Last week when I posted “Going My Way,” I pointed out that almost nothing in my life as a priest has ever gone my way. The point was set in stone this week. My typewriter has a shaky, rudimentary memory that holds a few pages of text. You wouldn’t believe what I went through to type this one post. I finished it two days ago, then picked up a static charge walking across the concrete floor of my cell. The resultant spark erased the entire post five minutes after I finished it.
I type my posts from scratch with no notes or rough drafts. I hope it doesn’t show. Yesterday, I summoned all my patience and sat down to type it again from memory. I spent four hours recreating what I lost the day before. I finished it for the second time when someone came to ask me a question. I was distracted, and accidentally pushed “delete” instead of “print.”
The blasted machine even gave me a second chance. “Are you sure?” the tiny one-inch screen asked. On autopilot, I pushed “Return” then watched in horror as seven pages of text disappeared for the second time in two days. !@#$%&*l!!
The typewriter I use for these posts was manufactured by Smith Corona over twenty years ago. It’s no longer even made. Prisoners here have no access to computers or word processors, and right now not even a basic typewriter is available for purchase. This one is “grandfathered” which means I can have it repaired, but not replaced. I bought it new for less than $200 fourteen years ago, and have spent more than five times that amount on repairs. I have no choice.
Having something repaired is no small affair for a prisoner. The last time I sent my typewriter for repairs, it took five months to get it back. The repair itself took about 90 minutes. It took three months to get it shipped from the prison, and another two months to get it through all the security measures and returned to me. These Stone Walls was launched at the end of July last year, and I was handwriting my posts for the first month. Interminable waiting is a part of life here. We wait for everything.
Some prisoners come to my cell nearly every day to speak with me. When they swear, I interrupt them by saying, “Fifty cents!” They never actually pay the fine, of course, but it helps them to be more aware of their language. They just smile and keep talking, but after the third or fourth exclamation of “Fifty cents!”, they try not to swear. My loud !@#$%&*l!! when I lost my post for the second time did not go unnoticed.
Remember when I wrote last week that I don’t swear unless I’m quoting someone? I’m not exactly sure who I was quoting, but out it came! Ninety-nine percent of every day in here is so filled with noise that I can’t hear myself think. It was just my luck that my single moment of foul outburst occurred during the sole moment of silence of the entire day in this cavernous place. Over the next hour, I heard a litany of “Fifty cents!” “Fifty cents!” as prisoners came by to gloat.
My confessor is planning a visit next week. Good timing! Father Fred is retired in New York City, and drives ten hours round trip every couple of months to touch base with me and hear of my flaws. Fred has been driving up here for over fifteen years. He spends most of his time in retirement writing to priests in prison. I hate losing patience, but it’s what I seem to do best. I’m trying hard not to add to the list between now and Fred’s visit. The Sacrament of Reconciliation has always been painful and humbling for me, but very necessary. For that reason I have always been sympathetic to how painful and humbling it is for others, and always tried to make it less so.
A HALLMARK MOMENT
Many years ago in a parish, I used to try to be creative and positive with penances. One year at Lent I organized what I called “Amnesty Saturday.” At each Mass I preached about the Sacrament and issued an open invitation to everyone who had not “celebrated” it for a long time. I asked them to gather up courage and take advantage of an opportunity for a new start.
Three area priests were asked to be available to help on the appointed Saturday. They were skeptical, but you’d be surprised how potent a simple invitation can be. On “Amnesty Saturday,” we heard confessions non-stop for four hours. Many had been away from the Sacraments for years or decades. By popular demand, we repeated it several weeks later in Lent. I think this was the most important thing I have ever done as a priest.
The proper form was followed, and everyone received individual penance, but at the Sunday Masses I gave a parish penance as well. I asked parishioners to reach out in a gesture of forgiveness to someone who has irritated them in the last year – perhaps with a nice card. I didn’t see this coming. By the following Wednesday, my office was filled with cards.
People of conscience are sometimes tough on themselves. I’m one of them, and so is Charlene who acts as a go-between for these posts. After I type them, I send them to Charlene in Indianapolis who graciously scans them and forwards them to Suzanne who manages TSW from Australia. As I wrote awhile back in “To the Readers of These Stone Walls,” it’s a lot to go through for a weekly post. Charlene’s scanner sometimes doesn’t get all the characters right.
