These Stone Walls relives a moment with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and her promise of a Shower of Roses, and defers to a young woman’s wisdom on the gift of life.
On September 15, I happened upon a FOX News interview of Megan Kelly with Miriam Ibrahim, a young Sudanese woman who was cast into a Sudan prison with a death sentence. Miriam’s “crime” was two-fold. She married a Catholic, and then refused to renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam. In chilling words, she spoke of having to give birth to her second child with her ankles chained in that prison cell.
The courage of Miriam Ibrahim is inspiring. Her being a Christian and marrying a Catholic were both crimes punishable by death in her Islamic country, and she was given three days to recant. The world responded, and many intervened, including Pope Francis. Miriam Ibrahim is an extraordinary woman of immense courage and faith. My heart leapt at this exchange:
Megan Kelly: “But why not just say what they wanted to hear to save your life?”
Miriam: “If I did that it would mean I gave up. It’s not possible because it’s not true. I have committed no crime.”
I wonder today about the story that will be told to her child whose life began with a death sentence in that Sudanese prison. The story makes me wonder about the gift of life, about how Miriam’s Islamic captors would so casually extinguish it in the name of Sharia law and justice. It makes me wonder about what Western Culture could learn from such courage rooted in the sanctity of life and freedom. It makes me wonder about the raw courage of Miriam’s “fiat” to suffer not for its own sake, but for the sake of a message to the world.
I did have an ironic laugh, however, at the conclusion of the interview. Miriam Ibrahim now lives about twenty miles from the prison I am in. Megan Kelly asked her what her life is like now living in New Hampshire. Miriam paused thoughtfully and said, “Well, it’s better than prison!”
On that note, I sometimes wonder what draws so many people to visit me in prison behind These Stone Walls week after week.
I have never once dropped a TSW post in the prison mailbox and walked away thinking it might inspire anyone. I don’t think it’s a result of false humility, or the power of prisons everywhere to stifle any evidence of self-respect. I just don’t think that what I write is particularly noteworthy. I guess a part of that comes from reading a lot. I read so much from writers I admire that I never feel that anything I write could ever measure up to them.
All of which makes me wonder why it is that so many others write about what I write. Father James Valladares gave us a guest post in August entitled, “A Priest Twenty Years Wrongly Imprisoned in America.” In it, he quoted TSW a lot – just as he did extensively in his book, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast. Then Dr. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League did the same in September. Both of them generated lots of responses from around the globe.
One of the memorable responses appeared at Freedom Through Truth, the blog of Michael Brandon writing from Canada. His post “From Fear and Humility to Hope and Love” is a reflection on Bill Donohue’s guest post that rivaled the original in depth and understanding. Then a few days later Mr. Brandon posted “The Parable of the Prisoner,” a post about Pornchai Maximilian. I had to wait for that one to arrive by mail because the person who tried to read it to me by telephone sobbed all the way through it.
I was so inspired by what Michael Brandon wrote that I forgot it was about me! I am always struck by the number of people, like the talented Catholic writer behind Freedom Through Truth who read These Stone Walls and tell me they felt as though I were writing directly to them. I am also struck by the many letters, comments, and posts by other writers all expressing the thought that, had I not been in such straights in prison, they would not have been drawn to what I write.
THORNS BEFORE A ROSE
As I try to wrap my mind around that, don’t think for a moment that I actually know what I’m doing when I write. I do not. I just plod along casting outposts like messages in a bottle cast into the sea I am not gifted with the insight into the meaning of suffering that God has given to those I admire, those whose writings I write about, such as Saint Padre Pio, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and this week, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
In “These Stone Walls Turns Five Years Old” a few months ago, I told the story of how TSW came into being over the summer of 2009. I wrote of how my first ten or so posts were brief, and hand written because at the time I had nothing more in this prison cell to write with than a Bic pen and some lined paper. There are few posts from back then that are still read today.
But one that is, and that remains one of my favorite posts today, is about an ordinary encounter with an extraordinary young woman. That post is “A Shower of Roses,” and since this one will appear on TSW on the Memorial of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, I want to mention it again.
Back in August in “Saints and Sojourners: From Prison to Divine Mercy,” I wrote of the Consoling the Heart of Jesus Retreat that Pornchai Maximilian, Michael Ciresi, and I took part in. One evening during that retreat, our esteemed coordinator, Nate Chapman, mentioned that he had been awaiting a wonderful new book, Angels and Saints: A Biblical Guide to Friendship with God’s Holy Ones, by Scott Hahn (Image Books, 2014). I didn’t tell Nate that I had ordered that same book and it arrived just days before. One of its chapters is about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Scott Hahn approached writing of her with the same trepidation I experienced:
“Her prodigy was her littleness – and, paradoxically, her littleness is so large that it can be frightening. For no other chapter in this book have I been so intimidated. For no other chapter have I stared so long at a blank page” (Saints and Angels, p. 155).
I know the feeling, Dr. Hahn! When I set out to write of Saint Thérèse, I was thoroughly intimidated as though my soul were but a tabula rasa – a blank slate – in the presence of pages that spoke volumes, the Story of a Soul, in the Presence of God. I could not write of Saint Thérèse. I had no frame of reference with which to relate to someone whose footprint in this world was so small, yet one whose spiritual impact was so immense that Saint John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, one of the 33 spiritual giants of Church history.
I could not really write about Saint Thérèse at all. I could only write about a chance encounter between us, a moment in my own life that somehow intersected with Saint Thérèse. It’s a snapshot in my life as a priest that changed the way I view faith, hope, and suffering, the way I live life toward dying.
