Do you suffer the state of your world, your faith, your soul? Enter Lent as atonement unfolds at the foot of the Cross, upon the field of spiritual battle.
Time plays some very strange notes upon the strings of our minds in prison. After Ryan MacDonald’s guest post announcing the filing of a hopeful new federal appeal a few weeks ago, I was read a message from a dear old friend, a social worker who once was my coworker in a ministry to troubled priests. She sacrificed to send a gift to my defense fund, and wrote that she just had her 85th birthday. I was stunned by this! How could it be? In my mind, she is a vibrant and quite feisty 65. “Do the Math!” I told myself as I remembered something that felt a bit like being tasered. She was 65 when I last saw her before I was sent to prison, and I have been in prison for 20 years.
One cruel truth about a long prison sentence is that time stands still. By that, I don’t mean that it stretches out in incessant boredom. If I keep busy – and I do – time marches on at a pretty steady clip here. By “time stands still,” I- mean that in the psyche of a prisoner, time is measured on the “BP/IP” scale – “Before Prison” and “In Prison.” In my mind, everything and everyone in my life – including me – should now be just as it was when I last saw freedom.
That is the operative word: “Freedom!” The passage of time seems to have ended when freedom ended. Forgetting that time marches on can sometimes be perilous. In a recent post, “Return to Downton Abbey: A Feast for Ordinary Time,” I mentioned two of my friends, Mike Ciresi and Michael Martinez, both of whom will play an important part in this post. Two months ago, young Michael Martinez was moved to another unit in the prison. He mourns the fact that he can now see me and Pornchai –Maximilian only a few times a month when a Mass is offered in the prison chapel. He told me he often feels alone and stranded now, so one day recently I agreed to meet him for a Sunday evening prayer service.
When it was over at 9:00 PM, we were descending the six flights of metal stairs to the prison’s main yard. The stairs are built onto the outside of the building, much like the fire escape of an old urban tenement. We had just had an ice storm. Descending the icy metal stairs in the dark, while wearing my new bifocals, my feet were suddenly higher than my head which landed with a loud “CLANG” on a metal grate eight stairs below.
In a split second, Michael reached out to stop my fall, but – aware that he just had reconstructive surgery on his shoulder and collar bone – I pushed him away, which just increased my momentum. Michael was fine, but I ended up with a badly twisted shoulder and a really cool Harry Potter-like lightning bolt scar on my forehead above my right eye.
I wish it hadn’t healed so quickly. I thought it gave me character! The loud “CLANG” of my head hitting the icy metal landing echoed through the otherwise dark and silent prison yard. Michael was surprised when I bounced up to continue down the stairs the conventional way. “You’re pretty tough for sixty,” he said.
“Sixty? Who’s SIXTY?!” I thought. “I’m only 40!” The fall was nothing next to that sudden dose of reality. I have been a prisoner for 20 years while time stood still nowhere but in my own mind. So that is my resume – or epitaph, perhaps. Having spent 20 years doing battle with time and the tides of injustice, I am now qualified to write of the state of our world, our faith, our souls as atonement unfolds at midnight in the garden of good and evil.
THE LONG LENT WITH NO EASTER IN SIGHT
And if you should wonder whether that battle really is being waged, I am tasked, as Lent begins behind these stone walls, with writing a story that has so many twists and turns it seems incomprehensible. Bear with me as the stories of four prisoners are told. It culminates, by design and purpose, in a convergence so improbable it leaves little doubt about the grace of Divine Mercy.
It begins with me, but I am not its center – not by any means. You already know most of what there is to know about me so this will be the shortest part of this story. You know that I am a priest, and from Ryan MacDonald’s recent essays, “The Trial of Father MacRae” and “The Prison of Father MacRae,” you know that I was set upon by robbers, cast into prison, and left there to do battle with time.
The field of battle in which I am engaged begins with false witness, a violation of the Eighth Commandment and a sin against God and His Covenant. I don’t want to be where I am. Even when, as a man, I feel impoverished and beaten by these circumstances, priesthood demands engaging in a battle for justice and truth. There seems a lot at stake that is far more important than me “doing time.”
PORNCHAI-MAXIMILIAN EMERGES FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
Then, about 12 years into my long Lent with no Easter in sight, along came Pornchai Moontri. I call him Pornchai here because it was long before he added the name, Maximilian. At the time we met, Pornchai had also spent 14 long years in prison, mostly in the psychological brutality of solitary confinement. For year upon year, Pornchai was locked in a cage and treated like an animal. On the eve of destruction of both his humanity and the soul he never even knew he had, Pornchai was shackled and shipped off to another prison – this one – where our paths converged.
Pornchai wound his way through the maze of prison housing units. Any of the dozens of decisions along the way – all made by someone else for reasons having little or nothing to do with the good of Pornchai – could have meant we would never meet. When we finally did meet, you can just imagine the obstacles to trust. I am a Catholic priest accused and convicted of the same acts of sexual abuse that, as Pornchai put it, “were visited upon me in the real world by the man who took me from Thailand” when Pornchai was 11 years old. He described his hostility to me in an interview with Felix Carroll whose great Divine Mercy book, Loved, Lost, Found told the story of Pornchai’s conversion:
“I was hostile to [Fr Gordon] for a long time. I had mastered the art of driving anyone who cared away from me, but in Gordon I had met my match.”
Over time, trust grew between us, and Pornchai risked that trust. It was a very great risk, potentially a perilous one. I’m tempted to write of how my innate charm won the day, but this is not a novel and that would not be the truth. In time, Pornchai came to write this story himself. He had no idea of the power of “Pornchai’s Story” as it was published by The Catholic League in 2008 and then circled the globe.
Pornchai became a Catholic on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010, and took a new name, “Maximilian,” in tribute to Saint Maximilian Kolbe who also shares our cell. As Pornchai describes this today:
“On the day after Divine Mercy Sunday, 2010, I woke up to a future when up to then I had only a past.”
MICHAEL CIRESI’S CROSS OF SILENCE
Mike Ciresi was a North Providence police officer for 20 years before his life fell out from under him. A patrol Sergeant on the midnight shift, Mike saw human nature at its very worst – including his own – but was blinded to the downward spiral he was in. Facing marital problems, financial strains, personal demons, and a growing estrangement from his dearest connection in this life – his twin sons, now age 11 – Mike Ciresi abandoned his values, and descended down a path of selfish ruin. He set up and robbed a notorious drug dealer, and ended up in prison.
The prospects in a Rhode Island prison for a former police sergeant are not pleasant. The system could not keep him there so he was transferred out of state. Again, any of the many decisions made along the way – by prison bureaucrats who never laid eyes on Mike Ciresi – could easily have meant that we would never meet. And again, Mike wound his way through all the possible permutations of housing units in this prison before arriving one day in the same place Pornchai and I are in.
Mike, age 46, was guarded and harbored his secrets carefully. Trust did not come easy to him, and perhaps that is why he gravitated to Pornchai. They became friends while I continued to wonder about Mike’s guarded nature. I also sensed that his pleasant persona masked a cold hostility to me that was personal, if not misplaced.
Mike was intrigued by Pornchai’s conversion, and seemed to find in it some vague hope for himself. Then one day, Pornchai shared with Mike a copy of “Pornchai’s Story.” From it, Mike realized that he and Pornchai shared something far more devastating than prison itself. Mike and Pornchai had some long talks, and then both of them talked with me. Leaning on the strength of Pornchai’s conversion and the hope of a future free of the devastation of the past, Mike told me his secret. At the age of nine, he was robbed of his childhood, and lost his faith, when he was sexually abused by his parish priest. Once again, it felt as though I wore the entire millstone of scandal in the Catholic Church. The enormity of Mike’s pain made the crown of priesthood feel like a crown of thorns.
