Philatelic note

Stamp collectors should be aware of a new Polish issue, which features the Canadian prisoner of conscience, Mary Wagner. It is a 2.20 złoty stamp (about 75 cents), showing the face of the prisoner behind bars, in a se-tenant pair with a “Róże haft Łowicki” — a folk-art rose embroidered in the small town of Łowicz, a craft centre south-west of Warsaw. Sheets may I think still be ordered from the Polish post office, and of course, letters sent with the stamps from Poland to Stephen Harper, Kathleen Wynne, John Tory, the Queen, the Pope, and so forth.

The rose is significant. It is for persistently distributing roses around abortion clinics — in defiance of judicial orders enforcing a Toronto municipal by-law — that Mary Wagner serves time. She is unmistakably Catholic, but to be prayed for in a breath with the very Protestant Linda Gibbons, an older woman who has by now spent more time behind bars in Canada for infraction of the same municipal “bubble zone” by-law, than most killers and child molesters under the Criminal Code.

Miss Wagner is among the most impressive people ever to take tea on the balconata of the High Doganate. She resides currently in the Vanier Centre for Women at Milton, Ontario, with more than three hundred other female inmates. It is classed as a “medium/maximum” facility, named paradoxically after the last Governor-General of Canada who was a faithful Catholic.

(Georges-Philéas Vanier is also among my heroes. Soldier, diplomat, and statesman, he was our viceroy from 1959 to his death on 5th March 1967, in the last years of what we sometimes call “the old Canada,” before the Trudeau Revolution. Among his greatest accomplishments, to my mind, was the speech he gave over CBC radio after the liberation of Buchenwald, in which he shamed his victory-celebrating countrymen for having failed earlier to give succour as refugees to so many of the prisoners who had died there. But leave this and so much more for another day.)

At a recent court appearance, a fortnight ago, three dozen of Miss Wagner’s supporters turned up in the galleries, several of them resplendent with roses. It is useless to reason with our Canadian Pilates, as she discovered from previous court appearances, during one of which she was subjected by a “pro-choice” judge to a most extraordinary, frothing, incoherent harangue, which she endured patiently. She now sits silently in the dock, in imitation of Our Lord: looking at the Pilate, but not replying to his questions, except to nod that he has said what he has said. For what is the point? Of course she is guilty as charged, as Christ was; and if released she will go right back to witnessing for Christ, and praying for the souls of the babies and their butchers alike.

As she was led away in handcuffs, once again, her supporters were able to communicate that a Catholic priest had said Mass for her. This was important for her to know, as our bishops have washed their hands of her. (I asked one about her recently at a high-society dinner. I don’t think he heard me.)

It should be mentioned that Miss Wagner would criticize me for what I have just written. For while it is true that she imitates Christ, as she would have all Christians do, she does not want the focus on her. Instead she wants to keep it on the babies. Nor does she regret her life as a gaolbird. She can serve Christ as well in there, as anywhere.

From tea, I can report that Miss Wagner is a formidable presence. I have seldom encountered such burning sincerity, and rather suspect she might be a saint. (The saints are the genuine Christian fanatics.) Without a word against me, she made me examine the frivolity of my own nature. And yet she has also a sense of humour: an unusual one, entirely free of sarcasm.

She came to me for my reputation as a bibliophile. She wanted to read up on certain subjects, including the history of Catholic recusancy in England. She is herself a diligent reader, and as everyone today with any education, largely self-taught. I lent her four weighty, uncommon, valuable tomes, but she put me in a quandary. She would be returning soon to the prison in Milton — she is always returning to prison, soon — where, she told me, hardcovers are banned. In the belief that they might be used as weapons, they are taken from the prisoners. The guards then examine them for hidden drugs or tools, tear off the boards and spines, then return them to the prisoner — now in “soft-cover format,” as it were.

Mischievously, I told her about a martial arts expert I once interviewed. From him I’d learnt that hard-covered books are useless in close-quarter combat. If you want to use one as a weapon, you must tear off the boards, and roll the pages inside very tightly. With proper training, you can then kill a man with the butt end of this extremely solid wad. And yes, she did see the dark humour in it, the way my adored Teresa of Avila would have done. Of course, Miss Wagner prays for her guards — who are, after all, “just following orders” — like many of the guards at Buchenwald, who were personally rather kindly, and did not deserve to be slaughtered by the Communists as the camp was falling into American hands.

I felt badly about what might happen to my books, especially Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, but could not hesitate to lend them on that account, thinking, “What do I care more about, the lives of those babies or my precious books?” Still, I am a sinful man (“sorrowful, for I have many possessions”).

Later, when Mary was back in prison, a common friend returned the books to me, undamaged. She had left them with this friend for their protection.

Slow-witted creature that I am, it was then I realized, that if she had only taken them inside, and returned them to me gutted, they would now be more valuable to me as holy relics than they can ever be, sitting on my bookshelves whole.