Divine Mercy Sunday 2020: Covid-19 spreads like a scary dark cloud across the world. More than any time in recent history, Divine Mercy is now a spiritual necessity.
I am a somewhat handicapped writer when it comes to covering current events. So much has changed since my recent post, “Holy Week, Coronavirus, Loneliness, Politics, Yikes.” Because of limitations imposed by my environment, I must write ten days in advance of a post date.
Once written, I have to mail my posts, have them scanned, and then published through a joint effort of Father George David Byers in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina who handles the editing, and Suzanne Sadler in New South Wales, Australia who manages the tech.
So anything I write about Covid-19 is probably yesterday’s news by the time it appears in print. And just as in your world, the one I live in is now in a state of unpredictable flux. The last few months behind These Stone Walls have been as anxious and foreboding here as they are behind whatever walls Covid-19 now imposes on your world.
My situation had already been complicated over the last few months by a previous virus that swept America, though with a lot less noise. For the most part, I kept this from readers because I did not want to deflect from all that was happening in America and beyond. I posted a comment about it on my recent rerun post, “The Chair of Peter Before the Conclave of 2013,” but I will add some perspective here.
In late December, I caught a simple cold. Before I recovered from it, a viral bronchitis with flu-like symptoms swept through this prison like a wildfire. A full third of the prisoners here were coughing profusely, running a low grade fever, and packing the daily sick call which spread the virus even further.
I went to the 0700 sick call twice, but left after encountering a packed waiting room with 20+ coughing men and only 15 seats. The medical people here were nearly overwhelmed. So I decided to just endure it. I did not get a flu shot this year, a lesson learned and a mistake I will not repeat.
As time went on, my lungs became increasingly compromised. I still went to work in the law library each day. There was little point worrying about transmission. Almost everyone I interacted with seemed to already have it. Beyond work, all I wanted to do was sleep. You might remember that in mid February we had a couple of guest posts: “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare” by Michael Gallagher and “The Catholic League Changed My Life Too” by Pornchai Moontri.
Both were amazing posts and I hope you won’t miss them. What Pornchai knew, but you didn’t, is that I pretty much slept through those two weeks. By its end, the flu virus I had lasted for almost two months. At one point it seemed to diminish only to roar back with a vengeance. By the end of February my lungs were badly compromised and I started to feel that I might not recover.
The whole affair was made much worse by an autoimmune disorder diagnosed decades ago called sarcoidosis. It is not a contagious disease, but it complicates any contagious illness I am exposed to. It was discovered 35 years ago when a CT scan of my lungs revealed multiple tumors throughout my lymphatic system. It was first thought to be lymphoma, but a biopsy revealed it as sarcoidosis, something I could live with as long as I avoided infections.
NOW COMES COVID-19
There is no treatment or cure for sarcoidosis, but it receded into the background years ago and I never gave it another thought. The only time I ever heard of it again was in a troubling announcement by editors of The Wall Street Journal. In 2017, Joseph Rago, a young WSJ columnist I followed, died mysteriously at age 34. An autopsy indicated that the cause was complications from sarcoidosis.
In reaction to the extended flu, this autoimmune disorder again began to attack my lymphatic system leaving me in a state of exhaustion with difficulty breathing. I developed a crippling sciatica in my leg and numbness in my arms as the swelling of my lymph nodes spread. Finally, in early March, I was prescribed a few weeks on a high dose of prednisone, a steroid that acts as an immune system suppressant. While on it, I had to carefully avoid anything contagious, something that is a challenge in this setting. I isolated in March, and recovered completely.
So it comes as no surprise to me that the world chose this moment to unleash a new, highly contagious, and potentially deadly coronavirus that causes a previously unheard of lung disease called Covid-19. Like most of you, I have been anxious about it, but I was far more anxious for those outside of here who live with much more risk. At this writing, there is no trace of it inside these prison walls, but the vast effort to keep it out is a hardship in its own right.
On the day I write this, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has announced a total in-cell lockdown of all prisoners. That does not affect state prisons like the one I am in. However, that is but a step or two away for us.