Last month she spotted four errors on “Prophets on the Path to Peace” after it was posted in January. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s name was misspelled, and a couple of conjunctions came up missing. A comma or two was also misplaced. Charlene was horrified, but I told her that I think you all let us off the hook for minor errors given the process we have to go through. Just about every post, like their writer, has flaws. So far, no readers have pointed out the flaws. So lighten up, Charlene!
Maybe it’s for the better that I ended up abandoning the post I typed twice this week. It was probably boring anyway. The whole process was a reminder of how limited and frustrating the world of prison really is. It takes me days and days sometimes to accomplish what most of you could do in an hour.
When These Stone Walls was first conceived, Suzanne suggested to me that Catholics are demoralized by the onslaught of ancient accusations against their priests, and need hope. A lot of people have written to These Stone Walls commenting that my misfortune has, in a strange sense, been a blessing for them. Mike Gallagher commented after “February Tales“:
“Sometimes I wonder, although this is not a very good thought, that perhaps your ministry to us from your jail cell is worth more than if you were free and ministering to those in a parish. Perish that thought.”
Actually, Mike, it IS a very good thought. I hadn’t considered this. I never envisioned TSW could somehow minister to people outside of these walls. I didn’t think, after more than fifteen years in prison, that I would have anything of any value to write about. Mike Gallagher knows something about the misfortune of false witness. He was plucked from its grip in the eleventh hour (see “The Eighth Commandment.”).
No one lives a life untouched by misfortune. I can only tell you that it doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t define God. Our souls are summoned toward God with the totality of our life’s experience in relationship with Him – as much by misfortune as by grace. Sometimes we cannot even distinguish between the two. We cannot see the forest through the trees.
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE
I have learned that my response to misfortune is crucial for the health of my soul. I cannot repeat often enough what I learned from Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: ‘We get to choose the person we are going to be in any set of circumstances. It’s the essence of freedom, and can never be taken away from us.” I may put this on the TSW “About” page!
There’s a strange story about misfortune that I read long, long ago. I always remembered it, but could never remember where I read it. If you read my post, “February Tales,” then you might recall that I came across a copy of The Once and Future King in a box in the prison library last month. I had read it at age 16 forty years ago, and just re-read it. I was shocked to see that this book is the source of my story on misfortune. I’ll tell it just as T.H. White has Merlin telling it to his pupil, Arthur, the once and future king:
” ‘Sometimes, Merlin said, life does seem to be unfair. Do you know the story of Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan?’
‘No,’ said the Wart. He sat down resignedly upon the most comfortable part of the floor, perceiving that he was in for something like the parable of the looking glass.
‘This rabbi,’ said Merlin, ‘went on a journey with the Prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and at nightfall they came to the humble cottage of a poor man whose only treasure was a cow. The poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, to welcome the strangers for the night and to offer them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in straitened circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were entertained with plenty of the cow’s milk sustained by homemade bread and butter, and they were put to sleep in the best bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning, the poor man’s cow was dead.’
‘Go on,’ said the Wart.
‘They walked all the next day, and came that evening to the house of a very wealthy merchant whose hospitality they craved. The merchant was cold and proud and rich, and all that he would do for the Prophet and his companion was to lodge them in a cowshed and feed them on bread and water. In the morning, however, Elijah thanked him very much for what he had done, and sent for a mason to repair one of his walls, which happened to be falling down, as a return for his kindness.’
‘The Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, begged the holy man to explain the meaning of his dealings with human beings. ‘In regard to the poor man who received us so hospitably,’ replied the prophet, ‘it was decreed that his wife was to die that night, but in reward for his goodness, God took the cow instead. I repaired the wall of the rich miser because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself, he would have discovered the treasure. Say not therefore to the Lord: ‘What doest Thou?’ But say in thy heart, ‘Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’ ”
‘It is a nice sort of story,’ said the Wart, because it seemed to be over.”
T.R. White, The Once and Future King, (New York, G.P. Putnam, 1939 p. 80/81).
It’s a simple story told with the simplicity of medieval times. Its point is not that God rewards right and punishes wrong in this life. The point is trust in the face of misfortune. It’s the same point God made in response to Job’s protests.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)
It put Job in his place. Me too.