A new Manual for Eucharistic Adoration from the Poor Clares and Saint Benedict Press has found a captive audience in Fr Gordon MacRae as he marks 34 years of priesthood.
“You have GOT to be joking!” That was my first reaction. In early April this year, I was summoned to a prison office to sign for “personal property.” I had no idea what it could be. I hadn’t ordered anything recently from the place where we in prison must purchase shoes, clothing, toiletries. So it had to be a book, but receiving books here also requires that I know in advance that the book is coming. I knew of nothing.
I signed for the mysterious item and returned to my cell where I sat down on a concrete stump – the same one I am typing upon at this moment. “You have GOT to be joking’” I said to myself as I perused the book in my hand and its cover letter. It was from Christian Tappe, Director of Marketing at Saint Benedict Press in Charlotte, North Carolina. The letter began:
“I am pleased to enclose this review copy of TAN Books’ Manual for Eucharistic Adoration… written by the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. If you would like more information, or to schedule an interview…”
I was more bewildered than ever. It was the fourth time in the last year that a Catholic publisher has sent me a book to review on These Stone Walls. Are people actually reading TSW? But this particular book was a complete mystery. First off, I should not have received it at all. The shipment and cover letter were addressed to “Father” Gordon MacRae with no prison number (67546) as required on anything sent to me. In the ordinary course, either the use of a title or the absence of a number would cause the book to be rejected and returned to sender without my even knowing about it. But here it was, in my hand nonetheless.
My first impulse was to toss the book aside as useless, at least for me. My apologies to the Poor Clares who so lovingly wrote it, and to the publisher who so kindly sent it to me. I am a slow learner, so the nicely adorned book sat unopened in a corner of my cell for a month. I was simply too caught up in the glaring irony of it. There is no True Presence here to adore. There is only the present absence.
To make matters worse, and more mysterious, on the same day I received the Manual for Eucharistic Adoration I learned from lawyers that we had lost yet another effort at appeal of my wrongful conviction and imprisonment. It took one full year for the First Circuit Court of Appeals to notify us that they will not review an earlier decision to dismiss my appeal with no hearing on its merits or evidence. This has made the road to justice ever steeper and more treacherous. I am told that others will be taking this up to write about it.
IN THE NIGHTTIME
So it was in the dim and murky light of continued injustice that I tossed aside the good sisters’ book about Eucharistic Adoration, and shrugged it off. But appearances can be deceiving, and you never know what apparently “useless” thing might have a profound influence on your view of the world – not only the world you live in, but the world that lives in you. Who you are is in large part a collision of these two worlds, and a person of faith risks great loss if the interior life is forfeited to live only in that other, more calamitous world. We have to live in and with both worlds, and we have to keep them in balance.
One day recently, I saw a vocation ad in Our Sunday Visitor for a community of sisters. The ad described them as a “monastic, cloistered and contemplative community,” and then added, “Find us on Facebook!” That, to me, seemed a collision of two worlds, but it works if the sisters can reflect in the latter world the light that shines in the former.
On June 5th I mark thirty-four years of priesthood. Twenty-two of them have been in a place where presence before the Blessed Sacrament is unavailable and simply impossible. It can only be imagined. It has been a long time since I wrote of the power of the True Presence in a place where it seems absent. In 2010 I wrote a post entitled “The Sacrifice of the Mass” (Part I and Part II), and it seemed a pivotal point not only for These Stone Walls, but for my life as a priest in extraordinary circumstances.
The two-part post described the utter deprivation of something many readers simply took for granted in their world. For my first seven years in this prison, Mass was unavailable to me, and without it I found myself growing ever more distant from my life as a priest. That post described the extreme efforts it took to gain the ability to offer Mass, beginning with what I today call a “spiritual offering.”
It wasn’t what you might think. It was along the lines of a “Spiritual Communion,” and I got the idea from reading Father Walter Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me. During twenty years in a Siberian prison accused of being a Vatican spy, Father Ciszek could only imagine the Mass. Sitting in the pitch dark at night on his bunk, he began to recite The Roman Canon in his mind, and to imagine himself present before the Blessed Sacrament. After reading this, I began to do the same, and my post, “The Sacrifice of the Mass” evolved from that. After I wrote that two-part post, a TSW reader sent me a letter, an excerpt of which follows:
“I cannot imagine what sustains your identity as a priest in that prison. There is nothing in that environment that in any way supports your priesthood. You are not ever in the company of other priests. Your diocese and fellow priests have cast you off. You see yourself each day in the mirror wearing the uniform of a prisoner, and you know in your mind, heart and soul that there has been no justice in your being forced to wear this role.
“And yet when I read your writings, your priesthood is always at the forefront, the part of you that shines the brightest, that speaks the loudest, that sustains not only you but apparently many of those around you in that place. Can you explain, Father MacRae, what exactly allows you to retain a priestly identity?”
