Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From Fr. Gordon MacRae: These Stone Walls: Resentment

Giving Up Resentment for Lent: Calisthenics for Your Soul

Resentment and retaliation are a toxic mix, concocted for another but ending up in your own tea. There’s a better way to get even, but it takes practice.

About a month before Lent on These Stone Walls, we posted “What Dreams May Come: Azazel and the Pursuit of Justice.” In part, it was a thinly veiled commentary on something that happened recently, and a few readers picked up on it. Part of its title came from a 2011 article by Ryan MacDonald entitled “To Azazel: Father Gordon MacRae and the Gospel of Mercy.” It described, among other things, an incident that took place a few years ago on the steps of a Catholic church near this prison. A man who traveled a long way to visit me in prison attended a Lenten Mass while on his way here. After Mass, he told the priest of his plan to visit me. “You should stay away from him,” the priest said. “He can’t be trusted.”

When I heard about this, I was both angry and bewildered. That priest and I had never even met. His views were based solely on what he heard from others. When the visitor asked the priest for the source of his opinion, he said, “It’s common knowledge in the diocese.” So I wrote to that priest. I didn’t lash out or accuse. I tried to defend myself, and asked if he would visit me in prison. He never responded.

That was a few years ago, and I got over it. Then the bitter feeling of being unjustly disparaged surfaced again just a few weeks ago. A woman in New Hampshire asked her parish priest about the process of meeting me in prison. The priest’s reported response was, “He’s dangerous, and you should stay away from him.” It wasn’t the same priest, but it was eerily the same sentiment – almost like a pre-written press release.

When I learned of this, my immediate reaction was to feel hurt, but that didn’t last long. The hurt was quickly replaced by anger which feels a lot more bearable than hurt. It’s almost always where hurt goes when given a chance. The anger seethed for a few days, then morphed into resentment and thoughts of revenge which is where anger goes when it festers long enough. In prison with no place for resentment to go, I imagined a few retaliatory TSW headlines outing the priest as an imposter of charity and justice.

Of course, you have never seen such a headline on These Stone Walls, nor will you. When it came down to it, I told the person who reported this to me that I have nothing disparaging to say in return about my brother priest. That wasn’t entirely true, of course. I had lots of explosive things to say. I just wasn’t sure any of them were true so I didn’t say them.

I wasn’t sure any of them were true because I don’t really even know this priest. We met a few times thirty years ago, but beyond his name I cannot say I know him, nor does he know me. I wrote to him once from prison years ago, but like most of the priests of my diocese I have written to, he never responded. His recent remarks, like those of the other priest before him, simply parroted what he has read in newspapers or heard on the tangled web of diocesan gossip which, as I recall, is far more prolific than accurate.

So all the disparaging remarks given free reign to roam around in my mind remained in my mind. I’m glad no one else was aware of my thoughts because they weren’t very nice and I’m not very proud of them. The longer such thoughts are given free mental reign, the more they become ingrained. Do they serve any purpose at all beyond the compensatory imaginings of someone who is really powerless to respond in kind? After all, I am convicted and in prison. The scarlet letter embroidered upon me in prison places me at a disadvantage. In a game of ecclesiastical quid pro quo, I can’t compete. I can fight, but I cannot win.


The real truth, when it comes down to total honesty, is that I have nothing bad to say about that man. I remember him as a good and faithful priest with a stellar reputation. If I say anything else just to fire back at him, it would be contrived and unjust. It would make me someone I know in my heart and soul I must not become. If there’s one thing I have learned well in prison, it is this: while bearing with the purgatory of unjustly losing my freedom, becoming hateful and vengeful would put me on the fast track to a living hell.

I am surrounded day after day by men whose lives have become just that; men who have long ago caved into their basest instincts, confusing survival with retaliation for real or imagined wounds. When I am not writing in prison, I am defusing the nefarious plots and bombs concocted by fellow prisoners determined to only further harm themselves by lashing out at others. Among prisoners – as you may have learned from “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama” – character assassination is a daily grind, and a spiritual sickness of epidemic proportions.

And where does it end? If you have followed the story of the files of accused priests being publicized in Los Angeles this month, then, like me, you might be even more alarmed at one of its sideshows. The public sniping going on between Cardinal Mahoney and the current Archbishop of Los Angeles delighted the secular media no end, but placed the Cardinal in a distorted light. We priests cannot call upon Catholics to avoid “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal” when we are engaging in it ourselves.

