Three short posts: Shanghai Surprises, Pope Benedict on the Shelf, and Thanksgiving in Prison, detect Someone Else writing on the wall behind These Stone Walls.
My post, “At Play in the Field of the Lord” last summer was one of the most widely read ever at These Stone Walls. If you opted to skip it because you thought it was just about baseball, that was a mistake. Readers were stunned by the profoundly moving story it tells, but no one was more moved by that story than I was. I came across a copy just as I started this post, and once again struggled against tears when I came to the heart of the story it tells. That story is terribly painful, but also glowing at its very heart is a beautiful account of amazing grace.
And just as I read anew up to that place in the story, my friend Chen, came storming into the cell where I type. “Storming” really does capture the energy that Chen puts into trying to express himself. When Chen saw what I was reading, he declared for the tenth time in his broken English, “Next year I will be in All-Star game!” Chen completely misses the point of the amazing grace that became manifest that day. All he knows is that something important happened without him. He’s determined not to be left out again.
Chen has become a part of our lives behind these stone walls. At age 18, he came to the United States from his home in Shanghai, China with a temporary student visa and what he thought was a golden opportunity to attend college in America. Like Pornchai, Chen is gifted in mathematics, but he was by no means emotionally prepared for the lifestyle of an American college campus. Without the support of family for the first time in his life, and speaking little to no English, Chen missed all the subtle nuances of interactions with others, retreated deeper into himself, and had a meltdown of sorts.
At age 18, Chen went to prison for a mistake that in China might have only triggered a stern lecture from his father. Now he must serve at least three years in prison before deportation to home – a place he would gladly depart for tomorrow if allowed.
I mentioned Chen briefly in a previous post, “A Midsummer Knight’s Dream of Freedom.” After a long series of ordeals in prison far from home, including months locked away in near isolation, Chen arrived lost and traumatized in the bunk just outside the cell where Pornchai Moontri and I live – the same bunk Anthony Begin occupied before him.
It was early summer, so Chen was drafted to play on Pornchai Moontri’s baseball team. He was terrified. He had never in his life picked up a bat or glove, and the rules of the game seemed incomprehensible to him. Day after day out on that field, Pornchai worked with Chen, teaching him the skills needed to play, the words needed to communicate, and the self-confidence needed to cope with prison.
One day a group of prison thugs trying to impress each other saw Chen alone and decided it was time to bully him with some racial observations. Pornchai approached and they apologized – first to Pornchai then to Chen. “We were just being ignorant and it won’t happen again,” they said. It never did.
By mid-summer, when that day “At Play in the Field of the Lord” took place, Chen didn’t qualify for the “All Star” team taking on the Saints Prison Ministry team. By the end of summer, he was voted the most improved player. By fall Pornchai drafted him into a strenuous daily workout program with weights. Today, a very different young man stands where that scared and stranded Chinese teenager once stood.
Chen has no religious experience, but comes to Mass with us on Sundays. It’s the only time in the entire week that he can sit still for an hour. During the week, Chen takes classes in advanced math and studies English as a second language. Up to now, the only English he knew is what he learned in prison. Suffice it to say, that’s not the best place to nail down the niceties of civil discourse. Chen calculated aloud recently that Pornchai was age 21 when he was born, and that I was age 21 when Pornchai was born. Then he told us the Chinese words for “Pops” and “Grandpa.” Now he’s banished again!
POPE BENEDICT ON THE SHELF
A month ago, I received a message via LinkedIn from James, an American living in a village just outside Shanghai, China. James teaches English to Chinese students at a foreign language school there, and wanted me to accept his request to connect with me on LinkedIn. I’ve never even seen LinkedIn, of course, but a page there is maintained by friends. I later told our friend, Chen, about this contact, but it seemed almost surreal to him. Chen said that some of his childhood friends in Shanghai attended that very school. The odds against such a coincidence are, of course, astronomical.
So with the help of Father George David Byers, I accepted the LinkedIn connection with James in China, and in a message told him a bit about Chen. James wrote back saying that his wife, who is Chinese and a Catholic convert, had recently translated a book into Mandarin. It’s a book about a family’s faith and survival during a time of war and great spiritual battle. Her Chinese translation is 86 pages, so James attached it to another message. Charlene Duline in Indianapolis printed it and started sending it, ten pages at a time, to Chen who is thrilled but mystified to have this connection to both our faith and his native land. He has immersed himself in its pages.
Chen, who turned 20 recently, began to talk about the book with his friend, Fernando, age 23, who is in Chen’s math class in prison. Fernando is in prison for the first time in his life. Up to now, he has known only life on the mean streets, but he is gifted with an intellect, and his friendship with Chen, armed with this book about faith, has opened to him a world he did not know existed – a world in which God is a part of everything, both the suffering and the good.
So one day after class, Chen brought Fernando to see me in the prison library. Fernando said that since talking with Chen he has become a seeker, and he asked for a book that might help him understand what faith is. I pointed toward a small section of the library that had some books about Catholic theology, so he and Chen headed off in that direction. After some intense seeking and conferring, judging each book by its cover, they came back ready to check out an immense hardcover edition containing all four volumes of Saint Augustine’s theological magnum opus, City of God.
