On a snow covered Christmas morning, a young man in prison took a first trusting step from the valley of humiliation to seek the high places and a season of grace.
’Twas the night before Christmas, 2007, when a winter storm descended upon Concord, New Hampshire. I awoke that Christmas morning to a shroud of heavy snow that masked this prison world of concrete and steel under pristine whiteness. A howling wind encased the walled prison yard in drifts of snow while saner men hibernated through the long, cold Christmas trapped inside.
I don’t know what came over me that Christmas morning. By 9:00 AM my claustrophobia went into high gear. Still a source of anxiety after all these years, it reached its usual crescendo with a near panic-driven urge to be outside. Prisoners here have a brief hourly window to move from point A to point B, but it was Christmas. We were snowed in, and there was simply no place to go. But I had to try.
Our friend, Pornchai Moontri had been here about two years then, and we had just landed in the same place. “Where are you going?” he asked as he saw me bundled up against the wind and the snow. I told him I wanted to get an hour outside and asked if he wanted to join me. “Brrrrr!” he shivered, shaking his head. So I boldly made my way alone to a guard station to ask if the outside yard might be open. “Are you nuts?” came the gruff reply.
Thinking it a rhetorical question, I just stood there. The guard grabbed some keys and I followed him outside to a caged in area buried in snow drifts. “You’ll be stuck out here for an hour,” he said as the gate closed behind me and a key engaged the frozen lock with grinding reluctance.
And I thought prison was only hostile on the inside! The wind was howling, snow was blowing wildly, and it was freezing. The yard was empty except for an old picnic table half buried in the snow, and a solitary downcast figure sitting there, silent and unmoving. He kept a wary eye on me as I decided to give him a wide berth and walk the perimeter of the yard through the drifts of snow. Had I taken in the scene a little sooner, I might have changed my mind and headed back inside.
Battling the drifts got old really fast, so I made my way through the snow to the opposite side of the table, cleared a wet section of bench, and sat down. His bare, freezing hands were balled into fists and his hooded stare fought against eye contact. It was up to me to break the ice. Literally!
My own wariness lifted as the balled fists and attempts to look fierce were betrayed by streaks of tears interrupted by my uninvited presence. There are 500 prisoners in this building, but I had never before seen this frightened kid. So I asked his name. “James,” he said through a struggle to sound menacing.
I noticed that James’ fists were tightly balled not because he was planning to smack me, but because his hands were freezing. The two-dollar gloves sold to us back then were next to useless against the cold so I was wearing two pair. I quietly removed the outer gloves and handed them over. It’s against the rules here to give a freezing fellow human a used pair of gloves, but it was nine years ago. The statute of limitations on that crime has likely expired. I doubt they’ll throw me in prison for it.
James stared at the gloves for a moment of silent defiance, then quickly put them on. There was no holding back what I sensed was coming next. His faced fell into his newly gloved hands, and I spent the rest of that hour a cold silent witness to this young man’s torrent of grief. Then the guard appeared to ask whether I was ready to come back in. “No, I’m good,” I said. “I’ll stay for another hour.”
LEAD, KINDLY LIGHT, AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM
James, it turned out, did not even know it was Christmas. At 21, he had never before been in prison. He arrived just weeks earlier, and on the morning of Christmas Eve he was moved from the receiving unit to the eight-man cells on the top floor of this prison building. He had been there only a day and one overnight when we met that cold Christmas morning in the snow.
In the midst of tears, James asked, “Why would they put someone like me up there?” By “someone like me,” he seemed to mean that life for him was a lot more fragile than for most young men his age. James is part African-American, part Asian, and part God-knows-what. In the racially sensitive world of prison, he did not feel like a comfortable fit anywhere. He had been assigned to a tough place where practiced predators zeroed in quickly upon his inner insecurities.
James entered young adulthood with an acute social anxiety disorder and panic attacks. This, coupled with severe ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – makes him stand out in most crowds as a marginal figure even among marginal figures. “I can’t go back up there,” he sobbed. I told him that refusing to go might have consequences that would only make the matter worse. I told him that it was very difficult to get anything done about his plight on a Christmas morning. So I made a precarious promise that from the moment I made it I wondered if it could happen. I promised to try to get him moved to a safer, saner place.
So later that day I spoke discreetly with someone in a position to help. I explained what took place, and he said, “I’ll look into it.” Just hours later on that Christmas afternoon, I saw James out the window carrying his meager belongings to the cellblock next to the one where I lived. I knew most of the men there, so I passed the word to go easy on him. They did. It was Christmas, after all.
When you rescue someone lost at sea, a sort of bond forms of its own accord. I eventually learned of all the baggage in life that brought James to that Christmas day. Like many who land in prison, James was missing most of the infrastructure of a life that might help prevent such a thing. He was like a tree without roots, swaying into whatever direction the winds of life blew.
I learned over time that James was removed from his home as a young child because of a history of abuse and neglect. He grew up in the foster care system, moving from place to place, even state to state. Not many people could cope with his racing thoughts, lack of control, and craving for attention.
