While American tradition offers thanks in the land of the free and home of the brave, some still await the promise of freedom with a bravery found in defiant hope.
Before celebrating Thanksgiving in America – even if you’re not in America – I asked the readers of These Stone Walls to read and ponder anew our annual classic Thanksgiving post, “The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope.” Over the few years since I wrote it, some readers have said that it has become a part of their own annual Thanksgiving tradition.
The story that post tells is a true account of history that most other sources left in the footnotes. It’s also a story that has deep meaning for us who have endured painful losses in this odyssey called life, the loss of loved ones, the loss of health, of happiness, of hope, the unjust loss of freedom. For some, the litany of loss can be long and painful, and it could drive us all into an annual major holiday depression.
It has helped me and those around me to consider the story of Squanto. History is too often passed down by victors alone. The story of the Mayflower Pilgrims who fled religious persecution (though they didn’t really) to endure the wilds of a brave new world (though they didn’t endure it at all) is well known.
But it has been stripped of a far more accurate and inspiring story under its surface. It’s the story of Tisquantum, known to history as Squanto, the sole indigenous survivor of a place called The Dawn Land, now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Having been chained up and taken on an odyssey of my own, I found very special meaning in the story of Squanto’s quiet but powerful impact on American history. So will you.
If you have followed our recent posts, then you know that a spirit of Thanksgiving has become a greater challenge for us behind These Stone Walls this year. But with a little time and perspective, my friends here and I find that our list of all for which we give thanks has actually grown in size and clarity.
From the earliest days of TSW since its inception in 2009, we have tried to live within a single core principle. I first discovered it in the classic book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press 1992). It’s a fundamental truth about coping with life’s litany of loss with a central liberating theme: “The one freedom that can never be taken from us is the freedom to choose the person we will be in any circumstance.”
In Frankl’s own words, his story of survival in Auschwitz, the darkest of prisons, was in part inspired by the same person who inspires us. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was a prisoner, but he was first and foremost a Catholic priest who survived heroically by giving his life to save another. “Survived” might seem a strange word to use. Father Maximilian was murdered, his earthly remains reduced to smoke and ash in the skies above Auschwitz.
But he survives still. I am certain of this. The Nazi commandant whose power over others extinguished countless lives is now just a footnote on history. I don’t even know his name. But Saint Maximilian lives forever among the communion of saints. He lives in mysterious communion with us behind These Stone Walls with the same truth that inspired Victor Frankl to survive and write:
“We must never forget that we also find meaning in life even when confronted by a hopeless situation. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential to turn a personal tragedy into a triumph. When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 116)
THE FOLLY OF LIVING WITH RESENTMENT
Sometimes readers write to ask me how it is that I am still (relatively?) sane after 23 years of unjust imprisonment. They ask how it is that I still have faith, and why I do not seem to be bitter or resentful when I write. But I HAVE been bitter and resentful about the losses and sorrows life has tossed at me. It’s just that I came to recognize that living in anger and resentment is like mixing a toxic brew for your enemies and then drinking it yourself. It is to live in a self-imposed prison, a relentless assault upon your very self.
Once you become ready to let go of bitterness and cease to be governed by resentment, faith and hope are what grows in its place. It’s like a plant that springs up from a tiny crack in the urban concrete. You simply cannot hold onto your bitterness and your faith at the same time. One of them always gives way to the other.
I find lots of inspiration for this from the readers of These Stone Walls. Consider “Father Jim,” the anonymous author of the TSW guest post, “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests.” Father Jim faced his senior years as a priest with a money-driven uncorroborated claim of sexual abuse alleged to have happened in 1972, but emerged only forty years later.
The diocese he served for his entire life simply discarded him while taking shelter under the terms of the U.S. Bishops’ Dallas Charter policy that prohibits both justice and mercy. But when “Father Jim” wrote of his experience in his very moving guest post, it was clear that he is one of the most faithful priests I know. When he could not change his situation, he changed himself. He endures his alienation as a share in the suffering of Christ for the life of the very Church that set him aside.
Several months after writing “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests,” “Father Jim” was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The easiest question to ask is “What’s left to be taken from him?” But it’s a question this good priest will not ask. Instead, he wrote me a deeply moving letter in which he made an offering of his suffering in spiritual support of me, that I might survive prison mentally and spiritually.
It is because of this that I am sane. It is because of this that I believe.
MY THANKSGIVING FOR IRONY
And I am also thankful for the inspiration of irony. If you have been reading These Stone Walls all along, our stories are filled with it. Here’s a very recent example sent to me from a dear TSW reader, Kathleen Riney. Kathleen is a retired nurse living in Texas. Her beloved husband, Tom, died from cancer earlier this year, and Kathleen wrote that she found spiritual refuge in These Stone Walls.
