From Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, author of the po... Read more
Behold Your Son! Behold Your Mother!
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Sunday, Nov. 24, 13 inmates in New Hampshire State Prison for Men became the first group of inmates ever to consecrate themselves to Jesus through Mary using the 33 Days to Morning Glory retreat written by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC. Among the inmates was Fr. Gordon J. MacRae. Father Gordon was convicted in 1994 on charges of sexual assault that have since been called into question. He maintains his innocence, and he even refused a guilty plea that would have significantly shortened his prison term. His case has gained widespread public support, including from the late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. The following post was written by Fr. Gordon for his website TheseStoneWalls.com. We post it here with his permission.
Part 1 — 'Behold Your Son!'
"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 the following.
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. 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-plus 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.
HIDDEN IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
In 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 Oct. 20 to Nov. 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. An older Catholic gentleman known for his 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." (Mt 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.
33 DAYS TO MORNING GLORY
The retreat process that Pornchai and I concluded on the Solemnity of Christ the King along with 12 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 St. Louis De Montfort, St. 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.
In Part 2 of this post (below), 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 Fr. Michael Gaitley and the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception have been inspired to write and publish. Nearly two million Catholics have embraced Fr. 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 AllHeartsAfire.org.
In Part 2, 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!
Part 2 — 'Behold Your Mother!'
When I was ordained a priest on June 5, 1982, an old and dear friend, Fr. Anthony Nuccio, CSS, a priest of the Congregation of Stigmatines, gave me a much-treasured gift. It was a wood panel measuring 12 inches x 20 inches bearing a beautiful reproduction of Fra Angelico's famous masterpiece, "The Annunciation." It was placed with honor on my office wall in every place I have lived since — except, of course, this place. As with all evidence of a life before prison as I approach my twentieth Christmas behind these stone walls, I do not know what has become of that treasure. I see it today only in my mind's eye.
But I still see it vividly. Having studied "The Annunciation" intently, I can picture every detail of it. Painted by the Italian master Fra Angelico between 1430 and 1432, it is justly the most famous of many paintings of the Annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke (1: 26-38). Three years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote of this treasure and of that scene in my favorite Advent post, "Saint Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us."
It contrasted the two Annunciation scenes of St. Luke's nativity account. The first was the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the priest, Zechariah, about the birth of John the Baptist. The second was the announcement to Mary that she was soon to bear the Son of God.
The Archangel began his message to Zechariah by calming the priest's fear in the presence of an angel, but the message to Mary began with the Archangel's own awe of Mary herself in words now very familiar:
"Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!"
The contrast in St. Luke's account — and in many subsequent works of art — is fascinating. Gabriel towers over Zechariah, who is brought to his knee in fear and trembling as he questions how the announcement of the angel could be true. As I wrote in that post, do not read the Archangel's words in casual and bland prose. Read them with the sound of thunder in the distance, and the Temple floor shaking beneath Zechariah's feet:
I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to you to bring you this news. And behold, YOU WILL BE SILENT...!
I have always imagined Zechariah's hasty visit to the Temple men's room after this scene. For his doubt, he is utterly silenced in the presence of Gabriel.
But the Annunciation to Mary is portrayed very differently, not only by the evangelist, but in centuries of art, and especially by Fra Angelico. In the Annunciation to Mary, it is the Archangel who takes the humble position, bowing before Mary with deep reverence and deference. In this scene, St. Luke reflects the great esteem and reverence with which Mary was held very close to the heart of the apostolic Church.
Fra Angelico portrayed the moment of the Holy Spirit's act of Divine Mercy for the world as a subtle beam of light, descending from above and beyond Gabriel into the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Annunciation is fulfilled in Mary's assent to God, an act of submission that has expressed for two millennia the birth of redemption for a fallen world: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; Be it to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). As the Nativity story concludes, Jesus is presented in the Temple, as Simeon the priest blessed Him, beheld his Mother, and foretold their Cross:
Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed (Lk 2:34-35).
THE GREAT PONDERING
In His dying words upon the Cross, Jesus looked upon His mother and His beloved disciple, John, and said, "Woman, behold your son!" and to John, "Behold your Mother." Then from that moment on, the disciple "took her into his own home" and into his heart (Jn 19:26-27). We have beheld her since and pondered with her the meaning of Christ's coming into our world, the scandal of His bearing our Cross, the gift of salvation as He died upon it, and the hope of a door long closed to us — the Gate of Heaven — opened anew. From the Fall of Man to the Annunciation to the Cross to the Empty Tomb, the story of salvation has been told in Sacred Scripture and in sacred art to remind history of something essential: The life of the Son of God on Earth began with the words of an angel, "Hail Mary, full of grace," and ended with the words of Christ crucified, "Behold, your Mother!"
Every now and then I find something obscure in the secular media that shines a light on my pondering with Mary, and it's usually something in The Wall Street Journal. In early November, art historian Alain de Botton penned an article entitled "Art for Life's Sake" (WSJ "Review," Nov. 2-3, 2013). Profiling eight great works of art, de Botton wrote:
Great works of art aren't just for show. Approached in the right frame of mind, they can help us deal with life's key challenges… our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope.