From age ten to seventeen, James had been in six foster homes, some better than others, but none leaving him with a foundation and a sense of family. At age 17 he simply walked out the door, emancipating himself to the streets where life descended on a steady downward spiral.
James’s crime was as bizarre and misunderstood as the rest of his life. Having broken into a vacant building for a place to sleep, he fled as a police officer approached him. The chase ended in a scuffle, and on the way to the ground, the officer’s weapon fell from his holster. James picked it up. What happened next is a matter of controversy. Some, including the officer, thought James was pointing the gun at him. Others, including James, say he was just a panic-stricken kid trying to give it back.
Either way, just a month before this incident, a terrible tragedy occurred in Manchester, New Hampshire that, justly or not, became a frame of reference for James’ offense. A career police officer, Michael Briggs, was shot and killed in the line of duty by a young, African American man who is today the sole prisoner on New Hampshire’s death row.
I once wrote about that tragedy and its aftermath in a 2013 post, “Inspired by Divine Mercy: Giving Up Getting Even.” That post profiled the aftermath of that story in the life of John Breckinridge, Officer Briggs’ partner who was present in that Manchester alley on that night. But James was also apart of the fallout of that story. His fumbling crime of picking up an officer’s dropped weapon resulted in a ten year sentence.
HINDS’ FEET ON HIGH PLACES
I have served that sentence with him. Most people here find it very difficult to be around James for any length of time. When James discovered that I am a Catholic priest, he thought little of it. “I was Catholic in one of my foster homes,” he said. It was an odd way of phrasing the only religious experience he has ever had in his young, unpredictable life. “You’re like my father now,” he said. “You’re the only person I feel safe with.”
I got James a part-time job in the prison library where he earns a dollar a day. He helps return books and put them back on the shelves. Sometimes, he even puts them back in the right place. He seems to think that the rest of his job description is to make certain that everyone else knows he is my friend.
This week, nine years after the first sorrowful mystery of our Christmas encounter, I will spend another Christmas morning with James – this time at a Mass to honor the Birth of Christ the King. The tears of sorrow in the bitter cold that life dealt him are gone. He smiles a lot now, probably more than is warranted for a young man in prison. He doesn’t even realize that all my other friends vie for space to make sure James sits on the other side of me so none of them have to sit with him. He smiles and fidgits and tries to get my attention all through Mass, but I’ll take that over the oppression of bitterness and sorrow any day.
I had an odd experience with James recently. During a quieter moment in the Library last week, James asked me if I remember the first time we met. I told him that I remember it very well, that it was Christmas morning nine years ago. James said, “I was in a real deep, dark place then. Now I feel like I’m in the high places.”
What he said reminded me vividly of a strange book I read forty years ago, Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. It was first published by Christian Literature Crusade in 1955, but I read it in 1975. At the time, I was a Capuchin novice preparing for simple profession of vows, and I came across the book “by accident” on a shelf one day. It was fascinating. Hannah Hurnard was a native of London who became an Evangelical missionary in Palestine and Israel for fifty years.
Hinds Feet on High Places is a small allegorical novel (158 pp) about the spiritual journey. The central character is a young woman named “Much Afraid” who heard a call to leave the Valley of Humiliation where she lived imprisoned. She wanted to journey to the High Places of the Chief Shepherd, and was accompanied on her difficult journey by two other allegorical characters, Suffering and Sorrow. At the end of the journey she was transformed with a new life and a new name.
It’s an odd, quirky, but beautiful novel. Forty years later, I remember every character and facet of the book. On the day after James made me think of it last week for the first time in forty years, Pornchai-Max Moontri handed me something he received in the mail that day from our friend and TSW reader, Mike Fazzino in Connecticut. It was the Winter 2016 issue of GrayFriar News, the quarterly newsletter of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the order founded by the late Father Benedict Goeschel, CFR.
The cover of the newsletter has an excellent article by Father John Paul Ouellette, CFR, entitled “The Humility of Christ Is Coming Down Joyfully for Others.” In it, Father Ouellette cited Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places:
“A surprising character plays an important role in the transformation of Much Afraid: the water that flows down from the heights to the depths. As it makes its way down the mountain, the water constantly sings, ‘from the heights we leap and go, to the valley down below, always answering the call to the lowest place of all!’”
That’s what Christmas is. It is Christ descending from the heights to the lowest place of all. That Christmas morning in the freezing cold with James is now like the ghost of Christmas past. I’m re-reading Hinds’ Feet on High Places now, forty years after picking it up for the first time. It’s my Christmas present to myself.
For Christ to call James out of the depths to the heights, someone had to go down to that valley to meet him there. As Father Ouellete concludes from his analogy of the living water leaping from the heights, “Humility is not only a coming down, but doing so joyfully.” The joyful part has been missing for me, but I’m working on it. The key is knowing that Christ has come, and when you enter the Valley of Humiliation, you will only have to stay long enough to journey with someone else to the high places.
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains, and the mountains in reply echo back their joyous strains: “Gloria in Excelcis Deo! Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”
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