“A Shower of Roses” is the story of Michelle, a suffering and dying teenage girl. With fear and trembling as a young priest, I took the hand of this girl as she surrendered her life. As I look back across 32 years of a priesthood mired in suffering, I keep going back to that moment, for it is filled with meaning and with mysteries yet to be unraveled.
There was a moment in which Saint Thérèse took that girl’s hand from mine, and in doing so, left an impression of how her suffering was a conduit between the soul and God. Consider these words of Saint Thérèse in “The Story of a Soul,” the diary of a young woman leaving this life:
“My heart was fired with an ardent desire of suffering… Suffering became my attraction; in it I found charms that entranced me —Suffering has held out its arms to me from my very entrance to Carmel, and lovingly have I embraced it… For one pain endured with joy… we shall love the good God more forever — Suffering united to love is the only thing that appears to me desirable in this Vale of Tears.”
Unlike Saint Thérèse, but like most of the rest of us, I have spent a lot of time and effort struggling against suffering in many forms. I am daunted and intimidated by this little saint and her Story of a Soul, the story of her simple acquiescence to God’s will that turns every moment of suffering into an instrument of grace. It is the story of extraordinary grace reaching into souls through ordinary things, and it still shakes the earth beneath my feet.
Sometime in this month that opens with the Feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, read anew and share with someone else “A Shower of Roses.”
RESPECT LIFE SUNDAY
I encountered another extraordinary young woman recently. Andrea McCormick is a sophomore at Villa Maria Academy in Erie Pennsylvania. She wrote to me recently after coming across These Stone Walls one day, and I want to share with you a part of her letter:
“I want you to know that I am praying for you and I encourage you to stay strong. I know it may not always seem like it, but everything happens for a reason with God. He has a perfect plan for each one of us. God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”
Andrea went on in her letter to tell me about a recent essay on the topic of abortion and respect for life. Andrea’s essay was awarded First Prize in a local Pro-Life essay contest. She included a copy to share with me, and asked if I would help share it with others. When I noted that October 5 is designated “Respect Life Sunday” in the U.S. Church, I asked Andrea’s permission to post her essay as a guest post from her. She gave it gladly, and it marks a number of “firsts” for TSW. This is our first double post, and Andrea is our youngest guest writer. If Andrea McCormick is the future of Catholicism in America, there is hope for us all:
Why Abortion Should End
by Andrea McCormick
“Over 56 Million innocent unborn children have been killed since abortion was legalized in 1973, a number that trumps that of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. Every day this number continues to grow in this country that is supposedly based on human equality, peace, and protection. Recently, our nation has become aware of the war on terror, and this has led to a stronger urge for peace.
“However, what has nearly gone unnoticed is the war occurring within our own borders which has taken the lives of 56 million Americans. This evil is as horrific as anything terrorists can comprehend because it afflicts the heart of our country: the family. Abortion severs the most powerful bond of all – between a mother and her child; therefore it disbands the most valuable and essential harmony that holds our nation together.
“Abortion is a pure example of the Devil himself working his evil in our world today. Each time a baby is aborted, God sheds a tear because yet another one of his marvelous creations has been thrown away. He made each of us in His own image and likeness; therefore, this deliberate killing of innocent human beings is a significant offense to God. Accordingly, the Church’s teaching on abortion is clear: Abortion is murder, which disobeys the Sixth Commandment from God, “Thou shalt not kill.”
“On the contrary, individuals who are Pro-Choice argue that life does not begin until birth; thus, they believe an abortion is the eradication of a pregnancy, not a baby. However, the definition given in any trustworthy medical textbook proves that life begins at the moment of conception, when the sperm unites with an egg during fertilization. Unborn babies start out as a single cell, but that cell contains the distinct and unique genetic coding of that person.
“From that point, nothing is added besides nutrition and oxygen. Another argument of Pro-Choice individuals is that motherhood should not be a punishment for having sexual intercourse when, in fact, the whole reason God created sexuality was for the purpose of populating the Earth. In addition, Pro-Choice individuals say that abortion is acceptable because the majority of women [who have one] are unable to financially support a child, and a baby should not come into the world unwanted.
“These excuses for the acceptance of abortion are totally selfish and unacceptable because of the simple fact that over two million couples are waiting to adopt. The number of adoptions has decreased from nine percent to one percent since abortion was legalized. Instead of abortion, women should give their unwanted child to someone who cannot conceive.
“Abortion contradicts what our Founding Fathers state in the Declaration of Independence; “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ultimately, abortion is a very controversial issue that is tearing our country apart. We cannot allow it to continue to kill the lives of numerous innocent human beings any longer.”
To the readers of These Stone Walls from Ryan A. MacDonald: Readers have been especially generous and kind in responding to our appeal for assistance with legal costs at the Federal level. It has come to my attention that State officials have filed objections to Father MacRae’s appeal in the Federal courts, and these objections required lengthy and highly detailed responses from the attorney’s representing Father MacRae. One such exchange cost $15,000 that seriously depleted available funds as the appeal continues. So, to compensate, we have raised the bar in our fundraising effort. I know that Father MacRae is most appreciative to all who have aided this effort, and that he would much prefer that many people do a little instead of just a few doing a lot. Let us hope that this could be an undertaking of the whole church. For information on how to assist, please see my post “News Alert: New Federal Appeal Filed in Father Gordon MacRae Case.”