Father Michael Gaitley’s ‘Do-It-Yourself’ retreat, Consoling the Heart of Jesus has concluded behind these stone walls, and its ripple effect has begun to show.
I cannot let this week pass without mention of two great Saints whose Feast Days the Church remembers this month. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (August 9), known also as Edith Stein, was honored in a post of mine entitled, “Saints and Sacrifices: Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein at Auschwitz.” Her story is one that history is tempted to turn away from because it is painful to witness. Rather, we should stare straight into its heart of darkness and join this brilliant convert and Carmelite nun as she stepped off a cattle train into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. “Come,” she said to her sister, Rosa. “Let us go for our people.”
The other, of course, is Saint Maximilian Kolbe (August 14), one of the Patron Saints of These Stone Walls and its inspiration. I have written too many posts about him to list here, so suffice it to say that the fact that I am writing at all is largely because of him. If I had to pick one post for you to read in his honor, however, it would be “The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from St Maximilian Kolbe.” The impact of St Maximilian on my life, and on the life of Pornchai Maximilian who took his name, may never be fully understood in this life.
And he keeps showing up here, over and over. Once again behind these stone walls, we have fallen into the clutches of several friends of Saint Maximilian: Nate Chapman and his crew, David Kemmis:, Jean Fafard, and Jim Preisendorfer, all volunteers trained by the Marians to conduct this retreat in prison. TSW readers met them some months ago in “Behold Your Mother! 33 Days to Morning Glory.” That post was Part Two of a special post about our “33 Days” retreat behind prison walls. It was an experiment of Father Michael Gaitley and the Marians of the Immaculate Conception from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA. They have been present to us in prison in profound and heroic ways, as some upcoming posts will reveal.
NICE GUYS FINISH LAST BY CHOICE!
You might recall from Part One of that 33-Days post, “Woman, Behold Your Son!” that Pornchai Moontri and I decided to cave under the pressures of a hard month in prison and skip that retreat. Well, as I wrote back then, Nate Chapman had other plans. When we didn’t show up for Session One, he scheduled a special remedial session the next day for the stubborn stragglers – ummm, that would be us! – and we were pushed and prodded to go. Then we were finally ensnared by Nate’s innate charm. You may recall that I nudged Pornchai halfway through Nate’s welcome to the “33 Days” and whispered, “Why does he have to be such a nice guy? Now we’re stuck!”
Nate Chapman says today that he has quoted many times that little snippet of our recalcitrance. In his article, “Mary is at Work Here,” [Flash Version and PDF Version] author Felix Carroll explained the source of the wondrous grace that compels Nate Chapman, David Kemmis, Jean Fafard, and Jim Preisendorfer, a team of Catholic men who walk the walk of faith in their daily lives. The article includes a photo and caption taken in front of this prison on the day of our Marian Consecration.
These same men returned to this prison for a “Part Two” of sorts, a ten-week “Do-It-Yourself” Retreat format using another text by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC entitled Consoling the Heart of Jesus. I wrote about the start of this retreat in “Father’s Day in Prison Consoling the Heart of Jesus,” and I wrote again at its midway point in “Father Seraphim Michalenko on a Mission of Divine Mercy.”
The day that I write this post is the final day of this ten-week retreat in prison. Nate Chapman has once again been our fearless taskmaster, keeping a group of twenty prisoners on schedule, and his innate charm has not diminished. I do not write that in jest. These volunteers – each a good 20 years or more older than most of the prisoners at their tables – came into prison armed with a faith and trust that reaches deep into the depths of their own souls, and it shows. It isn’t easy being in a room full of prisoners who always seem to begin such things with a mix of hopeful optimism and bitter cynicism. With the example of these volunteers, I would have to say in the end that hopeful optimism won out, and that is a minor miracle.
The heart of this retreat was trust, but we live in a place almost entirely devoid of trust. After our experience of the “33 Days” retreat, Pornchai and I dared not get on the bad side of Nate Chapman with another display of stubbornness, so we signed up early for this one. So did our friends, Michael Ciresi and Michael Martinez. You’ve heard from or about all of them recently. Pornchai’s most recent guest post on TSW was “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope,” and Michael Ciresi wrote a deeply moving post, “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left behind.”
However, I have to tell you this story. On June 1, the first day of the retreat, the four of us along with 15 other prisoners showed up at the prison chapel at 6:30 PM. Mike Ciresi, whose capacity for trust has made leaps and bounds of late, realized that Nate Chapman would have some formula for splitting the 19 prisoners present into three discussion tables that would each remain together for the entire ten weeks of this retreat.
Almost immediately, Mike started calculating all sorts of mathematical permutations to sit in just the right spot to guarantee that he and Pornchai and I would end up sitting together. It was comical to watch, and poor Nate Chapman thought Mike was organizing some sort of bizarre version of musical chairs.
Finally, Pornchai said to his friend, Mike, “Just sit wherever! Sometimes you just have to trust.” So begrudgingly, Mike Ciresi surrendered and sat down in the only seat remaining. Pornchai, who was busy shaking hands with Nate and the other volunteers, ended up seated on the other side of the room.
Then Nate presented his Introduction to Consoling the Heart of Jesus, and pointed at one end of the large semi-circle of prisoners with an instruction to count off by threes. All the “Ones” would be at Table One, the “Twos” at Table Two, and the “Threes” at Table Three. Mike’s first lesson in trust in this retreat was discovering that when he finally surrendered control he and Pornchai and I were all “Threes” and all ended up at the same table anyway.
Our Table Leader was Jim Preisendorfer who was absent for one week while he volunteered to rebuild homes destroyed by a hurricane. Ten days of volunteer carpentry work in Mississippi in July was proof enough that Jim means what he says when he speaks of his faith journey.
I’m proud of Mike Ciresi, both for showing up throughout these ten weeks, and for giving up when trust challenged him to do so. At some point in this ten week retreat, Mike signed up to serve as a Reader for Mass in the prison chapel on Sundays, and the day we completed our “Consoling the Heart of Jesus” retreat was Mike’s first day as Reader. His assigned reading is one we’ll all recognize well:
“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8: 37-39)
MORNING GLORY’S LONG, SLOW SUNRISE
I received a letter recently from one of the many TSW readers who have since commenced their own “33 Days” retreat culminating in Marian Consecration. The writer explained that she was not sure what she had expected, but there was so very much hope built up during her 33 Days journey that the actual day of Consecration felt like a letdown. She had disappointments and discouragements, and the tedium of post-Consecration life just seemed to continue on a path forward that felt an awful lot like the path behind.
But to our letter writing friend, I must add this. Pornchai and I and Michael Ciresi all awoke on the morning after our Marian Consecration to the cold hard fact that we are still prisoners, that the path ahead of us looks pretty much like the one behind. Like our correspondent friend, I wondered what I had really expected from that “fiat” to God in the example of His mother. On the day I write this, the day we completed “Consoling the Heart of Jesus,” I awoke in prison for the 7,254th time.
But the one path I failed to look at and assess was the one that leads inward. Something had indeed changed. This was true of Pornchai as well. It took us awhile to put our fingers on it, but something was dramatically altered, not on the path forward in the prison surroundings that we see everyday, but on the path inward. In “Mary is at Work Here,” [Flash Version and PDF Version] Felix Carroll wrote something startling and wondrous:
“The Marians believe Mary chose this particular group of inmates to be the first. That reason eventually was revealed. It turns out that one of the participating inmates was Pornchai Moontri who was featured in last year’s Marian Press title, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions.
How very strange. When I read these words, I felt as though I had my first glimpse of the back of the tapestry where we cannot see, the tapestry I wrote of in “Father Seraphim Michalenko on a Mission of Divine Mercy.” My life and the lives of Pornchai, and Mike Ciresi, and Eric Mahl are somehow mysteriously bound together. Felix Carroll continued,
“Moreover, before joining the Marians’ Evangelization Department a year ago and helping to spearhead the “33 Days” initiative, Eric Mahl was also featured in the book. Eric and Pornchai met for the first time…when Eric presented to the inmates during one of the six weekly meetings for the group retreat. ‘I felt like I met my brother, someone I’ve known my whole life,’ Eric said afterwards.”
This little gift of a momentary glimpse at the back of the tapestry of our lives made me realize something about trust. It was something humbling. Throughout this Consoling the Heart of Jesus retreat, trust has taken center stage, and what I found humbling was my realization of how much I have overlooked it.
TRUST AND THE DIVINE MERCY PARADOX
If you are reading this, then you know that I maintain that I have been falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned for twenty years. You know that I feel a moral and sacred obligation to challenge that wrongful imprisonment and to disseminate the truth – not only in my own case but in the growing number of stories of priests destroyed unjustly. That’s why These Stone Walls exists.
But I am now thrown into a mysterious quandary. I cannot look at my friend, Pornchai, and not see that God somehow used me as a link in a chain. The same is true of our friend, Michael Ciresi, and others. But the way these links have unfolded and revealed themselves in the life of Pornchai Maximilian shakes the Earth beneath my feet. And that Felix Carroll and the Marians attributed to Pornchai Mary’s choice of this prison for the first 33 Days and Consoling the Heart of Jesus retreats shakes the very foundations of what I believe about myself and the walls of my prison.
Pornchai and I left our Marian Consecration without a doubt that something wondrous had taken place, but we did not have words to describe it. In fact, on our way back to our prison cell that day, I asked Pornchai, “Can you explain what just happened?” Pornchai just shook his head, and said, “No, but I know we were supposed to be there. It was very important that we were there.” I’ll go a step further. It was the moment we came face to face with the price of Divine Mercy only we just didn’t know this at the time. Felix Carroll wrote of it:
“On a cold Nov. 24, the Solemnity of Christ the King, inmates enter the prison chapel for Sunday Mass, all dressed in drab green, their first names stitched on their shirts. Visiting priest Fr. Wilfred Deschamps…wanted to be here for the inmates’ consecration. He’s thrilled to learn of the Gospel reading for the day (Luke 23: 35-43). It couldn’t be more suitable for the setting and the occasion. In it, Jesus, dying on the cross, promises heaven to the repentant criminal hanging beside him.”
What is the price to be paid for Divine Mercy? I am shocked that Felix touched upon it for I once wrote about that precise Gospel reading on These Stone Walls. I consider it to be one of the most important posts I have ever written. Its title is “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.” If you read it, you will agree that what took place in the exchange between Christ and Dismas was the ultimate act of trust.
Dismas remained on his cross and his life was taken. To a casual observer, the path ahead of him looked a lot like the path behind, and both looked bleak from any human standpoint. The only path that changed through his act of trust was the path inward, the one linked in those last moments between his heart and the Sacred Heart. Dismas was given a great gift; a moment of sanctifying grace that required from him an act of trust; a final moment Consoling the Heart of Jesus.
The lesson is well learned. Do I miss my freedom? Yes, I do. Do I long for it? Absolutely. Will I continue to fight for justice? I must! But, has any of what I have endured separated me from the love of Christ? Has 7, 254 days and nights of unjust imprisonment done this any more than, as Saint Paul put it, “anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, or the sword?” I would have to answer in truth, no, it has not. Can I look at the ripples of grace though my friend, Pornchai, seeing the effect his life’s journey has on so many others, and knowing that God has some plan for him, and then say, “I wish I was never in this prison”? I’m sorry, but I cannot!
Father Michael Gaitley, I finally defer to the great truths you have compiled in yet another profoundly meaningful and readable spiritual journal in Consoling the Heart of Jesus. I went into this wondrous journey wondering what on Earth could possibly console His heart, and now I have the answer. You did not make it easy. I had to hunt, and it was well worth the effort. As you put it so very well:
“This is one truth we can always cling to: God’s mercy, that God IS mercy, and that no one who trusts in His mercy has ever been disappointed. In times of deep desolation, even though there may be many things about God we do not understand, the truth of His mercy is always within our reach. It’s the GREAT TRUTH to which, with St. Faustina, we should always tenaciously cling:
‘O Lord, though I cannot comprehend You and do not understand Your ways, I nonetheless trust in Your mercy.’ ” (Consoling the Heart of Jesus, p. 229, and Diary of St. Faustina, no. 73)