I suggested that perhaps it’s a bit much, and maybe they should start with something that wouldn’t break a foot if they dropped it. So they went back to the shelves and returned with a much smaller book, one that was very familiar to me. It was the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI.
On the day before I am typing this, I was on my way back from work in the prison library when Chen and Fernando came running up to the chainlink barrier where they were locked in outside the building where I live. “This is the most amazing book I have ever read!” declared Fernando. “Who’s this Benedict guy?” So talking through the barrier, I told them about the successors of Peter, and about Pope Benedict. Fernando excitedly showed me two passages that someone had highlighted in the book:
“Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find.” (p.4)
“Purification of heart comes as a consequence of following Christ, of becoming one with him. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20)” (p. 95)
Chen and Fernando were awed when I told them that this was once my book, and those two passages were highlighted – the first by Pornchai and the second by me – on the night that Pornchai first decided to become Catholic, and of how he was summoned to that moment by Saint Maximilian Kolbe who asserted himself into my life and then into Pornchai’s, events I wrote of recently in “Patron Saints: Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Later, back inside, I showed Chen where Pornchai cited these two highlighted passages in a 2012 guest post, “Pornchai Moontri: The Duty of a Knight – To Dream the Impossible Dream.”
Chen and Fernando find signs of amazing grace in all this, and now that I think about it, so do I. There is some writing on the wall inside These Stone Walls, and the handwriting is not ours. It is visible now to all but the spiritually blind. My old friend, Father Fred Carrigan drove up from New York a few weeks ago (November 3) to visit me in prison as he has twice per year for the 21 years that I have been here. I told him of the above account, and he marveled at the global arc of These Stone Walls and at all the threads of connection that seemingly happen of their own accord.
I could not really see this clearly until I saw his reaction. Father Fred, who is a pretty astute priest, said that the sheer laws of quantum mechanics do not allow for so many “coincidences.” The writing on the inside of These Stone Walls becomes ever more visible and complex, but it’s in the language of Divine Mercy, a universal language for those called out of blindness into its wonderful light.
It is this way with all of us who live, dream, suffer, but endure in faith while becoming links in a chain, bonds of connection between persons in a broken and sinful world.
THANKSGIVING IN PRISON
So Pornchai and I, and our friends Mike Ciresi and many others – and now Chen and Fernando among them – find even behind prison barriers a reason for thanksgiving. Thus I want to remind you, dear readers, that “The True Story of Thanksgiving,” a post I wrote five years ago, is still out there waiting to be read and shared anew as Thanksgiving in America approaches.
It’s a very special story about a very special, but mostly unknown, character in American history – a character who survived a great ordeal before becoming an instrument of grace for others. Don’t sit down to Thanksgiving dinner without giving Squanto of The Dawn Land his due in “The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope.”
One of the ironies of that story is that the people who rescued Squanto were Catholics, while the people Squanto rescued in turn were the anti-Catholic Puritans whose footprint on America runs deep still – especially here in New England. One of their first official acts in the New World was to outlaw the celebration of Christmas.
On that “Bah Humbug” note, I want to remind our friends and readers that the New Hampshire State Prison no longer allows greeting cards to be sent to us. This banishment means that for the first time in all these years, you cannot send a Christmas card to us at Christmas. This Draconian step is the ghost of Christmas present.
Every year since These Stone Walls began, this bleak cell has become filled with cards at Christmas. I will greatly miss them. However, it is the card itself, and not its content or message, that is banned. One reader had the idea of scanning or photocopying a card on plain pager, signing it with a note, and sending it that way. It’s not convenient, but it works.
And since we receive only the contents of mail and not the envelopes, you may also photocopy or scan your envelope with your return address as well. The Pilgrim Puritans of New England whom we acknowledge at Thanksgiving might grimace over such loopholes in the law banning Christmas, but we’ll let them.
All the mail rules are listed on our “Contact” page on These Stone Walls along with some practical ideas on how you might help if you wish. Meanwhile, in a few weeks prisoners here will be receiving the annual food packages that we purchased back in October for delivery before Christmas. I want to thank readers who helped with this. In the midst of trials and ordeals, and even when suffering is ongoing, we have reason to give thanks, and foremost among our reasons is you.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, and fill your heart with praise and thanksgiving.
A NOTE FROM FATHER GORDON: Our next post on These Stone Walls will be December 2. It’s Thanksgiving in the US next week, but this is a difficult time for us in prison as we face five consecutive days locked in. Pornchai-Max and I have decided to again follow our own Thanksgiving tradition by offering those five days for the readers of These Stone Walls. We are thankful to God for many things, and having this gift of a voice in the public square is among them. I hope you will also honor our Thanksgiving tradition next week by reading and sharing anew our two special holiday posts: “The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, The Pilgrims and The Pope,” and “Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving With Some Not-So-Just Desserts.”
With love and blessings from prison,
Father Gordon MacRae
Update for the Week