don’t know how to fix the devastation their absence has wrought.
The widowed, the dying, the betrayed, the abandoned, and the broken have written to me with a hope for prayers and any words that make sense of their plight. I do not have an arsenal of consolation to compensate for grief except for one thing that our secular culture is investing much capital into suppressing: Emmanuel has come to ransom captive Israel. God is with us, even in our lonely exile. Even in our darkness.
Emmanuel, the Hebrew name for “God is with us,” first appears in Sacred Scripture seven centuries before the Birth of the Messiah. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (7:10-17), Emmanuel is the name of a child whose birth the Prophet announced to King Ahaz because the Kingdom of Judah was under attack. Isaiah called upon the king to do nothing but trust because the attacking rivals would soon be rendered powerless.
Isaiah’s prophecy, repeated in the Infancy Narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (1:23), came in words now familiar to us in Advent: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”
The beautiful, traditional Advent chant, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” begins with a proclamation that the coming Messiah will “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” In Scripture, “Israel” was a name before it became a people and place, and it is a name with a specific meaning in Hebrew: “one who struggles with God.”
Like many in Scripture whose lives had been transformed, this new name was bestowed by Divine Word upon Jacob, the younger of twin sons born to Isaac and Rebekah – the other being Esau. Jacob, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, was given the name, Israel, after contending with an angel in the Book of Genesis (32:28). His twelve sons gave their names to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, thus their descendants became the “children of Israel.”
I, too, am a child of Israel. I use the name in its personal sense related to its initial meaning. Like so many of you, I, too, have struggled with God. I especially struggle with God in dark times. I do not have a better way to describe this other than to say that in the last few months behind these captive walls, I have been touched by a darkness that is slow to leave me.
For anyone who has ever felt so touched, I don’t have to explain how all the joy and hope of this time of year only serves to magnify the gloom. It clings to me and resists my efforts to rid myself of it. So I have but one other option to listen to it, to let it be as it is, to make my peace with it, and then to use it in service to someone else.
WHEN DARKNESS FALLS
The present darkness is much more than seasonal depression. It descended upon me like a thief in the night. At the height of it, a good friend asked me in a telephone conversation why I have been unresponsive to any discussion about centering our lives on the love of Jesus.
I certainly believe in the love of Christ, and I most certainly hope for it and revere Him for it, but on a most fundamental level I have for some time been unable to stand in its light and rejoice in it. Twenty-four years of struggle with injustice has had the effect of smothering that flame to an ember at times. The present darkness has been one of these times.
I know that many of you reading this have the same experience. I know that many of you who have walked in darkness still await that Great Light promised by the Prophet Isaiah, not so much
upon you – for I assure you that it is already upon you – but rather experienced in that deep well within you. The Prophecy came in words very familiar to us in the First Reading for the Christmas Mass at Midnight:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone… The yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, the rod of their taskmaster, you have smashed as on the day of Midian… For a child is born for us, a son is given to us. Upon him dominion rests. They name him Wonder Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2,6)
I know the darkness that has touched me. I can pinpoint its onset. Many of you reading this now know of the multi-part story we told here in recent months beginning with my post, “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.” In their many comments, readers described it in words like “overwhelming,” “powerful,” “shattering,” and yet also filled with the profound threads of Divine Mercy.
For many, the power of grace is a bright light upon that story, and in the end, the darkness could not overcome it. The yoke that burdened our friend and held him captive has been smashed. But in its aftermath, the yoke upon me has only grown heavier. Like much that is traumatic, this story has a resonance that continuously summons me back to it. For me, that echo rebounds on what came after.
In September of this year, Richard Alan Bailey, the person who so horribly abused Pornchai as a child, was finally brought to justice, and found to be guilty of forty charges of violent sexual assault, a mere fraction of the true number of his crimes. The story might have ended there for me, but it didn’t.
As with all court hearings, a transcript of that hearing was produced and sent to us… I had an inkling that perhaps Pornchai should be spared from reading it, so I asked him not to. I read it instead. Now I wish I hadn’t.
A District Attorney, who had conducted in-depth forensic interviews with Pornchai and other witnesses, presented the case for prosecution. The result was a graphic display of the systematic evil that was perpetrated upon Pornchai between his arrival in the United States from Thailand at age 12 in 1985 and his fleeing to live as a homeless teenager on the streets of Bangor, Maine from ages 14 to 18 from 1987 to 1992.
The court transcript was page after page of the most vile evil one human being can inflict upon another. I was sickened by it, and have been overcome with grief for what my friend suffered. I am no stranger to pain and suffering, but never before had I been touched by the knowledge of such evil. My friend was a victim of human trafficking, exploitation, and torture.
In the strangest twists and turns of the “Threads of the Tapestry of God,” it fell to me, a falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned priest, to draw this story out of Pornchai and expel it. It was
like an exorcism that took 12 years to bring about. Only I didn’t bring it about at all. I am only an instrument of that peace, and now I am left with its resonance.
One of the chapters in the aftermath of this story was written by Father George David Byers who, at the request of bishops in countries around the world, has been Jesus’ exorcist for real exorcisms. He entitled his account, “Fr. Gordon MacRae & Pornchai Moontri: Captives of Irony Incarnate.”
The “irony incarnate” is that this 12-year-long odyssey to free the psyche and soul of Pornchai Moontri has been playing out constantly against the backdrop of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church and priesthood, a millstone around my neck that has thwarted justice for 24 years. Exactly half of that time, 12 years, has been spent in the company of Pornchai. I live with the resonance of the priesthood crisis as well, and all that Pornchai and I have endured together has been magnified by it.
Bridging these two stories – what happened to Pornchai and what is happening right now in the Church and priesthood – seems impossible, but feels inevitable. The events that devastated Pornchai’s life and nearly destroyed his soul all happened at the same time that Catholic scandal became fodder for the news media. As the sexual abuse story was first surfacing into awareness in Boston, the horrific events in the transcript I read were happening to Pornchai just 100 miles away in Maine.
I cannot inflict upon you the graphic details that I read in those transcripts, and I won’t. But I must tell you that the very first story out of Boston that drew the Catholic scandal into the harsh glare of a spotlight was that of Father John Geoghan. Once the story – and the money – began to flow, he was accused by more grown men than I can count. But because the stories of his misconduct were from so long ago, only one could be subjected to a trial.
I have read that transcript as well. The account goes something like this. A 22-year-old man testified under oath that when he was eleven years old he was in a YMCA swimming pool. While trying to climb out, a man known to him as Father John Geoghan came up behind him in the pool and, under the guise of helping him to climb out, squeezed his buttocks. The man claimed to suffer 11 years of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from this incident worthy of a prison sentence for the elderly priest and a six-figure settlement for the victim.
The priest was sentenced to nine years in prison for this. And when Massachusetts prison officials erroneously transferred him to a dangerous environment in a maximum security prison, Geoghan was beaten to death there. In contrast, Richard Alan Bailey, now convicted of over forty counts of violent, unthinkable sexual assault on a child of the same age, and at the same time, was sentenced to probation.
I do not at all claim that Father Geoghan was innocent. He was out of control, and Boston church officials looked the other way believing that the clerical culture of Boston’s Catholic community would always provide cover. But right under the noses of New England this other story raged on just miles away, and no one did anything about it.
UNTIL THE SON OF GOD APPEARS
I just read that a number of United States bishops, in a futile effort to appease the news media and the court of public opinions plan to release to the public a list of all priests ever accused in several states. Not convicted, not imprisoned, just accused. Many are deceased.
These bishops are also establishing multi-million dollar funds from which plaintiffs both new and old can be compensated. The notion that this can induce false claims is either lost on them, or just doesn’t matter.
I am struggling in the dark to make any sense of the parallel stories of the victimization of Pornchai Moontri and the scandal in the Catholic Church. The love of Jesus – not to mention His mercy – became Pornchai Moontri’s salvation while it appears entirely disregarded in the Catholic abuse narrative.
Talk of mercy and truth is replaced by talk of money and zero tolerance. The betrayals, on multiple levels, run deep, and it is the Gospel itself that is betrayed. This is the present darkness that looms heavily between my life as a man and as a priest and the Church’s most fundamental mission to preach and live The Way, The Truth, and The Life.
I mentioned in my recent post, “Living in the Present in the Presence of Christ the King” that “Israel and all the subjects of the kingdom of God to follow had a sinful nature, subject to corruption. Chaos brought about in them the desire for a king while God steered human history toward His Kingdom.” Is this story also steered toward something redemptive? Pornchai Moontri thinks it is.
But for me, for the moment – and as usual in spite of myself – I am led to a consolation I had not looked for as I struggle with God in my exile and anger. Not even consciously anticipating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception that follows this post, I came upon these passages spoken from the Heart of the Lord in the journal, In Sinu Jesu.
“These are days of grace for the Church and for the world, because the mystery of My Mother’s Immaculate Conception is a wellspring of pure light for all who dwell in the shadows of this earthly exile where the Church, My Church, makes her way as a pilgrim amidst great sorrows, persecutions, and attacks from below…
“It is My Mother who makes even the darkest night bright with the radiance of her beauty and, in doing so, she comforts souls who see nought but darkness all around them, and she leads them on securely and in a great inner peace.
“Souls who look to My Mother as to their star shining in the night will never go astray and will never lose sight of the path that leads to me and to the glory of My kingdom…” (In Sinu Jesu, p. 255).
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Editor’s Note: Please share this post, and continue your Advent journey to prepare the way of the Lord with these other Advent posts:
- The Parable of a Prisoner by Michael Brandon
- Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- I Come to the Catholic Church Looking for Healing and Hope by Pornchai Moontri
- Advent of the Mother of God