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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.