Dostoevsky in Prison and the Perils of Odysseus


Dostoevsky in Prison and the Perils of Odysseus s

What do Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, Homer’s legendary Odysseus, and Fr Walter Ciszek have in common?  They endured different versions of the same peril.

In a letter this week, a  TSW reader asked whether I follow any sort of advance plan for TSW titles. She wrote, “Your readers got to see a moving and haunting window onto your soul in ‘Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon,’ but then you followed it two weeks later with the cold vastness of space in ‘Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation.’”

I got the point, and I want to thank TSW readers for enduring my recent foray into the latest cosmic news.  I wonder how Father Georges Lemaitre managed the leap between the love of God and the awe  of  His created Universe.  No doubt, Father Andrew Pinsent divides his attention between angels and astrophysics more seamlessly than I.

However, I hope TSW readers understand that sometimes I must write about something – anything – beyond prison.  Okay, I admit that venturing into the birth of the Cosmos is about as “beyond” as I could get!  But if week after week I focus only on where I have spent these last twenty years, I won’t have many readers left.  You’ll tire of me.  I’ll tire of myself!  Even the most sparkling optimist – which I most certainly am not – cannot write of prison week after week and make it sound upbeat.

As I began this post today, I had to first listen to a litany of discomforts from a prisoner at my door: “The food is skimpy, and sometimes awful; other prisoners are selfish; they steal from each other; some guards are vindictive; it’s awfully noisy here, and crowded, and hot; the bunks are hard; the air is dirty; visits are only twice a week; mail is tampered with;” and the list goes on and on.  I have heard the same litany for two decades – often from young, men sentenced to only one or two years of such torment.  They sound like waiters in an upscale restaurant. “Would you like to see our whine list?”

For everyone else – or at least, this is what I tell everyone else – there comes a time when we must decide who we are.  By the 10-year mark in prison, or 15 or 20 for the really slow learners,  prison brutality grows senseless.  Against the cruel or snide remarks of guards, we grow immune.  Food is no longer anticipated, but merely consumed.  The weekly visits we knew long ago have become just that, long ago.  The incessant noise, the dirty air, the hard bunks, the sleepless nights all slowly make the transition from being annoyances to being the expected status quo, and we stop thinking so much about them.

NO FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE

I try hard not to use TSW as an outlet to vent the never-ending frustrations of day-to-day life in prison despite lots of readers asking me to describe it.  However, there is one aspect of this relentless, 20-year odyssey that is so mentally and spiritually taxing I sometimes wonder whether I can survive another year.  Solitude is a big problem for me.  Solitude, as in there simply isn’t any.  None.  Never.  Never ever.

A TSW reader wrote in a letter last week, “I don’t think I would survive long in the circumstances you are forced to live under. I hate noise and value lots of privacy.”  I cannot recall the exact quote, and I have no way to look it up so I have to paraphrase, but I remember reading several years ago a lament from the great Russian Novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, about his years in prison:

“More than any other deprivation, I was unprepared for the reality, the utter spiritual devastation, of day after day, for years upon years, of never, ever, ever, not for a single moment, being alone with one’s self.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the House of the Dead, 1861)

Before Dostoevsky wrote the novels for which he is best known – Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – he wrote Notes from the House of the Dead about his five years as a political prisoner in a Siberian gulag.

As a writer, I cannot, of course, compare myself with the great Dostoevsky, but we do have a few things in common. We  both endured prison.  We both endured it as political prisoners, having committed no crimes that justified it.  We both lived our entire lives with an affliction called temporal lobe epilepsy. We’ve both written much about the religious, political, and moral realms of human suffering.  The comparison ends there. Dostoevsky did all of these things, and wrote about them, far better and with far more grace than I can ever summon forth.

The most obvious difference is that Dostoevsky’s reflections on all of the above are still widely read 133 years after his death. I, on the other hand, hope some of my posts are still read 133 hours after I write them.  Dostoevsky was a literary voice for the good of humanity while I write for a mere blog, one small one among the tens of millions clamoring for notice on the Internet, and none of which I have ever even seen.  But I’m told that this one slowly percolates in fits and starts among the more fair and just minds and spirits in our midst, so if you are reading this right now, count yourself among them. 

I’m not Dostoevsky, but I can’t complain – except perhaps about that one detail of prison that so irked him.  The Cyclops to be defeated in this odyssey called prison is the oppression of its total lack of solitude.

THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER

THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER

But first, a bit of etymology.  I can’t help it, so bear with me. In a paragraph above, I referred to prison as an odyssey.  The word “odyssey” refers to a long, arduous, adventurous journey. It seems strange to speak of prison – from which I cannot venture more than a few feet without being shot at – as an odyssey, but it is.  It’s an odyssey not in miles, but in endurance – an odyssey on the inside.  Not the inside of a prison, but the inside of a mind and soul.

The word came into English vocabulary from Greek mythology. Odysseus was the legendary King of Ithaca, an Island off the western coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea.  He was also the central figure of Homer’s epic Greek poem, the Odyssey, which, of course, was named after him.  Written in twenty-four books, it described the travels of Odysseus from his years of wandering after the ten-year siege of Troy – also immortalized by Homer in another epic Greek poem, the Illiad. The two are often ensconced in modern libraries as a pair – the Illiad and the Odyssey – 2,800 years after Homer first sang them, and then someone other than Homer – for Homer was blind – put them into written verse.

In the Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus (Ulysses in the Roman version) is kept from Ithaca by Poseidon, in Greek mythology the god of the sea (Neptune in the Roman myth).  Throughout his ten-year wandering, Odysseus fought battles with fabled monsters such as the one-eyed Cyclops, and encountered the dead in the underworld. All the while, his beloved wife, Penelope, waited for him, refusing to believe he would never return.

There is also a parallel story of life in exile after the fall of Troy called the Aeneid written in ancient Latin by Publius Vergilius Maro, known to us as Virgil.  The Aeneid, the last of Virgil’s works, was left unfinished when he died in 19 BC. It’s a twelve-volume epic poem about the wanderings of the exiled Trojan leader, Aeneas. Modeled on the epics of Homer, the Aeneid also has its hero visiting the dead in the underworld.  At the end of his long wandering, Aeneas reaches the Tiber River to become the legendary ancestor of the Romans.

Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-LaocoonI once wrote a story -  republished with a new introduction here last week – that came from a verse of Virgil’s Aeneid. “Michelangelo and the Hand of God: Scandal at the Vatican” tells the story of the legendary sculpture, the “Laocoon depicting Poseidon’s attack upon the high priest Laocoon and his sons for trying to warn the city of Troy not to admit the Trojan Horse, advice that, to their peril, was not heeded.  I’m a little biased 

because I wrote the thing, but the story of the “Laocoon” is fascinating.  If you wonder about the Hand of God in human history, read it and pass it along to someone else who wonders.

THOUGHTS IN FLEETING SOLITUDE

The prison ball field opened in mid-May after seven months of waiting and longing.  Its iron door is in the towering prison wall just outside my cell window.  When it creaked open for the first time in seven months at 9:00 AM on the morning of May 19, I heard it before I saw it.  My heart skipped a beat.  I once had a cat that came running whenever I used my electric can opener.  That creaking iron door has the same effect on me.  Our friend Pornchai, who as you know is now studying psychology, said when I told him of this, “Sort of like Pavlov’s Priest!”

You may not be able to relate, but I had not been outside to breathe the free air for more than a minute or two in over seven months.  When I heard the door creak, I rushed to get a pass – we cannot move from one point to another without waiting for a pass – and I was the first prisoner to enter that field.  

Once through the door, a short ascent up a paved path took me to the level field with its paved walking track around its quarter-mile perimeter.  Once onto the track, I made my way alone around the back of the field.  My mind – trained by twenty years of preparation for this moment – tuned out the guard in the tower haunting my steps, and the twenty foot double fences with their razor wire spun into gruesome helixed tiers.  I tuned all of that out, and looked toward the trees and hills beyond, and heard….nothing!  Nothing but some birds singing and my own heart beating.

Then the foreign eeriness of it struck me.  For sixty seconds before the masses of prisoners emerged from their cabin fever onto that field, I was alone.  It was my first moment of solitude of the year.  Dostoevsky might have wept.  Odysseus, on the other hand, might have cheered the arrival of everyone else, having in that moment stepped from the madness of isolation on the high seas onto the psyche’s dry land.  It’s an ironic twist of literature that for the first, solitude was a deprivation while for the second, it was a curse.

I’ve been able to repeat that moment a few times.  If I remain ready and vigilant, listening like Pavlov’s priest for the first creak of the steel door through the security grate beneath our cell window, I can beat the crowds and venture to the back of that field alone among the trees for a moment of silence and solitude.  It’s just a moment, but it lasts a whole day.

