For another 33 Days to Morning Glory retreat, our friends behind These Stone Walls sought the true source of freedom and brought a captive soul along for the ride.
I received an unexpected letter in the snail mail recently. It was startling, really, because it was hand written on plain white paper with absolutely nothing but its contents to signify its importance. It was from Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, a far more prolific writer than me, and the last person I expected to have time to write to me. What made its arrival so striking was how much it lifted me up from yet another round of spiritual warfare that came just before it.
I’ll get back to Father Gaitley’s letter in a moment. Things like our latest spiritual battle are very difficult to put into writing. Most people have had the experience of seeing their world unexpectedly disrupted. There are times when the solid ground upon which we stand just seems to collapse out from under us. There is no place where this happens more than in prison.
I returned to my cell one day weeks ago to find my friend and roommate, Pornchai “Max” Moontri packed and gone. He had apparently been summoned out of his job and told that he can no longer live with me and must move immediately. In a world in which we have little control over our lives, such things are a jarring and alarming experience.
Pornchai was forced to move in with a notorious transgender activist who was back in prison for the third or fourth time. Everyone around us, staff and prisoners alike, expressed their utter dismay and bewilderment with this arrangement. I was angry and perplexed that some bureaucrat for whom we are sight unseen could make such decisions for us and make them stick.
With the help of some dedicated prison staff members, it took 24 hours to get to the bottom of what happened and why. It turned out that this was the result of a bureaucratic decision set in motion in the prison computer system five years earlier when we lived in another place. It was not based on any reality anyone could determine. Once discovered, all was restored just as quickly as it was disrupted.
Pornchai was rattled but much relieved when he was able to move back with me the next day. Just how quickly this was rectified was even more startling to me. Sometimes when such decisions are made, even poor or unjust decisions, they are often not rectified at all. It could have taken weeks or months to fix this.
To ponder just how difficult such things can be here, take a new look at a moving August 16, 2017 post in which Mary herself decided how and where we would live. I mean that literally. It seems that she will just not be thwarted in her plan. That post was “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads.”
Father Michael Gaitley’s most welcome letter arrived right in the middle of all this madness. In it, he referred to Pornchai and me as “The Special Ops in The Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy.” He asked for the support of our prayers for a writing project in which he is now engaged.
FOR FREEDOM CHRIST HAS SET US FREE
Readers may remember an important turning point in our lives behind These Stone Walls called 33 Days to Morning Glory (Part I – Part II). We were the first prisoners in the world to have an opportunity to take part in this retreat experience written by Father Gaitley. The Spring, 2014 issue of Marian Helper magazine carried a description of our experience with the above photo in an article by Felix Carroll entitled, “Mary Is at Work Here.” Here is a striking excerpt:
“The Marians believe that Mary chose this particular group of inmates to be the first. That reason eventually was revealed. It turned out that one of the participating inmates was Pornchai Moontri, who was featured in last year’s Marian Press title, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions.
“Moreover, before joining the Marians’ Evangelization Department a year ago and helping to spearhead the 33 Days initiative, Eric Mahl was also featured in the book. Eric and Pornchai met for the first time when Eric presented to the inmates during one of the six weekly meetings for the group retreat. ‘I felt like I met my brother, someone I’ve known my whole life,’ Eric said afterwards.
“Fr. Gordon MacRae – who chronicles his life in his celebrated website, TheseStoneWalls.com – joined Pornchai in [Marian] consecration and called it ‘a great spiritual gift’ that ‘opened a door to the rebirth of trust’ at a particularly dark time for both men.”
That was in 2014. In 2016, as the Jubilee Year of Mercy came to a close, I was asked by Marian Helper editor Felix Carroll to write an article entitled “The Doors That Have Unlocked,” about living out our faith in the Year of Mercy. My article included this brief paragraph about our 2014 Marian Consecration:
“Our consecration did not result in thunder and lightning. Our spiritual warfare continues. That’s the nature of prison life. Only in hindsight could we see the immense transformative grace that was given to us. The consecration to Jesus through Mary changed not only our interior lives, but our environment as well.”
I saw that “immense transformative grace” manifest itself again after our most recent trials that preceded Father Gaitley’s letter. The Marians were in the process of offering another
33 Days to Morning Glory retreat program in the prison. Catholic inmates were invited to consider taking part in it, but fifteen were required for the program and only thirteen signed up.
So, given that yet another set of dark days immediately preceded this for us, I asked Pornchai if he would like to sign us both up for a renewal. I said I felt that we were being strangely invited by the circumstances. And just as in 2014, we also both felt reluctant, but we have learned the hard way that reluctance is just another battleground in spiritual warfare.
A LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN
On Sunday, June 30, the third 33 Days to Morning Glory retreat commenced at the New Hampshire State Prison, and two of its participants had also been present for the first. To our great joy, Eric Mahl showed up from the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for an opening presentation. It was a spellbinding meditation based upon that day’s Second Reading from St Paul to the Galatians which Eric read:
“For Freedom Christ has set us free. For you were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5 1,13-15)
I love it when the Lord is ironic. The prisoners around us devoured Eric’s message giving voice to Saint Paul “For freedom Christ has set us free.” A team of Catholic Prison Ministry volunteers was on hand to begin our 33 Days retreat. Nate Chapman, David Kemmis, Jim Preisendorfer, Jean Fafard, Peter Arnoldy, Andy Bashelor, and Father Bill Deschamps comprise a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The next week, July 7, the first installment began. As happens with all spiritual endeavors here, we had to line up at random, and then count off by fours. All the ones would thus be at one small group table for the duration of the 33 Days. The same for twos, threes, etc.
Pornchai and I and our friend CJ – who we dragged along with us – all ended up at the same table, though not by any design of our own. You have met CJ in these pages before in a most important post, “Catholic Priests, Catholic Survivors, Moral Quagmires.”
That post was, in part at least, about how Pornchai and CJ share a similar trauma in their lives that is entirely unknown to each other. I pondered in that post how we could even begin to help him cope with what was taken from him and the impact it has had on his life. A number of readers commented and sent private messages that they are praying for CJ.
So there we were, sitting at this one table with Catholic Ministry volunteer Andy Bashelor. The first point for us to ponder after watching and listening to Father Michael’s Gaitley’s introductory video was, “Consider a special need in your life that you entrusted to the intercession of Mary or a favorite saint.”
A long, uncomfortable silence followed, and then Pornchai opened up. He mentioned our recent trials, and how, very early in our friendship, I challenged him to the great adventure of faith. He said that I told him that his way of doing things had not been working out so well, and invited him to try my way for awhile. Pornchai spoke with a crack in his voice about how doors then began to open, in both his future and his past.
Andy Bashelor, interrupted at that point and said, “I should tell you that I read a powerful article about you.” Then, (turning to me) he said, “And it was written by you.” Pornchai and I knew that he was speaking of “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.”
Our friend CJ sat there mesmerized, instinctively knowing that something painful but important was now on the table. Pornchai went on to speak of how he was sent here after fourteen years in prison, seven of them in solitary confinement in a supermax prison. He spoke of how his life seemed without hope, of how he trusted no one and had no vision beyond prison. He spoke of how his very soul was imprisoned from a painful and traumatic past.
And then Pornchai spoke of a priest who saw him beaten and left in ruins on the side of the road, but did not pass by. He spoke of how he was led to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and then to Mary, and then to Christ, and of how all has now changed. Pornchai then repeated something that always leaves me with a lump in my throat. He said he woke up one day and suddenly saw before him a future when up to then all he ever had was a past.
“Now there is hope,” Pornchai said triumphantly. He spoke of how setbacks no longer defeat him, and of how God has not waited for his prayers, but has opened doors one by one to bring light to both the traumas of the past and the worries of the future.
And all this while, the Holy Spirit was speaking through Pornchai to someone else. CJ sat there in stunned silence and spoke not a word. The next day he came to me in the prison library, clearly shaken. He was stricken to the core by what he heard, and asked me to help him begin the process of becoming Catholic. Then he asked me to ask Pornchai Moontri to help him face the past and teach him how to hope for a future.
“I can’t yet deal with how weird it is,” CJ said, “That I had to come to prison to learn what it means to be free.”
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post. The great adventure of 33 Days to Morning Glory is a saving grace that my friend, Father Michael Gaitley, set in motion as a seminarian and published after just one year of priesthood. Today, over two million copies of 33 Days to Morning Glory are in circulation. To read more of what this has meant to us behind These Stone Walls please see these related sites and posts:
- Behold Your Son / Behold Your Mother (Marian.org).
- Mercy to the Max
- The Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy
- Father Seraphim Michelenko on a Mission of Divine Mercy