Life in the Presence of Christ the King may not end our struggles for hope, justice, mercy, for life itself, but it will bestow grace upon all for which we strive.
I have never actually met my friend, Michael, a TSW reader and recent Catholic convert studying at Harvard. An occasional commenter at These Stone Walls, Michael has also corresponded with me and with Pornchai Moontri. In his most recent letter, he included a blog post that he wrote for October 1, 2018, the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux. His post is entitled, “The Real Presence and the Present Moment.” In it, he includes a quote attributed to Father Willie Doyle:
“Don’t dwell on what you have not done, for I think that want of confidence in His willingness to forgive our shortcomings pains Him very much, but rather lift up your heart and think what you are going to do for him now. You know the secret of making a short life very long in His eyes, and a life of few opportunities crammed full of precious things. Do everything for His sweet love alone.”
The quote struck me because I live – and have lived for over 24 years – in a place “of few opportunities.” At least, prison appears that way on its surface. And unjust imprisonment, if dwelled upon, can suck the life out of any grace before it has a chance to penetrate the soul. I lived here for a long time in the early years of this imprisonment as a walking, breathing, but barely living obstacle to grace. I am not certain that I can tell you exactly when and how this changed.
But I know that it changed because, as the quote from Father Willie Doyle points out above, even a life in unjust imprisonment can be “crammed full of precious things.” Now don’t get me wrong. Even after all these years I still bristle when readers tell me that I “seem to have found my peace” with this injustice. I have not! There is a vast difference between surrendering to Christ and surrendering to injustice. I strive for the former. I will never accede to the latter.
I was so very moved to read in Michael’s post linked above that it begins with something I wrote back in June of 2016. He links to a post of mine entitled, “Priesthood in the Real Presence and the Present Absence.” I had no idea at the time that it would even be noticed until a flood of comments, social media shares, and snail mail informed me otherwise.
Now, two years later, it shows up again in Michael’s guest post. It tells an important story about the necessity for our souls of being in the Presence of Christ, and I hope you will come back here to read it before the Solemnity of Christ the King.
WHEN HEART SPEAKS TO HEART
In addition to his blog post, Michael also sent me a book. Books sent to me in prison are always a problem. Some are sent back without my even knowing about it. Some simply disappear never to be seen again. I am allowed to own only ten books, and some are permanent: a Sacramentary for offering Mass, a Roman Missal, a breviary, a Jerome Biblical Commentary, a Dictionary, and an Oxford Annotated RSV Catholic edition of the Bible.
To receive a new book sometimes means I must also discard one, and sometimes I am simply not ready to do so. When Michael told me he sent me a book, my first reaction was that now I have to cram a 900-page Tom Clancy novel to part with it when the new book arrives.
Sometimes it seems as though I live my entire life in spite of myself. When the book arrived weeks later, I rolled my eyes. Glancing at its cover, I had no interest whatsoever. The book turned out to be a very great treasure that showed up here just when I needed it most. Its author is an anonymous Benedictine monk, and the book is a journal entitled, In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – The Journal of a Priest at Prayer.
I was curious about it. So, from the prison office where I received it, I climbed up the 52 stairs to our 60-square-foot cell where I showed it to Pornchai Moontri. He opened it, looked at the random page that he landed on, smiled, and handed it back to me. Pornchai had randomly opened it to a page headed “April 11, 2010 – Divine Mercy Sunday,” the same day he was received into the Church.
It was the day his entire life changed through a radical grace that passed to him, not from me, but through me. And not only through me, but through my unjust imprisonment. Here is an excerpt from that page:
“Today my divine mercy flows like a river, rushing into the souls of those of my priests who will receive it. By placing yourself before my Eucharistic Face, you opened your soul to the abundant streams of divine mercy that ever gush from my wounded side. Receive my mercy for the sake of all my priests and for the sake of those who would refuse it now, that they may receive it at the hour of their death” (In Sinu Jesu, p. 159).
Pornchai received it at the hour that he died to his past. I saw in this what a fool I’ve been. I saw in that moment that when my focus is only on the suffering of the past and this place “of few opportunities,” as Father Doyle says in the quote above, I overlook the reality of the present that is “crammed full of precious things.” And one of them is the immense grace that transformed the life of this man standing next to me. And in doing so, it also transforms me. It transforms me like it transformed Simon of Cyrene, Compelled to Carry the Cross.
Just days before I received Michael’s letter and blog post, I received a letter from a reader in the Upper Midwest. I was very moved by it so I asked the writer’s permission to allow me to reproduce a few paragraphs for this post. Here is the part of her letter that I wanted you to see, and hope you will ponder, for it goes to the heart of what is required to live in the Presence of Christ the King.
