A change behind these stone walls felt a lot like entering the dark valley of Psalm 23 until St Maximilian Kolbe gave us direction and St Cyril gave us perspective.
If you have read my recent Marian Helper article, “The Doors That Have Unlocked” (and I hope you will), then you know that I spent my first seven years in this prison in a place with men confined eight to a cell. The cells were meant for four, but prison overcrowding expanded them year after year. The population expanded, but not the space.
I entered that chaos in 1994. Seven years later, in 2001, I was finally able to move to a saner place with two per cell. It took a year to recover a sense of normalcy. Four years later in 2005, Pornchai Moontri was moved here from a “supermax” prison after spending those same seven years in solitary confinement. Two years after that, in 2007, our lives converged upon the same place. Then, in 2009, These Stone Walls began (About).
If you’re the only person on the planet who doesn’t yet know that story, award-winning journalist, Felix Carroll, wrote of it in the book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions. The chapter about Pornchai’s life and conversion is reproduced with permission at Mercy to the Max. It’s an amazing story of broken dreams and the triumph of grace.
You might have read Father George David Byers’ October 25 post about our recent trial by fire entitled “Father Gordon MacRae on the Move.” A few weeks ago, prison officials here announced an ominous change in the place where I have spent the last 16 of the 23 years I have been in prison. We were told of the imminent relocation of all 120 prisoners here to other units, scattered to the four winds within this prison system.
The place where I have lived for 16 years will now be used for a specific class of prisoners in the final year of their sentence. Of the 120 to be relocated, we were told that 96 would be sent back to the eight-man cells where I spent my first seven years here while the remaining 24 would be sent to other places in the prison system.
It goes without saying that this caused us grave concern. It is a reality of prison that friends here can disappear in the night never to be seen or heard from again in this life. Sometimes, these friends are all we have, and vice versa. So I asked a contact in the real world to post this intention seeking the help of your prayers.
I did my best to place this development under the mantle of our Blessed Mother’s intercession, and I asked my friend, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, to be our guide through this maze of prison life in which we have no voice of our own at all. That’s the real source of this prison anxiety. We are powerless to address any of it, and capable of having no effect on the outcome except perhaps to make it worse by letting our fears and anxieties gain traction.
In the two days after this announcement was made, but before it was implemented, I learned unofficially that Pornchai-Max and I would be sent to the “South” unit, generally considered to be “preferred housing” here for its relative stability, two-person cells and more access to the outside. It seemed hopeful. That unit comprises multiple buildings with about 570 prisoners, but I would see Max every day, and within a month or so we could again dwell in the same place.
In the years before Pornchai came here, during the years I spent in the very crowded eight-man cells, I had requested to move to that unit. My last such effort was in 2001, but the request was denied. Sometimes there is no reason given for such a denial, but I was given a reason. I was denied for being “non program.”
What that means in prison language is that maintaining actual innocence is considered “not with the program.” It’s seen as a behavioral problem which renders an innocent prisoner ineligible for preferred housing assignments. The idea that many prisoners falsely claim to be innocent is a myth. There is a high price to be paid for such a claim here, and no one makes it lightly.
That denial was back in 2001. Since then, attitudes have changed somewhat – at least attitudes toward me. So three weeks ago when this relocation was announced, the unconfirmed news that we were going to the place I requested all those years ago seemed promising. So we waited for something to happen.
From day to day, hour by hour, we expected to go. Pornchai and I packed all our possessions, and when the move to the South unit didn’t happen, I felt increasingly concerned. We spent nearly a week packed up and living out of trash bags (the prison equivalent of a suitcase) . During this time, we were very much aware of your prayers and moral support. They gave us hope as we faced this change.
Then on Saturday, October 22, slips of paper were handed out to us and all the prisoners around us with our new housing assignments. It wasn’t at all what we expected. Both Max and I were to be moved to the eight-man cells where I started 23 years ago. It came as a crushing disappointment, not to mention a very difficult way to live in the long term. Whether this might change anytime soon, we simply do not know, but it’s possible.
SOMETHING HIDDEN IN THE DEEP UNSEEN
On that same day, a letter came from a TSW reader in Monterey, California. He wrote that he has been reading These Stone Walls ever since Father John Zuhlsdorf posted a link to my post, “How Father Benedict Groeschel Entered My Darkest Night.”
The writer said that he had been reading a Catholic newspaper that day, and it contained something that made him think of me so he wrote it out for me. It was part of a reflection about the work of the Holy Spirit by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, a Fourth Century Doctor of the Church:
“…And He is called the Comforter, because He comforts and encourages us, and helps our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us, with groaning which cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26), that is, makes intercession to God. Oftentimes a man for Christ’s sake has been outraged and dishonored unjustly; martyrdom is at hand; tortures on every side, and fire, and sword, and savage beasts, and the pit. But the Holy Spirit softly whispers to him, ‘Wait on the Lord, O man; what is now befalling you is a small matter. The reward will be great.’
“Suffer a little while, and you shall be with Angels forever. The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18). He portrays to the man the Kingdom of Heaven; He gives him a glimpse of Paradise, and the martyrs whose bodily countenance are of necessity turned to their judges, but who in Spirit are already in Paradise, despite those hardships which are seen.” (Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, 313-386 A.D.)
This reader in Monterey could not foresee the timing of his letter, and Saint Cyril certainly could not have foreseen it when he wrote all those centuries ago. But it was what I needed to read and ponder as we prepared to return to a dark valley.
And it is also what we all need to ponder as we contemplate the state of our world – the world in which we are all, for the present time, both pilgrims and prisoners.
This kind reader gave me a much-needed reminder that great suffering requires great trust. After reading his letter, I realized that if my request to move to a better place had been granted in 2001, Pornchai-Max and I would have never met. Comfortable in my “preferred” housing, I would have remained oblivious to Pornchai’s life, sight unseen, and he would remain blind to any path that leads out of his own dark valley.
Sometimes it feels as though our prayers are not answered, but that’s not ever true. The balance between suffering and trust is acceptance that in the tapestry of God – into which our lives are intricately threaded – there is something hidden in the deep unseen. For everything there is a purpose under Heaven.
On Tuesday, October 25, Pornchai and I moved with dismal foreboding to a cramped and uncomfortable prison cell we must share with six other men. That’s a future post, but at least we are to live in the same place. We were very concerned about our Chinese friend, Kewei Chen, of whom I wrote in “The Writing on the Wall Behind These Stone Walls.” Chen was feeling very alone in a place full of strangers. Then, after just one night in our new cell, a prisoner asked to move out, and Chen was moved in.
The coming weeks and months will be a challenge for your friends behind These Stone Walls. Typing a post will be difficult, but not impossible. Placing phone calls to hear messages and comments will be a challenge. In this new place, 96 men will share access to three prisoner telephones. Everything will take more time, will seem more difficult, will require more patience, but we will not give up.
This was so difficult for us both. I had to discard seven years of TSW posts and now must rely solely on memory about what I have written in the past. We both had to discard much of the material signs of progress we have made. But I am so very proud of Pornchai. Instead of falling into the despair that was present all around us, he went cell to cell that first evening to encourage everyone else to cope with this unwelcome change.
I am told that we are still considered for the more permanent housing in the South unit, and will eventually be moved again to a place where life may one-day prove a little easier for us. It may happen in time, but one thing is clear. I am a prisoner, but first and foremost I am a Catholic priest, and I cannot leave anyone behind even if it means staying in the dark valley.
We feel a lot less alone here knowing you are also out there reading about us, praying for us, and walking at our side on this road. We offer this hard transition in prison in the hope that it will sow the seeds of trust for you as well, and perhaps merit spiritual support for you. Whether you are conscious of it or not, we are engaged in the heat of battle in spiritual warfare. As for us, prison isn’t quite a zombie apocalypse, but sometimes it sure feels like one.
Viva Cristo Rey!