I try to walk alone, but that’s a luxury that seldom lasts.  Someone always comes bounding across that field to walk with me.  Pornchai earns two dollars a day working for the prison Recreation Department so he is often out there cutting the ball field grass while I am walking its perimeter. The smell of cut grass is indescribable after seven months trapped in concrete and steel. I spent seven years in the torment of a cell, not much bigger than the one I’m in now, but crammed with seven other prisoners. In another prison 100 miles away, Pornchai Maximilian spent those same seven years in the cruel torture of solitary confinement.  It strikes me today how much I see solitude as Dostoevsky did while Pornchai dreads it like Odysseus.

WITH GOD IN RUSSIA

From 1941 to 1963, the American Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek was in prison in the Soviet Union charged with being a “Vatican spy.”  After 15 years in physical prison, he was consigned for the remainder in Siberia.  When Cardinal Avery Dulles asked me to write – the letter that led to These Stone Walls – he cited Father Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me as a source of wisdom and guidance in prison.  In it, Father Ciszek wrote that in prison he was allowed one book at a time so he read Dostoevsky, among others.

After twenty years in prison, two years before his release, Father Ciszek was permitted to write a letter to one of his sisters in America.  For the first time in 20 years, someone in America learned that Father Walter Ciszek was still alive. I have learned from him, as I have from Dostoevsky, how to reprioritize a life in captivity on an odyssey of solitude in deprivation.  People have asked me how I could possibly cling to priesthood, and make it so central to life in deprivation, in a place with absolutely nothing that supports a priestly identity. The answer is Father Walter Ciszek.

On October 12, 1963, Father Ciszek was taken from Siberia to Moscow, to another prison camp? to his death?  He did not know. He was escorted aboard a plane still not knowing that after 22 years he was being exchanged for a Russian spy in an American prison.  His head was spinning as the plane gathered speed, took flight, and circled Moscow to head into the west.

In the distance, Father Ciszek saw the spires of the Kremlin. Slowly, carefully, the prisoner-priest made the Sign of the Cross over the land of his prison.

Like Dostoevsky, Odysseus, and Father Walter Ciszek, I do not know that I will survive my prison odyssey, but until I do, my thoughts in fleeting solitude continue.  Cogito ergo sum!  Thank you for reading them.  Please pass them along. The Hand of God is somewhere in all of this, visible only in the back of the tapestry where we cannot yet see.  He is working among the threads, weaving together the story of us.

“In Siberia when I said Mass, people risked arrest to come. Here [in America] they risk nothing, but neither do they always come.” (Father Walter Ciszek, “Return from Russia,” America Magazine, March 28, 1964)

The Liberation of Saint Peter Raphael

thermometer (1)Editors’s Note: a continued 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!

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Juan says:

    Dear Father Gordon,

    I thank you for sharing with us more inner and outer stories of life in the house. I hope you continue to find more and more seconds of the solitude you are looking for.

    In the last few years I have come across someone who can help us all at both ends of socialization. Brother Rafael was a Spanish Trappist monk (“Hermano Rafael”) who died at 27 years of age, officially of untreated diabetic complications. He was coming of a well-to-do family and had even started to study Architecture when he felt a call to cloistered religious life while witnessing the Trappist monks chant the Gregorian “Salve Regina” (Hail Holy Queen).

    He had illusions of living in a supportive and charitable community since they were able to sing like angels. In his later writings he delicately shows his disenchantment. At the abbey he found a lot of human misery, no consolation, little charity, at times not even the silence to be expected in such a place.

    In the end Brother Rafael only found peace standing at the foot of the Cross –in his own words- carrying his own crosses and seeking to live a charitable life especially towards the difficult ones within the abbey. He used to repeat: “Only God!, only God”.

    Brother Rafael, pray for us so that in the middle of our daily adversities we may catch a glimpse of true inner Peace and one day join you in the House of Eternal Joy, you who were so eager to leave this earthly exile.

    God bless you, Father Gordon, and everybody else as well,

    Juan

    P.S. Brother Rafael – Hermano Rafael Arnáiz Barón (1911 – 1938) – was beatified by John Paul II in 1992 and canonized in 2009 by Benedict XVI.

