On his 32nd ordination anniversary Fr Gordon MacRae writes of Priesthood, Pentecost, and the Jewish Festival of Shavu’ot as death draws near on a prison afternoon.
“I said, in the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living; I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of the world.” (Isaiah 38: 10-11)
“Can you help Anthony?” It was one of those upside-down questions I wrote about in “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes: Viva Christo Rey!” Sometimes late at night after “lights out,” when the grinding noise of prison begins to subside, I lay on my bunk in the dark reading with a little book light. Suddenly from up above, Pornchai-Maximilian’s head pops down to ask me a question. As he asks it, from my perspective, he is upside down.
Sometimes his question generates a long, reflective response. By the time I’m finished with these erudite and thoughtful replies, Pornchai falls silent. I used to think he quietly pondered my wise counsel long into the night, but I’ve since learned that before my response is even half delivered, Pornchai is usually snoring. “Better than a sleeping pill!” he said one day when I asked him whether my homiletic response helped at all.
Pornchai’s last upside-down question was about Saint Maximilian Kolbe. He asked whether we should expect Saint Maximilian to intercede for our rescue from prison when no one rescued him. This matter is complicated, and more than a little humbling. I wrote in “Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes” of how disconcerting it is when Pornchai stumbles into a spiritual truth that I spent my entire priesthood working out for myself to make sense of it.
Pondering my response to Pornchai’s question about our Patron/ Saint Maximilian, that night made me realize something about the patron saints we choose. The point is that we don’t choose them at all. They choose us! They choose us for a relationship with us that is not as simple as a rescue from all that is wrong and uncomfortable in life and the pursuit of living. Our saints choose us so we can emulate them as we chart a course through the labyrinth of living spiritually in a physical world.
There is a difference between having life and living. That might seem an odd thing to hear a prisoner of twenty years say but it’s true. There are people in this prison who have life, but they are not living. They are merely existing. And there are some upon whom dawns an awareness that life is slipping away, and it’s a wake-up call to take an inventory, and begin to live.
YOUR SAINTS SHOULD SHAKE YOU UP
Pornchai’s “upside-down question” made me realize how ridiculous and childish I have been with the saints God has sent to me. I spent twenty years asking Saint Maximilian to delivery me from false witness and prison when no one delivered him. I have been asking Saint Padre Pio to deliver me from all the aches and pains of sleeping on a steel slab at the age of 61. Think about that! I had the gall to come before Saint Pio – who lived his entire life as a priest, five decades of it, with the open, bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ – and I implored him to deliver ME from discomfort? There is a photo on my wall that a TSW reader sent to me. It’s a photo of Padre Pio laughing. Now I know what he was laughing about!
From Pornchai’s simple question about imploring the saints for rescue, I discerned at last that having Saint Maximilian as a Patron Saint means that he will teach me the person I am to be while in prison. Having Saint Padre Pio as a Patron Saint means he will show me the priest I am to be while suffering. From both, I have learned the necessity and meaning of priestly witness and priestly sacrifice – which are really one and the same. There is no witness without sacrifice.
Pornchai-Maximilian’s latest upside-down question troubled me greatly. He asked in genuine humility and expectation if I could help Anthony. Fully trusting that I would arrive at the right answer, Pornchai fell asleep just moments after asking this, while I stayed awake for most of that night.
You see, Anthony is a fellow prisoner, a man in his late forties who at times has been, to put it indelicately, a major pain in the ass! He is one of Pornchai’s friends but he has never been one of mine. Anthony has been in prison with us for about ten years, and at times, I confess, my patience with him has been stretched to its limits. No, it’s actually worse than that. For most of that time, I disliked Anthony so thoroughly that I would have nothing to do with him. His cynical, abrasive, and judgmental demeanor gnaws at my nerves. In all these twenty years in prison, Anthony is the only prisoner I have ever thrown out of my cell.
