Letter to Prisoners
important Stuff - Prayer, then Prayer, then Prayer.
Prayer of St
Ephrem to the Saints for intercession
St Ephrem -
Psalm 27 - Do NOT LOSE HEART. There is hope AND IT IS CHRIST.
Then was Jesus
led up by the Spirit into the Wilderness
is very near.
The prisoners (in the Texas state prison system) that I see weekly are reading
the Gospels together. I have asked them to comment upon what they read, or ask questions,
and I promised to send them simple commentaries. These small offerings, which
are usually part of a letter sent to them, are not meant to be a scholarly
exegesis, or comprehensive. We must read the Gospels daily, and simply, and be
like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, desiring to be taught something
edifying for our soul. If a person does not feel something stirring in their
soul when they read the Gospels, they are missing the illumination God desires
to give them. Everyone is invited to send their feelings about the Gospels to
me. Perhaps we can educate each other in some way.
Seraphim Holland email@example.com]
Oct 12/25 Sat 2014 MARTYRS PROBOS, TARACHOS AND ANDRONIKES (+
To my dear brothers in Christ:
Here we go. Another wild week, and another one in which it is hard to
keep to my weekly letter writing schedule. The bumper sticker (paraphrased!)
"LIFE HAPPENS" applies every day to me. With God being my helper,
stuff that is important gets done, and other stuff... doesn't. I covet your
prayers for me, and you have my poor prayers every day.
The Most important Stuff - Prayer, then Prayer, then Prayer.
BTW, I have learned slowly (and relearn daily) that the most important
"stuff" is prayer. I have seen prayer work, although not in ways that
might make a story on 60 minutes. I have my parish able to build something we
could not afford after we started having molebens (prayer services) every
Monday, with the commemoration of everyone on the parish and a lot more people
also (such as yall, and a list of people that have asked for prayer), and also
a liturgy on every Thursday, with the same public prayers for everyone. I have
also seen changes in the lives of others and myself as I have dedicated, with
increasingly rare lapses, a significant portion of time to praying for everyone
in my parish, family, prison ministry, and those who have requested prayer.
St Paul asked his flock to "be followers of me", and I
think that a pastor must strive to live a live such that he can say the same
thing (with a straight face, and not looking down in shame). I think I can say
this looking halfway up, and I attribute personal prayer as the reason for
this. I will give you a small example, that is not earth shattering, but is
important, even in late and my prayer is never with full attention, but as a
means of encouragement.
The other day, I had a million things to do, and had lots left to do. I
have a rule that I keep to, where I pray the Jesus prayer for my family, and
its takes a long time - about an hour (more if I am tired). I was running out
pf time for some stuff, and I had enough time to say my rule, but not to do
stuff I preferred to do. I knew that saying the rule late at night (something which
does happen) is not the greatest thing - it is hard and I am tired, and I lose
track of stuff). I sat down and did my rule. Other stuff went undone. The world
continued to turn, and I did something important and invisible to everyone
except God. I think these moments provide more grace than anything else I do. I
am good at doing stuff (my wife may disagree sometimes about some of the stuff!)
but I think the stuff I am not good at doing, which I try to do, gathers more
grace in my life and the life of those I am around, and even influential over
in some way, than anything else.
I say this to encourage you. Do the stuff you are not good at, that
your heart tells you to do. Prayer is number one, and two and three. It
is the hardest thing, and the thing we are not good at. We just gotta do it,
like a Democratic Chicago voter (early and often!). (That is an old joke - do
not be offended if you are a Democrat!)
There are things which help prayer. The most important is prayer
itself. Prayer begets prayer. Inarticulate, clumsy prayer begets better prayer.
Reading the Gospel is critical, since it teaches us how to live. If read
correctly, it will make us desire to pray. The same thing goes for the Psalms.
Fasting is very important. All these things must be under the umbrella of deep
desire to fulfill our purpose in life.
The things which hinder prayer are all associated with our passions.
Anger and lust kill prayer. Bad habits hinder prayer. Ignorance hinders prayer.
All the passions, to one degree or another, either hinder or completely kill
I want to share a few things I read recently, and then maybe even
comment on a little of Matthew chapter 4.
Converts and potential converts to Orthodoxy sometimes taken aback by
our extravagant love for the saints, and our deeply compunctionate requests for
their help. Honestly, this freaks a lot of people out. They have "missing
pages" in their Christian life, because this is fundamental to the
Christian experience, but it was scrubbed out of the consciousness of many with
the Reformation and all of its disastrous aftermath.
Why do we "pray" to the saints? That is a question that is quite easy to
answer for an Orthodox Christian that is living according to the mind of the
church. It is because we love them, and recognize their holiness, and
because we know they are alive and hear us! They are our family, and we
have great intimacy with them. We live every day with the reality that
"God is the God of the living, not of the dead", and that the
"effective and fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much". This
is enough for those who have experienced it, but those who have not experienced
this intimacy do not understand it.
I saw something from St Ephrem the Syrian which expresses this intimacy
and is deeply theological. He wrote his poems and prayers way before there was
any controversy about prayer to the saints, or the Eucharist, or the
priesthood, or the Theotokos, or any of the stuff that became stumbling blocks
and "missing pages" to people after the Reformation. This an
excellent early example of our rich theology regarding the intercession of the
Saints. St Ephrem is from early 4th century, hundreds of years before the
heresies of the Reformation and all the confusion they engendered in good
hearted people regarding Holy tradition. St Ephrem's warm entreaties show the
power of this "missing page" in the lives of many who confess Christ
but have never been taught about the comfort of the intercession of the saints.
There is deep theology in his prayer. The antiquity of his writings may
convince some that our pleas to the saints to pray for us are fully a part of
the true Christian tradition. You can use this in your daily prayers, if you
Prayer of St Ephrem to the Saints for intercession
I dare not do so myself, pray for me, O ye saints
Who will not lament for me, who have renounced the eternal kingdom for
the sake of meagre pleasures, ignoring the eternal fire? Having surrendered
myself to the passions, I have destroyed the integrity of my soul and become
like the unreasoning beasts.
At one time I found myself rich with gifts, but now I have come to love
the poverty of the passions. I have become a stranger to the virtues and
departed for the distant land of corruption. I am half dead; I have only a tiny
remnant of life in me.
Because I am this way by mine own free choice, I cannot even raise mine
eyes to the kindhearted Lord.
Lament, O blessed and righteous ones, for me who am caught in the
embrace of passions and sin.
Lament, O ascetics, for me who am a glutton and voluptuary.
Lament, O merciful and condescending ones, for me who am hardhearted
and cause much grief.
Lament, O God-pleasers, for me who strive to please men.
Lament, O ye who have attained meekness, for me who am irritable and
Lament, O humble ones, for me who am pompous and arrogant.
Lament, O ye who have attained the nonacquisitiveness of the apostles,
for me who, burdened by my love for possessions, cling to material things.
Lament, O ye who have loved lamentation and hated laughter, for me who have
loved laughter and hated lamentation.
Lament, ye who contemplate the judgment that will come after death, for
me who affirm that I remember the judgment but act to the contrary.
Pray, O saints of God, for my soul which is convulsed by all manner of
passions. Inasmuch as you are able, help me, O saints of God.
For I know that if you beseech God, the Lover of mankind, all will be
granted you from the sea of His kindness. And, like our man-befriending God, so
also when I, a sinner, beseech you, do not despise my supplication; for I have
not the boldness to pray to Him myself because of the multitude of my sins.
Your role it is, O saints, to intercede for sinners, God's role it is
to have mercy on those who despair.
O saints of God, pray to the King on behalf of the prisoner. Pray to
the Pastor on behalf of the sheep. Pray to Life on behalf of the corpse, that
He might lend His hand to aid me and strengthen my humble soul in its
St. Ephraim of Syria, "A Spiritual Psalter"
I may have sent the following to some of you, but it is really good,
and addresses a great need, so I will include it here. From the Spiritual
Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian. For all sinners to read, especially those
who are prone to despair. Read it every day if you need to. Do not listen
to the Devil. It does not matter how good you are. It only matters how good you
want to be. You provide desire (with effort!), and God will provide the
competency! Never doubt this!
St Ephrem - Psalm 27 - Do NOT LOSE HEART. There is hope AND
IT IS CHRIST.