“Dear Father MacRae: I have thought about writing to you for a long time. I have not, partly because I am a relative nobody. I am not Fr., Richard John Neuhaus. I am not Cardinal Dulles or Cardinal Burke. I am just a 65-year-old Roman Catholic woman who has lived most of her life in the Upper Midwest…
“Years ago, I stumbled across a post on These Stone Walls about how you were able to bring yourself to forgive your prosecutor, not to mention the alleged ‘victims’ in your case. You shared that you were finally able to bring yourself to pray for them. You further shared that it is impossible to hate someone for whom you are praying.
“I have experienced some situations that have caused very bitter hateful feelings and thoughts. Hate is a crushing painful burden. I prayed for them and found that I could no longer hate. The poison of hate was replaced by a willingness to see my ‘enemies’ through God’s loving, hopeful eyes. I think I have found as much peace as is possible on this Earth. I owe you and our faith a profound debt of gratitude.”
The post that this good reader refers to is “Potholes on the High Road: Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us.” It was written as a Lenten post back in 2011. I wrote it because I had learned that six years earlier the prosecutor who condemned me to life in prison at my trial had taken his own life back in 2005. It was not long after The Wall Street Journal published the two-part “A Priest’s Story” about my trial and imprisonment.
I struggled for days with the news of his suicide. I remember a fleeting thought that passed of its own accord through my mind, “I hope he is in hell.” That was the point at which I knew that my feelings of deep and hateful resentment had supplanted all other forces at work in my life. In the early years of my imprisonment, I fostered resentment and found comfort in its self-righteousness.
The reader who wrote to me is right. Hate is a poison, a sort of toxic tea that we mix for someone else, but drink ourselves. So I took it upon myself in that Lent of 2011 to find an antidote for hate. It took awhile – mostly due to my resistance in giving up something that I invested so much time building and clinging to. But the time came and I forced myself to pray for mercy upon this troubled man’s soul. I prayed for him several times, and I prayed the Office of the Dead.
I cannot say that I ever consciously uttered out loud the words, “I forgive him.” That might have taken more than my fragile humility could bear. But I found that almost immediately my spontaneous “I hope he is in hell” transformed – again of its own accord – into “I hope he knows mercy.” Is that the same as forgiveness? I cannot say. But the hope I encountered has increased since then I am free of this burden of hate.
I wrote a second post on that same subject, and it, too, went a little further. It was my Holy Week post for 2017 entitled “Judas Iscariot: Who Prays for the Soul of a Betrayer?” It, too, resonated with many readers. Another part of the letter I received above went right to the heart of it:
“Never doubt that your life behind bars has great meaning for God’s Kingdom. As a priest caught up in the sex abuse scandal, enduring great hardship, trying your best to do the right thing, even when it is hard. You are teaching forgiveness, even when it is hard. You’re teaching loyalty to the Church and to Christ, ever when it is hard.”
ON THE SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
I had not really thought about it before, but doing the right thing, teaching forgiveness, teaching (but first living) loyalty to the Church and to Christ, all have great meaning in the Kingdom of God. They can all be accomplished even in a life of suffering marred by the injustice of others. And when they are accomplished in the act of making what you suffer a sacrifice, this becomes a powerful source of grace.
This week, Catholics honor the Solemnity of Christ the King. It has a long, complex thread through Sacred Scripture from the time of Abraham to our present. The tribes of Israel in Genesis had no king but God – whose covenant with Abraham established the foundations for a kingdom. In the Sinai covenant – the inscription of the Ten Commandments – God referred to Israel as His “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22), a sacrifice that God Himself will one day make to save us.
But Israel, and all the subjects of the kingdom of God to follow had a sinful nature, subject to corruption. Chaos brought about in them the desire for a king while God steered human history toward His Kingdom. In David, Sacred Scripture found the ideal king, but still, the fidelity of the king did not endure. David’s sin of infidelity with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12) began the moral decline of his kingship. This gave rise to the Prophetic Books in Scripture – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi – all spoke of hope rising from the ruins of a people in moral exile. Talk of a Messiah began to take shape, an ideal king who would come forth from the line of David to establish the Kingdom of God.
In a dialogue with Pontius Pilate in the Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King (John 18:33-38), Jesus lays claim to his heavenly kingship:
“Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born. For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:37-38)
The irony of this account rests in Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” The Truth stands before him in chains, having been scourged before the very witnesses of the Way, the Truth, and the Life He has come to save.
In our time, we again suffer the vacuum of religious leadership found wanting in the fidelity required of subjects of the King. The infidelity of our humanity does not diminish Christ the King, not even when – now as then – Pontius Pilate continues his trial. Not even when – now as then – the infidelity of a flawed humanity chips away at the Kingdom of God. Not even when – now as then – “The Chief Priests Answer, ‘We Have No King but Caesar’” (John 19:15).
To the Readers of These Stone Walls: Please share this post, and prepare yourself for the spirit of Thanksgiving with these other posts from Father Gordon MacRae and These Stone Walls:
- The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope
- Giving Thanks in the Time of Christ the King
- A Harvest Moon before Christ the King
- Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving with Some Not-So-Just Desserts