The three of us have spent many long nights extracting the poison from these wounds, and rebuilding the life of faith that was stolen from Mike, a very good man who is intent on passing to his sons the Catholic faith he has found anew, the faith that is now getting him through. For the first time as an adult, Mike has returned to Mass and the Sacraments, is reconciling with his Church, and with himself. Pornchai and I attend Mass with Mike when offered in the prison chapel, and then also offer Mass late at night in our cell. Mike is a trusted friend.
MICHAEL MARTINEZ UNDER ARREST
This other Michael just turned 22 years old and is in his third year in prison. I wrote about Michael Martinez in “Christmas in the Midst of All That Really Matters.” Michael’s father has been in prison in some other state, and his family life just disintegrated. He grew up on the urban streets of Providence, Rhode Island, but wound his way to New Hampshire as a young adult and then ended up in prison. For reasons I never understood, Michael – a sullen, scraggly, almost totally silent young man – reached out to me and then was eventually moved to where Pornchai and I live.
One day, Michael came to my door. He was agitated, and said he needed to talk with me. From my cell doorway, he pointed across the cell block to Mike Ciresi and said, “That guy was a cop and he arrested me once.” Small world, I thought. Not wanting to leave Michael’s smoldering embers of resentment uncooled, I then and there brought Mike C. to my cell and asked Michael M. to repeat what he just told me. The whole story came out in the open, and the two of them ended up rolling in laughter at each other’s plight.
Then Michael Martinez said he wants to go to Mass with us. Michael M. was Baptized Catholic but never had any other exposure to his faith. Two months ago, he was moved suddenly to another part of the prison, and this has been a struggle for him. Joining us at Mass once per week is now, he says, the central part of his week.
40 DAYS OF LENT AND 33 DAYS TO MORNING GLORY
On February 23, Mike Ciresi and Michael Martinez, along with 12 other prisoners, began this prison’s second “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat. They were inspired by the wonderful experience Pornchai and I were privileged to have, an experience Felix Carroll wrote about in the Spring 2014 issue of Marian Helper magazine. His article, “Mary is at Work Here” has a great photo of Pornchai and me at the time of our Marian Consecration on the Feast of Christ the King, my 7,000th day in prison. [Flash Version and PDF Version]
For our Lenten journey this year, Pornchai-Maximilian and I are reviewing the readings for each of the “33 Days” so we can walk this journey with our dear friends, Mike Ciresi and Michael Martinez. I would be grateful if you would spread word of this post, and a link to Felix Carroll’s Marian Helper article above. I would also be grateful if you would pray for our friends.
We are characters in this book about us, but we are not the book’s author. In prison, our time is spent at the foot of the Cross, upon the field of spiritual battle, and for these four friends who converged upon this place at this point in time – as vastly unlikely as that was – our personal demons have lost. Prison itself has lost. The Cross of Christ has reigned victorious.
And all because His Mother wanted a word with us!
Pope Saint Clement (70-96 AD) on the mythical Phoenix Rising : The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (Source: EWTN)
Chap. XXV. The phoenix an emblem of our resurrection.
Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
Chap. XXVI. We shall rise again, then, as the Scripture also testifies.
Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise ? For [the Scripture] saith in a certain place, “Thou shalt raise me up, and I shall confess unto Thee; ” and again, “I laid me down, and slept; I awaked, because Thou art with me; ” and again, Job says, “Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things.”
Chap. XXVII. In the hope of the resurrection, let us cleave to the omnipotent and omniscient God.
Having then this hope, let our souls be bound to Him who is faithful in His promises, and just in His judgments. He who has commanded us not to lie, shall much more Himself not lie; for nothing is impossible with God, except to lie. Let His faith therefore be stirred up again within us, and let us consider that all things are nigh unto Him. By the word of His might He established all things, and by His word He can overthrow them. “Who shall say unto Him, What hast thou done? or, Who shall resist the power of His strength?” When and as He pleases He will do all things, and none of the things determined by Him shall pass away? All things are open before Him, and nothing can be hidden from His counsel. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handy-work. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. And there are no words or speeches of which the voices are not heard.”
Editor’s Note: Thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!