What to do when bad things happen to good people

religion | Mar 20, 2012 | By Gordon J. MacRae

A great Western, The Magnificent Seven is a film about how tragedy, suffering, and even sin can be transformed in God’s plan into instruments of grace.
“If God did not want them sheared,” He would not have made them sheep!”

That cynical line was delivered by actor Eli Wallach in the great 1960 Western film, The Magnificent Seven. Eli Wallach portrayed the leader of a gang of marauding bandits who terrorized and extorted a small, peaceful Mexican farming village. The famous quote jumped out at me as a perfect start for this post about when bad things happen to good people.

In the end, the village was freed from its tyranny, but not without paying a steep price. After all, freedom from tyranny never comes cheap. But most people become willing to sacrifice for their freedom. People who no longer sacrifice for their freedom are no longer free. The freedom to live “In a City on a Hill,” as I wrote on Ash Wednesday, always requires sacrifice.

In The Magnificent Seven, the village was rescued, but those heroes who came to the villagers’ aid were also outlaws of one sort or another. They were gunfighters for hire recruited by the Man in Black – played by the great Yul Brynner – who used their vices to lure them in to rescue the village in his own quest for redemption. The Good Guys – who were anything but good guys in any other setting – were portrayed by some fine actors including Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and Horst Bucholtz. “We deal in lead!” was their line in the sand drawn as The Magnificent Seven stood up to forty armed bandits while giving the oppressed and timid villagers a lesson In how to fight for freedom from tyranny.

But the best lines of all were an exchange between Eli Wallach and Yul Brynner: “I see you have built some new walls,” the bandit leader said. “These stone walls will not keep us out.” “These walls were not built to keep you out,” said the Man in Black. “They were built to keep you in.”

The message conveyed The Magnificent Seven’s brand of frontier justice: “We’re not here just to repel you. We’re here to rid the world of you.” What makes The Magnificent Seven such a great film is that each of the heroes has a past that isn’t so heroic. Each one of these accidental heroes converged on a specific place at a specific time and used the gifts he was given – or even the burdens he was given – to rid some innocent people of the evil in their midst.

As the story unfolds, these heroes all one by one came to understand they were duped by the Man in Black. There was no gold. There were no riches to be had there. They would not be paid, and they walked  away with little more than the satisfaction that for once in their lives they acted for the good of others with no obvious benefit to themselves. And they did it under a hail of bullets. In the end, those who survived rode off as new men, transformed by their own sacrifices, their passion to satisfy their own greed forged into a passion to satisfy justice.


Sacrifice can have an enormous impact against tyranny in all of its many forms. The tyranny holding a person hostage can be sickness, loss, fear, loneliness, tragedy, disaster, or – as in the case of the hapless villagers in The Magnificent Seven – the sins of others.

A person can even be tyrannized by his own crimes. There is a new prisoner who arrived a few weeks ago in the cellblock where I live.

Richard is 82 years old, and in prison for the first time in his life. I do not know or care what his crime was, but I’m not sure I can convey to readers how devastating it is for a man to come to prison at the age of 82. He just can’t get used to the cold. Old men in prison are always cold. And his isolation is oppressive. Young men in prison – who are the vast majority of prisoners – shun and avoid the very old who are like aliens in their midst. Richard is just beginning a sentence of ten to twenty years. In his case, it’s both a life sentence and a death sentence.

This old man was treated with abject cruelty by some prisoners when he first arrived. The more predatory among them assumed from Richard’s age that he wasn’t a bank robber, gang leader, or thug who could come back at them. It’s the nature of prison that the socially isolated and weak do not survive very well.  So I make it a point to sit down and talk with Richard every day. No one will bother him if there is an appearance that he knows someone. I long ago learned in prison that predators and bullies are predictable, self-serving cowards. They don’t want the hassle when what they thought was a sheep turns out to be a ram with horns. The short of it is that Richard is no longer disrespected, and for an 82-year-old in prison I imagine that is a sign of improvement.

Hebrews 13:3, on the header of These Stone Walls, bids us to “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated since you also are in the body.” The line just above it in Sacred Scripture, Hebrews 13:2, is equally important: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I have found that living with the tyranny of false witness and the theft of my freedom has made me painfully aware of how prison is experienced by others. It strikes me that this is why The Magnificent Seven were so aware of the tyranny imposed by that gang of thieves. They had lived with such debasement in their own souls.


One of my favorite novels is a book by Ken Follett entitled Pillars of the Earth (Wm. Morrow, 1989). It’s a weighty tome, over 900 pages, but I have recommended it to many prisoners who uniformly seem to lose themselves in it. The story is about a 12th Century family of stone masons building a cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge, England. It’s Ken Follett’s masterpiece, a well researched historical drama set against the backdrop of the history of architecture at a time when the Church and culture were emerging from the Dark Ages.

Despite the realistic grittiness of Pillars of the Earth – and parts of it are very gritty – its great appeal for me was its lesson in Divine Providence which is itself a character in the drama. The reader is thrust into the position of an Angelic Observer with a glimpse of God’s bigger picture. The novel’s characters, like most of us, are aware only of their own trials and tribulations while the reader is given a view of the interconnectedness of the entire    story. Like the Angelic Observer, the reader cannot alter the story, but seeing this bigger picture makes it a riveting drama.

It becomes clear to the Angelic Observer that a tragedy afflicting one person sets in motion a great blessing for another. A sacrifice made by one family sets two other families free. A disaster afflicting one community alters the history of two others. A painful burden born by one generation in a family becomes a great blessing for succeeding generations. What all human judgment would call the tragic appearance of the proliferation of evil, the Angelic Observer comes to see as the triumph of Divine Providence, and the graces given to those who participate and cooperate with it.

In the story, the bad things happening to good people become the catalyst for God’s plan not only for them, but for their children, for their wider community, and for their souls as the Bigger Picture unfolds. Much good that lasts for generations to come has its roots in the struggles of one person, one family, or one village. A sacrifice made one day may not manifest its blessings until two generations later. Then the entire story culminates in one place: the cathedral the story’s characters are struggling to build to praise and glorify God. The talents of many, the burdens of some, and even the sins of a few, are all interconnected and committed – willingly or not – toward that end. I plan to mention this book in my post about St. Patrick coming up next week.

Pillars of the Earth – like The Magnificent Seven – made me wonder about Divine Providence and the burdens we bear. They made me ask some important questions – THE most important questions of our age and of our predicament:

Am I able to trust that God has a plan for me?
Am I willing to risk total cooperation in that plan?
Am I willing to sacrifice in order to cooperate in that plan?
Am I willing to accept that the life I am living is part of a symphony, and I am NOT its conductor, but rather a single instrument?

Am I willing to play that instrument to the very best of my ability to lend itself toward a symphonic score that I may never hear and understand in this life?

These are the questions of faith. Surrender and sacrifice do not mean that we must just surrender to whatever tyranny binds us. We are not sheep to be sheared – no matter what Eli Wallach said – by whatever injustice, sickness, or tragedy comes our way. Trust in Divine Providence also means trust in the graces we are given to stand up to tyranny. The trust we are called to means that in whatever way we may fail in this, God will send another to stand either at our side or in our place. We are not passive observers in this life, blindly assigning to God – or worse, to the government – the responsibility of fixing everything.

At some point in my writings for These Stone Walls, I began to offer the unjust imprisonment that has befallen me for the readers who come here with a search for truth and justice in their hearts. I wrote of that in the conclusion of my Ash Wednesday post, “In a City on a Hill: Lent, Sacrifice, and the Passage of Time.” This was an offering that I and some of our friends in prison decided that we were called to when we consecrated ourselves and our time in prison as Knights at the Foot of the Cross, a movement that arose out of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Militia of the Immaculata. I wrote of this decision and its impact in “The Paradox Of Suffering: An Invitation from St. Maximilian Kolbe.”

As described there, readers may join us in this offering of personal suffering as Knights at the Foot of the Cross. The personal Consecration may be made on any Marian feast day, and there is one coming up. The Annunciation is commemorated in the Church calendar this year on March 26 because the 25th falls on a Sunday. The nine-day preparation for Consecration would begin on March 18.

This would be a great way to make a personal offering for Lent. The instructions for the nine day preparation, and for registering your own Consecration can be found at the Mary town website, www.Consecration.com. Another preparation for that day might include re-reading my post about the Annunciation, “Saint Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn From On High Broke Upon Us.”

I have come to believe that the huge success of These Stone Walls, and the more recent signs of hope for justice that have come my way, has little to do with me or anything I have written. It has everything to do with the prayers and the sacrifices of others. I have learned of readers who choose to sacrifice some of their suffering for me, and I will never be worthy of it. I never could be, but as I trudge through this Lent I am painfully aware of them.

There is a woman who lost her seven-year-old son to Leukemia and offers some of that loss for my freedom. There is a man whose marriage and family have fallen apart, and who suffers deeply under the depression of that loss. There is a mother of nine children who also must care for her aging and dying parents, and who had Mass offered, not for herself, but for me on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. There is a woman crippled by illness, a prisoner in her own bed, who offers her days and nights for Pornchai and me and our friend, Donald. There is the father of an alcoholic son, both held captive by that grueling tyranny, who has sacrificed much for the truth conveyed through These Stone Walls.

There are many others with other sacrifices brought forward in prayer in the hope for my freedom from tyranny and the eventual triumph of truth. Together, we form a symphony playing a score written by God. We are part of this great symphony we call a Church, and we must not let any government nitpick it into moral irrelevance and social obscurity. It is not, after all, a human symphony, and no human conductor – not even one ensconced in Earthly power – can be entrusted with its score.

Fr. Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist who writes from the New Hampshire State Prison.  He publishes weekly at www.TheseStoneWalls.com, a website sponsored by The National Center for Reason and Justice – www.ncrj.org.



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