Kathleen wrote to me earlier this month. Back in September, near the September 23 feast day of Saint Padre Pio, I had attached at the end of a post several posts I had written in honor of him. One of them made reference to a post-Communion prayer written by Padre Pio: “Stay With Me Lord.” I attached it to a TSW post way back in November, 2009. It was at the end of my two part post, “The Sacrifice of the Mass” (Part 1 and Part 2).
Kathleen wrote that while her husband, Tom, was in the last weeks of his life, she gave him a copy of that prayer printed from that older post. The downloaded page had her name and email address at the top. She had rented a reclining hospital chair to help keep him comfortable. Many months after Tom died, and just after we reposted a link to the post with that prayer, Kathleen received this message in her email:
“Kathleen, my name is Kristine. I rented a recliner from Aaron’s rents. I found a paper with the “Stay With Me, Lord” prayer in the chair. I wanted to let you know that the prayer has helped me. I’m scheduled for surgery on November 1st and the surgery is the reason I rented the chair. Somehow that prayer found me and has strengthened me. I wanted to let you know that you touched a stranger in a great way!!! I will read it often. I hope all is well in your life. Thank you, Kristine.”
Accounts such as this are easy to dismiss as mere coincidence, but only if you really struggle to live life only on its surface without ever delving into what I recently called “the deep unseen” in the great Tapestry of God. As a result of this awareness, I can no longer take comfort in my own comfort. I can no longer offer Thanksgiving for a life in which all is well. For life has never been well, but I have seen first hand the grace that brings me to a plateau of trust that good is brought forth from suffering even when I cannot see it.
DONALD TRUMP IS PRESIDENT BUT CHRIST IS KING!
The ripples of turmoil brought through the airwaves by the recent U.S. presidential election have been staggering, and deeply dividing. I think I pinpointed at least a dozen future posts about the role of the media in all this, the great divide that leaves us at the brink of ideological civil war, and the self-centered pathology that is rising up in America’s elite that insists the majority of Americans did not know what they were doing when they cast their votes.
But I was very heartened by one aspect of this election. My view of Mr. Trump has not improved much, but my impression of my fellow Americans went up a notch. If we can trust the exit poll, fifty-six percent of those who voted cited their concern for the future of the Supreme Court as the deciding factor in their vote. The second highest deciding factor was the future of religious liberty. A great wave of silent Americans spoke loudly and clearly, and our politics will never be the same.
I am not delusional. I know that my posts on These Stone Walls had nothing to do with the outcome of this election, but some of our recent posts called for sober reflection on those very same concerns. Now it is time for Catholics to give thanks for our faith, to live boldly what we believe, and to refuse to stay quietly in that imposed Basket of Deplorables.
This Jubilee Year of Mercy came to a close on the Solemnity of Christ the King. I found it fascinating that the Gospel proclaimed at Mass that day was Saint Luke’s account of the exchange between Jesus and two condemned men from their respective crosses (Luke 23: 35-43). This scene was at the heart of one of the most widely read and shared posts on TSW: “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.”
That post is filled with irony as it explores something hidden in the deep unseen in the Tapestry of God. It unfolds from the Cross in the words between Christ and the man history has come to call Saint Dismas. In the Second Reading on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Saint Paul affirms that Christ in that very scene “is the image of the invisible God [who] delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.”
Three years ago on the Solemnity of Christ the King, the same readings left an indelible mark as Pornchai Maximilian Moontri and I entered that day into Consecration to Jesus through Mary at the conclusion of our 33 Days to Morning Glory. I wrote of this recently in a new article published in the Winter 2016 issue of Marian Helper magazine entitled “The Doors that Have Unlocked” (scroll to pp 22-23).
I hope you will read it, post it, and share it on social media, Doing so lets Catholic editors know that this is an important story for the Church. When I wrote that article back in September, I could not foresee that life might become even more difficult for us, but please do not mourn for our losses.
Our Father to whom we give thanks has made good on His promise. He has in fact delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son. In the three years since our Consecration, everything has changed, both in us and around us. Dozens of our fellow prisoners, and hundreds of TSW readers entered into this same Consecration. Who could not be thankful for this?
It is you for whom we give thanks behind These Stone Walls. It is for your pilgrimage of faith in this odyssey of life, that has brought you here in communion with us at the foot of the Cross, that we today bow in humble thanksgiving to the image of the invisible God.
Stay with us, Lord.