Letter to a prisoner.
A letter to a prisoner, addressing his personal concerns and also discussing how to battle bad thoughts and how meanness and abuse is a great temptation for a Christian. Also some catechetical questions.
Priest Seraphim Holland PO 37, McKinney TX 75070
March 26/ April 8 2016. Synaxis of Archangel Gabriel
Dear in Christ _____:
I read your letter with sorrow. I do not like to see anyone suffering. Depression is the worst kind of suffering, and it is often accompanied by persistent bad thoughts which disturb us. I have been there, and done that, and I want to relieve your pain as best I can. Perhaps the things I say in this letter, written on Friday, will help you.
I intended to write to you on Wednesday after seeing you, but the day was very long (I went to two prisons, and was in the second prison for much longer than usual) and I was quite tired. On top of this, I have Vigil to celebrate (for the Annunciation) almost immediately when I got back home. Poor Fr Nicholas was trying to teach me an unfamiliar melody for something we generally sing together (the "Magnification") , and I was so muddled in my thinking that I could not figure it out, and told him, somewhat irregularly (the priest should sing it with the deacon), to sing it alone. On Thursday, many things intervened, but I thought about your letter many times. So, now, I write on Friday.
I tell you all this because I want to tell you something that you already know, since we are fellow imperfect human beings. I am many times let down by my nature - my sins, and forgetfulness, and inefficiency and feeling like there is more to do than I know how to do. This is the human condition.á
Prison ministry is a great joy to me, but also a great frustration.á My frustration is only these two things: that I do not do enough, and thatá my visits are few, because of the combination of the prison being what it is (with lockdowns, inefficiency, count not clearing, etc) and my pastoral duties making me cancel (for serving in the parish on some Wednesdays because of a Great feast, or travel I am required to do, and the occasional vacation to a Monastery for spiritual recuperation).
I assure you that I pray for you every day, and my prayer is poor, but I have confidence that God will hear it because He is merciful. I covet your daily prayers for me. I very much want to be better - at everything! - such as writing letters, keeping track of correspondence and promises, doing comprehensive teaching, prayer, never saying anything or doing anything that is misunderstood or offends or saddens anyone. áOne of my working definitions of a priest is "a sinner helping others to not sin", and I am the proof of this aphorism every day, and almost every moment.
I will now try to address everything in your letter, in order of appearance, because that makes it a little easier for me to try not to miss anything.
You start your letter by mentioning depression, and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Do not feel like the Lone Ranger (that is, you are not alone in these feelings). I fight them too, and especially any Christian struggler and all priests, if they are truly honest and look at themselves with a clear eyes, would admit to these things too.
I will speak to you now as a weak man, who has heard the confessions of fellow paralytics á- we all, except for the precious few, are paralytics because we are paralyzed or weakened by our sins, and accompanying ignorance.
I think depression and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are primarily because of lack of faith. This stems from our sins. Our sin, as another aphorism I have coined says, "makes us stupid". We do not see things clearly because of our sin.á The perfect see things as they really are. áThey are never fooled by the appearance of things. They have perfect insight. We sinners have poor insight.á T he only solution for us is to cleave to Christ, and as the psalm at the end of liturgy says "Turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it".
I always consider these type of feelings as demonic attacks. I am not giving a medical opinion here, and I know that there are sometimes medical reasons for depression, but nonetheless, depression and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness areá things that impair our progress, as if we are traveling to a far off destination in hip deep mud. á
The famous philosopher RenT Descartes said "I think, therefore I am". In a spiritual sense we may modify this to be "As we think, so we will be". We must control our thoughts. Any evil thought, whether it be depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, lust, holding a grudge, think somebody does not like us, etc is our mortal enemy.á No matter what our physical reality is, our thoughts define our reality. We must reject these thoughts will all of our power. Of course, we have no real power, but God will help us, and one of the ways He helps us with these thoughts is to assist us in developing skills to repel them.
I do not know too much about repelling thoughts, but I have learned a few things. I will list a few things, in no particular order, that have helped me.
