Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land BY FR. GORDON J. MACRAE

Christmas in prison is like a Country Western song. You’ve likely heard the rumor during the 1970s that if you play AC/DC records backwards, you can hear satanic messages. I’ve never tried it, but I heard recently what happens when you play Country Western music backwards: Your wife comes home, you get your job back, and you suddenly remember where you left your truck! Every insomniac has heard those late-night infomercials for music CD collections. I was lying awake, wide-eyed in my bunk one recent night as I listened to 30 minutes of refrains belted out from a collection of Country Western classics. I was never so depressed in my life!

Life can be painful, and it’s magnified at Christmas, especially in a place like this. In “Dawn We Now Our Gray Apparel: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times,” posted two years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote of the depressing side of Christmas in an American prison.

A part of that post was about my friend, Jonathan, a young man who became a father just three months after starting his prison sentence. The concept of fatherhood was both exciting and intimidating for Jonathan, a 21-year-old who had never even met his own father. That’s such a common denominator in the lives of so many young men in prison that it was the catalyst for my post, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”

It’s amazing how history can sometimes repeat itself. Jonathan had a rocky start in life. He was born to a teenage mother while his own 19-year-old father went to prison just before Jonathan came into the world. He and his mother never heard from his father again, and today Jonathan doesn’t know where he is or whether he’s dead or alive. When I met Jonathan, he was 21 and in prison for the first time in his life. His girlfriend was pregnant and Jonathan’s mother, age 35 and reclaiming the adolescence she lost, was unwilling to have her son and his new child in her life. His girlfriend and newborn baby were living in a shelter for single parents while Jonathan was in prison.


Having grown up without real parents, Jonathan faced Christmas 2010 enraged with himself for not being there to help bring his own child into the world. His daughter was born just two weeks before Christmas. Jonathan saw her for the first time a week later when he received some photos in the mail.

That night, a week before Christmas, Jonathan had an emotional meltdown at my cell door as he railed at the world – and mostly at himself – for being in prison at Christmas instead of in his new child’s life. He was simply devastated, but I told him bluntly that there was one ray of light in this misery; for unlike the fate of his own father, Jonathan was determined to fix this. That cold, hard realization brought home to Jonathan some comfort, if not joy. Though he was repeating his father’s mistake, he was resolved not to repeat his father’s abandonment of responsibility. Jonathan was clearly not his father, and at Christmas 2010, he accepted this truth for the very first time.

Jonathan is out of prison now, and where he should be, but I often remember his rage of expletives at my door in the week before Christmas, 2010. As I wrote at the time:

“Jonathan swore for ten minutes straight without repeating himself once. I did not think such a thing possible, and I was impressed!”

In this setting, depression, anxiety, and rage seem to be the most prevalent signs of Christmas. The less spiritual aspects of it – the rampant secular commercialism and the incessant TV promotions of a shallow “holiday spirit” – only serve to remind those in prison away from families and loved ones of the extent of their failures as husbands, fathers, and sons. The hype also reminds prisoners who have no one “out there” of the extent of their alienation and isolation from the rest of the human race and all that is considered decent. If you’re looking for “happy holidays,” prison is not the place to be at Christmas.


Though I grew up on the North Shore of Boston, I lived for several years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To prepare for Christmas, people in the Old Town district and other neighborhoods would place lit vigil candles in hundreds of small, sand-filled brown paper bags to encircle their homes, line their driveways, and often even adorn their flat adobe roofs. These vigil lights – called “Candelarias” – were displayed throughout the neighborhoods by the thousands, and their collective effect was a beautiful and breathtaking vigil for the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve, families and friends from all over would crowd into their cars for a solemn drive through Old Town Albuquerque to view the Candelarias.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even inside this prison, or at least my small corner of it. As the annual bipolar express into Christmas depression commences all around me, the walls of this cell have become covered with Christmas cards sent by TSW readers. The cards are beautiful and a stark contrast to the bleak place they now adorn.

