Editor's note: Pornchai Moontri was received into the Catholic Church on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010. He has been frequently featured at the website of Fr. Gordon Macrae: TheseStoneWalls.
I can always tell when there’s something up, when the mind of my friend has been churning. All the signs were there. I was up on my top bunk doing homework for a course in Accounting. Father G leaned against the concrete wall of this prison cell. He folded his arms, and waited for me to put down my pencil to ask what’s up.
When other prisoners came to the cell door , like they do all day long, he held up a finger and looked all serious, the signal to come back in five minutes. It was funny watching them slink away as if they just interrupted the State of-the Union Address or something.
Whenever Father G. has a new idea, it always makes me squirm a little because it usually means my mind and spirit are about to be stretched again. “How would you like to write a guest post for These Stone Walls?” he asked. Since English is not my first language, writing is very difficult for me. At first, I was excited about this idea. Then I was given a deadline, and I got nervous. Then nervous turned into dread, and now I just feel very intimidated by the whole thing.
Once I saw an episode of “Family Guy,” a cartoon TV show. Peter, Chris’s dad, went back to school. During a math test, all the students reached into their desks to take out calculators, but Peter pulled out an Asian kid and poked him with his pencil saying, “Do math! Do math!” I thought it was pretty funny, and sometimes Father G. pokes me with a pencil when I’m doing math homework and says, “Do math!” Everyone laughs, especially me. He says he wishes he had my ability in math. He says he’s still trying to figure out how the calculator makers get all those answers into those little tiny batteries. I wish I could trade a little math skill for a little writing skill right now. G said not to worry, to just write whatever comes to my mind and he will put in some commas and fix my spelling. He also told me to write about me and not him, but it isn’t a true story if I leave him out. So here goes.
A PRISONER AT THE TRUE EXODUS
Please understand that there are no titles in prison so I know Father G as just G. We were friends for a long while before I found out he is a Catholic priest. I was not surprised at all. We were friends for four years when I became a Catholic. Like I wrote in “Pornchai’s Story,” G never asked me to become a Catholic. He never even mentioned it. It is the path he is on and I was pulled to it by grace like a meteor is pulled by gravity. It was not sudden. It was slow, like the Uncle Screwtape quote in G’s article, “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It was just in the opposite direction from what Uncle Screwtape described. It happened when the nightmare I was living was slowly changed into a dream.
It was just as G wrote about in “The Gravity of Grace: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I know today that my life was never what I once thought it was. It was never just a series of accidents and bad events driving me ever deeper to the despair I wrote about in “Pornchai’s Story.” Instead, I was led down a path to hope because I took the risk of finally trusting someone.
I used to really struggle with whether I dared to believe in God, or to even have faith and hope. These are risky for those of us who have known despair. Today, faith sometimes still feels like a dream, but like I wrote in “Pornchai’s story,” something that I read in Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, had a great impact on me:
“Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 4)
I didn’t read that whole book, of course. I tried to, but I’m not afraid to say the Holy Father’s wisdom is beyond my understanding. G was reading it one night, and as he sometimes does when I’m watching my favorite TV show, he handed the book up to me during a commercial with that line highlighted. I read it just to humor him, but I knew right away that what I read is the truth, and I did not forget it. A few nights later, he did it again. I was in the middle of watching a TV show when he handed up the book with this highlighted on the page:
“Purification of heart comes as a consequence of following Christ, of becoming one with him. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20).” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 95).
That was also the truth, and it was then that I knew my own heart was being purified for some greater purpose I can so far only dream about. I’m glad Pope Benedict wrote that book. When he became Pope in April, 2005, I did not even know about it and never dreamed that it would matter to me some day. I was in a maximum security cell in a prison in another state. In an article published in Solitary Watch, I described my life in solitary confinement in a “Supermax” prison.
THE ROAD TO PERDITION
I was a teenager when I went to prison. Over the years, I was sent back to solitary confinement over and over, for up to three-and-a-half years at a time, because I was so hostile. The longer I was there each time, the more inhuman I felt and became. Living for years on end in solitary confinement joined with the guilt I felt for the life I took during a struggle when I was 18 years old. So I just gave up on myself as a human being. I sank to the very bottom of the prison I was in, and stayed there.
Then in the spring of 2005, after almost 14 years in and out of solitary confinement, I was told that I was to be shipped to another prison in another state. I sat for 10 months alone in my cell wondering about whatever hell was coming next, and I told myself I didn’t care what comes next. Then one day, guards in riot gear came and chained me up. They put me in a van, and drove off. I thought I was on my way to Boston, to be put on a chartered plane to take me to some prison in the lowest reaches of hell in a place I would never be heard from again. So I was surprised when we exited off the highway after a few hours and stopped at a building with a big blue sign, the New Hampshire State Prison. Then I was quickly taken to that old, familiar place, solitary confinement.