  2. Ninian says:

    Dear Father,

    From the day we were born until the day we will die we live alone, occupied with all those things with which we fill our lives to distract us from our greatest fear–that of death, the portal to what? Our Faith tells us we should seek God and communicate with Him, so that we can enjoy eternity with Him. He can only be found in the deepest of silences where rather than talking at Him we should listen to and hear Him. Satan seeks to tempt us not to do this by surrounding us with noise, and he punishes those like yourself who cling tightly to God by sending his corrupt agents first of all to unjustly punish you for being a worthy follower of Christ, and then by putting you in a place from which noise is never absent. But even in such a hellhole you can find the peace that passes all understanding if you empty your mind of all thoughts (an extremely difficult thing to do, which requires much painful practice) and focus on one holy word–Jesus or God, or whatever you choose, every time a thought appears. Thoughts will then disappear, and in that solitude, even when others are present, you will be in the silence which God craves for you and Jesus will find you and enter your heart to comfort you. When He does this one of the bonuses He will give you will be that as a result of your efforts of reaching out to Him in the depths of your soul He, in turn, will awaken the souls of those who persecute you, and they will do the right thing for you. Solitude is never found outside ourselves. It can only be found in the depths of our being where God will find and embrace us, whoever we are.

  3. Dorothy R. Stein says:

    As I made my way through this post past some profoundly astute writing, I had to stop to snort with laughter, uncontrollably, about Pornchai’s remark regarding your response to the creaking door. “Pavlov’s priest” just sent me into hysterics. Please tell him so.

  4. Mike Mangan says:

    Thank you Father, Your writing is inspired from above. I am always amazed that despite the topic, or the monotony that you face, your sense of humor shines through. I so agree with your comments about God weaving together threads, and not coincidentally I recently obtained a copy of Fr. Ciszek’s book He Leadeth me and here it is featured in your writing making me want to read it all the more. Thank you for persevering to keep writing so we can enjoy the gifts he gave you that you share with us! I write this on July 4th Independence day, the anniversary of our Nation celebrating Freedom, and the irony is not lost on me, that your Freedom is limited due to your circumstance. God bless you!

  5. Sr. Marie Theresa says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,

    Praised be Jesus Christ!

    My heart just feels so saddened and heavy when I read the plot of unyielding cycle of isolation and chaos you daily endure for the sake of your own soul and those around you.
    Recently, a holy card arrived from Padre Pio and he was enclosed for a period of time, maybe several years? He too will visit, though it is my experience that while you may not feel his presence, he knows you now and is close and will see to your good. Ask him dear Father to visit you and tell you that you will be okay. He never fails his spiritual children.

    Just be good as you are and repentant of your sins past and present and you will be alright. I so wish to come to see you. I have an enclosure that does not permit this kind of visit so I am visiting spiritually to console you. Today I brought you to Communion as often times I do and pray for your strength to see you through. God knows of your immense suffering
    and scape goat situation, he was scape goated also. Please Father Gordon, just for today, offer yourself as holocaust, self- donation, love offering, oblation remain the wound of Jesus’ side so the evil one cannot find you in discouragement. You are His, and the Blessed Mary virgin sees her Son in you so I ask her to wrap you in her mantle and lay your head on her
    breast. Trust in the Divine Goodness for He alone knows what is good for your soul. Yours is a white martyrdom your immense suffering is saving the souls of many who in heaven will come to greet you.
    You lift us all up everytime you share your suffering and sorrow as we are reminded what is priority and how little we give Him compared to your imprisonment
    a long and extended trial and one that looks more difficult than a sudden martyrdom. Please ask St. Pio to share his wounds with you.

    Always, Love, Sr. Marie Teresa

  6. Lupe says:

    Just thinking of Jesus as a prisoner ,with the insights Fr G gives us on that experience, makes me so sad.
    Fr, when you two are finally together face 2 face, you will have such a perfect union! Somehow, it will be even better than being alone.

  7. Cathy Pequeño says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,

    You’ll probably disagree with me because you are so humble, but you are a great writer. Your posts inspire all your readers and have the power to change us. I am inclined to believe that one day all your posts will be gathered into a book and published. I pray for you everyday, but I also thank God for you each day. Thank you for your courage..

  8. Carol Hall says:

    I look forward to reading TSW Fr. Gordon.It is my ONLY contact with you. I pray for you always and I am looking forward (as you are also) for the day you LEAVE this place. I can’t imagine what you have endured these past 20 yrs. My only hope is that God will PUNISH those responsible for all these years you have been in prison and UNJUSTLY ACCUSED!! GOD IS WITH YOU FOR EVER!!

  9. Jeannie says:

    Your words prick tears. They inspire me. They tempt me to a pity you do not want. They shame me for not being every moment more greedy to learn the riches of our history of faith, even though you yourself have fed what seems a ravenous appetite for it within me. They show me a humility and an unawareness of the vast work of the Holy Spirit unquestionably working within you, through all this dullness and tedium.
    Yet i KNOW that this life you live would be held up by God as a shimmering example far more than my own.
    I pray for you and ask God to make your presence and your earthly purgatory more prominent in my daily consciousness.
    So many of the littlest things were what catapulted saints into piety. Even Dostoevsky, for all his brilliance, really pierced his readers with only certain phrases among the abundance of his works.
    …just hear the song of the birds and …nothing.
    When you write this, God hears your voice the same way. Only you, Father.
    And Jesus smiles from Heaven anticipating your reaction to the place he’s readied for you.

    But let’s get you out of there before I speak more of Heaven!
    God bless you Father and may the freedom that we are throwing away out here be regained, along with yours.

  10. Domingo says:

    By now, the guards must have realized that you are an innocent prisoner, Father G. They must have seen your heroism, on how you’re taking things, and I am sure that your presence there is speaking volumes to them as well.

    Let the light of CHRiST shine.

    Asking for your priestly blessings on me and my family,
    Domingo

  11. Bea says:

    I can deeply relate to your yearning for moments of solitude, Father Gordon. How I wish that you might be granted more of them! Thank you for a very interesting post and all the connections you manage to establish each time you write. You are blessed with a wonderful mind!

  12. Jane says:

    Dear Father,
    Have you heard of Andrei Sinyavsky? He was a Russian dissident who was put into a gulag for many years, discovered God and his own soul in there and wrote a diary in which he writes about his experiences. His diary was smuggled out and published under another name, “Abram Tertz”. If I can get it on Amazon, I’d like to send it to you. I think you might resonate with his thoughts about God and solitude and other things.
    Please let me know if you would be allowed to receive this book if I sent it.
    Also, thank you for your mention of Odysseus. My husband wrote a semi-autobiographical book called, “Telemachos: A Modern Odyssey”, in which he uses the character of Odysseus’s son Telemachos, to describe his own spiritual and physical journey through life – this also might be interesting for you to read, so if you would like, I can send a copy of this to you also – just let me know.
    Also – synchronisity here – just last evening I viewed on You Tube an old film of Bishop Sheen, and he mentioned Father Ciszek.
    May you have many moments of enjoyment of the ball field.

    • Jeannie says:

      Hello Jane.
      Father once wrote that he is allowed only so many books in his cell. You might try writing him and ask if the books can go to the library where he volunteers. Just an idea. Wonderful thoughts you wrote there, thank you.

  13. Tom says:

    An interesting article. I really can relate to the analogy of Father Walter Cizsek, SJ. I read and re-read “With God in Russia” and it gave me perspective. And when I was in college I had the privilege to meet Father Cizsek at the University of Scranton where he gave a speech about his experiences. I support sainthood for this holy man.

  14. Mary Fran says:

    Fr. G. Another FABULOUS, FABULOUS post. I am absolutely astounded by your mind. Dostoevsky you certainly are not. But, I can assure you that your words will be read by far more people than Dostevsky’s will be. At least, these days. (Well, perhaps that doesn’t apply to TSW’s readers. They seem to be a different breed). How many people are willing to plow through his works? They don’t even teach the classics these days in school. And many of the classics were being purged out of the library system in Baltimore when we lived there. They seem to be doing the same thing here in Seaford. When I worked for Sears and had a lunch break, I was appalled by what other people were reading (the few that did read; most just turned on the TV in the lunch room to watch mindless soap operas.)

    I think I told you before that we educated the two girls at home. When I was putting together an extensive reading list for Bernadette to choose from, I discovered that we had many more of the books on the shelves in our home than the library did. That is pathetic. They were tossing the great stuff to make room for the garbage people were checking out.

    You are a breath of fresh air. i always look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Thanks for the update on the ball season and the opening of the gate.
    Now I need to write you another letter.

  15. Ellen says:

    Thank you, Father. Thank you. I can understand why Jesus (and now His Church) added “visit the imprisoned” to the corporal works of mercy. Even though you may long for solitude, that would be temporary. As a priest, you must tend to others. People are, by nature, social. We may not be able to physically visit with you, but you have made it possible to stay in touch through your writings and our letters and comnents. We are also with you spiritually, praying for your well being not to mention your release. Thank you for giving your musings and wisdom to us. Thank you for allowing us to be merciful and “visit” you. Thank you for ending your post with the reminder that He is also imprisoned in a small white Host. Visiting Him and worshipping Him and giving thanks to Him and receiving Him, the Beloved Prisoner, is the greatest thing we can do on earth. Thank you for giving Him to us! May God bless you!

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