SYNOPSIS: Three letters written by prisoners about how the Orthodox prison ministry has influenced them. Also a letter to a prisoner that is mundane in details but illustrates and important point: most of our ministry is just communication (90% of life is just showing up, or in the case of prison ministry, writing and showing up)! We finish with some gleanings from the Holy Fathers, which are usually at the end of each letter.
I just read your letterá today. I want to get this out asap.
I called the Polunsky unit, and confirmed that B is still in the Estelle unit. He is ok, as far as I know. He has been writing me. I am trying to make arrangements to see him, and plan to see you too. I am not good on details. Prison ministry has many details. I can get in a truck and drive, and even write a few letters, but all the other details are very hard for me. It kills me that you and he were transferred far away from me. It is like a death in the family.
V is coming around now. He looks good. His face is happier. He will commune very soon. They just went on lockdown, and Iá missed this week's visit. the last time I was there, they got some baklava, and were very happy. He had a tough time, didn't he? We never forgot him, and he remembered that.
I gave a talk on prison ministry and marriage, of all things, to a youth group retreat at our parish. It was very well received. I asked the guys to write a letter to the youth about how Orthodoxy has affected them. B and S and V wrote letters. I will append them to this letter.
N says he wants to become a catechumen. He is a little concerned about prayer to saints and has asked for info about this. He has always been honest with me and I respect that. Of course, I have always been honest with him. He lost his friend in ___, who died. He is conflicted about this, but tries to do the right thing.
N needs to mature a little . He is a catechumen, but rarely uses the prayerbook. He is honest about this. He is doing well.
S wrote a great letter, but he is up and down on attendance. I have not seen him in a while.
Someone you know well baptized N and the next day, he and N were married. He is doing very well.
I will suggest to the boys that they write to you.
A got a new job and is very happy. Her old job was torture for her. She must work straight through for a while, but will be coming again.
G is good. He usually comes when I serve liturgy.
I will end with a few things I have been reading lately, in no particular order.
I never forget you. I pray for you every day. Consider being reassigned to Powledge. It has a ton of medical stuff going on. Pray for me, and that I can come see you.
A LETTER FROM S
Thank you again for your tireless love and devotion for all of us who are incarcerated.
Seldom do I feel the true love of our God in this place, so it is such a joy to know I am loved when I am at the Orthodox services. Although I'm not Orthodox, I enjoy your service more than any other because God is real to me when I am there. You ask us today to write how Orthodox service has affected us individually so that you can share it with your prison ministry youth talk. This is weighed heavily on me since you left, because of the importance.
First and foremost, I expect others will say that the youth should learn from their past mistakes because this is not a place to spend their lives. I will not. I was one of those youth who was told by many others to not follow in their footsteps and this caused me to go down paths that I had to travel to become who I am today. I am NOT saying to ignore good advice, but we all have to choose our paths in life. It is the outcome of those choices that determines our destiny.
For me, my destiny was to come here prison so that I could see the love of God. My whole life I could not feel or understand what love was. I rarely felt I was loved by my parents, so I thought to gain attention from anyone, usually in a negative way. Coming in and out of prisons across the country (One state, another state, and now Texas) was the result of my acting out.
I am now 50(something) years old with no children. I have felt for years that I would die alone and that was the end of things. Today, although I still struggle with everyday things in life, I know that I am loved by God. I am NOT alone. I sought Him out. He has always been there. Some say that my life is hopeless. I have said it for years. So be it. I have made the choices in life and now face the consequences of those choices. The difference now is that I know I am loved and God is never going to leave me alone. Because I finally realize this, I surround myself with those who God sends my way for comfort.
It is for this reason and many others, that I continue to attend the Orthodox service. I see God in everything that you say and do and I can now see that God has wanted me for what God has wanted for me my whole life. PEACE. Thank you for always being you, and sharing the love of God constantly in both word indeed.
May God's will be done through our humble prayers always.
