Twenty-four hours after this is posted, it will no longer be All Souls Day. I risk losing everyone’s interest as we all move on to the daily grind of living. But I am not at all concerned. We’re also in the daily grind of dying. Death is all around us – it’s all around me, at least – and never far from conscious concern. As I wrote at the end of Part II of “The Sacrifice of the Mass” last year, death was part of the daily prayer of Saint Padre Pio as well:
“Stay with me, Lord, for it is getting late; the days are coming to a close and life is passing. Death, judgment and eternity are drawing near.” (From “Stay with me, Lord,” a prayer after Communion by Padre Pio).
I have never feared death. At least, I have never feared the idea of dying. It’s just the inconvenience of it that bothers me most, not knowing when or how. The very notion of leaving this world with my affairs undone or half done is appalling to me. The thought that Someone knows of that moment but won’t share this news with me makes me squirm. “You know not the day nor the hour” (Matthew 24:36) is, for me, one of the most ominous verses in all of Scripture.
But even when a lot younger, I never thought I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of this life and into the next one. I think it’s because I have always had a strong belief in Purgatory. It’s one of the most wonderful and hopeful tenets of the Catholic faith that salvation isn’t necessarily a black and white affair driven solely by the peaks and valleys of this life. I have never been so arrogant as to believe that my salvation is a done deal. I have also never been so self-deprecating as to believe that God waits for the extinction of both our lives and our souls.
It is the mystery of “Hesed,” the balance of justice with mercy that I wrote of in “Angelic Justice,” that is the foundation of Purgatory. In God’s great Love for us, and in His Divine Mission to preserve that part of us that is in His image and likeness – something this world cannot possibly do – God has left a loophole in the law. It’s a way for sinners who love and trust Him, and seek to know Him, to come to Him through Christ to be redeemed. The very notion of Purgatory fills me with hope, and I’m hoping for it. It’s largely because of Purgatory that I do not fear death.
All Souls Day was first observed in the Catholic Church in the monastery of Cluny in France in the year 998. It was originally about Purgatory, and not just death. The monks at Cluny set aside the day after the Feast of All Saints – which began two centuries earlier – to devote a day of prayer and giving alms to assist the souls of our loved ones in Purgatory. In the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46) Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Purgatory itself has, since the earliest Christian traditions, been a tenet of faith in which the souls of those who have left this world in God’s friendship are purified and made ready for the Presence of God. The Eastern and Latin churches agree that it is a place of intense suffering, and I’m looking forward to my stint.
Okay, I’ll admit that sounds a little weird. It isn’t as though seventeen years in prison has conditioned me for ever more punishment. I do not find punishment to be addictive at all, especially when I did not commit the crime. The punishment of Purgatory, however, is something I know I cannot evade. The intense suffering of Purgatory is entirely a spiritual suffering, and it begins with our experience of death right here. The longing with which we sometimes agonize over the loss of those we love is but a shadow of something spiritual we have yet to share with them: The Holy Longing they must endure as they await being in the Presence of God. That Holy Longing is Purgatory. It is the delay of the beatific vision for which we were created, and that delay and its longing is a suffering greater than we can imagine.
DEATH, DRAWING NEAR
Years ago, an old friend came to me after having lost his wife of sixty years. I could only imagine what this was like for him. After her funeral and burial all his relatives finally went home, and he was alone in his grief. When we met, he told me of the intensity of his suffering. My heart was broken for him, but something in his grief struck me. I asked him not to waste this suffering, but rather to see it as a part of the longing his dear wife now has as she awaits her place in the fullness of God’s Presence. I suggested that his longing for her was but a shadow of her intense longing for God and perhaps they could go through this together. I asked him to offer his daily experience of grief for the soul of his wife.
He later told me that this advice sparked something in him that made him embrace both his grief and his loss by seeing it in a new light. Every moment in those first days and weeks and months without her was an agony that he found himself offering for her and on her behalf. He said this didn’t make any of his suffering go away, but it filled him with hope and a renewed sense of purpose. It gave meaning to his suffering which would otherwise have seemed empty.