One of the works of art de Botton chose was "Christ Crucified" by the great 17th century Spanish master Diego Valasquez. Alain de Botton's description of the painting and its starkly moving scene of the Crucifixion was surprising to see in a secular newspaper today:
Valasquez shows us the Son of God, the King of Kings, bleeding on the cross like an ordinary stricken man. He will be dead in a few moments. Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives can be burdened by suffering…but Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to have some honor or dignity. (Alain de Botton, WSJ Nov. 2-3, 2013)
33 DAYS TO MORNING GLORY
Today, I look for that honor and dignity in suffering in the place Christ told me to look: "Behold your Mother!" In Part 1 of this post, I wrote of the ordeal of two prisoners who had once promised to be with Mary at the foot of the Cross, but some of the sense of honor that comes with that had faded among the wind and the waves of life's storms. So I wrote of an invitation extended to us, of our "Zechariah-like" doubt, and of our inevitable acquiescence (picture Jonah in the belly of the beast) in spite of ourselves. It was an invitation to ponder with Mary, and it took the form of another great work of art, this time painted with words and captured in masterful prose by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. It was an invitation to "33 Days to Morning Glory," the first time such an invitation was extended inside an American prison.
In True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis de Montfort's 18th-century classic of the spiritual life, the great Marian saint laid out a course toward Marian consecration that comprised 33 days. Father Michael Gaitley authored a very readable analysis of this classic, weaving into this beautiful journey the Marian theology of three great 20th-century models of faith: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Mother Teresa, and Blessed John Paul II. Father Gaitley incorporated this wealth of inspiration into his own "33 Days" format, and it is wonderful to behold.
Many readers of These Stone Walls already know what some of these saints and companions have meant to us. I wrote of one in "The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell," but my meager prose paled next to the brilliance of Fr. Gaitley's presentations. The connections he made between the life of John Paul II and the miracle of Fatima were breathtaking. It was information I knew but had never before tied together in such a powerful presentation. It will leave you, as it left me, with no doubt about the work of Divine Mercy in human history. Father Gaitley's DVD reflections on Blessed John Paul II were simply brilliant.
And TSW readers know that I have written many times of our journey in prison with St. Maximilian Kolbe and all that he has meant for us, perhaps best expressed in a recent two-part post, "Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls." As Fr. Gaitley's riveting DVD retreat conferences commenced in our 33 Days journey, our friend Pornchai and I knew without doubt that we were among friends.
The brief daily readings in 33 Days to Morning Glory, written by Fr. Gaitley, and the "Retreat Companion" journal by Carol R. Younger, Ed. D., were augmented by weekly meetings and the superb DVD presentations of Fr. Gaitley. Under the capable leadership of retreat coordinator Nate Chapman, our small group discussions were led by three exemplary disciples of Mary from New Hampshire: David Kemmis, Jean Fafard, and Jim Preisendorfer. I was humbled to be in the presence of such men who gave so much of their time and experience to our 33 Days.
PORNCHAI'S NEW NAME
But beyond the overwhelmingly beautiful and hopeful content of 33 Days to Morning Glory, there was a very special gift for me and Pornchai. At two of the large group meetings, Eric Mahl was present. A few weeks ago, some TSW readers called me "The Priest Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" after my controversial post, "Stay of Execution." I wrote about the moving story of Joe Walker who shared, along with Pornchai Moontri, a chapter in Felix Carroll's great book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions. The final chapter of that wonderful book was the story of Eric Mahl, a very special young man and witness to Divine Mercy.
Because Eric and Pornchai each shared a chapter in Felix Carroll's book, they knew of each other but had never met. As Pornchai and I arrived at the prison chapel for our third 33 Days group meeting on Nov. 10, I heard Pornchai exclaim, "That's Eric!" And simultaneously from across the chapel, I heard Eric exclaim, "That's Pornchai!" It was a meeting of brothers, each bringing the wounds and hopes of life to the foot of the Cross, where they both, at the command of Christ, behold their Mother.
By human design or not I do not know, but it was no mere accident that our 33 Days retreat culminated in our Marian consecration at Mass in the prison chapel on Nov. 24, 2013, the Solemnity of Christ the King and the closing of the Church's Year of Faith. The Mass was presided over by Fr. Wilfred Deschamps, a priest of my diocese whose parishioners at St. Patrick Parish in Jaffrey, N.H., devoted many hours in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament for the success of 33 Days behind prison walls.
And to our great surprise and joy, Felix Carroll was also present along with Eric Mahl. Both traveled from the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. Felix had extensively interviewed Pornchai via telephone for his book, but the bond of friendship and brotherhood was clear in their meeting, finally, behind these stone walls. Both Felix and Eric returned to the prison that evening for the closing conference of our 33 Days retreat.
At one point in his DVD presentation during 33 Days, Fr. Michael Gaitley described why young Raymond Kolbe was given the name "Maximilian" as his religious name as a Conventual Franciscan. From childhood in a war torn and poverty-stricken Poland, Raymond Kolbe's love and reverence for Mary were very great. At his profession of vows in religious life, his Order gave him the name "Maximilian" because it means "the greatest." Pornchai, who took that name as his middle name at Baptism to honor his patron saint, was beaming a smile that could have been seen from space. After the session, on the walk back to our cell, Pornchai told me that from here on he wants to be called "Max."
I thought I might have to clear some space in our cell to make room for this new name, but "Max" was quick to clarify: "I'm not the greatest," he said, "but my saint is!" I told Max that in Sacred Scripture, spiritual transformation often brought a new name. After his encounter with God in the Book of Genesis, Abram became Abraham. And in the Acts of the Apostles, Saul of Tarsus was knocked off his high horse to become St. Paul. Max is in good company.
After the trials of October, 33 Days to Morning Glory was a great spiritual gift that I want to extend to the readers of These Stone Walls. It can transform hearts and entire parishes, and in fact has transformed many. Spend time this Advent at AllHeartsAfire.org to learn how.
"Marian entrustment," as Blessed John Paul II called this consecration, has become the heart of our pondering with Mary. Down the nights and down the days, from the Annunciation to the Cross, and then beyond to where the Dawn from On High breaks upon a far distant shore, we are borne upon this Vessel of Honor, full sail, toward home.