The collective effect has transformed this captive world in sin and error pining into one of expectant hope, and the strangest thing has happened. As Christmas draws nearer, prisoners – few of whom receive many cards and some none at all – keep coming to this cell to look at the growing numbers of faith-filled cards. “How does one person know so many people?” one asked. “No,” another corrected him. “How does one person know so many GOOD people?” Pornchai loves to give tours of our cards, and tells the other prisoners that we have never even met most of the senders. He explains that they are TSW readers who think of us and pray for us – “including you,” Pornchai tells them – as we spend another Christmas here. It reminds me so much of the vigil of the Candelarias. You should take some pride in this, for it was you who provided the lights that draw them.


A few of the cards are “recycled,” meaning that I received them last year or the year before, but liked them so much that I kept them. Two years ago, someone sent me one of those live action Christmas cards that transposed a Biblical scene onto the modern era. The card depicts a New York City taxi cab with the three Magi of Saint Matthew’s Gospel crowded into the back seat. In apparent frenzy, one has his head stuck out the taxi window, his robe flapping in the wind and his jaw agape as he points forward while a stunned Middle Eastern cab driver floors the accelerator. The caption inside the card is “Follow that Star!”

It’s a really great Christmas card, and it was the inspiration for my Christmas post last year, “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear: Some Wise Men from the East Appear.” I felt determined last year not to depress you with a snapshot of prison at Christmas, so I was rather proud of that post. It was about a fascinating mythical aspect of the Infancy Narrative of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. If you read it again, you’ll understand what I mean by “mythical.” To say that the story of the Magi is “myth” does not mean that it isn’t also historically true. In fact, I firmly believe that it IS true, just as Saint Matthew conveys it. Its mythical quality is in the rich symbolism employed by the Evangelist as he tells the tale.

I made a connection between the Magi seeing the star in the East to summon them to the Christ child, and the story of Adam and Eve – and later Cain – exiled East of Eden to wander in sin and error pining after the spiritual fall of man. There are also elements of the Magi story in the Crucifixion account of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and I described them in “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.”

You can take pride in the fact that many of the cards you have sent to me and to Pornchai now serve a solemn purpose in an unholy land. They are the Candelarias that summon the alienated and alone to the Christ Child.

I’m about to mark my 19th Christmas in such an exile, living in punishment for crimes that never took place. For Pornchai, it’s his 21st Christmas in prison. But one thing is clear. Not all who dwell in this unholy land are without hope for redemption. When Jonathan finally left this prison last year at Christmas, when his daughter was one year old, he handed me a note as he was going out the door. It was one of the nicest Christmas gifts I or any priest could ever receive:

“I will always remember all the ways that I could count on you. You never take anything from anyone, but please take this: You were a better father to some of us in prison than any of our own fathers ever were in freedom.”

I don’t know that what Jonathan wrote was entirely accurate. I have a hard time measuring such things, but I got another note recently that literally knocked me on my . . . umm, priestly posterior. It was from my friend, Alberto Ramos about whom I wrote in “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.”

After Pornchai Moontri and Alberto Ramos graduated from high school in the commencement ceremony I described in “The Election is Over, but There’s One More Speech to Hear,” Alberto handed me an envelope. In it was the tassel from his mortarboard which the prisoner-graduates were allowed to keep. It was accompanied by this note written on his graduation program:

“Gracias, Mi Padre, for the wisdom and love you have shown me over all these years is precious. I would like for you to keep this graduation tassel because it is just as much yours as mine. You are the closest to a Father I have ever known, and the very best I could ever hope for. Gracias, Mi Padre, y Viva Cristo Rey! Your Homie forever, Alberto Ramos.”

Here’s a photo of some of the graduates.

That’s Pornchai in the front center being congratulated for his commencement speech, and that’s our friend, Alberto Ramos to his immediate right. Alberto removed his mortarboard because he had taken off the tassel to present to me. The smiles of these good men – who have committed all their efforts to becoming better men – are priceless beyond measure.

We have a Christmas tradition of our own on These Stone Walls, and I will pray it for our readers as I do each year on Christmas Eve. My cell window faces west, and I watch each day as the sun sets below the high prison wall that has been my view of the outside world for over 18 years. As the last glimmer of light descends below that wall on this cold December day, I am reminded of my favorite verse, a prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman. I pray it annually in my Christmas post, and once again it is my Christmas gift to you:


Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on.

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene;

One step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path, but now,

Lead Thou me on.

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

pride ruled my will: Remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blessed me,

sure it still will lead me on,

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,

till the night is gone,

And with the morn those Angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since,

and lost awhile.