We must pray every day. We must especially pray the Jesus prayer, with effort, in a quiet place. We must pray for others. We MUST, MUST, MUST! -- pray for our enemies or people that trouble our hearts when we think of them or we do not like, or persecute us.á
We must read the Gospels very frequently, daily if possible, and read them with the intent that God will give us some necessary food for our sinful and weakened soul. áSome spiritual books are very good too. A person's temperamentá decides which books are useful. I love the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the Philokalia, and anything by Abbot Siouan or his disciples, and also all of our holy service texts. For some people, this reading is too hard on their soul, and they need something a little softer, such as "Journey to heaven", and possible the lives of the Saints.
We must go to church whenever possible and go to confession when possible.
I must have physical activity and exercise. I often run in the woods and pray the Jesus prayer, and do calisthenics and weight training. This helps me very much. Perhaps painting, or playing águitar helps a person renew themselves a little. Anything that makes us a little stronger internally is good. Thisá is most decidedly NOT things that dissipate us, such as hours of video games, or TV, or pornography, or other things that a person might do to distract or entertain themselves.
Above all things, we must try to live spiritually, and always look into our heart to see what it is trying to tell us. I cannot tell you how to do this, only that we must do it. I have learned (barely!) to do this by God teaching me. I thinká the Jesus prayer was instrumental in this teaching.
If á***ANY*** áthought disturbs our peace, we must try to reject it. The heart will tell us if we are at peace. We must learn to listen to it! This is an acquired skill. We can be at peace even if we are persecuted, or frightened because of some imminent danger, or any external circumstance, according to the wisdom of Solomon, which says "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.á (2)á In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery,á (3)á And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. (Wisdom 3:1-3)á
I am terribly sorry that they are making you work in the fields. I suppose you are right - I would hate this work , at least part of the time. I think the worst part that you describe is when the guards are mean just to be mean. The human spirit is saddened very much when it encounters meanness. This is not the way men ought to live! When a man is mean, he violates the First and the Second great commandments, and he acts more like a demon than a man. This is hard for the Christian soul to endure. It is a great temptation, moreso, I think, from the spiritual battle than the physical pain or deprivation (even thought these are sometimes very great!) we experience.á Our Lord Jesus Christ was very sad when he encountered meanness, and indifference to others.á When he came to the village of Lazarus, who was four days dead, and encountered the unbelief and mean manipulations of many of the people, the scripture tells us: "Jesus wept". Sadness because of meanness is a natural human emotion, and is not a sin, but is becomes a sin when we become angry.
I will continue to pray for you in my poor way, with the fervent hope that some of your troubles in the prison would end, and you could leave the fields (hopefully before July!), and be restored to labor which is more suitable for you.
I am confused that you equate your experiences with the verbal and physical abuse you endure in the prison to your experiences in our services. I respectfully say to you that your bad thoughts are clouding your judgment. I am not offended with you, but I tell you plainly that you are quite wrong here. I have never been abusive to you. I have never insulted you. I love you and pray for you. This is not abusive. ááYou tell me that I made promises that I have not kept and you equate this to abuse in the prison fields! Really now! I am a fallen human being with the best of intentions. I think you need to give me a lot more credit and look at the evidence. I have been coming to prisons for 18 years. I struggle to write letters, teach, hear confessions, pray for all of you in my poor way -- merely because I believe absolutely that God has given me this task. I am likeá the great Moses in only two ways: 1. I have been called to do something by God, and 2. Iá feel myself totally incapable of the task. Moses felt the same way. When calledá by God to be the deliverer of his people, he argued that he could not speak well, so God give him his brother Aaron to help be a spokesman. I have no Aaron, nor do I have the meekness and other virtues of Moses.