In his perfect love, N
A LETTER FROM V
Dear Father Seraphim: I am writing in response to your request of 11-25. To me, since becoming part of the Orthodox Church I have become whole. Despite the setbacks I place myself through I have found a home! When I lost many family members due to illness the church helped me survive by never giving up and your continued love and support as my priest and friend has kept me sane even when I fought against it. This is what the blessings of the church have meant to me
I hope this will help with your talk. I also want to write some things (included) that I hope you'll be able to use in your ministry if you have troubled youngsters. If my writing helps even one youngster in trouble then I feel I have done what God put me here for. I have spokená several times of becoming either of monk or a priest and well I don't know if that will ever happen I do hope that I can help someone avoid the traps that I have fallen into.
I hope that the following will open the door to show your young people to see my mistakes as a one-way ride. I was just like you or at least facing the same things. I know you have heard that before and believe me I had too, but really I have!
I was a young man being raised in a single parent home and I started drinking at 12, tried weed at 13, and was headed to prison for murder at 17. I was a gang banger who honestly did not care. I didn't want to live to see 30 or even 20 for that matter. I saw the streets as my home and drugs as my life. I was a practicing Satanism. I thought to live was to be evilá as they are the sameá spelled backwards. There was no sin that I wouldn't try once or generally do twice.
Then came two occurrences that changed my life. My girlfriend became pregnant and I killed a 16 year old boy. I should say three occurrences but prison proved not thatá different than I was living before: drugs and gangs at cetera.
When my son was born I began wanting to live! BUT I didn't know how.á That was 1992. I spent years down here in the same cycle then in 2007 I met Fr Seraphim who has been teaching me to live ever since.
I don't think this letter should be preaching I guess you've heard all that but let me quote some things for you to look up on your own and if you wish for Fr Seraphim has my info and I'll answer any queries. But remember I'm going to be straight with you! God is the only chance any of us have for happiness and freedom. (note: He listened! I say stuff like this all the time. fs)
There is nothing that God cannot or will not forgive us for and there is nothing that will make him stop loving us
áA LETTER FROM SAINT AMBROSE
He loves St Ambrose so much that he calls himself "St Ambrose". I do not correct him.
He is very wise, but not well educated, and writes simple and profoundly.
Dear Fr Seraphim
Well you tell your wife and children Saint Ambrose send a prayer to them and may you all be bless always.I do all you say and the other side want me back but I want God to be my master and I walk with Jesus and the Holy Spirit until my Lord comes back to get us.
Well I'll cut your letter short so you can rest yourself cuz I know you get a lot done and you got a lot of prayer and that is a good thing. Well until I see you again take care. St Ambrose love you all. Write when you can Merry Christmas and happy new years
GLEANINGS FROM áTHE FATHERS
"To be Orthodox means to have the God-man Christ constantly in your soul, to live in Him, think in Him, feel in Him, act in Him. In other words, to be Orthodox means to be a Christ-bearer and a Spirit-bearer." St. Justin Popovich
I have added a new prayer to my daily rule. Perhaps you will think this a good idea for your rule.
14. An Elder said "A humble man is not he who is self-deprecating and who uses humble words, but he who joyfully endures the deprecations and dishonor that are directed to him by his neighbor."
15. The same Elder said another time: "If a man praises you to your face, immediately call to mind your sins and ask him to stop. In the name of God, brother,' say to him, 'stop praising me, for I am wretched and do not deserve it.'. Now, if the man who has praised you is a person of importance, one of rank, then pray inwardly from your heart to God. Say,
**"'Protect me, O Lord, from the praise and slander of men'"***
Evergertinos, Second Book, Hypothesis II , pg 31
E From the Gerontikon
Several brothers once visited Abba Agathon, for they had been in informed that he was possessed of great spiritual discretion And wishing to test him, to see if he would become angry, they said: "Are you Agathon? We have heard of that you are debauched and proud." He replied: "Yes, it is so." They said to him once more, "Are you Agathon, the loose-tongued lover of slander? "I am he," he responded. And the visitors spoke to him a third time: "Are you Agathon, the heretic?" To this, he answered, "I am not a heretic." After this answer, they asked him to explain: "Why, when we called you so many things, did you admit to them, while you would not, however, endure the accusation that you were a heretic?" And the Abba said to them: The first things I accepted, since they were beneficial for my soul, but not the accusation that I am a heretic, since heresy is separation from God." On hearing this reply, the visitors marvelled at the spiritual discretion of the Abba and departed, benefited in soul.