Though I could not possibly relate to his loss, I know only too well the experience of being stranded by the deaths of others. In early Advent last year, I wrote “And Death’s Dark Shadow Put to Flight.” The title was a line from the hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn, “0 Come, 0 Come Emmanuel” that we will all be hearing in a few weeks.
That post, however, was about the death of Father Michael Mack, a Servant of the Paraclete, a co-worker, and a dear friend who was murdered in the first week of Advent. It was ten years ago this December 7th. It was a senseless death – by our standards, anyway – brought upon this 60-year-old priest and good friend by Stephen A. Degraff, a young man who took Father Mike’s life for the contents of his wallet. A part of my share in his Purgatory was to pray not only for Michael Mack, but for Stephen Degraff as well.
On the evening of December 7, 2001, Father Michael Mack returned to his home after some time helping out in a remote New Mexico diocese. Saint Paul wrote that “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). For Father Michael, it did just that. But for me in prison 2,000 miles away, awareness of this loss took time. No one can telephone me in prison, and I can usually only be reached by mail. It turned out that Father Michael sat at a desk in his home and wrote a letter to me on the night he died – all the while oblivious to the danger lurking in a closet in that same room. Father Mike took the letter outside to his mailbox and then walked back inside and into the moment of his death.
Three days later, after prison mail call, I sat at a small table outside my cell with the letter from Father Mike in my hands. I was so glad to hear from him. As I sat there reading the letter with a smile on my face, another prisoner asked if I wanted to see the previous day’s Boston Globe. With Father Mike’s letter in my left hand, I absentmindedly turned to page two of the Globe to see a tiny headline under National News: “New Mexico priest murdered.” Father Michael Mack’s name jumped from the page, and a part of me died just there.
All the Catholic rituals through which we bid farewell and accept the reality of death in hope are denied to a prisoner. I had only that last letter describing all Father Mike’s hopes and dreams and renewed energy for a priestly ministry to other wounded priests. Then after he signed it and scribbled in a PS – “Looking forward to hearing from you” – he walked right into his death.
This wasn’t the last time such a thing happened. This is the 18th time I mark All Souls Day in prison, and the list of souls I once knew in this life – and still know – has grown longer. In “A Corner of the Veil,” I wrote of the death of my mother – imprisoned herself during three years of grueling sickness just seventy miles from this prison, but I could not see her, speak with her, or assure her in any way except through letters that could not be answered. She died five years ago this November 5th. Last week, I received a letter from TSW readers Tom and JoAnn Glenn which included a beautiful photograph of my mother imprinted on a prayer card. They found the photograph on line. I had never seen it, and was so grateful that they sent this to me.
In “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” I wrote of the death of another dear friend, Father Moe Rochefort, who, I learned from the evening TV news, drowned on his 60th birthday. He left behind a mystery that I doubt will ever be untangled in this life. But no news of death has ever come to me with more devastation than that of my friend, Father Clyde Landry.
Father Mike Mack, Father Clyde, and I were co-workers and good friends, sharing office space in the years we worked in ministry to wounded priests at the Servants of the Paraclete Center in New Mexico. I was Director of Admissions and Father Clyde was Director of Aftercare. A priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Father Clyde had a Cajun accent reminiscent of that famous Cajun television chef, Justin Wilson – “I Gar-on-TEE!”
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
On that night of Gethsemane when I was falsely accused and arrested, it was Father Clyde who first came to my aid, and stood by me throughout. When I was sent to prison, Father Clyde became my lifeline to the outside world. I called him every Saturday. It became a part of my routine, like clockwork. It was through Father Clyde that once a week I reached out to the outside world for news of friends and news of freedom. He held a small account for me to help with expenses such as telephone costs, food and clothing, small things that make a prisoner’s life more bearable. Most important of all, Father Clyde volunteered to be the keeper of everything of value that I owned.
By “everything of value,” I do not mean riches. I never had any. He kept the Chalice that was given to me at priesthood ordination. He kept the stoles that were made for me, and the small things that were dear to my life and priesthood.
He kept the irreplaceable photos of my parents – both gone now – and all the things that were a lifetime’s proof of my own existence. Everything that I left behind for prison hoping to one day see again was in the possession of Father Clyde.
A year after Father Michael Mack’s tragic death, I received a joyous letter from Father Clyde. He had a new life in ministry as administrator of a very busy retreat center in New Mexico, and he was looking forward to starting. He had also purchased a small home near the center in a beautiful part of Albuquerque. It was the first time in his 52 years that he had owned any home. It was a sign of the stability that he longed for, and a sign of his great love for the retreat ministry he was undertaking.
Father Clyde’s letter was very careful to include me in this transition. He had packed all my possessions and would place them in his spare room which he promised would be available to me whenever I was released from my nightmare. His letter was the last he wrote from his vacant apartment, all his boxes stacked just next to him. He wanted me to know that by the time I received his letter he would be moved and settled and ready for my call the following Saturday.
I received Father Clyde’s letter on a Friday evening, and tried to call his new number the next day. I got only a recorded message that the number was disconnected. In prison, no one can call me and I am unable to leave messages on any answering machine or voice mail. So I called another friend to ask if he would please send an e-mail message for me. My friend fired up his computer and asked, “Where’s it going?” I gave him the e-mail address and started my message.
“Hello Clyde,” I said. “I hope you are getting settled.” Instead of hearing the clicks of my friend’s keyboard, however, I heard only silence. He wasn’t typing. I asked him what was wrong, and knew instantly from his hesitation that something was very wrong.
“Oh, My God!” he said. “You don’t know!” He then told me that my friend, Father Clyde, never made it to his new home. When he did not show up for the signing appointment with his realtor, a search was underway. Father Clyde was found in his apartment on the floor next to the last box he had packed. At age 52, he had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Father Clyde had been gone three days by the time I learned this. No one could reach me. With Father Clyde’s letter in my left hand, I was stunned as my friend described all he knew of Father Clyde’s death, which wasn’t much. It would be many days before I could learn anything more.
In the weeks and months to follow, I was stranded in a way that I had never experienced before. I was not just alone in my grief. I was alone in prison, 2,000 miles from the world I knew and the only contacts I had, and my sole connection with the outside world was gone. It would be another seven years before the idea of These Stone Walls emerged, and I would once again reach out from prison to the outside world.
But for those seven years, I was stranded. On the Saturday after I learned of Fr. Clyde’s death, I recall sitting in my cell from where I could see the bank of prisoner telephones along one wall out in the dayroom, and I cried for the first time in many, many years. In the months to follow, everything that I once hoped one day to see again was lost. I do not know what became of any of Father Clyde’s things, or my own. I have come to know that this happens to many prisoners. Cut off from the world outside, our losses can be catastrophic.
But I came to know that grief is a gift, and I have offered it not only for the souls of Fathers Clyde, Mike, and Moe – and for my dear mother – but for the souls of all who touched my life, and in that offering I had something to share with them – a Holy Longing.
When I wrote “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul,” it was about Purgatory. It was about my continued hope for the soul of Father Richard Lower, a brother priest driven to take his own life in a dark night all alone when all trust was broken and hope seemed but a distant dream. I have been where he was, and my response to his death was “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
At the end of “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul,” I included a portion of the “Prayer of Gerontius” by Blessed John Henry Newman. It’s a beautiful verse about Purgatory that calls forth the abiding hope we have for our loved ones who have died, and also recalls that one thing we have left to share with them – a Holy Longing for their presence, and, in their company, for the Presence of God:
“Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
And carefully, I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.
Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest;
And Masses on the Earth and prayers in Heaven,
Shall aid thee at the throne of the most Highest.
Farewell, but not forever! Brother dear;
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”
(John Henry Cardinal Newman, Conclusion, “The Prayer of Gerontius”)