A reader of These Stone Walls asks a wrongly imprisoned priest to ponder the mystery of Divine Providence as he treks across life’s valley in the company of the cross.
Bill Wendell, a longtime reader of These Stone Walls from the Cleveland area, has been corresponding with me for over a decade. Unfortunately, my return letters to him, as with so many others, are too few and far between. But I am always moved and inspired by Bill’s letters, and by his ability to confront the challenges of life through the eyes of faith.
In a recent letter, Bill wrote that he fell a bit behind in reading my posts at These Stone Walls and has been on a marathon to catch up. He wrote that he finds himself inspired by a number of recent posts, and prints them to share with friends. I hope they are all still his friends! As he ended his letter, Bill wrote that he knows I spare readers the gritty realities of prison life, but then he asked a probing question: “Could you write about what keeps you going in that place after all these years? How do you cope and sustain your obvious hope and faith?”
The short answer is that I do not sustain them. They sustain me, even when they seem not quite up to the task. That answer needs clarification, and I found some while writing this post.
I made the big mistake once of giving one of my posts the same title as a popular and long-lived soap opera. I wrote it after being moved from the most difficult place to live in this prison –
a place where I spent 23 long, hard years – to what is generally considered to be the easiest place to live. The transition was so dramatic that I had to write about it. The title of that post was, “Days of our Lives.”
Recently, while looking at a weekly global traffic report for visitors to these pages, I noticed that we had a sudden large number from Burbank, California, the soap opera capital of the United States, and they were all reading “Days of Our Lives.” I hope they weren’t disappointed. My version was not nearly as luridly dramatic as the original.
If you look at that post, you might understand the dynamics of where I now live as a sort of “free-range” prisoner. After 23 years of real confinement, being able to roam outside at will is truly a treasure. I love to climb the maze of outside stairs and walkways connecting buildings and their various levels below the one at the top where I now live.
When I get to the top, 52 stairs up, I never want to go inside to my cell. I always stop to linger at a view from high above the prison walls and all the rest of the prison complex. You might take such a thing for granted, but for me – with apologies to the late great Maya Angelou – this caged bird can only now begin to sing.
There is a man – also named Bill – who lives on the bottom floor of the building where I live. Bill is a year or two younger than me. He just appeared here one day, and I noticed him at the bottom of all the stairs watching me climb for no other reason than to climb. I passed him by, but I did not get far.
To pass by Bill in prison is a sobering experience. Both of his legs have been amputated at the hips. His torso is propped up on a wheelchair, a prison within a prison that confines his range of motion – in the one place in this prison that has the most range of motion – to just a few feet in each direction.
THE MEASURE WITH WHICH YOU MEASURE
Let me back up a little. I am disturbed beyond measure by my 67 years of imprisonment for crimes that never took place. I have done everything I can to change this, and I have not given up. I read, write, think and even sleep with challenges to this wrongful conviction and unjust imprisonment foremost on my mind.
I just came across a letter to the editor published in the Concord Monitor (January 22, 2020) by retired New Hampshire judge, Arthur Brennan. You may remember him as the judge who sentenced me to 67 years in prison after I three times refused a plea deal to serve only one year in 1994. In 2019, Arthur Brennan was described in the American Thinker article, “Priests, Good and Bad” as “a left-wing kook of a judge.” This excerpt of his recent Concord Monitor letter underscores that:
- “While I appreciate … veterans’ personal experiences and losses in combat, I disagree that U.S. military aggression is honorable or effective. The U.S. … has wasted trillions of dollars in borrowed money to maim, kill, impoverish and displace millions of innocent people… and for what?”
It is sad that the measure with which Judge Brennan measures is blinded by bias and not extended to innocent people who stood before his court. It is tempting to read his letter and descend into resentment, but I also have to live, and I cannot live in the state of bitterness into which this judge has thrown me.
Did Divine Providence do this? That is a hard theological pill to swallow. “Just blame God” lets false accusers, corrupt police and prosecutors, and biased judges off the moral hook. Some TSW readers suggest in comments that God “allowed” this to bring about a “greater good” out of this evil. We saw evidence of that in “Pornchai Moontri: The Catholic League Changed My Life Too.”
But I would say that God “used” it more than He “allowed” it. Understanding Divine Providence is an enormous spiritual task. I believe this understanding begins with our cooperation and participation in it, Sacred Scripture hints at this with a portent in the Gospel of Saint Luke. This is to be the basis upon which we are to conduct ourselves in this world no matter our circumstance: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38).
At some point in my trek behind these walls, I discovered Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Viktor Frankl, the latter being author of the life changing book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Franki survived years of brutal imprisonment in Auschwitz while Maximilian Kolbe did not survive at all… or did he?
