Fr Michael Gaitley and the Marians of the Immaculate Conception from The National Shrine of The Divine Mercy unlock another sacred mystery behind these stone walls.
This latest chapter in the Divine Mercy saga unfolding behind prison walls begins where my Holy Week post left off. In “Mary Magdalene: Faith, Courage, and an Empty Tomb,” I wrote of the significance of the first Resurrection appearance of Jesus in the Gospel of John:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord…’” (John 20:17-18)
Writing that post has given me a deeper understanding, not only of that account in the Gospel, but of Mary Magdalene herself and the challenges that grace had to overcome in her as she was faced with the Word of God. Just imagine her standing there alone on the side of the road as He leaves her entrusted with a task that will alter Salvation History.
The account appears in a part of the Gospel of John called by scholars the “Book of Glory.” When it comes to faith, and the courage to hold fast to it, glory can burn in our hearts like a flaming torch, then slowly dissipate leaving us inspired only with its memory and our own doubts. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, but it happened most vividly in an encounter with Saint Therese of Lisieux at a crossroads between life and death that I once described in “A Shower of Roses.” I saw something that set my heart afire, then my crosses became many and great, and the fire became but an ember. You know well what I mean.
I can empathize with Mary Magdalene walking into that upper room with faith and courage declaring, “I have seen the Lord.” The Gospel of John leaves the reaction of the Apostles to our imagination, but in every other Gospel account, they simply did not believe her, dousing the fire in her own heart. Then, on the evening of that same day, Jesus appeared in that very place where they remained hiding even after Mary Magdalene’s news.
The Gospel says they hid “for fear of the Jews.” Remember that the Apostles are also Jews. It was for fear of their own that they hid, for their own turned on them and crucified their Christ, and none of them could have even remotely expected any good to come of that – just as you and I cannot see the far away threads that weave through the crosses we bear in the tapestry of life we are living.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus said, His first words to them since they abandoned Him at Golgotha. He showed them His hands and His side, the wounds that are now eternal. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And He isn’t just speaking to them. He is speaking also to you and me. What did He mean when he said, “So I send you?” Send you to what? And what will be the weight of the cross you have to carry to get there? I’ll get back to those questions.
WISDOM AND WORKS OF MERCY
After writing about Mary Magdalene in “Faith, Courage, and an Empty Tomb” for Holy Week, I had an “AHA!” moment when I read the Introduction to a book by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC entitled, The One Thing is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything (Marian Press). It’s the text for Stage Two of an eleven-week parish-based retreat that we begin on Divine Mercy Sunday behind these stone walls. Father Gaitley’s Introduction to the book concludes with a familiar scene: Mary Magdalene at the Empty Tomb as Jesus instructs her to go tell the others, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father.” Father Gaitley uncovered the great theological significance of those words:
“To reveal the name of the Father is, in a sense, the whole reason why the Word became flesh, as the very last verse of the Prologue to John’s Gospel suggests ‘No one has ever seen God, it is the only-begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, who has made him known (John 1:18). Moreover, this ‘making the Father known’ needs to be understood in the Biblical sense… [It] expresses deep, life-giving intimacy and communion.” (The One Thing Is Three, Introduction, p. 24)
As I began to type this post, I wondered about the timing of this newest retreat hosted by Father Gaitley and some wonderful volunteers from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. It begins on the evening of Divine Mercy Sunday, and I knew this would be posted on the Wednesday before. This Divine Mercy Sunday marks our friend, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri’s fifth anniversary of entrance into the Catholic faith.
So I telephoned a friend to ask him to do a Google search for me. The search topic, using quotes, was “Divine Mercy Conversion.” I expected the search result to be huge, and it was, but on the first page of thousands of results, just a few items down the list, appeared a link to These Stone Walls.
I then did a bit of math. In five-and-a half years, we have published 320 posts on These Stone Walls. In the first 200 of them, the words “Divine Mercy” were mentioned only once. In the next 100, Divine Mercy was the central theme of over a dozen posts, and mentioned prominently in many others. And not just on These Stone Walls, and not even just by me. Pornchai wrote of the power of Divine Mercy in his life in a stunning post, “Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisons” published in April 2013 at the Daily Grace blog.
Reading his post again has given me a profound sense of just how strange this Divine Mercy path has been for us. We never embraced it. It embraced us. It held and sustained us through broken promises and shattered dreams
Like Mary Magdalene entrusted with the truth at the Empty Tomb, our friends from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy revealed a life-sustaining truth to us. They did not just proclaim that truth. They infused it in us, just as Mary Magdalene’s truth infused those who hid in a prison of fear. We’re not the same persons we once were because of it.
How that all happened is a long story, some of which I’ve tried to tell before. It’s not easy because I cannot claim to understand it yet. As Pornchai wrote in “Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisons,” “I know I’m here writing this because of Divine Mercy, but I don’t understand it at all.” That’s because on the surface of our lives this all seems like mere coincidence if you still believe in such a thing. I don’t. The notion of mere coincidence gives way quickly if you dig just a bit beneath your experience of faith.
