Protect Us from All Anxiety: Nightmares and Dreamscapes in the Desert

In T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “Ash Wednesday” (1930), he described life as something we live “In this brief transit where the dreams cross; The dream crossed twilight between death and dying.”

There’s something about T.S. Eliot’s image that applies well to those in prison.  There are all sorts of prisons. There’s the kind with cells of stone walls and iron bars like the one I’m writing from at this very moment. There are prisons of addiction, prisons of illness and pain, prisons of sin, prisons of fear, and sometimes a single soul can suffer within multiple prisons at once.

On Ash Wednesday last year, I posted “Forty Days and Forty Nights.”  In part it was about how stress and anxiety cause strange nightmares and dreamscapes in prison making it feel a lot like T.S. Eliot’s “transit where the dreams cross.”  The challenge I wrote of on Ash Wednesday last year was to find within our faith the means to “wait in joyful hope” as prescribed by the beautiful prayer, the “Libera Nos” prayed by the priest at Mass after The Lord’s Prayer:

“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy keep us free from sin,
and protect us from all anxiety
as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Waiting in joyful hope is still as big a challenge this Lent as it was last year. I can’t say I’ve made great progress in it, but I have become more aware of my cynicism and all its sources.  I’m more aware of the obstacles to joyful hope, and that’s a start.  There are lots of obstacles, especially in prison.  People who walk around in a state of joyful hope in prison are quickly placed on psychotropic drugs.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. Few of you had paths to Christ that were paved with rose petals and constant serenity. So it’s the line before the one about joyful hope that grabbed my attention this Lent. It’s the one about being protected from all anxiety, an important part of that prayer.  For us in prison it’s perhaps the most important part.

Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-Forty-Days-and-Forty-Nights-Nightmare-2

In “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” I described a few of my own anxiety-driven dreams. I still have the same ones over and over, and maybe there’s something in them that I’m supposed to pay attention to. I have many variations of the nightmare, but the core plot is always the same. I’ve had this one several times, and had it just a week ago:

“I was in a strange and unknown part of a city at night - the city I grew up in – and it was very dark. In
 the dim distance, I could see the familiar surroundings 
of the place I needed to go to, but I could not get 
there.  The twisting, distorted streets took me deeper
 and deeper into the city’s darkest places. I became 
aware of a faceless mob in distant pursuit of me. I
 walked faster and faster, but the mob closed in. They
 shouted accusations, picked up stones, and cornered me 
at the steps of a looming Catholic church.

I climbed the dark steps as the mob encircled with their stones at the ready, but the church doors were locked and impenetrable. I turned my back on the mob and faced the huge, bronze church doors.  Then I came face to face - carved in the bronze of one door – with an image of 
the crucified Christ. The huge bronze Crucifix was 
beautiful and majestic.  I was in awe of it even as I
 stood there in fear of the stones that I knew were 
coming any moment. I heard the crowd grunting as they
 let loose their stones. One missed me and left a deep 
gouge in the face of Christ. My fear turned to fury,
 and I turned in anger to face the glaring, hostile,
 accusing mob…..Then I woke up.”

I’m haunted by this dream, and it was a weekly event during Lent last year.  Last Sunday, the night after I had the dream again, I thought of it during Mass in my cell.  It came spontaneously to mind when I prayed in the “Libera Nos,” “and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…”

A few days ago, Pornchai and our friend, Donald, were in our cell talking about anxiety in prison. I told them of the awful dream I had.  Donald suggested that I must feel really let down by being left to face the mob alone on the steps of the Church. Then Pornchai said, “I disagree. He wasn’t alone at all.” I was really thunderstruck by Pornchai’s insight, and I believe he was right. The dream wasn’t about the obvious source of my anxiety, the mobs pointing fingers of accusation, but rather about the fact that I am not alone in my anxiety, that Christ is there with me. How could I not see it?  I see the same dark dream now in a completely different light.

Dream

The next day, Pornchai brought up the “Libera Nos” prayer again, and asked me about the “protect us from all anxiety” part. It is rare that Pornchai speaks about his past, but he told me about his ongoing problem with anxiety. Living in the same cell, I have been aware of some of the times he awakens in the night in the steel bunk four feet above me, and I can feel the anxiety and pain in those times.  Pornchai sleeps with his Saint Maximilian Kolbe medal hanging on the stone wall just inches from his face. I have seen him clutching it in the night.

If you have not yet read “Pornchai’s Story” published by The Catholic League, please do. It will leave you with no doubt as to the source of his anxiety. Great evil was visited upon him in the past, an evil that leaves him in a prison within a prison from which he may never fully emerge. It is the strangest of ironies that we have come to share this prison cell. The odds against it are astronomical.

Pornchai suffers daily in a prison within his prison. It’s a prison of anxiety brought on in Pornchai’s all-too-real world by the very same sort of exploitation and evil that I stand accused of in the fictional world of fraud and larceny.  Like every victim of unspeakable acts, Pornchai suffers from acute post-traumatic stress disorder, and sometimes wakes up in the night with a crushing burden of anxiety from which there is no deliverance.

I can only tell him the same thing he just told me. When he awakens from that nightmare, he must know and accept that he is not alone, that Christ is there with him, and that he will be protected from his anxiety. Pornchai takes great comfort in that. It doesn’t take the night away. It doesn’t save him from anxiety or let him easily go back to sleep.  It doesn’t remove the tyranny of the past or give him easy hope for the future. It just assures him that he is not alone in his grief, that he will never again be alone in his grief, and he finds this to be a powerful grace.

THE LAMP ON THE HILLTOP

It’s also ironic that I borrowed a part of my title, “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” from a Stephen King book of short stories.  When Pornchai was twelve years old, and didn’t speak a word of English, he was Stephen King’s paperboy in Bangor, Maine at the time his torment began. At Christmas, some of his customers gave him a Christmas bonus.  He delivered the pre-Christmas Sunday paper to Stephen King’s home with anticipation. Mr. King answered the door and paid Pornchai for the paper with the exact change, thought twice, then gave him a Christmas bonus of 25-cents.

Pornchai-Moontri-BaptismWhen Pornchai and I were talking about his attacks of anxiety in the night, I was very surprised when he said, “Maybe you should write about this some day.”  I think that the years of keeping his grief hidden deep inside only to erupt in rage taught him that secrets serve no one – least of all Pornchai himself. When Bill Donohue at The Catholic League asked permission to publish “Pornchai’s Story,” Pornchai was a little uncomfortable.  He wondered what some of the people who knew him as a hopeless and discarded prisoner would now think of his conversion to the Catholic faith in the very midst of the Church’s own sexual abuse scandal.

Then one day, Pornchai received a letter in the mail from a prisoner he knew in Maine’s “supermax” prison when they were both given up on as lost causes. The young man was out of prison, and did a Google search of Pornchai’s name one day. He found “Pornchai’s Story” and the story of his conversion “In Honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe” on These Stone Walls.

The ex-prisoner wrote that he was so moved and impressed that he swore off drugs, went back to night school, and sought out a Catholic priest to talk to.  Pornchai was shocked when he read the letter to me.  I told him about the passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

“You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel.  Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16).

Other good things have also come to Pornchai as a result of his decision to shine in public. When Pornchai was a teenager in Maine, his two best friends were Samantha and Niki. They became his family when all else in his life failed him, but when Pornchai went to prison at age 18, he gave up on himself and everyone else.

Lighthouse

It was 19 years ago when Pornchai cut off all ties, and lost contact with Samantha and Niki. One day this year, they also did a Google search for Pornchai, and read with amazement the story of who he has become. Now, after an absence of almost 19 years, Sam and Niki make the four-hour drive to Concord from Bangor, Maine every few weeks to visit Pornchai in prison. They are the first and only visitors he has ever had, and they have resumed their bond of friendship as though it was never disrupted. Sam and Niki are wonderful people, and I am very proud that they read These Stone Walls which served as a beacon reuniting them with Pornchai. That, my friends, is really cool!

SHIPWRECKS AND CASTAWAYS

Perhaps it’s because Pornchai and I both suffer from the tyranny of anxiety imposed by others, and have known so many sleepless nights, that a steady stream of prisoners bring their anxieties to us. Our friend, Jeffrey, is in Pornchai’s writing class. Jeffrey is 19 years old and has been in prison for one year. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and came to the United States as a small child with his mother. They came here legally, and the only life Jeffrey knows or remembers is his life with his family in a New Hampshire city.

Then he committed a crime. It’s difficult to imagine because Jeffrey is far from the criminal type. I’ve heard the details of his offense, and they were relatively boring. In “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times,” I wrote about the fast growing number of aimless young men in prison who are not really criminals at all, but walked, or were led, into making terrible mistakes. Almost without exception, these young men grew up with absent fathers, abusive fathers, or no fathers at all. Jeffrey is not an exception.

nofather

Jeffrey is also not a criminal.  He just got caught up in something, dragged into it by others, and then it escalated and spun out of control.  In prison, Jeffrey is a polite, soft-spoken, respectful young man who is trying hard to finish high school and mend the broken years he lost as an aimless kid following someone else’s lead. But now at age 19, a new anxiety was thrust upon him.

A few weeks ago, Pornchai sent Jeffrey to see me in the Library after their afternoon class. Jeffrey looked awful, as though he hadn’t slept in days. He explained to me that he had been summoned to a hearing before an immigration judge and, like nearly every convicted felon born on foreign soil, was ordered deported from the United States when his brief sentence is up in a year. It never dawned on Jeffrey that the punishment he thought would end on the day he leaves prison would really be just beginning. He will have to leave the only country he knows, or even remembers.

Exceptions will not be made for Jeffrey or Pornchai who now stand ordered for forced deportation the moment they leave this prison, leaving the future clouded with as much anxiety as the past. It seems especially ironic in Pornchai’s case. He was brought here against his will to begin with as a child, and his life here was forced upon him.

I know that one of the symptoms of PTSD is a tendency to see the future as dismal, without hope, and futile.  It is a great challenge to impart to Pornchai in a way he can easily accept that the way he feels in any given moment is not necessarily the way things are.  Saint Maximilian Kolbe has done a better job at this than I ever could.

When I read the words, “Welcome to America!” in “Pornchai’s Story,” I felt nothing but shame for my country, and nothing but gratitude for the Catholic faith that opened its arms to this wounded soul, and opened his heart to Christ.  The very Church that The New York Times would have you believe is a danger to children has been a solitary light for the world’s most endangered children.

Protect them, Lord, from all anxiety, and protect us all. It is Lent, and that is also our prayer for you, that you will put anxiety aside and leave your lamp uncovered on the top of a hill so others may know the Presence of God through you and your deeds. And as for anxiety, well, pressed against those Church doors in fear of stones, I found there the face of Christ, etched in bronze, marred by the very stones meant for me.

It is true that the dark of this night is filled with fear. But we are not alone.

40 DAYS FOR LIFE

There is still time for TSW readers to observe Lent in a special way this year.  I mentioned “40 Days for Life” in my post last week.  Starting today, Ash Wednesday, March 9, “40 Days for Life” participants will engage in prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil, and community outreach in 247 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Spain, Belize, Armenia and the nation of Georgia.

Several prisoners here plan to join me and “40 Days for Life” in prayer and sacrifice.  You could join us as well. It’s a pro-active way to observe Lent and affirm life. Please have a good look at “40 Days for Life,” and help by passing this link on to others.  I have much hope for this movement.  You can click here to find your city’s 40 Days site.  Once there, you can scroll down for international locations.

crush-serpent

 

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. ayla says:

    father i need help ive beeen afraid i have been attack in my dreams oh mighty lord help me in my time of need and my family

  2. Father John says:

    Very Interesting story Father. Thank you for offering to the Lord the pain of rejection from the Church.
    It would seem most beneficial to draw from your difficult circumstance from Our Lady. I understand that your devotion to her or speaking of her may bring about the potential mockery of inmates. Where is Our Lady in your life, I am most interested to know if you would be so kind? Your thoughts would do greatly to encourage me, please pray for a Bishop and an unfortunate situation, do you have a mailing address, do you receive packages or dvds?
    In the One Priesthood Of Christ with Mary,
    Fr John

  3. Esther says:

    Father, I have to admit something to you. It is something I just realized myself. I think I postpone reading your blog posts because of the emotions that exude in me. I wish there was a way we could spiritually adopt the guys there with you. Well, I can unofficially and informally spiritually adopt Pornchai, Jeffrey and the others by praying for them daily, can’t I Father?

    I guess I don’t have to remind them that our blessed Mother, their mother, will always be there for them.

    Thanks Father!

  4. Becki Ellis says:

    I had the privilage of meeting Pornchai last weekend as he is the brother of my life partner, Pria. I met him with an open mind and heart. I found Pornchai a man with peace in his heart and knowing his history, I can only conclude that God does help those who come to him. I am very grateful to the angel that was instrumental in bringing the two brothers back together. My prayer is that these two brothers are able to keep in touch.

  5. Jenn Harriman says:

    To the little boy who lived across the street from me in Bangor,ME, my Pornchai, I cannot understand why or what happened to you. I remember you coming over to my house when we were just little kids playing games. You just wanted to escape the wrath, the violence of your stepfather..badly beaten and covered w/ blood you still smiled at me, and played Monopoly. (You were) an innocent child ripped from his innocence of what your childhood should’ve been. I’m so saddened that the state did not protect you and your mom. They only harmed you. I miss you. May God be with you.

  6. Bishop Pius says:

    Sometimes we tend to focus more on our current situations that we fail to cast a broader view, when it comes to the current situation, or ordeal that we are concerned with. To put it simply, we have to learn how to look at things that takes us beyond or natural perception of things. If we learn how to do this, then we will be able to see the many different things that God is doing from within the so-called dire situation we sometimes find ourselves in.
    I am glad Fr.Gordon has not fallen in this trap.

    We’ve become so focused on the problem that we fail to see how God is allowing us to benefit overall from the situation, in spite of the problem. Being that these benefits aren’t coming in the type of package that we’ve had hoped they would come in, continues to keep us from recognizing them for what they truly are, which is God using our current ordeal to prepare and equip us for bigger things. But we never make it to this point, being that we tend to give up and so therefore, the lesson has to be learned over and over again.
    Pierre Matthews thank you so much for your insight
    Stay Blessed .

  7. Pierre Matthews says:

    This week’s TSW Libera nos, Domine is a beautiful meditation thru dreams and anxiety we all have, but are particularly heavy for our brethern in jail. It takes people like Fr Gordon to turn a negative feeling into a positive force, fed by the Lord’s love for us.

    Being in prison, people like Pornchai and Fr.Gordon are blessed with the grace of distilling the essence of Jesus’s message of light and love. I think it is often in pain and re- jection that we find our path up the Sion mountain.

    Pierre

  8. Salvatore Auditore says:

    Thank you Fr. MacRae for this beautiful post. I am going to read it again and share with my Cursillo Brothers and Sisters! Our prayers are very powerful and forgive for not learning of your suffering sooner! You will share in my prayers everyday. God Bless you!! Please pray for me as well!

    Your Brother in Christ,
    Sal

  9. Kathy Maxwell says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    I am praying for you, Skooter and Pornchai every day. I’ll add Jeffery. Perhaps you could have a section every month or so, in which you list the names for us to add to our prayer lists.

    Pornchai is a wise young man. I feel certain that he will continue to be a lamp for many. As will you.

    God bless and keep you all through this time of suffering. I am grateful that you know that after this suffering will be great rejoicing. Please pray for me and ask Pornchai to do so also.

    Your friend,
    Kathy Maxwell

  10. Mary says:

    Thank you for such a faith filled and comforting post Father G. Christ’s words “I have come to set the prisoners free” seem apt. Your presence in prison seems to be “freeing” many prisoners .
    Pornchai’s journey in faith is so inspiring and I continue to pray for you all.

  11. Dympna Kearns says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    Thank you for this very powerful post – again the fruit of your suffering. You are in our prayers, as are Pornchai and Jeffrey. Please pray for another of our beloved priests here in Ireland who has recently been falsely accused. May God continue to bless and strengthen you.

  12. Keith says:

    Fr. G,

    Once again you have done it! You have put another face to the word “prisoner”!
    I have an image of the crucified One drawn for the World’s Fair in New York in the 1960′s. From a distance, one sees the Christ on the cross in silhouette, but as you move closer you see the silhouette is composed of a number of faces, some famous (Pope John XXIII, Pope Pius XII, James Salk, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, JFK) but most unknown children, elders — the “little ones”!
    TSW, once again, is a verbal picture of the Crucified One. Thank you.
    keith

  13. Sharon Morris says:

    Thank you. When you see Jeffrey, let him know that we are praying for him to be able to prepare himself well for the new adventure God has ahead for him. One of my sons is in the Dominican Republic this week helping with a mission project. I know the poverty of the country and the little opportunities for work. The anxieties of life can be real and scary. However, Christ goes with us wherever we go and the adventure of a life following Him in the way of the Cross and love is for each of us, no matter how dark the dream. The ashes today are the sign of what is to come when we die and while we live. Great hope

  14. Karin says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    There was much that went through my mind and heart as I read this post~ some of which I could relate to, but the one thing that stood out came to me as I read your dream. The stone that struck the face of Christ on the bronze crucifix- all I could think was that he took the hit for you in the dream. Well he took the hit for all of us. Not to oversimplify Our Lord’s Passion and death, but when I think of all he took for me, for all of us, my anxiety is somewhat reduced. Also knowing that as Pornchai so beautifully and plainly stated, we are not alone~ Christ is always with us.
    Thank you for this beautiful post. Pornchai is a very insightful young man and it is a privilege to witness his spiritual growth even if it is from the little we see from what he allows you to share with us.
    Continued prayers for you, for Pornchai and all the men there.

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