That’s not very priestly of me. I know that, but it never really seemed to make much difference to Anthony. He talks often with Pornchai, however, and when he sees me coming he makes a hasty retreat without a word. I’ve been happy with that arrangement up to now. So has Anthony. Even Pornchai long ago accepted that when I feel like a burning flame, Anthony has always been ready to add propane.
DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON OF LIFE
So when Pornchai hit me with his latest upside down question, I felt ashamed that my long-felt disdain for this man stood in the way of something very important. Over the last two months, Anthony has learned that he is dying. I don’t mean this in the same sense that we are all dying – for we are – but rather that Anthony is dying now. . . visibly. . . and maybe soon. For years he has complained of pain in his chest only to be told by prison medical personnel to take aspirin, drink less coffee, etc. When finally an X-Ray was performed after seven years of complaining of such pain, a huge mass was found on one lung. Then a CT scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his spine. Then chemotherapy was ordered, but before it could begin, an MRI revealed four cancerous lesions in the brain, and now the consulting oncologist speaks of possibly months, but not years.
I have been coaching Anthony not to just accept this prognosis in defeat. No one knows the day or the hour. I have been prodding Anthony to fight for his life, and he is gearing up for that battle. I have encouraged Anthony to make vast changes in the way he sees life, and to live in the moment he is in instead of the days gone by.
But what Pornchai really had in mind was not for me to show Anthony how to fight to live, but how to die. Should a man about to mark 32 years of priesthood know such a thing? Perhaps I should, and perhaps I have some things that both Pornchai and I together can show Anthony about standing at the foot of the Cross in surrender to the Author of Redeemed Life.
First, however, there is something I must resolve in myself for priesthood depends upon it. When Pornchai asked me that question late in the night, I was confronted with a troubling truth about my life as a priest, and before you ever read another word of These Stone Walls you must know of my dismal failure.
When this darkness descended upon Anthony in the afternoon of his life, he could not come to me. His estrangement from me was as fixed and settled as his estrangement from his faith and from the Church, a falling out set in motion long ago. And because he did not feel free to come to me – the only priest in his field of view – he had to go through Pornchai, and when Pornchai told me all this, I was brought to another in a string of low points in my life as a priest.
THE SPIRITUAL WASTELAND OF HUMAN RESENTMENT
Have I been so preoccupied with being a prisoner in my disdain for Anthony’s fire and propane encounters with me that I forgot to be a priest? When light finally dawned, Anthony and I spoke for a long time. The good news is that, unlike our Thai friend, Anthony actually stayed awake for most of it! I told him that the past takes too long to drag into the present, and we haven’t time, so we’ll just leave the past back there. Anthony told me he needs to reconcile with God. I said, “That makes two of us!”
I gave Anthony an examination of conscience to read, then a few days later he emerged from his past into a new life of grace, restored to the faith and its Sacraments that were once a part of Anthony’s life, but dimmed into nothing but an ember as they can in so many lives in this modern world. Now they have been kindled into fire again – minus the propane.
Pornchai showed Anthony how to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, something Anthony says he does every day now because it comforts him, and calms his fears, and gives him hope. It is frightening to face death. To face death and prison at the same time is a special kind of fear. Whether my priesthood is up to the task of providing a roadmap through such a maze remains to be seen. I’ll need the example and intercession of Saint Maximilian Kolbe who alone – among all my friends – knew how to die in prison.
Anthony comes by every day now. In the afternoon when he returns from daily radiation treatments, he is often able to join EWTN in praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The radiation is given in hope that Anthony’s brain lesions might shrink enough for chemotherapy to then help extend his life somewhat. In one of the most humane gestures I have seen in prison, Pornchai took out his clippers and shaved Anthony’s head to save him from the embarrassment of having his hair fall out in clumps once this aggressive chemotherapy begins. It was a great idea. Now Anthony and I have the same hairdo.
Some say that these treatments to slow down his cancer are the most Anthony can hope for, but that is not true. He can hope for a share in the suffering of Christ. He can hope for the grace to share it back, in atonement for our sins, and the sins of the whole world. He can hope to live out his life as a disciple of Divine Mercy. He can hope, for that alone is one of the great gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed at the very dawn of the Church at Pentecost.
I gave Anthony a couple of past TSW posts to read. Each day now when we talk, he asks for another. I feel like such a fool. Of all the spiritual reading available in the prison library and prison chapel, Anthony wants only to read TSW posts one by one. I feel like a fool because I had no idea this is one reason why they were written. He is especially caught up in the life and death of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and in the Divine Mercy movement in which he finds a power and surrender that transcend life and death.
Pornchai and I have asked Anthony to visualize himself standing in the rays of Divine Mercy, and to remain there no matter what the outcome of his cancer treatment. Anthony also attends Mass with us when it is offered in the prison. He and Pornchai and Mike Ciresi and Michael Martinez and Jesse Pickard and I fill a row in the prison chapel.
I DREAMED A DREAM OF DAYS GONE BY
One of my posts that Anthony recently read was “Les Miserables! The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean.” I hope you might find a few minutes to read it again. Anthony loved it, and saw himself in it. So did I. After these events with Anthony, I heard in my mind Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean singing his famous rendition of “Who am I?” It’s a good question as I mark 32 years of priesthood, 20 of them in prison.
When Anthony first spoke with me about abandoning his faith years ago and his wish to reconcile with God, I had a painful and haunting dream that night that answered Jean Valjean’s question for me. In this dream, I was walking the cavernous cell blocks of this prison wearing a Capuchin habit, but with my prisoner number – 67546 – clearly visible for all to see. I began religious life in the Capuchin order, but left before Solemn Vows to pursue diocesan priesthood.
In the dream, I suddenly became aware that I must wear this priesthood openly, but also in the dream it generated a lot of abuse and ridicule from other prisoners. As I walked through the cellblocks with priesthood bared for all to see, I was treated by some with scorn and derision. In the dream, however, this was what was required. There is no priestly witness without priestly sacrifice. I always knew this, but it took me 32 years to live it. This is now the difference between having a life as a priest and living a life as a priest.
I am conscious that this will be posted on June 4, the day before my 32nd anniversary of ordination. June 4 is also the Jewish Festival of Shavu’ot – also called the Feast of Weeks. It marks fifty days since the First Day of Passover, and it’s one of three required Pilgrimage Feasts, the other two being Passover and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. The Festival of Shavu’ot was the reason so many Jews of varying languages and nationalities were present in Jerusalem with the Apostles at what became for us Christians, Pentecost, the birth of the Church.
As I wrote in “Inherit the Wind! Pentecost and the Breath of God,” which you may have read anew last week, this faith and this Church began mired in scandal and suspicion, and with the clay feet of priests exposed for all to see. We must not forget that Peter, whose priestly courage defended the Apostles and his faith with eloquence when filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also fled Golgotha and the Cross just 53 days before. Peter was not standing with Mary and the Beloved Disciple John at the foot of the Cross. He was down below, listening to a cock crow. Let’s face it. In life, we have all, at one time or another, joined him there. As Pope Francis humbly offered, “Who am I to judge?”
I set out to show abrasive Anthony how to die, but instead he took up living, and doing it in a different light. Pray for our friend, Anthony, please, that while he looks upon the Lord for whatever time God gives him in the land of the living, he will atone with grace for the days gone by. And pray for Pornchai whose heart has been so thoroughly transformed by Divine Mercy that it humbles me to live in his presence – even when he’s snoring while I’m pontificating.
And lastly, please pray for me, that my failures to be a priest first in all things, and to model our Blessed Mother’s fiat – to put enmity beneath our feet – will never again be an obstacle to grace for someone else.
The Jewish Festival of Shavu’ot celebrated on June 4 this year recalls the giving of the Torah and the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and foremost in that law is the command, “I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me.” Of all the things you might assign ultimate importance to in this life, don’t let resentment and grudges be among them. Don’t let the sun go down on them.
Yes, I know, that’s life! As the song goes, “that’s what all the people say.” But it’s not living! Inherit the wind of Pentecost, and live for a higher realm.
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!