In 2010, having endured two years of sharing a 96-square–foot prison cell with me, Pornchai Moontri struggled with the thought of becoming Catholic. We never discussed it. It never even crossed my mind. Some proclaimer of salvific truths I turned out to be!
My birthday was coming up that April 9th (Yes, as Pornchai says, I know Latin because it’s my first language!). In prison we have no gifts to give. So Pornchai began to plot with the prison’s Catholic chaplain, Deacon Jim Daly, to surprise me on my birthday with the announcement of his Catholic conversion. Deacon Jim derailed that plan when he suggested that, because my birthday was on a Friday that year, it would be better to wait until the next day, April 10, for his Baptism and Confirmation, and the day after that, April 11, for his First Eucharist. Pornchai had no idea that his full communion with the Catholic faith was to be realized on Divine Mercy Sunday, nor did he even know what that meant. It seemed, as I said, “mere coincidence.”
So because his conversion became attached to Divine Mercy Sunday, he – and I by extension – were swept up in the spiritual phenomenon of Divine Mercy. At the same time, I labored under a delusion that it was my faith that influenced Pornchai’s. That is not the truth.
At least, to be honest, it isn’t the whole truth. My faith as a man and as a priest had long ago settled for hiding in an upper room, not for fear of the Jews, but for fear of the Catholics. Some of them were quick to sacrifice me and other priests on the altar of insurance, risk retention, and mediated settlements. My faith teetered at the brink of extinction until Pornchai unknowingly dragged me into the rays of Divine Mercy emanating from the Heart of the Risen Christ. For the record, I did not convert Pornchai Moontri. He converted me.
THE ‘ONE THING’ IS THREE
Beginning on Divine Mercy Sunday and extending over the next three months, a very special group of volunteers will be meeting with us in prison for the next phase of a two-stage retreat process. The first stage began in 2013 with “33 Days to Morning Glory,” a process that culminated in Marian Consecration for me, Pornchai, our friends Michael Ciresi, Michael Martinez, and Donald Spinner, and fifteen other New Hampshire prisoners who ventured onto that path with us.
I wrote of this in a two-part post on TSW, “Woman, Behold Your Son!” and “Behold Your Mother!” You might laugh when you read these posts. The Marian website describing this process is AllHeartsAfire.org. We did not enter into this with hearts afire, but with hearts cooled by a string of crosses and disappointments typical of anyone who has spent many years in prison. Nate Chapman and his crew of Marian helpers had their work cut out for them.
Felix Carroll also wrote of this, with a now well-known photo of Pornchai and me at our Marian Consecration, in “Mary is at Work Here” in the venerable Marian Helper magazine. This was followed a year later in 2014 with the second half of the Stage One retreat program, “Consoling the Heart of Jesus,” a ten-week journey into the Heart of Christ. As it got underway I wrote of both the challenges and hopes it presented to us in “Fathers Day in Prison Consoling the Heart of Jesus.”
Its conclusion is described in “Fr Seraphim Michalenko on a Mission of Divine Mercy.” Please do not feel daunted or disturbed by all these links. They are an invitation to join in this journey with us. It was in that last post that I first introduced the notion that our lives are a tapestry being woven by God Who alone can see the tapestry while we see only life’s dangling threads. These posts may not set your hearts afire, but they might enlighten any doubt that there is something more going on beneath the surface of your life – of our lives in communion – than meets the eye.
We now begin the final chapter in our Hearts Afire retreat, and this time our hearts are at least smoldering. Our trials should never be given the last word. Besides, Pornchai “Max” Moontri, Mike Ciresi, and I have learned the hard way that resistance is futile against a summons from Nate Chapman. He and his crew of outstanding Catholic missionaries from the world beyond prison – including Jim Preisendorfer, Jean Fafard, and David Kemmis – have all seen the Lord, and have left us no upper room to hide in. They return behind these stone walls for a deeper look into the light of Divine Mercy.
We do not weave our own lives, nor do we cause our own transformations. Michael Brandon, host of the Canadian Catholic blog, Freedom Through Truth, drove this point home for me in a moving post about our prison journey entitled, “Transfiguration Behind These Stone Walls.”
“Noting their Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I have followed their lead, not because I am a sheep, particularly, but because I believe in it, and needed only a little prodding from brothers I have never met to take this step myself.” (Michael Brandon, “Transfiguration Behind These Stone Walls”)
Thank you for being with us at the Foot of the Cross where we linger with shattered hopes and broken dreams. Thank you for being with us at the Empty Tomb where we cling to new hope that the reasons to believe are greater than our trials. Thank you for being with us on the way to Galilee where we are promised a meeting with the Risen Lord. One Divine Mercy truth is now clearer. It’s the last point by Father Michael Gaitley in his Introduction to The ‘One Thing’ Is Three:
“To bring us into this communion is the deepest desire in the Heart of Jesus, and it explains everything.”
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