The answer depends on what you mean by survival. Viktor Frankl wrote of Maximilian Kolbe with great admiration for his ability to deny the corrupt camp commandant his power over life and death. As you know, Maximilian saved the life of a condemned young man by voluntarily taking his place in the execution chamber. Writing of the harsh realities of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl suggested that when we have done all we can to change our circumstances, the only thing left is to change ourselves.
Which brings me back to Bill at the bottom of the stairs. The first time I saw Bill, I said hello and then proceeded up the 52 stairs to where I live and roam – a place where Bill can never roam. After about ten steps, I stopped and backtracked to where he was sitting – if one can call it that. When I first spoke to Bill, my heart was wounded by the enormity of the limitations he faces. And yet, he exhibits not a hint of self-pity, a fact which always leaves me ashamed of any trace of my own.
“ME, ME, ME” MUST NOT BE THE ONLY NOTE WE SING
I told Bill that I work as the law clerk in the prison law library, and I asked if I could bring him anything to read. He smiled and said, “I think I just moved from Purgatory to Heaven!” Now he sits there every day outside his living area, often in the frigid cold, to meet me at the bottom of the stairs to hand back a book or magazine or newspaper I brought him on the day before, and to ask for another.
Unable to go to the prison dining hall to eat with other prisoners, Bill’s meals are delivered in Styrofoam containers. Sometimes when the meal is too meager I break the rules and bring a packaged food item folded into the newspaper I hand him. We talk every day, and every day my cross is somewhat diminished by his. Did Divine Providence do this to Bill?
On its face, readers might conclude that God condemned me to prison unjustly, or condemned Bill to the limits of that chair. Few of us can ever understand the mystery of the evil and injustice that surrounds some but not others. Some are blind to how they participate in it.
Some, like Arthur Brennan, who are the purveyors of injustice, are simply spiritually blind. Others are mired in evil’s grip, as Pornchai Moontri once was, but as he wrote so well in “Pornchai Moontri: The Catholic League Changed My Life Too”, some are blind to the fact that the evil is not of their own making and not theirs to keep.
In his masterful little book, Divine Providence: God’s Design in Your Life (Roman Catholic Books, 2004) Francis Cardinal Arinze attempts a definition of Divine Providence:
- “Divine Providence wants people to attain [God’s] end through, and sometimes in spite of, the many circumstances and details of daily life. God uses his goodness, wisdom and omnipotence to see that ‘all things work for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28). We can therefore define Providence as God himself insofar as by his wisdom he orders all events in the universe so that his creatures may attain the purpose for which he created them.”
The truth that God “orders all events in the Universe” can be a stumbling block for those who do not ponder and comprehend the immensity of the Universe. I have pondered its immensity deeply, and it is staggering. The immensity of God is incomprehensible, and the fact that He orders all things for the good is just as incomprehensible when we consider the valleys in which we live.
So how do we make sense of Divine Providence? I have no doubt at all that God has used the injustices that befell me as a catalyst to bring justice to others. These Stone Walls is filled with these stories, and not all of them were written by me. There is but one thing in this life that is under our direct control. When, as Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl writes, you have tried everything to change the crosses you bear, then the only thing left is to change yourself.
I wrote a post some time back about my friends, Pornchai Moontri and Kewei Chen. They both came from foreign countries, Pornchai from Thailand and Chen from China. They both found themselves stranded in an American prison as teenagers. Without doubt, the direction of their lives was radically changed by God who called them out of darkness. God used not only the cross I bear in wrongful imprisonment, but also These Stone Walls and you, the readers of these pages, to establish chains of events that ultimately freed them. It was marvelous to behold.
Back in April, 2005, at the same time Pornchai was told he would be moved from solitary confinement to another prison in another state, I was subjected to another grave injustice within this prison system. A corrections supervisor took it on himself to use my annual Classification review to persecute me solely because I am a Catholic priest. He moved me into punitive housing with no offense having been committed and no recourse.
For months, I wrote official request forms asking to be moved to another unit outside the limits of his control. I also prayed repeatedly for a move elsewhere. My requests on both fronts were met with silence and I remained stranded under this man’s persecution. Then, eventually, he moved on.
Today I look back on this and I can see a more panoramic view. If I had been given what I repeatedly asked for in 2005, the outcome would have been disastrous for Pornchai Moontri whom I would have never met. And equally disastrous for Kewei Chen who neither Pornchai nor I would have ever met. Many other chains of events that I today see were for the good would have been disrupted or never initiated at all.
I had to come to cooperate with Divine Providence, and usually unwittingly so. I expressed how in a humorous post I wrote about my two friends, Pornchai and Chen, whom I dubbed “The Twang Brothers” when they both took up learning guitar for one of the longest months I ever spent in prison. I am giving the last word of this post to this excerpt from “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and the Twang Brothers”:
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: It helps the cause of justice immensely if you share our posts on social media contacts. You may also like these past Ash Wednesday posts
from These Stone Walls: