The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the setting for a profound story of how Mother Mary sought out a son lost in darkness and led him to the light of Divine Mercy.
- “The Marians believe Mary chose this particular group of inmates to be the first. That reason eventually was revealed. It turns out that one of the participating inmates was Pornchai Moontri.” (Felix Carroll, “Mary Is At Work Here,” Marian Helper magazine).
This story describes a most unlikely series of events in a most unlikely series of places. Some of it has been told in these pages before, but putting theses threads together in one place creates an inspiring tapestry of Divine Providence. I first thought of writing about this several months ago at the conclusion of a six-week retreat program in the New Hampshire State Prison.
Over the summer of 2019, Pornchai Moontri and I were asked to take part, for a second time, in the Divine Mercy retreat, 33 Days to Morning Glory by Marian Father Michael Gaitley. It was offered here in the summer months amid lots of competing activities. The organizers needed 15 participants to host the retreat, but only 13 signed up. So Pornchai and I were to be “the filler.”
We ended up benefitting greatly from the ‘retreat,’and I think we also contributed much to the other participants. At the end of it, one of the retreat facilitators, Andy Bashelor turned to Pornchai and said “I want you to know that I saw your conversion story. It is the most powerful story I have ever read.” I wrote of this in “Eric Mahl and Pornchai Moontri: A Lesson in Freedom.”
But before returning to that story, I want to revisit something that happened several months before it was posted. Late in the afternoon of December 11, 2018, I was at my desk in the prison Law Library where I use two computer systems side by side. Neither can be used for my own work. I still write posts on an old typewriter.
One computer at my work desk connects directly to Lexis Nexus, a legal database that all law libraries have. The other connects to the prison library system database. As I was shutting down the computers before leaving for the day, I decided to change the background screen on that second computer. For the previous two years it was a graphic image of our Galaxy with a little “You Are Here” arrow pointing to a tiny dot in the cosmos that depicted our solar system. It made me feel very insignificant.
I had but moments left before rushing out the door at 3:00 PM. I called up a list of background screens which displayed only hundreds of numbered graphic files with no way to view them. So I decided to just pick a number – there were pages of them – and get what I get. Then I shut down the system without seeing it.
The next morning, December 12, I arrived at my desk and booted up the computer for work. The image that filled my screen is the one you see here. It’s a magnificent mural in Mexico City. I was not yet even conscious of the date. On the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from a thousand random numbers, she appeared on my screen and has been there since.
I was not always conscious of any spiritual connection with Mary. Her sphere of influence in my life was first directed to Pornchai Moontri. The segment from Marian Helper magazine atop this post attests to that. I wrote of it in “Crime and Punishment on the Solemnity of Christ the King.”
A MYSTERY IN HER EYES
But back, for a moment, to Our Lady of Guadalupe which became my favorite among all the Marian images I have come to reverence. Its origin is fascinating. Nearly five centuries ago, on the morning of December 12, 1531, young Juan Diego, an early Aztec convert to Catholicism in the New World, was walking at the foot of Tepayac Hill outside Mexico City.
Days earlier in the same location, Juan Diego heard the beautiful voice of a lady, but saw no one. On this day, she appeared. She instructed Juan Diego to build a church on that spot. She then told him to gather up in his tilma – a shawl that was commonly worn at the time – a bunch of Castillian roses that appeared nearby. Castillian roses were never in bloom in December, but there they were. He was told to bring these to the local bishop.
When Juan Diego removed his tilma in the presence of the bishop and a group of people with him, he and they were surprised to see the roses. But they were stunned to also see imprinted in the tilma an amazing image of a beautiful young woman surrounded by the rays of the Sun with the crescent moon under her feet, surrounded by roses and with angels attending her. The woman had asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she is “Coatloxopeuh,” which in Nahuati, the language of the Aztecs, means “The One Who Crushes the Serpent.”
Juan Diego’s tilma, a garment of the poor, was made of coarse fiber completely unsuitable for painting. Since 1666, the tilma image has been studied by artists and scientists who have been unable to explain how the image became incorporated into the very fibers of the tilma. The shawl is the only one of its kind still in existence after nearly 500 years. It is enshrined in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Hundreds of years later, in 1929, a photographer revealed that when he enlarged photographs of the Lady’s face on the tilma, other images appeared to be in her eyes. In 1979, scientist and engineer, Dr. Jose Aste Tousman, studied the tilma using more sophisticated imaging equipment enlarging her eyes 2,500 times.
After filtering and processing the images using computers, it was discovered that the Lady’s two eyes contain another imprint – the image of the bishop and several other people staring at the tilma apparently at the moment Juan Diego presented it in 1531. It was a permanent imprint equally appearing upon the retinas of both eyes in stereoscopic vision. It appeared to be what Our Lady of Guadalupe saw when Juan Diego first presented his mysterious tilma to the bishop.
On January 26, 1979, Pope John Paul II offered Mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe before an overflow crowd of 300,000. Years later, St. Juan Diego was canonized by him. Now, seemingly by random “accident,” that image is enshrined on the computer screen in the place where I work in prison each day. The mathematical odds against this happening are as astronomical as the odds against the image itself.
HER SUMMONS TO PORNCHAI MOONTRI
The icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe is now also on the wall of our cell. It has been widely accepted by many as a representation of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Moon Under Her Feet” as described in the Book of Revelations (12:1). In the Mystical City of God, Venerable Mary of Agreda discerned that evil greatly fears this image, and flees from it.
Both Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition are filled with accounts of good men and women who suffer terrible ordeals only to be transformed into great men and women. I told the devastating story of how Pornchai Moontri came into my life in 2005 and all that he endured before and after in “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.”
Seemingly by some mysteriously Guiding Hand, the events of both our lives steered us toward the point of our being in the same place at the same time and meeting. After all that Pornchai had suffered in life, he would have had nothing to do with me if not for a 2005 set of articles about me that Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in two parts in The Wall Street Journal (“A Priest’s Story”).
Pornchai read them and was moved that he has met a friend whose life had been unjustly shattered in almost equal measure to his own. It was then that he made a decision to trust me.
In 2007, the next catastrophe in his life took place. After fifteen years in prison, many of them in the cruel torment of solitary confinement, Pornchai was ordered by a U.S. Immigration Judge to be deported to his native Thailand upon completion of his sentence. Pornchai despaired about the prospect of one day being left alone in a country of only vague memories, a country from which he was taken against his will as a young abandoned child.
I told Pornchai in 2007 that we will have to build a bridge to Thailand. He scoffed at this, saying that it was impossible to do from a prison. Then the first sections of the bridge began to be laid out. This was two years before These Stone Walls began in 2009. First, Mrs. LaVern West, a retired librarian in Cincinnati, Ohio also read those WSJ articles and began corresponding with me.
In a return letter, I mentioned my friendship with Pornchai and the challenges we faced. LaVern began researching and printing rudimentary lessons of Thai language and culture and sending them to Pornchai who began to study them. One of the lessons mentioned a Thai language series produced by Paiboon Publishers, a Thai language bookseller in California. So I wrote to them. Pornchai had not heard Thai spoken since before he became a homeless 13year-old lost in America.
Paiboon Publishers donated a set of Thai language DVDs to the prison library for the exclusive use of Pornchai to study Thai several hours per week. He quickly became proficient in the spoken language of his early childhood. Writing in Thai, however, was simply beyond his grasp. Mine too.
We both gave learning the Thai writing system a serious effort, but it seems just a complex series of squiggles beyond the capacity of most Western adult minds to assimilate. Pornchai reads and writes fluently in English, however, which in Thailand is an asset.
In 2008, the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights published “Pornchai’s Story” as the conversion story of 2008. In 2009, These Stone Walls began, and I also began a quest to make our presence known in Thailand. On the Tenth Anniversary of this blog – in “Prison Journal: A Decade of Writing at These Stone Walls” – I told the story of how it started and the impact it has had on both our lives.
Charlene Duline, a reader of These Stone Walls from Indianapolis, wrote a post for her own blog entitled “Pornchai Moontri is Worth Saving.” I scoffed at it. It was an appeal for an attorney to help Pornchai, but my experience with lawyers left me very pessimistic. Across the globe, trademarks attorney Clare Farr read it and began an investigation into the life of Pornchai in both Thailand and the State of Maine.
My efforts to reach out to Thailand at first seemed to no avail. Everything written and mailed from prison bears a disclaimer stamped on our envelopes declaring that the contents were written and mailed from prison. With only a few exceptions, my letters to anyone I thought might help us were met with silence. Meanwhile, Pornchai was brought into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2010. This resulted in several articles and a chapter in the book, Loved, Lost, Found, by Marian Helper Editor, Felix Carroll. [Editor’s note: that chapter is reprinted with permission with important pictures and a stunning video link to a PBS Frontline documentary about the solitary confinement prison cells where Pornchai spent seemingly endless years. This is to be found at the website dedicated to Pornchai: MercyToTheMax.com]
The book was especially powerful, and it made its way to Bangkok where it was read by a prominent group of Catholics who founded a Divine Mercy mission and ministry. The rest is told gloriously in a post I will link to at the end: “Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand.”
MY SURRENDER TO HER FIAT
I gradually became aware that what I once thought and hoped was a Great Tapestry of God designed to rescue me was really designed to rescue Pornchai Moontri, and I was but an instrument in a Divinely inspired Script. It became increasingly clear to me why Mary sent another of her spiritual sons, St Maximilian Kolbe, into our lives.
I came to understand in my heart and soul that I am to emulate what he did. I am to offer my life – or at least my freedom – for the salvation of another prisoner upon whom Mary has placed the safety of her mantle. This is how we got to where we are.
Pornchai’s survival has taken on a life of its own as a result of our growing years of trust in Divine Mercy. The Divine Mercy Thailand group has obtained a commitment from the Redemptorists of Thailand and The Father Ray Foundation to receive Pornchai for a period of adjustment and re-assimilation into Thailand and its culture.
I am trying to raise his room & board for a year. When prisoners are deported from America, they are left in a foreign country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Without contacts in the receiving country, many are doomed. We have learned much about the process of forced deportation from our experience with others. (See: “Criminal Aliens: The ICE Deportation of Augie Reyes.”)
Late on the night of November 22, 2019, I watched on EWTN as Pope Francis was greeted in Thailand in a beautiful ceremony as Thai Catholics in a predominantly Buddhist culture sang for him like an angelic choir. I realized I will be handing Pornchai over to them in a matter of months, and I could not contain my emotions any longer. As Pornchai was fast asleep late at night as I watched Pope Francis being received in Thailand, I began to cry.
I do not know where our long road turns next, but what started as tears of loss and sorrow that night were also tears of triumph. They were the tears of St. Joseph, summoned to a Fatherhood he never envisioned but from which he would never retreat. Through grace, and the gifts of powerful advocates in Heaven and on Earth, we did all this from inside a prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire. At every turn I heard Mary’s Fiat to Divine Providence: “Be it done to me according to Thy Word.”
O come, O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
For more on the above story, please read and share these related posts from Father Gordon MacRae:
- The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from St. Maximilian Kolbe
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok Thailand
- When Justice Came to Pornchai Moontri, Mercy Followed by Attorney Clare Farr
- Advent of the Mother of God
An Important Message from Ryan A. MacDonald:
To the Readers of These Stone Walls I have had the honor of twice interviewing Pornchai Maximilian Moontri behind those stone walls, and have written about him. As so many of you know, his story is staggering in the depths of its sorrow and yet inspiring in the heights of his spiritual conversion.
TSW reader Bill Wendell from Ohio has kicked off a funding effort with a gift of $1,000 to assist in the restoration of Pornchai’s life. Readers who wish to join in this effort may do so using the PayPal link (found by scrolling down on our Donate Page). Please indicate on the PayPal form memo line the name of Pornchai Moontri. You may also have a check made out to Pornchai Moontri forwarded to him at Pornchai Moontri c/o These Stone Walls, P.O. Box 205, Wilmington MA 01887-0205. In either case, these funds will be forwarded to a savings account set aside for Pornchai-Max who will be starting his life over. Thank you.