All but essential work sites have been closed. Most prisoners here are now under heavily restricted movement. I had to write my Holy Week post on an unfamiliar typewriter while stuck in my cell with no resources for a week. I struggled with a topic as the darkness spread, then darkness itself became my Holy Week subject.
There is an aura of anxious fear here that surrounds us just as it does in your world. I can sense it every minute of every day, and it is growing with every daily report of how Covid-19 is spreading. The prisoners here who have families are much more concerned for their loved ones than for themselves. Some wonder whether they will ever see their parents or grandparents again.
I know that if Covid-19 arrives here, it could be deadly for some but that is the least of my dread. My real anxiety right now is what happens in September. At that time, thanks in part to my own efforts, Pornchai Moontri will arrive at the end of his long sleep of death in prison to begin life anew.
I and a team of others have worked very hard over time to secure a future for Pornchai in his native Thailand. The Father Ray Foundation (www.fr-ray.org), under the care of the Redemptorist Order of Thailand, has pledged to assist him with housing and a time to adjust. Ryan MacDonald and TSW reader Bill Wendell launched an effort to raise funds for his room and board for this time of adjustment, and readers have responded generously. (See Ryan’s announcement at the end of this post).
We also know that economic challenges are far greater now than they were just a month ago. Come September, Pornchai will be handed over to another prison as an I.C.E. detainee. You might remember my first foray into that system in “Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen.”
The global spread of Covid-19 threatens to complicate this. Thailand has closed its borders. As a result of travel bans, Pornchai could face months on end in I.C.E. detention until the world is fixed again. Please keep this in your thoughts and prayers. And if you have any ideas, I would love to hear them.
I am now exploring other possibilities for his release after 28 years in prison. In early April, public health expert, Dr. J. Larry Brown, published a (NH) Concord Monitor article about the I.C.E. detention facility that would hold Pornchai pending deportation. The article is “A Dangerous Experiment at New Hampshire Jail.”
A CONTAGION OF DIVINE MERCY
So we both have looming concerns behind These Stone Walls. This growing threat to the world of our families, friends and readers makes us even more anxious still. We know that this all now comes down to Divine Providence and Divine Mercy, but we have a good amount of experience with both. I want to invite you now to share in that experience in this time of anxiety and fear.
And the first place to which I have turned once again is a book by EWTN host, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle. I first wrote about it one year ago this month in “A Divine Mercy Pilgrimage: 52 Weeks with Saint Faustina.”
Before delving into its pages again, I find it very difficult to put into words what Divine Mercy has meant to us. For the first five years of TSW’s existence, I never even mentioned Divine Mercy in a post. Over the last five years, at least thirty titles have been dedicated to Divine Mercy, the spiritual movement that began with Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska in Krakow, Poland in 1931 and swept the world later in the 20th Century.
Sister Faustina was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 18, 1993, and canonized by him on April 30, 2000. Her famous Diary and Pope John Paul’s high regard for her vision became a pivotal influence on his 1980 Encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). Unknown to me at the time, Saint Faustina and Divine Mercy became entangled with my future as well.
I have written of this before, but it needs repeating here. In early April, 1993, my friend and spiritual director, Father Richard Drabik, MIC – who was involved with the beatification process and later wrote the Preface for the Diary of Saint Faustina – told me of his impending journey to Rome. He said he would be concelebrating the Mass of Beatification of Sister Faustina with Pope John Paul II, and asked me to write an intention that he would place on the altar.
I scribbled something on a slip of paper, sealed it in a small envelope, and gave it to Father Drabik on the eve of his journey. Fifteen days after the beatification, I was arrested on the false charges that would lead to my wrongful conviction and the life sentence imposed by Judge Arthur Brennan because I could not bend to a fraudulent plea deal to serve one year. Satan himself could not have devised a more demonic choice. This is what I had written fifteen days earlier on the Mass of Beatification intention note given to Father Drabik:
- “I ask for the intercession of Blessed Faustina that I will have the courage to be the priest God wants me to be.
