The trials of 2017 came full circle at These Stone Walls with results we only dared to hope for. This Advent, we bring a story of hope from its least likely place.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”
Sometimes when I write, I unconsciously lapse into a style that can come across as academic. This was pointed out to me recently by a friend who read my post, “Origin by Dan Brown, Like The Da Vinci Code, Is Bunk.” As a book review, I was rather happy with that post. But my friend said it reads more like an academic essay than a blog post. “Sometimes you should just talk to your readers,” she wrote.
Looking over my posts of the last few months, I realize that I can sometimes lapse into a monologue to you instead of a dialogue with you. I would like to be able to write both, so this one is intended to be a dialogue. I know I have some built-in handicaps like being unable to have a give-and-take with readers in the comments box.
So for this post, I will ask the friends who help me with comments to be patient with me so that I can respond to your comments and questions within a day or so. That will mean some extra phone calls and the forbearance of those who help me type replies. I cannot always impose on them for this, but for this post, it’s a necessity.
I am very grateful to readers who take up the torch and respond in my stead when they have information that answers questions or challenges misconceptions of commenters. We just had a great example of the latter.
An important recent post for me was “Plea Deals or a Life Sentence in the Live Free or Die State.” You may have gleaned from its title that it includes the ironic State Motto of New Hampshire. It comes from the Revolutionary War when New Hampshire General John Stark gave a toast at a reunion of soldiers from the Battle of Bennington. His toast became the state’s motto: “Live Free or Die.”
The above post about the glaring injustices of my trial and sentence includes a quote from Larry Stirling, a retired California Superior Court judge Mr. Stirling had published a letter in The Wall Street Journal defending the practice of plea deals. Of the defendants to whom such deals are offered he wrote, “They might be criminals but they aren’t all dumb.”
Judge Stirling, who had obviously set up a “Google Alert” for his name, posted a hostile comment on my “Plea Deals” post that stirred up a brief hornet’s nest of responses from readers. They were on point, and I appreciated the “backup.”
Ryan MacDonald commented that he sent a link to that post to a dozen New Hampshire legislators and several other state officials. Not one even opened the link. He wrote that the post was read far more widely in Washington, DC than in New Hampshire where the story takes place. I do not seek justice alone, but justice and truth, and they should be inseparable.
But there is a lot more happening behind These Stone Walls than merely the physical limits imposed on my freedom. In recent snail mail, emails, and comments, a lot of readers have asked me for an update and posed questions that I have been unable to fully answer until now. Some developments of the last few months are astonishing and I am still trying to make sense of them.
SIGNS AND WONDERS
This post is intended to be a continuation of one I wrote some months ago entitled, “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.” If you scroll to the end of that post, you will find many comments from readers who shared my awe in that story. Many wrote that it came at a time when they very much needed an account of a real-life miracle like the one described in that post.
I built up to that story in a number of previous posts that would require a lot of reading if you are new to TSW. So first, a brief summary:
The entire 23 years of my unjust imprisonment were lived in a stand-alone prison unit called “Hancock Building.” It houses 506 prisoners in six units known as pods and has the outward appearance of a prison within this prison. Most of the pods have cells that were constructed to house four prisoners each but now hold eight. For the unfortunate prisoners living there, access to the outside is extremely limited.
For my first seven years there from 1994 to 2001, I lived in that environment with eight to a cell. I lived there longer than anyone else because I maintain my innocence. In 2001, I was moved to a slightly better place within that building where we lived two per cell. Though outside access was still nearly absent, the next 15 years seemed more livable.
During that same first seven years when I lived eight to a cell, Pornchai Moontri was in the Maine State Prison where he spent those seven years in the bizarre cruelty of solitary confinement. You could read of that experience Pornchai’s own words in “Welcome to Supermax” at SolitaryWatch.com.
In 2005 Pornchai was transferred to the New Hampshire prison. A year later in 2006, we were thrown together with the utter weirdness of seven years in polar opposite prison conditions. I wish you could have been a fly on the wall for our earliest exchanges. As Felix Carroll wrote in his great Divine Mercy book, Loved, Lost, Found:
“Pornchai had no idea who he was dealing with, and he and Fr. Gordon’s first meetings were not particularly transcendent. ‘I was real hostile and told him I just wanted him to help me get transferred to a prison in Bangkok Thailand’ Pornchai says. Father Gordon told him to be careful what he asked for. ‘I won’t help you pursue something that will only further destroy you,’ he said. Pornchai was bewildered by this guy.”
Over the next ten years from 2006 to 2016, Pornchai and I journeyed to a level of trust, not only of one another but of Christ. That trust drew us into the spirituality of Divine Mercy. A few years later, in 2009, These Stone Walls began, and on the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2013, we embraced Marian Consecration. This was described by Felix Carroll in Marian Helper magazine in “Mary Is at Work Here.”
Then October 2016 brought a great upheaval. Due to changes in the prison, we were suddenly moved back to the eight-man cells. For the next year, we lived amid the violence and chaos of a prison culture that I had left 15 years earlier. As Advent began last year, I described the day we moved in: “It’s Advent: Can Your Vision Pierce the Darkness?”
It helped my spirits to write that post because at the time I was not so certain that our vision could pierce the darkness that lay before us. Finally, ten months later near the end of July 2017, I was moved to a far better place.
On the next day, Pornchai Moontri was also moved, but to a different place, and we lost contact with each other except for Sunday Mass in the prison chapel for one hour per week. For reasons you will read in a future post, our separation came at a critical time, and prospects for reuniting seemed dismal. I wrote of this in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.” Here is an important excerpt:
“Another week came and went, and another Sunday we met at Mass. After Communion, I asked our Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe, to guide us through this maze of prison. I prayed that Pornchai would be placed under the mantle of the Immaculate, and not lose hope. I showed him the Memorare prayer, and as I held it in front of me we prayed it silently:
“‘Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mazy that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, we fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, our Mother. To you do we come, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not, our petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer us. Amen.’
“Trust is hard won here, and trust in Divine Mercy – which often seems so elusive – is harder won still.
“But this is what makes turning this next page so improbable, so unexpected and seemingly miraculous. Such things simply never happen here. Three days after praying The Memorare that Sunday at Mass, with two full weeks having passed since our parting, I returned to my new quarters to find Pornchai Moontri living once again in the bunk above me. I cannot explain the how or why of it, and neither can he.
“I can only tell you that this was the result of a bizarre and unlikely series of behind-the-scenes events, with just the right people in just the right places at just the right times doing just the right things. Over a two day period, Pornchai found himself living in three different places until – through no effort of our own – he landed with me.”
That’s where our story was left in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads.” Many readers were moved by it, and many responded with gratitude for its timing. This is a tough time for a lot of you. For some of us, our politics and our spirits have descended to new lows, and sometimes our society seems to be on a fast track toward self-destruction. Signs that God is indeed with us can seem fleeting, and far between.
NOVUS ORDO AD ORIENTEM
But the unlikely course of events that reunited us against seemingly impossible obstacles did not end there. At the time Pornchai and I finally landed in the same place, a far better place, we at first lived in bunks out in the open in a recreation area.
It was a vast improvement over where we were for the last year, and we were among friends so we counted our blessings. The place where we landed – Pod 3B in Medium Security South – has 24 prisoners and about 20 of them are friends we have known for a long time. There is no place where we would feel more welcomed.
But we also knew that we could not stay there. Our friends there are all long-term prisoners and no one was preparing to leave. We knew that the next available cell space would be at least four years away. Finding a cell with both bunks available would be impossible. And even if we wanted to, we would not be able to live out in an open dayroom for four years.
Pornchai and I knew that we might have to settle for simply being in the same unit while living in two different pods. Over the next few months, we were both approached five times by prisoners in other locations whose cell mates were leaving. We both turned down the offers to move in with them, but I can’t really explain why. Something told me we should watch and wait.
Then, suddenly just weeks ago, one of the prisoners where we live was returned to a Massachusetts prison after being in that one cell on our pod for 27 years. I was offered his bunk in that cell, but I asked that it be given to Pornchai instead. He was having a harder time sleeping out in the open.
Two weeks later, another domino fell somewhere else. A prisoner was unexpectedly moved in the South unit. This started a chain reaction of requests to move. One of the requests came from Pornchai’s new roommate who said that a cell with his friend on another pod came open and he asked for it.
Once again, what seemed impossible happened right before our eyes. On November 17, Pornchai and I became roommates again. This week, I was able to retrieve my Mass kit from the prison chaplain one year after parting with it when we moved to the eight-man cells. I wrote of this other painful parting in “The Sacrifice of the Sacrifice of the Mass.”
In the year 1576, Saint John of the Cross was imprisoned by his own Order for attempting to bring about monastic reforms. He was imprisoned in a tiny six-foot by ten-foot cell. It was there that he wrote the great spiritual classic, The Dark Night of the Soul. After reading about this, I took out a ruler and measured our new cell. It is six-by-ten feet.
That’s 60-square feet that now must be sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a study, and a living room for two grown men. But our dark night of the soul will not be written there. We had to add an altar as well. Late on the First Sunday of Advent, just under a small cell window facing east, I offered Mass for the first time in over a year, and our world is at peace.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Our Mass is offered late Sunday night for the readers of These Stone Walls. Please share this post, and if you like it, please also read and share these other Advent posts from prison:
- Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- The First of the Four Last Things: An Advent Tale
- Saint Gabriel the Archangel: The Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us
- Advent of the Mother of God