Evergertinos, Second Book, Hypothesis II , pg 28
c. From the Life of St. Synkletike
The Blessed Synkletike would say to those who visited her that, just as wax near fire, so the soul is crippled by praise and loses its power. On the contrary, just as cooling will harden a candle that is melting from the heat, making it rigid, so insults and scorn strengthen the soul and stabilize it. For indeed, as Holy Scripture says, "Rejoice and be thankful when men shall revile you and persecute you (see St. Matthew 5:11), and so on. And in another place: "In mine affliction Thou did set me at large" (Psalm 4:1). Evergertinos, Second Book, Hypothesis II , pg 23
... Even if our good deeds are past counting, it is out of pity and lovingkindness that we are heard. Even if we ascend to the pinnacle of virtue, it is out of mercy that we are saved. We learn from this the need for a contrite heart along with righteousness. After all, even if someone who is a sinner prays with humility, which is an aspect of virtue, they will succeed in gaining great benefits; even if someone who is righteous makes an approach with presumption, they will be deprived of every good. The tax collector and the pharisee gave us examples of both.
St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Psalm 4
HOMILY on Joseph
"And Joseph left his garment in her hand, and fled outdoors (Genesis 39:12)."
The innocent and chaste Joseph endured two great and difficult temptations and overcame them: the temptation of wicked envy on the part of his blood brothers, and the temptation of adulterous passion from the Egyptian temptress.
Jealousy sold him as a slave, and the passion of adultery drove the innocent one to prison. In both cases he returned good for evil: he gave food to his hungry brothers and preserved the life, throne and people of frightened Pharaoh. His brothers thought to slay him, but God saved him; the adulterous woman thought to destroy him, but God saved him.
Out of slavery and imprisonment, God crowned him with glory and unlimited authority. And him whom his evil brothers could have killed with one stroke and whom Potiphar's powerful wife could have crushed in an instant, God made the unlimited master over the lives of millions of people and the only nourisher of his starving brothers.
Such is the wondrous mercy of God toward the righteous. Thus does the Lord know how to save and glorify the innocent and the chaste. In the greatness of the destiny of Joseph, we see the greatness of God's mercy.
There is one eye that never sleeps,
Let us cling to God and not fear anyone.
Let us be innocent and chaste and not fear evil, or slander, or prison, or ridicule, or misfortune.
On the contrary, let us rejoice when all of this befalls us because of our innocence and chastity; let us rejoice and await with faith the revelation of God's wonders toward us. Let us, in every storm, await the thunder of God's justice-and afterward the calm.
O mysterious Lord,
Who secretly but vigilantly accompanies
the righteous in slavery and in prison,
and manifests Thy mercy in Thine own time,
help us to be innocent and chaste.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
Prologue of Ochrid
One should forgive all from the heart. When one forgives all from the heart, all is forgiven. We are then the accomplices of peace, and then peace is a pleasure and comfort to those around us. Everybody feels our thoughts as calm and quiet. Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Abba Evagrius said: If you know how to practice patience, you shall always pray with joy.
If you are remembering evil against someone, then pray for him; and as you remove through prayer the pain of the remembrance of the evil he has done, you will stop the advance of the passion. And when you have attained brotherly love and love for mankind, you will completely cast this passion out of your soul. Then when someone else does evil to you, be affectionate and humble toward him, and treat him kindly, and you will deliver him from this passion." St. Maximos the Confessor Four Hundred Texts on Love 3.90
Christians, have we understood the great responsibility that we have taken on before God through baptism?
Have we come to know that we must conduct ourselves as children of God, that we must align our will with the will of God, that we must remain free from sin, that we must love God with all our hearts and always patiently await union with Him?
Have we thought about the fact that our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor?
Do we have the feeling that we must become holy and perfect, children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven?
We must struggle for this, so that we may not be shown unworthy and rejected. Let none of us lose our boldness, nor neglect our duties, nor be afraid of the difficulties of spiritual struggle.
For we have God as a helper, who strengthens us in the difficult path of virtue.
St. Nektarius of Aegina The Path to Happiness, 2
Priest Seraphim Holland 2016áááá
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