When G was writing last month about Skooter and Donald and me in “Bitter Herbs before the Exodus,” he came in from the Prison Library where he works one day and showed me a quote he found in the book, Dante’s Inferno. I heard of this book it but I never read it. I thought Dante knew of my past when he wrote this great quote that G used:
“Midway on our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was? I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear! Death could scarcely be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.” (”The Dark Wood of Error,” The Inferno, Dante Aligheri).
I thought, “Who is this guy, Dante, and why has he been following me around? This one little quote seems to be the next chapter in my story. I was emerging from a dark wood. It was early 2006, six years ago, when I emerged from this new prison’s segregation unit. By that point, I had lost most of my teens, all of my twenties, and was well into my thirties when I met G. I had spent so much time in Dante’s Dark Wood of Error that I did not know any way out, and I pretended that I didn’t care.
I remember my very first conversation with G. My young Indonesian friend, JJ, introduced me to him in the prison chow hall one day. JJ thought G could help me. I was real hostile, and told G I just wanted him to help me get transferred to a prison in Bangkok, Thailand. “Be careful what you ask for,” he said. “I won’t help you pursue something that will only further destroy you.” I didn’t care, so why on Earth should he care?
I was hostile to G for a long time. I had mastered the art of driving anyone who cared away from me, but in G I met my match. Over time I was able to see that under my anger was a lot of hurt and pain, and G saw it and helped me to see it too. Over the next few years, G and I discussed a lot about the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe and about Saint Padre Pio. I drifted like an iceberg that was ever so slowly melting, and before I realized it, I was caught up in what happened to Saint Maximilian. I never had a hero, and he became one. I suddenly felt as though I was no longer just adrift at sea; the ice was all gone. Four years after my arrival in this new prison, on the day before Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010, G and I walked to the Prison Chapel where Fr. Anthony Kuzia, a nearby priest, Baptized and Confirmed me.
The next morning, Divine Mercy Sunday, I received my First Eucharist. I stepped that day out of the Dark Wood of Error into the light of day – the light of Christ. If anyone had told me of this just five years earlier, I would have thought them insane. Every demon that once controlled my life was expelled, and I was free.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In two or three years from now, after 23 years in prison, I might be able to petition for some commutation of the second half of my sentence. If the commutation petition is successful on the first or second try, then another nightmare becomes real. On the day I leave this prison, I will be brought to another prison to await deportation to where my life story began: Thailand.
After being taken from Thailand against my will at age 11, I will be forced to go back there at age 41, with most of the years in between spent in prison. I do not know how I will live or support myself, and I fear being stranded there. G and others have tried to find connections for me in Thailand, but G is in prison too. Every time something promising has surfaced and our hopes have risen, it just drifts into silence again. We had some contact awhile back with someone in the Thai Government, and with someone in the Catholic Church in Thailand, but it is a long time since they have responded to anything.
Now I am being asked to tell of my dreams, but do I dare to have dreams? The next chapter feels dark and empty, and trust is, like G has written, “a precious commodity in prison easily lost, and not very easily replaced.” In February, my Godfather, Pierre Matthews, whose childhood meeting with Padre Pio G wrote about just two weeks ago, sent me a letter with some questions. He wanted me to describe what my dreams are. He wrote that it is important that I put them into words, and he is right.
Five years ago, I didn’t have any dreams. I didn’t have any future either. I had only a past. Having dreams means risking some trust and hope that they might come true. Today, building on the trust that Divine Mercy began in me is my only hope. It’s also the best I can do right now.
But, Godfather, I do have dreams. I dream of having an opportunity to reach those who are lost like I was, and broken, and brokenhearted, and lead them to Christ. I dream that I will be able to help young people who have had all trust broken and taken away from them. I dream that I will be able to live my life in freedom and in service to others. I dream that I will have the chance to honor someone who sought only my good despite his own captivity. I dream that I will live this life as a Catholic. I dream that I will be led to where I am supposed to go and that I will not be all alone when I get there. What used to be just a nightmare is now my dream.
The people who reach into this prison through These Stone Walls have shown me a side of life in this world that before I met G I never knew existed. They have shown me what it means to be true believers. Someone sent me a prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman. It says God will send us “a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.” Father G says that trust in Divine Mercy means that somewhere in this world is a link in a chain for me, a bond of connection between me and Thailand so I am not sent alone into oblivion. I want with all my heart to trust in such grace.
Father G says that person is out there, and he and I now ask your help to find that link in a chain by sending my story everywhere you can. He says it is time to wake up the Catholic on-line world with a project. So please help me find some ties in Thailand. It’s not as funny as it sounds!
I have taken the Christian name, Maximilian, in honor of the great saint who gave his life in service to his neighbor in the horror of prison at Auschwitz. As Knights in Saint Maximilian’s Knights at the Foot of the Cross, Father G and I both sacrifice the dreams of today for a greater good. But we need your help with the dreams of tomorrow.
Don Quixote, the Man of LaMancha, says I must have dreams, even impossible dreams. He says it is the duty of a Knight to dream. I must listen to him. We should all listen to him.
Pornchai Moontri is incarcerated at a supermax prison in New Hampshire.