Wednesday, December 04, 2013

These Stone Walls: An Advent Tale - Part 1


This first of a two-part Advent post invites TSW readers to “33 Days to Morning Glory,” a life changing Consecration to Mary presented by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC.
“Is there anyone in your life for whom you have given up all hope for redemption, for whom you’ve given up any expectation of fundamental change at their very core?” That question began “The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship,” a January 2012 post with a cast of characters who appear prominently in this one.
This is a story of something Blessed John Paul II called “Entrustment.” It’s a story of a few men you have read about and have come to know through these pages. They are men who struggle to believe and trust while living among the most fallen of the fallen. It’s a story of entrustment to Mary, The Immaculate Conception, and it’s a strange story. I don’t know where, or even how, to begin it.
I’ve written two previous “Marian” posts that might shed some light on this one as Advent begins. The titles are “Mirror of Justice, Mother of God, Mystical Rose: Our Lady of Sorrows,” and “A Glorious Mystery for When the Dark Night Rises.” They were, according to some readers, the most unusual tributes to Mary, and this account will likely be no different. It begins where so many TSW posts would begin if I didn’t fight so hard against it. It begins in suffering and in sorrow, but be not afraid of them.
I wish I could convey to you the details of what the month of October was like for us behind these stone walls. Because of the nature of this place, I can’t write so openly about prison. Nor do I even want to, for life here can at times be a crucible of discouragement and humiliation. More than at any other time in the 19+ years I’ve spent in prison, this past October was a month of constant attack from all sides and spheres of influence. It seemed to begin with my post at the end of September, “Pope Francis Consecrates Vatican City to St. Michael the Archangel.” I could only conclude by the end of October that it must have seriously ruffled some evil feathers.
And it wasn’t just me. Our friend, Pornchai, endured for the entire month of October an ordeal that consumed and disrupted every waking moment. It was the tyranny of false witness. He was accused of an offense he had absolutely nothing to do with, something that set in motion a series of events that escalated, and could have greatly harmed his life, his future, and his present peace of mind, and he was powerless to come out from under it of his own accord. It wasn’t until the very end of October that he was freed from its grip as the truth finally prevailed and he was completely exonerated.
And then there was Ralph whom I mentioned in a summer TSW post entitled “In Hoosegow League Baseball.” It’s a source of great insecurity in prison that the tone of life here can change so radically between a carefree game of baseball on a summer afternoon and the depths of depression come fall. Early in October, Ralph left this prison and I was very glad for that.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ralph spent his last hour here writing a letter to the readers of These Stone Walls, a letter that he mailed on his way out the door. He asked that it be posted on TSW, so it became a comment on the “About” page after which it was finally read to me. Ralph hinted at some of the darker side of life in this place of late, and his hopes at finally being free of it. I was very moved by Ralph’s comment and so was Pornchai as it mentioned him as well. But from that point on, October seemed to descend into a chaotic and painful cascade of trial after trial.
“Great suffering requires great trust.” I had no idea where such a thought came from, but I awoke one October morning muttering this to myself. It was then that I told Pornchai that what we really need to work on is not freedom from the anvils hanging around our necks, but trust. Great suffering requires great trust, and if suffering is endured without a foundation of trust in place, it can breed defeat and despair. When everything of value falls out from under us, do we trust our faith to sustain us? It is the most fundamental question for the human race today, but sadly, we found our own inventory of trust to be coming up short.
jonah-in-the-whaleIn the middle of walking the gauntlet of October, our friend, Donald Spinner stopped at our cell one day after a class in the prison chapel. Donald is a Catholic convert whose story was told in “The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship” mentioned above. Donald told me that Deacon Jim Daly, the prison’s Catholic chaplain, had invited him to take part in a special “do-it-yourself” retreat that required some daily reading and pondering and a commitment to a two-hour meeting every Sunday night from October 20 to November 24. Donald told us that the retreat is limited to 15 prisoner participants, by invitation only, and the chaplain had invited Pornchai and me as well. Pornchai and I looked at each other and simultaneously shook our heads. October simply did not leave us in the mood for this. We weren’t going. Period!
So over the next two weeks in early October, Donald – who can be a real pain in the keister – harassed and nagged me at every turn. “If you go, Pornchai will go,” he said again and again until I started avoiding him like the plague. We were given no information about the program other than it was a “Marian retreat.” I asked Pornchai several times if he wanted to attend, and to my great relief he said “not really.” As the opening session of the retreat loomed near October’s end, Donald made a last ditch effort to drag us there, but we stubbornly stood firm.
Six to eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Book of Jonah was penned and joined the Canon of Hebrew Scripture among the minor prophets. It’s the story of the reluctant Prophet Jonah asked by God to go to the city of Nineveh to negotiate the city’s repentance and conversion. Jonah wasn’t having any of it. Nineveh was the home of Assyrian kings who repeatedly invaded Israel and were despised by the Jews. Jonah bristled at the very thought that God would even consider redeeming the Ninevites. So Jonah declined the invitation.
And to demonstrate his defiance, Jonah boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh. When the ship was nearly shipwrecked in a storm, Jonah was exposed as an omen of defiance against God and thrown overboard. He was swallowed up by a great fish, and cast back upon the shore from which he fled. God repeated His “invitation.” Jonah took the hint, and off to Nineveh he went. God’s purposes were ultimately met through Jonah, and Nineveh repented in spite of him. It is one of Scripture’s accounts of the mysterious works of Divine Mercy.
So when Donald returned from the first session of what he now called his “Divine Mercy” retreat, he told me that the retreat coordinator, Mr. Nate Chapman, was coming back to the prison for a special session on the following morning for “the stragglers” who did not accept the invitation when first offered. It was then, and only then, that I saw some signs that perhaps we are supposed to be there. I told Pornchai that we are the stragglers referred to, that the trials of October in the belly of the beast were over, and we should accept the second chance.
So on the following morning, as the misery of October began to unravel, we arose early and headed off to our first conference with Nate Chapman who was to lead us in “33 Days to Morning Glory.” I had heard of Nate Chapman several times from other prisoners. Known as an older Catholic gentleman of exemplary faith, Nate volunteers for various prison programs, but we had never before met. By the start of the second hour, my resistance to being there had melted. As Nate spoke, I turned to Pornchai and whispered, “Why does he have to be such a nice guy? Now we’re stuck!” The prison beast had coughed us up on the shores of Nineveh, and the next 33 days turned out to be of crucial importance.
Nate Chapman’s introduction to “33 Days to Morning Glory” instantly awakened us to our very purpose for being there. It could be summarized in one sentence: “Great Suffering requires great trust!” Both Pornchai and I knew then with absolute certainty that we were supposed to be there, and that what had been missing from the trials of October was trust.
We had somehow lost along the way the great trust that was necessary to engage the suffering that lay before us, and this was an invitation to renew that trust. Nate Chapman had our complete attention. As he spoke I thought of a Gospel passage that we will all be hearing in just two weeks on the Third Sunday of Advent:

“When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another? ‘ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.’ ” (Matthew 11: 2-5)

But as I thought of this passage read to me with my mind’s inner voice, what I heard was “the blind regain their trust.” I wrote of this passage in an Advent post two years ago entitled “Down the Nights and Down the Days: Advent for a Prisoner Priest.” I wrote of how struck I was that John the Baptist had to trust from prison in the promises of Christ, and the fulfillment of all his hopes. I wrote of how their dialogue took place through others – as does this dialogue through These Stone Walls – while John was in prison.
The retreat process that Pornchai and I concluded on the Solemnity of Christ the King along with twelve other Catholic prisoners is entitled “33 Days to Morning Glory.” The retreat is based on the works of four great saints, and when we heard their names, all doubt about this invitation was removed. For 33 days, we followed in the footsteps of Saint Louis De Montfort, Saint Maximilian
Kolbe, Blessed Mother Teresa, and Blessed John Paul II. We followed their footsteps toward total Consecration to Mary – something Pope John Paul called “Total Entrustment” – and we have been given a great spiritual gift.
Next week, I will explore in more depth the nuts and bolts of “33 Days to Morning Glory,” and the brilliance of this great gift to the Church that Father Michael Gaitley and the Marians of the Immaculate Conception have been inspired to write and publish. Some two million Catholics have Embraced Father Gaitley’s profoundly moving journey to Marian Consecration. The tools for beginning “33 Days to Morning Glory,” and for bringing this to your own parish community can be found at
In Part II of this post, I’ll describe the great importance of our Consecration to Mary on the Solemnity of Christ the King as we beheld our Mother at the foot of the Cross. It was the closing of the door of the Church’s Year of Faith, and, for us, the opening of a door to the rebirth of trust.
And I will also write of why our friend, Pornchai, now has a new name. So until then, Behold Your Mother! And, as Jesus commended her to the Beloved Disciple, take her into your heart, and then find trust in the vastness of her heart, for within it is a very special window to a soul that magnifies the Lord!