Lent in a City on a Hill

Lent, like the priesthood, is about sacrifice.

Sacrifice is at the very heart of being a priest and being a Catholic. This Lent, restoring sacrifice is the key to being a Church in the modern world.

As Lent began on Ash Wednesday, I mark 6,361 days in prison.  I didn’t tally this with scratch marks on my cell wall, and I don’t actually keep an ongoing count in my head. I won’t wake up tomorrow and tell myself it’s the start of day number 6,362. At least, I hope I won’t. That would be really awful. But two or three times a year I pull out my calculator and tally the days I have been in this place. I’m not even sure of why we do this, but everyone here does. Our friend, Pornchai Moontri just told me that today he has been in prison for 7,275 days, and others of our friends have been “inside” a lot less.

Sometimes I discover some strange coincidences when I count the days. For example, my 5,000th day in prison was also my 26th anniversary of priesthood ordination. My Ash Wednesday post in my blog at www.TheseStoneWalls.com last year was “Protect Us from All Anxiety: Nightmares and Dreamscapes in the Desert.” The day I described the recurring nightmare that I have in prison was also my 6,000th day behind these stone walls. The numbers don’t mean much except to convey a sense of the drama of time as it plays out in such a place.

Time is experienced differently here than anywhere else. The New Yorker Magazine had a very good article last month by Adam Gopnik entitled “The Caging of America” (Jan. 30, 2012) about our ominous and burgeoning prison system. He wrote that “a prison is a trap for catching time” and described the trap thusly:

 “It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time  ahead that makes
 prisons unendurable for their inmates… That’s why no one  who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time  stops. A  note of attenuated panic, or watchful paranoia –  anxiety and boredom  and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog.”

It’s not a pretty picture, and I think the pain of living in prison is experienced proportionately to one’s mental capacity. Prison is the one place on Earth where intellect is a handicap, and possibly even a source of deep personal anguish. I took on “Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” last year because I feared my brain cells might atrophy from lack of use.

Perhaps I am in good company in this suspension of time. A great comment from reader, Carlos, on my blog post, “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox” mentioned that God lives in the ”nunc stans,” a place where there is no passage of time at all. Carlos is exactly right that God lives outside of time. Psalm 90 gives a hint of this, and it’s a good Ash Wednesday message:

 “You turn man back to dust and say ‘Turn back, O children of men!’ For a  thousand years in your sight are as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the  night.” (Psalm 90:3-4)

I know the feeling. My time here has not been experienced as thousands upon thousands of days, but as one very long one – a sort of long Lent with no Easter in sight – except, perhaps, in hope. I guess it’s really that way for all of us. Without hope, there can be no Easter, only Lent. The reverse is also true. To be a Catholic Christian is to live in hope despite all appearances to the contrary.

A TIME FOR EVERY SEASON

I’m showing my age, but I can hear Roger McGuinn from The Byrds intoning the musical version of Ecclesiastes (3:1): “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” I don’t mean to lecture you, but “doing time” – “doing Lent” – qualifies me to write about both. This Lent is our time to ponder freedom and all the dire threats to it.

It’s a time to wake up, a time to take stock of who and what we are, and most importantly of what we are becoming. It’s a time to measure our civic duty as Catholic members of the human race in this place at this time. It’s a time to account for what it means to live as humans are meant to live, in God’s image and likeness in a society and culture we are supposed to add to and not just take from. It’s a time to discern whether we as Catholics shape our culture more than it shapes us. Even a prisoner can enter into that discernment.

I wrote of one vivid example a year or so ago, but it’s worth repeating. It’s a typical prison story with a very atypical outcome. It involved my friend, Joseph, whom I wrote about In “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox.” One of Joseph’s many disputes with other prisoners erupted into a fight. Both were hauled off to spend some time in “the hole.” Joseph emerged first, then a week later, his enemy. News of their ongoing combat spread throughout the prison, and the peer pressure was intense. “Fight – Fight – Fight” was the sole message they heard from both friends and foes. The prison was abuzz with the inevitable. Joseph ducked all my efforts to intervene. This was about a month after our friend, Pornchai was received into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010.

Seated in the prison chow hall one day, Joseph awaited his opponent for the big scene. Pornchai was sitting with me as usual as hundreds of prisoners poured in for dinner and a show. I decided I would have no choice but to try diplomacy. Then Pornchai suddenly stood up. In the presence of hundreds of anticipating prisoners, Pornchai walked to the door to meet up with Joseph’s enemy.

I groaned as I saw diplomacy fly right out the window. Then Pornchai gestured to the young man to follow him. Together they walked to the table where Joseph was seated. They sat down, and the three of them had a conversation. I watched from across the hall as Pornchai spoke and the two enemies stared at their shoes.
I don’t think the Geneva Convention entailed such drama and a sense of impending doom. Then suddenly – in the sight of all – the three of them stood up. Joseph and his enemy shook hands, gave each other a fraternal smack on the back, then parted company. The war ended and a treaty was struck. I was very proud of Pornchai. Gandhi could not have done better.

There is a Gospel declaration for the age we live in, and Pornchai exemplified it that day. It’s a worthy goal for Lent for all of us who have been waiting for some light in the darkness while sometimes forgetting that we are the ones who are supposed to bring it:
 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor does anyone  light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand where it gives light to all in  the house.”  (Matthew 5:14-15)

BEING CATHOLIC OUT LOUD

Mary Floeck, an avid reader of These Stone Walls, has posted a number of comments  on my and other Catholic blogs. She is a great example of a faithful Catholic discovering that she has a voice in the public square. Mary has found her voice in some recent well written letters published in a few Catholic publications. Having seen her name in many comments on These Stone Walls, I have been very proud to also see it in Our Sunday Visitor and a few other places expressing her hopes and concerns as a Catholic.

In a recent letter in OSV (February 5, 2012) Mary raised the challenges faced by the Church and priesthood by the Holy Father’s announcement of the formation of an “American Ordinariate.” This is the creation of a special diocese for formerly Episcopalian congregations that want to become Roman Catholic. A part of the transition is that the married Episcopalian priests can become Roman Catholic priests and remain married.

The practice is not new. Pope John Paul II established such a process for individual Anglican clergy in the early 1980s. I  wasn’t sure I agreed with all of Mary Floeck’s concerns in her OSV letter until just a few days later. I came across a brilliant editorial in The Wall Street Journal by Father Richard Cipolla (”Being a Catholic Priest – and Married,” Houses of Worship,  Feb. 3, 2012). Father Cipolla is a Catholic priest ordained in 1984, just two years after I was ordained. Previously a married Episcopalian priest, Father Cipolla became Catholic and was ordained through a special indult of Pope John Paul II extended to Episcopalian clergy on a case by case basis back then.

Mary Floeck’s OSV letter piqued my interest, so I was intrigued by what Father Cipolla had to say about priesthood, celibacy, and marriage. I read it twice, and found it to be an articulate and powerful lesson for me as a priest. It isn’t about celibacy. It’s about sacrifice, the heart and soul of both a priestly and a Catholic identity.

In his brief editorial, Father Richard Cipolla has given the Church and priesthood a Lenten reflection on being Catholic in a culture increasingly closed to Catholic ideals. Here’s an excerpt that helped me prepare for Lent:

 “Sacrifice is at the heart not only of the priestly life but also of the life of every  Catholic. How could it not be so when the primary symbol of our faith is the love  of God displayed on the cross of Jesus Christ?”

 “Despite my situation . . . I am a firm supporter of the celibacy of the Catholic  clergy. Its basis is not found in councils or popes but rather in the person of Jesus  Christ. The heart of the Catholic priesthood is sacrifice, and celibacy frees the  priest to give himself totally to the Church and its people.”

Father Cipolla added that the sexual abuse scandals that have been in the spotlight over the last decade have been “a glaring example of the perversion of celibacy,” a result of too many priests living a life that is “selfish and closed off.” I agree, in part, but I also want to emphasize the role played by money in the causes and context of the scandal. In my review of David F. Pierre’s landmark book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, I pointed out the hard evidence raised by former Los Angeles prosecutor Donald Steier that a full fifty percent of the claims against Catholic priests have been false and tainted by the lure of money. This aspect of the scandal has been grossly overlooked by the entire Church, and a part of our sacrifice as a Church must not be to sacrifice justice for priests falsely accused.

Someone might argue that I have a vested interest in taking that position. Perhaps that’s true, but no justice afforded to me now will give me back even one of the 6,361 days and nights taken from me in prison. Those are my sacrifice, and this Lent I offer that sacrifice for the Church, for the priesthood, and for the readers of These Stone Walls who come here from the city on a hill with a search for truth and justice in their hearts.

“I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your selves as a  living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.  Do not be  conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that  you may have sure knowledge of the will of God, of what is good, and acceptable,  and perfect.” (Romans 12: 1-2)

 “Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris.”
 “Remember, O Man,  that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return.”
 William Byrd, Anglican convert to Catholicism during the reign of Queen  Elizabeth

Fr. Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist who writes from the New Hampshire State Prison where he has spent the last 18 years.  He also writes weekly for an award-winning blog at www.TheseStoneWalls.com.  His wrongful conviction defense is sponsored by The National for Reason & Justice – www.ncrj.org ).
 

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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