In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land

Christmas in prison is like a Country Western song. You’ve likely heard the rumor during the 1970s that if you play AC/DC records backwards, you can hear satanic messages. I’ve never tried it, but I heard recently what happens when you play Country Western music backwards: Your wife comes home, you get your job back, and you suddenly remember where you left your truck! Every insomniac has heard those late-night infomercials for music CD collections. I was lying awake, wide-eyed in my bunk one recent night as I listened to 30 minutes of refrains belted out from a collection of Country Western classics. I was never so depressed in my life!

Life can be painful, and it’s magnified at Christmas, especially in a place like this. In “Dawn We Now Our Gray Apparel: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times,” posted two years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote of the depressing side of Christmas in an American prison.

A part of that post was about my friend, Jonathan, a young man who became a father just three months after starting his prison sentence. The concept of fatherhood was both exciting and intimidating for Jonathan, a 21-year-old who had never even met his own father. That’s such a common denominator in the lives of so many young men in prison that it was the catalyst for my post, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”

It’s amazing how history can sometimes repeat itself. Jonathan had a rocky start in life. He was born to a teenage mother while his own 19-year-old father went to prison just before Jonathan came into the world. He and his mother never heard from his father again, and today Jonathan doesn’t know where he is or whether he’s dead or alive. When I met Jonathan, he was 21 and in prison for the first time in his life. His girlfriend was pregnant and Jonathan’s mother, age 35 and reclaiming the adolescence she lost, was unwilling to have her son and his new child in her life. His girlfriend and newborn baby were living in a shelter for single parents while Jonathan was in prison.


Having grown up without real parents, Jonathan faced Christmas 2010 enraged with himself for not being there to help bring his own child into the world. His daughter was born just two weeks before Christmas. Jonathan saw her for the first time a week later when he received some photos in the mail.

That night, a week before Christmas, Jonathan had an emotional meltdown at my cell door as he railed at the world – and mostly at himself – for being in prison at Christmas instead of in his new child’s life. He was simply devastated, but I told him bluntly that there was one ray of light in this misery; for unlike the fate of his own father, Jonathan was determined to fix this. That cold, hard realization brought home to Jonathan some comfort, if not joy. Though he was repeating his father’s mistake, he was resolved not to repeat his father’s abandonment of responsibility. Jonathan was clearly not his father, and at Christmas 2010, he accepted this truth for the very first time.

Jonathan is out of prison now, and where he should be, but I often remember his rage of expletives at my door in the week before Christmas, 2010. As I wrote at the time:

“Jonathan swore for ten minutes straight without repeating himself once. I did not think such a thing possible, and I was impressed!”

In this setting, depression, anxiety, and rage seem to be the most prevalent signs of Christmas. The less spiritual aspects of it – the rampant secular commercialism and the incessant TV promotions of a shallow “holiday spirit” – only serve to remind those in prison away from families and loved ones of the extent of their failures as husbands, fathers, and sons. The hype also reminds prisoners who have no one “out there” of the extent of their alienation and isolation from the rest of the human race and all that is considered decent. If you’re looking for “happy holidays,” prison is not the place to be at Christmas.


Though I grew up on the North Shore of Boston, I lived for several years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To prepare for Christmas, people in the Old Town district and other neighborhoods would place lit vigil candles in hundreds of small, sand-filled brown paper bags to encircle their homes, line their driveways, and often even adorn their flat adobe roofs. These vigil lights – called “Candelarias” – were displayed throughout the neighborhoods by the thousands, and their collective effect was a beautiful and breathtaking vigil for the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve, families and friends from all over would crowd into their cars for a solemn drive through Old Town Albuquerque to view the Candelarias.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even inside this prison, or at least my small corner of it. As the annual bipolar express into Christmas depression commences all around me, the walls of this cell have become covered with Christmas cards sent by TSW readers. The cards are beautiful and a stark contrast to the bleak place they now adorn.

The collective effect has transformed this captive world in sin and error pining into one of expectant hope, and the strangest thing has happened. As Christmas draws nearer, prisoners – few of whom receive many cards and some none at all – keep coming to this cell to look at the growing numbers of faith-filled cards. “How does one person know so many people?” one asked. “No,” another corrected him. “How does one person know so many GOOD people?” Pornchai loves to give tours of our cards, and tells the other prisoners that we have never even met most of the senders. He explains that they are TSW readers who think of us and pray for us – “including you,” Pornchai tells them – as we spend another Christmas here. It reminds me so much of the vigil of the Candelarias. You should take some pride in this, for it was you who provided the lights that draw them.


A few of the cards are “recycled,” meaning that I received them last year or the year before, but liked them so much that I kept them. Two years ago, someone sent me one of those live action Christmas cards that transposed a Biblical scene onto the modern era. The card depicts a New York City taxi cab with the three Magi of Saint Matthew’s Gospel crowded into the back seat. In apparent frenzy, one has his head stuck out the taxi window, his robe flapping in the wind and his jaw agape as he points forward while a stunned Middle Eastern cab driver floors the accelerator. The caption inside the card is “Follow that Star!”

It’s a really great Christmas card, and it was the inspiration for my Christmas post last year, “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear: Some Wise Men from the East Appear.” I felt determined last year not to depress you with a snapshot of prison at Christmas, so I was rather proud of that post. It was about a fascinating mythical aspect of the Infancy Narrative of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. If you read it again, you’ll understand what I mean by “mythical.” To say that the story of the Magi is “myth” does not mean that it isn’t also historically true. In fact, I firmly believe that it IS true, just as Saint Matthew conveys it. Its mythical quality is in the rich symbolism employed by the Evangelist as he tells the tale.

I made a connection between the Magi seeing the star in the East to summon them to the Christ child, and the story of Adam and Eve – and later Cain – exiled East of Eden to wander in sin and error pining after the spiritual fall of man. There are also elements of the Magi story in the Crucifixion account of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and I described them in “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.”

You can take pride in the fact that many of the cards you have sent to me and to Pornchai now serve a solemn purpose in an unholy land. They are the Candelarias that summon the alienated and alone to the Christ Child.

I’m about to mark my 19th Christmas in such an exile, living in punishment for crimes that never took place. For Pornchai, it’s his 21st Christmas in prison. But one thing is clear. Not all who dwell in this unholy land are without hope for redemption. When Jonathan finally left this prison last year at Christmas, when his daughter was one year old, he handed me a note as he was going out the door. It was one of the nicest Christmas gifts I or any priest could ever receive:

“I will always remember all the ways that I could count on you. You never take anything from anyone, but please take this: You were a better father to some of us in prison than any of our own fathers ever were in freedom.”

I don’t know that what Jonathan wrote was entirely accurate. I have a hard time measuring such things, but I got another note recently that literally knocked me on my . . . umm, priestly posterior. It was from my friend, Alberto Ramos about whom I wrote in “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.”

After Pornchai Moontri and Alberto Ramos graduated from high school in the commencement ceremony I described in “The Election is Over, but There’s One More Speech to Hear,” Alberto handed me an envelope. In it was the tassel from his mortarboard which the prisoner-graduates were allowed to keep. It was accompanied by this note written on his graduation program:

“Gracias, Mi Padre, for the wisdom and love you have shown me over all these years is precious. I would like for you to keep this graduation tassel because it is just as much yours as mine. You are the closest to a Father I have ever known, and the very best I could ever hope for. Gracias, Mi Padre, y Viva Cristo Rey! Your Homie forever, Alberto Ramos.”

Here’s a photo of some of the graduates.

That’s Pornchai in the front center being congratulated for his commencement speech, and that’s our friend, Alberto Ramos to his immediate right. Alberto removed his mortarboard because he had taken off the tassel to present to me. The smiles of these good men – who have committed all their efforts to becoming better men – are priceless beyond measure.

We have a Christmas tradition of our own on These Stone Walls, and I will pray it for our readers as I do each year on Christmas Eve. My cell window faces west, and I watch each day as the sun sets below the high prison wall that has been my view of the outside world for over 18 years. As the last glimmer of light descends below that wall on this cold December day, I am reminded of my favorite verse, a prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman. I pray it annually in my Christmas post, and once again it is my Christmas gift to you:


Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on.

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene;

One step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path, but now,

Lead Thou me on.

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

pride ruled my will: Remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blessed me,

sure it still will lead me on,

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,

till the night is gone,

And with the morn those Angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since,

and lost awhile.

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


  1. Kathleen Riney says:

    Thank you Fr. Gordon for all of your Sacrifices & Penances..You’re not going to believe how many Souls you’ve touched when we get to our True Home!! May Yeshua lift you up, may Abba Adoni make His Face to Shine on you, & The Holy Spirit continue to anoint us through your teachings.

  2. Joan Ripley says:

    Dear Father Gordon, Thank you for another wonderful posting; it seems unfair that we should be so uplifted by plight of someone in so unjust a situation. I, too, am weeping thinking again about your situation yet marvelling at the wonders God has wrought through your unearthly kindness in such an unkind place. You do, indeed, shine like the Star of Bethlehem, and are guiding many souls out of many different prisons by pointing us all so humbly to the Light of the World. Be assured of my prayers and I hope my card is one of the ones up on wall of your cell! Let us hope and pray for a very happy new year for you. Joan.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    I have no words to convey what was in my heart when I read your post. Outside These Stone Walls there is so much of a facade. Real humanity in the popular culture is distorted and people are adrift. Thank you for so gallantly taking up your cross and showing so many of us out here the way.
    God bless you and all of the men living in TSW.

  4. Fr Gordon, will remember you in my prayers. And your fellow prisoners, IHS.

  5. Anthony Wheeler says:

    This was a great inspiration for the true spirit of Christmas. That photograph of the graduates really made this post very special. I made a wise decision by turning off the TV on Christmas Eve to read this.

  6. Maurice says:

    Merry Christmas to you all,

    Christus Vinci.

  7. M says:

    Thank you dear Father G for your Spirit inspired writing. It is a light for us all.
    You and all those inside the prison walls continue to be remembered in my prayers

  8. A Merry Christmas to you, Father Gordon and Pornchai. Perhaps this is your last year behind bars…. This is my Christmas Prayer for you both.

    Click here to see our Christmas Miracle.

  9. Bea says:

    How touching to read that many of your fellow prisoners are drawn to your cell and come there specifically to share in the anticipation and experience of Christmas as celebrated joyously by people of faith. It is heartwarming to know how you, Father Gordon, are a father to so many. Thank you for your sacrificial living. May you be reassured time and again that God is joining you in your pain that you are enduring daily for the love of God. May you and all your friends behind TSW be blessed richly during this holy season and may you be protected from all anxieties and depression.

  10. Dympna says:

    Dear Father,
    Thank you again! You are an inspiration to all of us on the ”outside” as well as to your fellow prisoners. May God bless you and them always.

  11. Kathy Maxwell says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    You always make me cry with your beautiful Christmas messages. This time, I laughed as well. You are indeed a wonderful father for those young men. You are proof that God can bring good out of terrible evil.

    God bless you and everyone in prisons everywhere. I pray every day that each man (or woman) will find his true freedom in God.

    Kathy Maxwell

  12. Lupe Gwiazdowski says:

    Father Gordon, That is one beautiful post. It would not be possible but for your beautiful soul. God bless you and these men that have done so much with less than many of us have. Peace at Christmas to you all.

  13. Phyllis Seitz says:

    Dear Father Gordon, A wonderful Christmas blessing in that hymn. I wish the greatest of Blessings for you and all your spiritual sons. You have certainly served your calling to the priesthood. You never fail to inspire me. God love you all.

  14. Jane says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful posting, Father. I am deeply moved and ask blessings and God’s grace for you and all those at the prison, including those who work there. When I see the candelarias around me this Christmas Eve (I live in New Mexico but we call them ‘luminarias’ or ‘farolitos’), I will think of you and of the beautiful graduates in the picture – I’m so happy for them that they have been able to achieve this, this year. I will play a christmas carol on my harp (O come o come Emmanuel is my favorite this year) and pray that God send the energy of that song to you, to bless you.

  15. Judy Stefencavage says:

    Dear Father
    As someone already noted; you are I believe God’s instrument. In your personal (hell) physicaly;but in heaven spiritually. You ARE serving God’s purpose. I have read about contemplative suffering and dear Father Gordon I truly believe that is your situation. You are suffering for other’s sins and bringing many to God in the process.

    I am blown away at your writing; each and every post brings me spiritual renewal or refreshes my love for God and my thanksgriving and gratitude to HIM and for you. The Holy Spirit works in strange ways and thru others for many of us and He is working thru you for many of us.

    May the every Virgin Mary and her about to be born Son Jesus envelope you in their love and cradle you in their heavenly happiness.
    Have a Blessed Christmas Father and be assured you are in my prayers in my daily rosary.

  16. WE the Franciscans of San Damiano the FSD wish you the best Father and are praying for you always. Have a blessed and Holy Christmas. Please remember Jon Hammor who is in jail in Mexico for taking a old gun into the country last Aug. while on vacation. We are praying for the both of you. God Bless

  17. Sarah says:

    Dear Fr G,

    In lieu of as beautifully expressed comments as the wonderful prior posters, let me express sincere wishes for a special light to guide your heart this Christmas. Come to Him as vulnerable and completely as He came to us so many years ago. Stay Fatherly.

    Very happy to see Pornchai and crew’s graduation photo. So proud for them! I recently moved, and Pornchai’s carved mantle clock and pen set are prominently displayed. They remind me to pray for all our brothers and sisters in prison, and you two especially (plus Skooter).

    Praying for the most forgotten and hopeless prisoners this year.

    Always seeking blessings,

  18. Esther says:

    Aloha dear Father Gordon,
    What a beautiful Christmas post! Mahalo for the chuckle at the very beginning, the inspiring story and the update on your other friends there. Please tell those gentlemen they all have very kind faces! God bless you all.
    I hope they one day realize what a blessing it is for them to have you there to watch over them and mentor them. We continue to pray for you and all of them.
    with much aloha,

  19. Dee Susan says:

    Father Gordon,
    I can’t find the words to express what my heart feels. Please know that I pray for you and the men in prison everyday. Before reading your posts, it never occured to me to do this. Thank you. You remind me of St Paul. God bless you at Christmas and always.

  20. Kui says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,
    I am so proud of you, you live far beyond your walls and are my father too in more ways than you will ever know. Have a truly blessed Christmas!

    • eli says:

      We are all proud and grateful to Fr. Gordon in feeding us with the light of truth,
      compassion and insight — he has brought to us the most of impossible sceniros that a life could with stand……….and therefore we are drawn to him and love him for his resignation to God’s holy will; and we are assured that a greater purpose will be forth coming. Isn’t it wonderful that Fr. Gordon has
      done this and might not have been a reality had he not been in jail. Praise
      God for His holy purpose and for His instrument, Fr. Gordon.

  21. jacquie miles says:

    Dear Gordon,
    This post has touched me profoundly. I probably am now at the age where I am more sensitive & sentimental. I never once thought you would be spending this many Christmases in prison. I always knew God would use you but I couldn’t second guess him. And I always knew you were an amazing man but you have out-mazed & out-shown, I think, more than even you would have thought. You have helped and are helping so many people, touching their lives gently but firmly.
    God chose you and I know it has been difficult but you keep your head held high & continue on the path he placed you on.
    God bless you or rather God has blessed you.
    I don’t write but I have never missed anything you have written. I am blessed for having known you.
    Peace & Love to you,

  22. Patricia says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon, thank you again for a heart-warming post. At this tragic time in our Nation it is hard to feel joy. Jesus is our Joy and Mary the Cause of our Joy. This Joy will always be in our hearts. I attended the children’s Mass today at St. Joe’s , this is where our hope lies. Merry Christmas to you Pornchai, Alberto and all. Soon and very soon Jesus is coming, Alleluia , Alleluia!! to , such a beautiful song.

  23. Lionel (Paris) says:

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for the beautiful videos!
    I wish you as well, as to all your close friends, a holy and merry Christmas and hope the best for the new year 2013 and address the testimony of my proximity in your ordeal…
    Union de prière LD

  24. Gina Nakagawa says:

    God bless you at Christmas and always, Father. You follow your Leader in so many ways. More ways than I think you even know! Merry Christmas, Father, Merry Christmas indeed.

  25. victoria says:

    Thank you, Father McRae, for providing us with the real perspective of life situations. The immensity of your ordeal can never compare with the pettiness of my “problems.” I am crying my heart out after reading your Christmas post because I am humbled and grateful for your witness.

    God Bless,


  26. Keith says:

    Fr. G.,
    Thank you for sharing the “points of light” in the darkness of prison…these stories of Incarnational presence (that is the God-Man found in our own time, in His people who still struggle… the Church Militant) are truly what many readers of TSW look forward to each week. That YOU are the Chosen One, is God’s way – not yours….
    Recently I came across a definition of HUMILITY that I would have you ponder: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” and certainly you have been so gifted by the gracious God.
    I find myself saying at the Rite of Peace in the Mass: “Continue to grow in the Peace of Christ, and in His image” and that is my Christmas wish for you.

  27. Gérald C. LaJeunesse says:

    Dear Gordon

    This year, there is a true MIDNIGHT mass in the parish. It’s been a few years since that has been the case for me. Whereas for the last 16 years there have been 4 evening masses Christmas eve, this year there are but three and I hope to have energy still at midnight (yes, I am getting older!) Nontheless, rest assured that you will be there in my prayers at that midnight mass particularly.
    Amitiés fraternelles,
    Gérald C. LaJeunesse, ptre

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