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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 15

"When I was a young man, I ended up in jail for a spell. When the judge passed sentence, I was immediately burdened with a burning sense of injustice that made me look at everything through hate-coloured glasses,'' Ronnie Bray tells of the lowest point in his life.

When I was a young man, I ended up in jail for a spell. When the judge passed sentence, I was immediately burdened with a burning sense of injustice that made me look at everything through hate-coloured glasses. I grew fierce and hard to get along with and took it out on everything and everybody.

It would not be far from the truth to say that I developed an attitude that the devil would be proud of. No matter who spoke to me or what they said, my response was hostile and bitter. Before I was aware, I was fast establishing a reputation of someone to avoid.

Unlike most prison inmates, I had very few friends. That was OK by me - just how I liked it. After all, friends expected friendliness and I had little or no friendliness left in me. A chance remark, made without antagonism might provoke a sudden punch to the nose, as the unwary discovered to their cost.

I spent most of my free time reading in my cell. I preferred a single cell away from others so that I did not have to either speak or listen to them.

At night, I dreamed of my children, living, I knew not where. My wife had found another love, and had suddenly gone away taking our two small children with her. Almost every dream was a search that ended in failure, serving only to deepen my despair. And, in this way the months passed, and with their passing my bitterness deepened. Yet, there was to be a turning point that came suddenly, unexpectedly, and decisively.

During the long months I had spent confined, I received no news of my wife or my children. My own family is noted for not being letter writers, and so it was little surprise that I got no mail from them. I had some close friends on the outside but for reasons known only to them, they neither visited me nor wrote to me during the whole of my sentence.

On Christmas Day, after a breakfast that included the only fried egg I was offered during my ten-month incarceration, and a dinner that was truly a traditional English Christmas dinner, we turned out for exercise, walking in circles in the snow-covered exercise yard, beating our arms across our bodies and stamping our feet to stave off the cold.

There was a stirring in the prison that could only be explained by the fact of it being Christmas and that somehow, even within the grim, grey, confining walls of Winchester Prison, the Spirit of Christmas had found place in the hearts of men more used to taking than giving, and it had made a difference. But not in my heart! The hardness remained, unmoved by the day. That is, until exercise period ended and I returned to my cell.

To my surprise, lying on my bed was an envelope. Mail? I never got mail! And on Christmas Day when there were no mail deliveries anyway! I picked up the envelope hardly noticing that it had no stamp and no address. Inside was a Christmas Card bearing the logo of the Salvation Army. The hand-written message read:

‘At Christmas, God sent His Son to bring Peace
May you know His Peace
From a friend’

I burst into tears on my bed, my heart softened by an unaffected but compelling message from an anonymous benefactor, wishing a convicted criminal he did not know a ‘Merry Christmas and God’s Peace.’ I had forgotten the Peace of God; forgotten my Saviour’s Love, and was reminded of both in a profound and touching way.

This simple experience of someone reaching out to me in love changed me from the bitter, vengeful person I had become, into the softer, more tolerant and forgiving person I used to be. A fellow-prisoner, Jock Eaglesham, who had tangled with me during my early months of detention, met me again after my Christmas experience, and was forced to exclaim in obvious disbelief: “I have never seen such a change in a human being!”

The lesson I learned that day has stayed with me. Not only do I seek the good in all people, whether they are friendly-disposed to me or not, but I have learned to suspend judgement until I know the whole of their story. As it has been said, ‘To understand all is to forgive all.’

Of course, I never learned who my benefactor was. But I know that had he not been filled with the true Spirit of Christmas, which is the Love of God, I might have been left to seethe forever in the ferment of my own hatred, and been lost to humanity. The only way I can thank him, is to ensure that every message I give to my fellow human beings is as full of love and compassion as was his.

Now abideth Faith, Hope, and Charity
but the greatest of these is Charity

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