I want to thank Father George David Byers of Holy Souls Hermitage and Ryan MacDonald of A Ram in the Thicket for stepping in for me on These Stone Walls over the last two weeks. I hadn’t gone anywhere. Prisoners do not get vacations, after all. Remember my post, “When the Caged Bird Just Can’t Sing“?
Sometimes keeping up with writing from behind prison walls can be difficult. When I asked Father George and Ryan to write, I gave no indication at all what I would like them to write about. Both tackled something painful but necessary, and I am in their debt. There is more to write on these topics, and no doubt it will be written soon.
But this week, something else has my attention. You may remember a post I wrote a few years ago entitled “A Corner of the Veil.” It was about my mother, Sophie Kavanagh MacRae, who died on November 5, 2006 during my 12th year in prison. That hasn’t stopped her from visiting, however. I had a strange dream about her a few nights ago, and I keep going back to it trying to find some meaning that at first eluded me.
The United Kingdom celebrates Mothering Sunday on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, but in North America, Mother’s Day is coming up on May 12. I wonder if that was what prompted my vivid dream. It was in three dimensions, sort of like looking through one of those stereoscopic View Masters we had long ago. Pop in a disk of images and there they were in three dimensions and living color. My dream was like that, even the color – which is strange because I am colorblind since birth. My rods and cones are just not up to snuff, and though I do see some color, my view of the world is, I am told, not far afield from basic black and white and many shades of gray. Priesthood saved me from a lifetime of wondering why people grimace at my unmatched clothes.
Back to my dream. I was standing on Empire Street in Lynn, Massachusetts, in front of the urban home where I grew up. My mother was standing with me, but in the dream, as in today’s reality, we could not go inside that house because neither of us lived there any longer. My dream contained overlapping realities. It was clear to me that my mother had died, but there she was. And it was clear to me that I am in prison, but there I was with her on that street in front of the home I left forty years ago.
The scene was the stuff of dreams, and it strikes me now that this dream was a reminder of something essential, some truth I could easily let slip away, but must not. I once wrote of that house and that street in an early TSW post called “February Tales.” I wrote of the books that captivated me in childhood, books that I read for hours on end perched high in the treetops along our city street. To this day I can hear my mother calling out a window in her Newfoundland brogue, “IF YOU FALL OUT OF THAT BLOODY TREE AND BREAK YER LEG, DOEN’T COME ARUNNIN’ TO ME!”
As my mother and I crossed the street away from that house in my dream, we spoke, but nothing of that conversation survived in my consciousness except one sentence, and it was perplexing. I said, as I kissed her good-bye, “I have promises to keep.” With a pack over my shoulder in my dream, I turned away to walk toward the end of our city street. In my youth, there was a bus stop there where I could board a bus that would take me the ten miles to Logan Airport or on to Boston’s North Station. From there, I could go anywhere. As I walked down the street in the last scene of my dream, I looked back to see my mother waving. I was leaving. I was always leaving.
You may recognize my final words to my mother in the dream. They are a line from a famous, multi-layered and haunting poem by the great Robert Frost entitled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Here it is:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
A LIFE AND DEATH CONVERSATION
I say this poem is multi-layered because all by itself, with no search at all for deeper meaning, it tells a nicely unadorned tale on its surface. However, I believe Robert Frost packed this little verse with profound meaning about life and death. For me, the owner of the woods who lives in the village is God, the Author of Life, our Redeemer from death, and One who calls us to a task that gives meaning to our lives – even when we have no idea what that meaning is just yet. Even when we do not even know the task to which we are called.
There is something haunting and alluring about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. If you have ever stood in the woods at night while it snows, then you know the awesome, mesmerizing silence of that experience. All sound is absorbed, and the powerful sense of aloneness can produce inner peace. But it can also trigger a sense of foreboding, of being cut off from the sounds and sights of humanity, cut off from life in the village. Today’s fear of death is, in its essence, a fear of utter silence, of the world of no more.
Even the poem’s “little horse” is a symbol of the simplicity of our animal nature. The horse ponders not the meaning of the woods, and “gives his harness bells a shake” to bring his rider back to his senses. “We’ve no reason to stop here.” The horse knows nothing of his rider’s yearning for surrender, for a time of removal from the civilization and social responsibility in which the Owner of those woods is engaged in the village ahead.
It’s okay to stop by the woods on a snowy evening. We just can’t stay there. Not yet. Robert Frost’s woods represent death. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” and they stand in the poem as an invitation to final surrender and rest. “Sleep” in the poem is a metaphor for death, just as it is for Jesus as he awakens Lazarus from the sleep of death:
“‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we too may die with him.’” (John 11: 11-16)
If you have read this far, and my analysis of Robert Frost’s poem hasn’t put you to sleep, then like me you might wonder what exactly I meant when I whispered to my mother that “I have promises to keep.” The dream didn’t spell it out for me, so I had to search for its deeper meaning.
In our poem, the rider seems to be on a journey, though Frost gives us no indication of its purpose or destination. At the end of his journey, the rider has “promises to keep” but the woods, “lovely, dark, and deep” are an enticing release from both the journey and his burdens. But the responsibility of his promises pulls harder than the woods, and his release – his inevitable death – is postponed. The rider moves on toward his destiny and the fulfillment of his promises – both those he has made and those made to him. He moves on, as I did in the dream of my mother, with “miles to go before I sleep.”
My mother died a terrible death, having suffered for three years from hydrocephalus, the build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. It was misdiagnosed in her early seventies, and by the time it was properly diagnosed, it could not be treated. She visited me in prison with a cane, and then a walker, and then a wheelchair, and then, for the last year of her life, not at all. Though only sixty miles away from my prison, she could not even speak with me by telephone for the last six months of her life. She became paralyzed, and entered a prison of her own.
In our last visit in the New Hampshire State Prison visiting room a year before my mother died, I told her I was sorry for what had become of my life and my priesthood. Most mothers of priests – especially Irish mothers – take a certain pride in the priesthood of their sons. My mother left this world with her own priest-son in prison. I worried about the wounds to her pride my false imprisonment wrought.
But all was not lost. There was grace even in that. Sometime between now and Mother’s Day I hope you might read anew – or for the first time – “A Corner of the Veil.” It describes a promise I made to my mother that I would never take the easy way out of the crisis that priesthood brought me to. I intend to keep that promise, and in a dream last week, my mother showed up to help strengthen its resolve. But more than that, “A Corner of the Veil” is about the continuity of relationship between the living and the dead. That post described a very subtle but deeply meaningful connection with my mother beyond this life, and I might have missed it if I let the growing spiritual cynicism of this world take root in prison and take my faith as it grew and festered.
What I described in that post is a true tale, and a powerful one, and I haven’t yet recovered from the nudge – a smack upside the head, really – from my mother. It was her wake-up call to me to stop by the woods on a snowy evening just long enough to peer through a corner of the veil between this life and the next, and to renew my engagement with both the mysteries and promises of my faith despite where I must, for this moment, live it.
I have heard from so many readers of These Stone Walls asking me for prayers for their mothers, living and dead, some beloved and some estranged, some deeply missed and some slowly leaving this world. On Mother’s Day I promise, the Owner willing, to offer Mass for all the readers of These Stone Walls who are mothers, and for all of your mothers. Those who have passed from this life are, I think, also reading, and they can hold me to it. Perhaps they’ll gather. Perhaps they’ll even plot. Were that the case, my mother would surely be in Heaven!
We, the living, have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. First among those promises is to engage in a vibrant life of faith that opens itself to the continuity of life between this world and the next, something our culture of death denies. Fostering that faith, and making fertile its ground, is a great responsibility, and the source of all freedom. That’s the absolute truth! Just ask Mom!
“And he said to them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things within her heart.” (Luke 2: 49-51)