Some 18 years passed in prison before Saint Faustina and Divine Mercy came roaring back into my life like a contagion. Pornchai Moontri and I were invited to take part in a special retreat format written by Father Michael Gaitley, a member of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, the same order as my old friend, Father Richard Drabik. I also learned that they both live in the same community at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Knowing nothing of the retreat content, Pornchai and I had to be dragged into it reluctantly, a powerful story told in two Marian Helper Magazine articles by Felix Carroll: “Mary is at Work Here,” and “The Doors That Have Unlocked.”
Over the next six years, some thirty posts on These Stone Walls described the miraculous gift of Divine Mercy that has been given to us, and its viral spread both inside and outside of these walls. That gift included being sent Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle’s treasure chest of a book, 52 Weeks with Saint Faustina.
TO GUARD YOU IN ALL YOUR WAYS
While writing this post, I revisited a chapter that had been given only passing attention as I read it the first time. It is the segment for “Week 40: The Angels, God’s Messengers.” It is about our very important relationship with our guardian angels in times of anxiety and crisis. Ten years ago, I might have scoffed at this. Not today. After my encounter with a guardian angel in “Saint Michael the Archangel and the Art of War,” I take these words of Donna-Marie and Saint Faustina very seriously:
- “One night in her cell, Sr. Faustina saw a dazzling angel with a glorious face… ‘The greatness of its majesty pierced me deeply, and I did not dare to repeat my entreaties. At that very moment, I felt in my soul the power of Jesus’ grace, I was instantly snatched up before the throne of God… Never before had I prayed with such inner power as I did then. The words with which I had entreated God were these:
- ‘Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, for our sins and those of the whole world; for the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us.’” (Diary 474-475)
You will recognize, as I did, that the prayer of Saint Faustina in this encounter with a guardian angel became the central prayer of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I have been using this prayer for years as my prayer at the reception of the Eucharist, and the last prayer I offer before sleep. Before Donna-Marie’s book, I had never connected it with Saint Faustina’s vision of an angel.
When I read this, I was overcome with a sense of what we truly need as a spiritual tool to confront the shroud of anxiety that spreads among us. It is a wonderful prayer of abandonment to God and the deep reverence we have for the saving Passion of Christ. But then another prayer came suddenly to mind that I feel we should include in our arsenal. It is my favorite of the Psalms, one that seems written for times such as these:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
Who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress,
my God in whom I trust.’
For He will deliver you from the snare of the Fowler,
And from the deadly pestilence;
He will cover you with His pinions,
and under His wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
or the Pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the devastation that wastes at noonday…
Because you have made the Lord God your refuge;
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil will befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For He will command His angels concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone…
Those who love me, I will deliver them.
I will protect those who know My Name.
When they call to Me, I will answer them.
I will be with them in trouble.
I will raise them up and honor them.
I will show them My salvation.” (Psalm 91)
Jesus, I trust in You.
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Place yourself, in this dark time, in the saving grace of Divine Mercy with these other posts from These Stone Walls:
- Divine Mercy: Further Along in 52 Weeks with Saint Faustina
- Consecration to Divine Mercy: 33 Days to Merciful Love
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok Thailand
- The Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy
An Urgent Note to Readers from TSW Contributor Ryan A. MacDonald:
To the Readers of These Stone Walls I have had the honor of twice interviewing Pornchai Maximilian Moontri behind those stone walls, and have written about him. As so many of you know, his story is staggering in the depths of its sorrow and yet inspiring in the heights of his spiritual conversion.
TSW reader Bill Wendell from Ohio has kicked off a funding effort with a gift of $1,000 to assist in the restoration of Pornchai’s life. Readers who wish to join in this effort may do so using the PayPal link (found by scrolling down on our Donate Page). Please indicate on the PayPal form memo line the name of Pornchai Moontri. You may also have a check made out to Pornchai Moontri forwarded to him at Pornchai Moontri c/o These Stone Walls, P.O. Box 205, Wilmington MA 01887-0205. In either case, these funds will be forwarded to a savings account set aside for Pornchai-Max who will be starting his life over. Thank you.