"And Moses said to the Lord, I pray, Lord, I have not been sufficient in former times, neither from the time that thou hast begun to speak to thy servant: I am weak in speech, and slow-tongued.á (11)á And the Lord said to Moses, Who has given a mouth to man, and who has made the very hard of hearing, and the deaf, the seeing and the blind? have not I, God?á (12)á And now go and I will open thy mouth, and will instruct thee in what thou shalt say.á (13)á And Moses said, I pray thee, Lord, appoint another able person whom thou shalt send.á (14)á And the Lord was greatly angered against Moses, and said, Lo! is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he will surely speak to thee; and, behold, he will come forth to meet thee, and beholding thee he will rejoice within himself.á (15)á And thou shalt speak to him; and thou shalt put my words into his mouth, and I will open thy mouth and his mouth, and I will instruct you in what ye shall do.á (16)á And he shall speak for thee to the people, and he shall be thy mouth, and thou shalt be for him in things pertaining to God." (Exodus 4:10-16)
You are correct in one thing. I have let you down. I let everyone down. I still keep trying. Please forgive my failings, and that I have offended you.á I take your criticism to heart, and accept it, but I will not accept that I have been abusive to you like the guards can be abusive.
I will try my best to respond to your requests. I ask for a little patience and trust. I am not purposely trying to lie to you or hurt you.
Regarding áthe practical matter of a baptism date, I will give this matter much thought. I am not really sure if you understand the Orthodox faith yet. We have had a haphazard schedule, and there is not a lot of time for teaching.á I assure you that I have not in any way tried to deceive you. áI am undone by more organizational weakness - I do not remember everything we have talked about. So I will ask you some questions, as you have requested.
Have we talked about the creed (the Symbol of Faith) in its entirety? Do you understand it? Do you know a place where it is written in the prayer book I gave to you? Do you have at least some of it memorized? I ask everyone to try to memorize it, and ironically, since I am talking about memory here, I do not remember if I have asked you to do this! á
We have spoken about the purpose of your life. Please tell me again about it - this is the most important lesson I can teach.
Do you understand what the Eucharist is, and why is necessary? Have we spoken about John, chapter 6? If not, please read it, and I will comment on it, probably in our next teaching session.
I think other important scripture to understand are the dialogue of Jesus with Nicodemus (John 3), the high priestly prayer of Jesus (John 17) and about baptism (Romans 6). I want to discuss all these things with you.
Are you fasting, at least a little bit? Do you understand why we fast?
Are you saying the prayer of St Ephrem?á I have written about áit before. It is in the prayer book, in the Great Lent section.
Tell me about áyour prayer life, and your reading.
Have you read my letters that I have send, and do you have any questions? I know we have had some personal conversations and I have answered some questions. If you are not satisfied with the answers, ask me again!
I think I have covered pretty much everything in your letter. I will try to come up with more questions and teaching, and work towards setting a date.á For now, I want to get this in the jpay mail, and you have some questions to answer and things to do. Try to write down what you can, and either mail to me, or hand the letter to me when I come again.
May God help us poor sinners in everything!
Priest Seraphim Holland 2016áááá
This and other Orthodox materials are available in from:
+ Mailing Address: Box 37, McKinney, TX 75070
+ Rectory Phone: 972/529-2754
+ Email: email@example.com
+ Web Page: http://www.orthodox.net
+ Redeeming the Time Blog: http://www.orthodox.net/redeemingthetime/
This letter is at:
Archive of commentaries: http://www.orthodox.net/scripture
Archive of homilies: http://www.orthodox.net/sermons
To receive regular mailings of sermons, and scriptural and services commentary and other things throughout the church year, read our blog ôRedeeming the Timeö (http://www.orthodox.net/redeemingthetime). You may also subscribe to the RSS Feed or receive its postings by email.
Our parish Email list (http://groups.google.com/group/saint-nicholas-orthodox-church) also has all the latest postings from our website and blog; everyone is welcome to join.
All rights reserved.á Please use this material in any edifying reason. We ask that you contact St. Nicholas if you wish to distribute it in any way.á We grant permission to post this text, if completely intact only, including this paragraph and the URL of the text, to any electronic mailing list, church bulletin, web page or blog.