COME BE MY LIGHT
I do not have an answer for this. After I wrote my recent post, “Mother Teresa of Calcutta: Pentecost Illumines the Night,” some readers wrote in comments that they are moved by my faith. It is not so obvious. At least, it is not obvious to me. I struggle with faith on a daily basis, and I found a kindred spirit in Saint Mother Teresa when I learned that she struggled as well. The truth is that it was the Poor Clares’ Manual of Eucharistic Adoration that caused me to look more deeply into the faith life of soon-to-be Saint Mother Teresa. The Manual includes an admonition from her, and it was this quote that prompted me to write “Mother Teresa of Calcutta: Pentecost Illumines the Night.”
“The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time you will spend on earth.,Each moment that you spend with Jesus will deepen your union with Him and make your soul everlastingly more glorious and beautiful in heaven, and will help bring about everlasting peace on earth.” (Manual, 111)
It was from writing that post that I fathomed the necessity of Eucharistic Adoration. It is not for us to be present to Him. It is for Him to be present to us in a way that “will deepen your union with Him.” That is the very purpose of the interior life, that other world that we must balance with our other foot in this world.
While writing my Pentecost post, I learned of the spiritual deprivation often experienced by Mother Teresa, but that deprivation never seemed able to diminish her commitment to serve the poor. Rather, the opposite happened. It was her service to the poor that brought her to the Paschal Mystery and kept her there, ever providing the beckoning of Christ that compelled her spiritual life. Mother Teresa sought union with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and brought Christ from there to the poor. It was never the other way around.
So how could I, as a priest wrongly imprisoned for decades, possibly bring my interior life into this world where the True Presence is so overshadowed by the present absence? No matter what the source of the sense of emptiness is in your life, if you are reading this you know what I mean by “the present absence.” That is why God allowed Mother Teresa and others among our patron saints to suffer spiritual deprivation, and to endure it. It was so that we might emulate them as they serve as beacons in spiritual darkness. Their witness inspires hope in the dark, not just our rescue from it.
As has happened on so many nights in prison, I awoke one night recently, filled with an anxiety that has no name. It’s not related to anything I can identify. It’s just there, a natural side effect of the stifling nature of an American prison. I have a little battery-powered book light purchased from the same prison vendor from which we purchase clothing and other needs. Waking often in the night, I have gotten hundreds of times my money’s worth from that small light.
I switched on the light in that anxious night, and reached for my glasses and a book on a small shelf at the end of my iron bunk. I thought I had grabbed another book, but my hand landed on the previously untouched Manual for Eucharistic Adoration by the Poor Clares. It has a ribbon page marker so I opened to the ribbon and was struck by this admonition from Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars and the patron saint of priests:
“When you awake in the night, transport yourself quickly in spirit before the tabernacle, saying, ‘Behold, my God, I come to adore you, to praise, thank, and love you, and to keep you company with the angels.’” (Manual, p. 116)
So that night I tried to imagine a time and a place in which being before the Blessed Sacrament was most meaningful to me. Sadly, it was long ago. It wasn’t during my years as a parish priest when time and again I passed by the sanctuary and tabernacle barely noticing, blindly going from one pastoral task to another, not even genuflecting, not even knowing that I failed to bring Christ with me because I failed to stop and enter into His Presence. At some point in my life as a priest, this world collided with that one, and demolished it. This has been the real priesthood scandal. Action somehow overshadowed contemplation to our priestly peril.
It was only years later, after year upon year of absence, that I became aware of this deprivation of the Presence of God. So in that night of prison anxiety my mind fled down the nights and down the days, past the parishes where I served, and the seminary I attended, to a Benedictine Abbey just twenty miles from this prison. The journey in my mind took me to 1977. I was a Capuchin then, attending school at Saint Anselm College, and my most special place on campus was a tiny alcove built into the Abbey Church.
There, before a magnificent granite tabernacle, I spent many hours in the Presence of the Lord. Last year, TSW reader Bonnie Lewis found a photograph of the interior of the Saint Anselm Abbey Church and printed it for me. It is the opening graphic for this post. Then our Missionary of Mercy Friend, Father George David Byers, found a photo of the Benedictines at Adoration in that Blessed Sacrament alcove to the right of the main sanctuary. This is where I went back then, before the world shook lose the Holy Longing to be in His Presence. This is where I go now when I awaken in the night. Sometimes, now, I don’t think I awaken with anxiety and then go there. I think I now awaken just to go there.
In just a few months, These Stone Walls will mark seven years in existence, just one third the time that I have been in this prison. During that seven years, many readers have sent me letters and comments informing me that they have devoted an hour before the Blessed Sacrament to be in His Presence in my stead. You have bestowed upon me a most priceless gift, and for this I have much gratitude.
Now the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, along with author Paul Thigpen and Saint Benedict Press, have provided a road map to the interior life, and a tool to converse with the Living Christ among us. I most highly recommend the Manual for Eucharistic Adoration and, if you are not there already, the restoration of the Lord’s Presence in your interior life.
I humbly thank you for thirty-four years of priesthood, even out here on the dark peripheries from which I write. Without you, I might have forgotten how to be a priest, and might today be just a prisoner. There are two kneelers before the Blessed Sacrament at Saint Anselm Abbey Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. Some night when anxiety awakens you in the dark, join me there. I’ll have the Manual for Eucharistic Adoration in my hands.
Editor’s Note: Please, see these other posts by Father Gordon MacRae on the priesthood: