A Father’s Day gift perfectly timed, Fr Michael Gaitley’s Consoling the Heart of Jesus is the text for a 10-week retreat underway now behind these stone walls.
“You should not worry about adversities. The world is not as powerful as it seems to be.” (The Diary of St Faustina, no. 1643)
Father’s Day is coming up, an event that always seems to have some urgency behind prison walls. The connection between the state of fatherhood and the state of prisons in America is an elephant in the courtroom that I wrote about on a Father’s Day past. “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” has been the most read, most shared, and most republished post ever written for These Stone Walls. Clearly, the subject of fatherhood is on the minds of many concerned for the downward spiral of faith and family life in Western Culture.
But which began its demise first, faith or family? According to Catholic writer, Austin Ruse, “The Family Fell First, then Faith Followed.” This was his title for a 2013 article for Crisis Magazine. Austin Ruse made a good case for how a decline in faith in Western Culture is not so much a cause of the family ‘s demise as it is a symptom of it. A significant aspect of that decline has been the waning of fatherhood. There is no place where the absence of fathers is more critically felt and seen than in an American prison where 80% of the occupants grew up in homes without adequate fathers present, or any fathers at all.
For the last decade, this prison has hosted a Father’s Day Event sponsored by the prison Recreation Department. The event lent positive and constructive support to the relationships between prisoner-fathers and their children. It is perhaps, therefore, a harbinger of darker days ahead for prisoners and their families that the Father’s Day Event was just cancelled this year for lack of staff and budget, but certainly not for lack of interest.
The truth is that the population of this prison keeps rising while its budget for both staff and programs has declined. That’s a whole other TSW post for another day – soon, I hope – for what is happening in this prison and in prisons across the U.S. is) a folly with dramatic risks for both country and culture.
For now, however, my focus is on a smaller contingency composed of some men you have come to know. The cancellation of the Father’s Day Event came as a big disappointment to our friend, Michael Ciresi, known to TSW readers for his recent guest post, “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind.” If by some chance you skipped that post, don’t.
Mike Ciresi found healing and hope in the same place that once left deep emotional and spiritual wounds on his life. His determination and focus today on strengthening his faith as a Catholic is intricately tied to the most important mission of his life: to be a caring, loving, and committed father to his sons. Felix Carroll, a writer for Marian Helper magazine wrote of that post, “Wow! Michael Ciresi’s testimony is incredibly powerful!”
After it was published, TSW received an imploring message from a man who read that post, and was alarmed by the soul searching it inspired. He wrote that he, too, had abandoned his faith as a teenager, and as a result of that decision his own sons were raised with no exposure to their Catholic heritage. Now his grandsons are being raised the same way. “What have I done?” he wrote. “How do I even begin to restore what was lost?”
The answer is simple. You restore it the same way you set it in motion. By nurturing your own faith, by living it, by witnessing it to your sons and grandsons, and by trust that the message of Divine Mercy will break the barriers of generations left stranded. Mike Ciresi’s guest post should be shared with fathers everywhere especially those on the fence about the importance of faith, not only to their souls, but to the soul of their fatherhood.
OH, OH! HERE WE GO AGAIN!
Michael Ciresi faced a far greater discouragement the day before I began this post. He learned that Providence, Rhode Island Judge Robert Krause denied his petition to revisit his sentence so he can return home to his family. Two years of hard work and hope were dashed in an instant.
And over the last month, Pornchai-Maximilian also lost something very important to him: his ability to do woodworking. It was a heartbreaking discouragement for him brought about as a result of a prison policy. He made a simple error in judgement, one that I witnessed and surely would have made myself in that circumstance. It resulted in a disciplinary report the sanction for which was simply a few hours of work which he was glad to do. By policy, however, it also barred him from participating in woodworking, something that brought meaning and a sense of accomplishment to his life. Like all one-size-fits-all rules, it was blind to the actual transgression.
The timing of that discouragement was painful, but not a total loss. With the help of his Godfather, Pierre Matthews, Pornchai has enrolled in a continuing education program at the Stratford Career Institute toward a post-secondary diploma in psychology and social work. He hopes this training will help not only in his own self-understanding, but in his future wish to work with displaced people in Bangkok, Thailand.
I have been advocating for Pornchai to let go of the prison disappointments to focus on his future life in freedom. As I write this, Pornchai just received his grades for the first of six modules in this program. His average for his first four exams is 98.75%. Considering this result is for a man studying in a language and culture not his own, it is remarkable.
Prison provides many reasons to feel discouraged and beaten, and tools to face them must be found within. That’s not always easy. Whenever faced with discouragement behind prison walls, the very first reaction within prisoners is a heightened sense of our powerlessness over our lives. Nothing is so painful to prisoners as humiliation at the hands of our keepers. Most of them are firm, but just. Some are respectful, and even sometimes kind.
A smaller number, but a group that really stands out in setting the tone of prison life, seem to feel that the judges simply didn’t mete out punishment enough, and they seem on a personal mission to correct that oversight. The result is often attempts at demeaning humiliation and losses of what little we have. Both Pornchai and I have experienced this – even recently.
In fact, as I sat down to type this today, I was speaking with Michael Ciresi and Pornchai about how very similar the past month has been to the month before we began our retreat,”33 Days to Morning Glory” in October last year. Felix Carroll wrote vividly of that experience in his article, “Mary is at Work Here” in the Spring 2014 issue of the venerable Marian Helper magazine.
CONSOLING THE HEART OF JESUS
And now, it seems that Mary is at work here again! After a month of wave after wave of discouragement, Mike, Pornchai, and I – joined by our friend Michael Martinez and twelve other prisoners – are now in our second week of a ten-week retreat using a text by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, entitled Consoling the Heart of Jesus. Like the 33 Days retreat, this is the first time this has ever been offered in a U.S. prison.
The similarities of the month leading up to both retreats is astonishing. In “Woman, Behold Your Son!” part one of a two part post last Advent, I wrote of the concerted efforts of the powers of darkness to dissuade us from taking part in that event. If I have learned anything in twenty years in prison, it is that discouragement is one of the favorite and most effective tools of the Evil One.
The prison environment is saturated with discouragement. The temptation to give in to it is powerful, and as we approached the starting date for our Consoling the Heart of Jesus retreat, I again found myself asking Pornchai, “Do we really feel up to this?” It was actually a humorous moment. He turned to me and said, “You asked that same question last October and look where it got us!” We both laughed.
The National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts – the home of Marian Press – is about a three hour drive from this prison. Despite the distance, Father Michael Gaitley, Felix Carroll, Eric Mahl and others from the Divine Mercy Shrine have reached into this prison and into our lives in profound ways over the last year, and in Consoling the Heart of Jesus, they are doing it again. Here is just one example, and it’s a weird story.
Just before this last difficult month of discouraging prison trials and losses, Father Vince, a reader and sometimes commenter on These Stone Walls, sent me a prayer card. It was a very unusual one, and in the ordinary course it probably would never have gotten by the mail handlers here. The card is a holograph depicting Saint Padre Pio in a beautiful, almost glowing image, but when it is held a certain way, the image transforms to the Madonna and child. It was beautiful, and a real treasure that I put into a book for safe- keeping. Then I promptly lost it.
For many priests, this might seem inconsequential, even quaintly pious, but most of them have never lived in deprivation. I searched this prison cell end to end looking for that card. It had a prayer on the back that I never even got to read. I knew I put it in a book, but it was in no book that was still in this cell. I then tracked down all the library books I had checked out that month, but to no avail. The one book that I could not find had been checked out of the library by another prisoner, but when I tracked him down, he said there was nothing inside it.
I was angry with myself for not taking better care of the little treasure Father Vince had sent me. Then on the night just before starting our Consoling the Heart of Jesus retreat, toward the end of the awful month of trials and tribulations Pornchai and I had been experiencing again, I awoke at exactly 3:00 AM. I heard a tiny noise, sort of a slight “smack” as though something landed on the concrete cell floor. I sat up and put my feet on the cold floor. The cell was dark, but a beam from a prison floodlight outside illuminated the floor at my feet. There, in that beam, right in the middle of the cell floor, was Padre Pio smiling at me. It was the card that I spent two months searching for. “How is this possible?” I asked out loud. I have no answer.
When we began the Consoling the Heart of Jesus retreat a day later on June 1st, I was thumbing through the book late that night, not wanting to jump ahead in the reading, but rather trying to get a lay of the land of what was coming in the text. I came across a footnote mentioning a simple prayer for times of adversity given to Padre Pio by his spiritual director: “0 Jesus, I surrender this to you. Take care of it!” It’s a prayer of trust.
I followed the footnote to a page in the text, and a familiar name jumped off the page at me. It was the name of Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, of the National Shrine of Divine Mercy. I knew that name because it was Father Seraphim who became a link in a chain for Pornchai with the Divine Mercy community in Thailand, a link that has been for Pornchai a source of hope and a true sense of trust in Divine Mercy. I wrote of this powerful story in “Knock and the Door Will Open! Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand.”
The page I was reading in the book described a conversation about trust that the author, Father Michael Gaitley, had with Father Seraphim who responded to Father Gaitley with a pair of questions: “How do you live trust? What is its concrete expression in your daily living?” The questions stumped Father Gaitley for a time, and stumped me, too. Then Father Seraphim answered them:
“The way you live trust is by praise and thanksgiving, to praise and thank God in all things. That’s what the Lord said to St. Faustina.” (Consoling the Heart of Jesus, p. 95)
Praise and thanksgiving! From prison! After a month of trials, humiliation, and adversity! Father Gaitley and Father Seraphim have set a high bar for us behind these stone walls as this ten-week retreat gets underway. Facilitator Nate Chapman and his crew will have their work cut out for them. I’ll have more to write about this experience as the retreat continues.
For now, however, I’ll give Saint Padre Pio the last word. It’s the prayer on the back of the card that, to borrow a title from Felix Carroll again, was “Loved, Lost, Found,” and it’s a good prayer for Father’s Day:
“Teach us too, we pray you, humility so that we may be among the humble to whom the Father in the Gospel promised to reveal the mysteries of His Kingdom.
Teach us the look of faith that will help us recognize the face of Jesus Himself in the poor and suffering.
Support us in our hours of trouble and trial, and, should we fall, let us feel the joy of the sacrament of forgiveness.
Teach us tender devotion toward Mary, mother of Christ and our Mother who will accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage toward the blessed Homeland, where we, too, hope to arrive to contemplate eternally the Glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (Padre Pio)
Happy Father’s Day from one who is learning the necessities of fatherhood: Sacrifice, fidelity, the grace to stay the course, and a very thick skin!
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!