And you’ve probably seen or heard of the lurid headlines of the monsignor recently arrested on charges of supplementing his income by selling illegal drugs. “Meth-dealing Monsignor” is the sensational media’s dream headline, but he is charged and indicted, not convicted and in prison. As a lawyer I know likes to say, “A good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. It doesn’t mean the ham sandwich is guilty. ”

I was a lot more scandalized by the shameless exploitation of that ugly headline by the rapidly diminishing, oxymoronic group, Voice of the Faithful. In a recently published press release, the “Meth-Dealing Monsignor” story was presented by VOTF as evidence for how celibacy and the male priesthood have harmed the Church. Really? I have met lots of meth dealers in prison. None of them were practicing celibacy. There are women’s prisons too, and some of the women in them were drug dealers.

It’s easy for me to say that the priest in my diocese who recently slandered me could have, and should have, kept his disparaging thoughts to himself. But he didn’t. My anger and thoughts of revenge effect this other priest not one iota. They effect only me. They further disparage me, and only me. I’ve come to know only too well the power and self-fulfilling prophesy of resentment and revenge. They can quickly turn you into the very person some unkind soul already suspects you to be. So they must be somehow defused.


If you managed to make your way through my ramblings about the metaphysics of time and living in the past in “Forty Days of Lent in the Practice of the Presence of God” last week, then this might be a more practical – and readable – post about a self-improvement project for Lent. It’s not too late to take one on.

It doesn’t have to be a massive urban renewal of the soul’s dark night like the one I once proposed in “Potholes on the High Road” during Lent two years ago. That was a post about a grueling and wrenching project I took on to forgive a prosecutor who helped send me unjustly to prison for sixty-seven years, and then took his own life. If you can easily forgive someone who has done such a thing to you, then we should be seeing your name in the Roman Martyrology some day.

Have I forgiven that prosecutor as I set out to do in that post? Not on your life. That remains a work in progress. One day while offering Mass in my cell late at night, I prayed the Roman Canon as I usually do, and I found myself spontaneously adding that prosecutor’s name in an unspoken prayer as I remembered those in my life who have died. That’s progress. It doesn’t mean I have forgiven him, but he no longer rents space in my mind. All thoughts of resentment and retaliation have dissipated into my prayers for him. As I wrote in that post, “You simply cannot pray for a person and hate him at the very same time. I’ve tried it, and it cannot be done.”

What I really want is to engage in a “last-word” contest with that priest who so disparaged me anew – maybe something really childish like, “Oh yeah? Your mother wore combat boots!” That sort of thing. It’s tedious and empty and pointless, however. You know it is. So why bother?

I have a better way of dealing with the tit-for-tat my wounded spirit demands. Throughout this Lent, whether I want to or not, I am praying for the priest who disparaged me unkindly and unjustly. And my prayer isn’t anything like, “Lord, please see this jerk the way I do.” Though that was tempting, it never became part of my prayer. I simply added him, with as little judgment as I could manage, in the prayer for the living in the Roman Canon at Mass. And once a week I add him to my offering to God that ends each day in prison. Though I doubt very much that he feels he needs my prayers – or even wants them – that doesn’t matter. I now invite you to pray for him as well.

I also invite you to choose someone who has hurt you in the past; perhaps someone you have not forgiven, and whose hurt is something you carry with you in the form of resentment. You don’t have to let go of this. You don’t have to decide now that you want to forgive this person. When you pray simply mention this person’s name with as little judgment as your heart can manage. By Easter, this prayer will have become a favor to your own soul, and a source of grace and freedom from resentment. You may dislike this person forever, but resentment will diminish under the power of your prayer, and you will at least begin to walk on the road toward freedom.

After all, the prayer that every one of us prays daily, or at least once a week, really does ask Our Father to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Be careful what you ask for. If you really have no trespasses in need of forgiveness – none at all – then just disregard this post. I have lots, and not a day goes by that I don’t discover a new one.

So help me, Lord, to pray sincerely for my brother priest who trespassed against me. Help me pray for him with a sincere heart; with the kind, forgiving, and priestly heart I once had spontaneously in my life, and hope in this Lent to have again.

Editor’s Note: Lest you think the shocking news hasn’t reached into prison, Father Gordon’s planned post for next week is entitled “Pope Benedict XVI: The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love.” Also, I want to thank TSW readers who have voted for These Stone Walls.  TSW is a finalist for Best Catholic Blog!

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