Giving up something as a sacrifice for Lent is an ancient practice, but giving up on life is not an option. I found my inspiration for endurance in a U.S. Marine.
I give up! I have long since stopped counting how often I say that out loud, and if I had a dollar for every time I think it, I would find myself in a whole other tax bracket. I thought it even as I was starting this post. I spent all of yesterday typing a post into the short term memory of this old but irreplaceable typewriter, and when I turned it on to continue it this morning, all was lost. I had to start over, so I abandoned my entire not-so-inspiring Ash Wednesday post and wondered what I might write about. Then it came to me. I’m giving up giving up for Lent, and I invite you to join me.
Those two words – “giving up” – appear together only once in the entire canon of Sacred Scripture. I found them in chapter six of the Second Book of Maccabees. They are part of a story with elements that you might find familiar. The year is 167 BC, and the Greek conqueror-king, Antiochus Epiphanes has overrun Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple. He removed the Sacred Torah, and turned the Sanctuary over to the Greek cult of Zeus who sits in Greece on Mount Olympus. What had been voluntary adoption of Hellenistic religion for the occupation of Jerusalem was now obligatory. All was lost, and the People of God were demoralized and without hope.
You may know some of this story because it is the origin of the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. After a two-year struggle by a resistance movement launched by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, the Temple was retaken and purified and the Divine Presence was restored in the Sanctuary. It happened on the 25th day of Chislev in the year 165 BC, exactly two years to the day after the Sanctuary was desecrated.
Restoring the Torah to the sanctuary required burning a lamp to honor the Divine Presence, but the resistance had oil for the lamp for just one day. Nonetheless, the lamp burned for eight days until the revolt of the Maccabees succeeded in re-taking all of Jerusalem. The city “decreed by public ordinance … that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year” (2 Maccabees 10:8). Hence the eight branches of the menorah which are lit at Hanukkah.
But back to “giving up.” Before all that happened – before the Maccabean revolt re-took the Temple – the two-year occupation by the Greeks was brutal. It started off seductively. Some among the Jews became collaborators in the gradual surrender. First to go were their religious liberties, and when that happened all the rest of their freedom was easy prey.
Some surrendered their religious rights because they were sold a story that doing so was in their best interest under the rule of Antiochus who had no respect for their faith. Over time, invitations for reform and change turned into requirements – an agenda that started off looking like “social progress,” not unlike the one that hauled the Little Sisters of the Poor to the steps of the Supreme Court last year.
But I digress. Back to the story. Eleazar, “a scribe in a high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence” (2 Maccabees 6 18) was used by the Greek occupiers to demean the peoples’ faith and rob them of their will. In public view, the Greeks tried to force the revered Jew to eat the flesh of swine. Some of his fellow Jews took the respected Scribe aside and privately urged him to bring some other meat and just pretend that he was eating the swine, thus saving his own life while only appearing to cave to the demands of the oppressors. Eleazar said in reply:
“‘Such pretense is not worthy of our time, lest many of the young should presuppose that Eleazar, in his ninetieth year, has gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a moment longer, they should be led astray because of me while I defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example…’ When he said this, he went at once to the rack.” (2 Maccabees 6: 24-28)
By giving up his life, Eleazar helped keep his people from giving up their will, and their hope, and their faith, the very fabric of their existence. This is the sole use of the term “giving up” in all of sacred Scripture. So who am I to defile the example of Eleazar, and cave into the oppression of imprisonment? I am giving up giving up for Lent, and again, I invite you to join me.
TOM CLANCY TAKES A SHOWER
The first time I ever heard the term, “giving up giving up” was from a fellow prisoner, 82-year-old Martin Nogues. I saw Martin here and there before we actually met. He stood out. Well, “stood” does not quite fit. Martin came to prison at age 80 as an amputee confined to a wheelchair, sort of a prison within a prison. I wrote of another friend who faced such a heavy cross here in “Take Me Home! The Prayer of the Rollerboy.”
Most confined to wheelchairs here try to find younger prisoners to push them when they need to get from one point to another. Martin always got where he needed to go under his own steam. At some point in his life, his left leg was amputated several inches above the knee. He used his remaining leg to propel his own chair, declining all help. People come and go constantly where we live, so when 82-year-old Martin and his wheelchair were assigned to one of the overflow bunks out in a recreation area, few people took notice. At least, the right ones didn’t notice. The wrong ones always notice, and sometimes they lurk in the shadows waiting for an opportunity.
I first noticed Martin when I saw him sitting at the edge of his bunk with his one remaining leg, but without his chair. I stopped and asked if he needed help. “I’m not sure,” he said warily. “I took a short nap, and when I woke up my chair was gone.” I went on a search for Martin’s wheelchair, and was furious when I found it. Some clueless punk – there is no shortage of them here – decided to steal the few possessions Martin had in a pocket in the back of his chair, and then hid the chair in a shower with the water running. It ruined the possessions he had left, including a book he was reading.
And it was a Tom Clancy book! That REALLY ticked me off! Such things happen here to vulnerable prisoners who appear isolated. When I brought the dripping chair back to Martin, the leering smirks nearby turned into scowls and downcast eyes as the local thugs avoided eye contact. Then I brought a towel and a fan which I plugged in to help dry the wheelchair. I knew that Martin must be overdue for a bathroom trip so I said, “Just this one time, let someone help you.” I helped Martin into the chair and got him to where I knew he needed to go. I waited there to bring him back to his bunk, and then I pulled up a plastic chair and sat with Martin for awhile.
His greatest concern was for the Tom Clancy book, The Hunt for Red October, which was ruined. He told me that a friend got it from the library and now he will have to pay for it. “That’s not going to happen,” I said. I told Martin that I work in the Library where we have several copies of that book. I said I would be back that afternoon with another so he could finish it.
Then, to calm Martin’s wariness, I also brought him a copy of my post, “Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan, and The Hunt for Red October” which I wrote on the occasion of Tom Clancy’s sudden death in October of 2013. Martin was shocked to learn that a prisoner had written such an article, and moreso when I told him that Tom Clancy’s long time publisher, G.P. Putnam and Sons, posted it on Clancy’s official website.
Later that day, when I returned with the book, Martin was beaming. He said he loved the article and he was shocked yet again to learn from it that I am a Catholic priest. Martin told me that he is a convert to our faith, that his conversion came shortly after active duty in the Marine Corps some fifty years earlier, and that was why he started reading Tom Clancy.
From that day on, I made it a point to visit with Martin every day. So did our friend, Pornchai-Max Moontri. No one ever touched his chair again. From my post about Tom Clancy, Martin discovered that his book that ended up in the shower was but the first in a series of fourteen novels about Jack Ryan, a literary character who has been part of my life and priesthood for 35 years.
In these books, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan took us from the Marine Corps to the CIA in The Hunt for Red October, to the streets of Ulster in Patriot Games, to Soviet occupied Afghanistan in Cardinal of the Kremlin, to the assassination attempt of Saint John Paul II in Red Rabbit, and, in the end, to the White House and terrorism in Debt of Honor and Executive Orders.
I loved these books. By the time I met Martin I had read some 14,000 pages in the life of Tom Clancy’s fictional character, Jack Ryan. It was a joy for me to bring the installments in the series one by one to Martin. Each book was a heavy tome, most in excess of 700 pages, but Martin devoured them. He loved my afternoon visits after work in the Library as we discussed the latest adventure of Jack Ryan.
In one of these discussions, it was difficult for me to contain my furor. I never knew what sent Martin to prison at age 80. A lapse in judgment? A moment of human failure? It didn’t matter. This was – is – a very good man who served his country as a U.S. Marine at the close of the Korean War in the same year that I was born. He had earned our nation’s respect.
One day I asked Martin what keeps him from giving up, and he said that there came a point when he had given up giving up. I asked what he meant, and he said that shortly after he came to prison two or three years earlier, his wife of 56 years died. He said that when he learned this, it seemed the end of the world for him. He sat alone in his wheelchair and was overcome with tears. Then, he said, a “counselor” on the prison payroll in the program he was in walked past him and stabbed at his pain. She said sarcastically – and it was heard by others – “Oh just suck it up, old man!” I had heard similar accounts from other prisoners there.
Martin said that this made him so enraged that rage replaced his grief. He decided that he would never again hand his emotional and spiritual well being over to an oppressor. He had to give up giving up. This made total sense to me, and I think that because of it – like the story of Eleazar – Martin inspired those who took the time to get to know him. He inspired me to endure the long Lent that my life had entered.
My heart sank one day a year ago when I returned from the Library to see Martin and his chair gone, and an empty bunk. He was moved to another place, a very crowded dormitory. Martin had been paroled at least two years earlier, but could not be released because he no longer had a home. His condition was such that he needed handicapped housing for veterans, but the wait lists were long. This kept Martin in prison well past his parole, and also changed his custody level which was why he was moved.
It took me awhile to learn where he went. Once I did, I was able to continue to send him books each week. He finished the entire Tom Clancy “Jack Ryan” series, and I started sending him books about the Marine Corps by W.E.B. Griffin which he loved.
I could not see Martin, but I was able to find prisoners who lived in that dormitory and I got them to bring him books each week. I even convinced some of them to sit with him on occasion I also sent him some TSW posts which he loved and would send back his comments on them.
Then one day Martin was gone from there as well. I learned that he developed an infection that required the removal of his other leg. I was heartbroken for him. In all this time, he waited patiently in prison for a place to live, but I feared that it may end up being in Heaven. Martin’s Purgatory was served right here.
But as I was typing this post, I mentioned his name to another prisoner who told me that Martin is now housed in the prison medical unit. “I saw him a few weeks ago,” the prisoner said. He told me that he had a visit in the prison Visiting Room and that Martin also had a visit that day. The prisoner said that it was an official visit from the VA. He said that Martin was in a wheel chair with both his legs missing, but he was engaged and smiling. “That is one tough old man!” said the prisoner. “You have no idea!” I said. I just today learned that Martin has been released from prison. To where and in what circumstance I do not know.
Semper Fi, Martin. Thank you for facing your long Lent with faith and strength and dignity. Never give up! Never surrender!
– except to God Himself!
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Spend some time behind These Stone Walls in these Forty Days with some other Lenten posts: