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
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.
I 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)
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!