Do not lose heart O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over thyself a
final judgment for the multitude of thy sins; do not commit thyself to fire: do
not say: The Lord has cast me from His face.
Such words are not pleasing to God. Can it be that he who has fallen
cannot get up? Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again?
Dost thou not hear how kind the Father is to a Prodigal?
Do be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I
will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!
He will accept thee and will not reproach
thee, but rather rejoice at thy return. He awaits thee; just do not be ashamed
and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.
It was for thy sake that Christ was
crucified, so will He cast thee aside? He knows who oppresses us. He knows that
we have no other help but Him alone.
Christ knows that man is miserable. Do not
give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared
for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He
gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.
Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that
starves thee. Come and beseech Him and thou shalt behold the glory of God. Thy
face shall be enlightened and thou wilt rejoice in the sweetness of
Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind Who
Then was Jesus
led up by the Spirit into the Wilderness
Matthew Chapter four takes up immediately after Jesus had been baptized
by John. Mathew laconically says "Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into
the Wilderness" (4:1), but Mark (a younger man) says with great emphasis
"And straightway (IMMEDIATELY!) the Spirit
driveth Him forth into the desert." (Mark 1:12) Then follows the three
temptations of Satan in the desert.
Jesus' temptations occurred IMMEDIATELY after His baptism. This
should jump off the page! Baptism is preparation for battle! The
"Spirit" that drives Jesus into the wilderness is the Holy Spirit.
Jesus as a man, was fully anointed with the Holy Spirit, as we should also be.
The second name by which he is known, "Christ", means anointed one.
When I read this account, I think that I should be DRIVEN too! This is
not something that is against our will, as a slave master would drive his
slave, or a soldier his captive. Inside us, there must be something that drives
us. In another place the Holy spirit is likened to be like a spring of water:
"He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly
shall flow rivers of living water." (John 7:38). Flowing water is
powerful! It carries long with it anything that is within it. We must allow
ourselves to be driven by the flowing water of the spirit. There must be
compulsion within us!
The question that remains for us, is why are we not driven, and how can
we become driven? Laziness and forgetfulness are sins common to almost all, but
not to the man who is "driven by the Spirit". Only God can cure the
soul of its passions, but we must do what we can! Effort is rewarded. If there
is urgency in our prayer, reading, fasting and living in general, we will
become driven. May God help us poor ones.
The temptations of Satan have great symbolic significance. but I only
have so much time, and will not comment about them. A good commentary. such as
that of Blessed Theophylact, will explain them. The "take home"
for me is that Jesus answered the temptations with scripture. We must
KNOW the scripture! It must be a part of us. This aint gonna happen unless we
Why Memorize Scripture?
Jesus' responses also suggest to us that memorizing scripture, which we
can bring to mind during a time of temptation is a very important thing. If you
are tempted by anger, find scripture which helps you with this passion.
Likewise with depression, anxiety, lust, judgment of others, and all of your
passions. When I was younger, I carried index cards with scripture on them, and
tried to read them everyday. You could do that, or copy out scripture in a
notebook and refer to it often.
Darkness and Light
I am always shattered emotionally by the words in this Gospel:
"And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is
upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: (14) That it
might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, (15) The
land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea,
beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; (16) The people which sat in darkness
saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is
sprung up. (17) From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for
the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
There are two things that I always think of. I am not sure how to put
the first in words.
It says "the people that sat in darkness saw a great light",
and this is something that makes my heart warm. I remember that everyone is in darkness
without God. I remember that the purpose of our life is not to be in darkness,
but in light, for God is light, and since God loves us, and wishes that all
would come to knowledge of the truth, God desires that all of us would be in
I feel my darkness very often. In homilies I have said many times to my
flock that I wish that they would feel their darkness also.
A Christian needs to feel his darkness. Darkness is sin, and passions,
and ignorance, and coldness. It is miserable, but the darkest darkness within
us does not know it is miserable. We feel our darkness by seeing the light of
God, and comparing Him with ourselves. It is much like a cold and hungry
traveler seeing the light of a campfire, where there is warmth and food
available. This understanding of our darkness is what the fathers call the
"remembrance of death". This does not mean that we know we are going
to die - everybody knows that. It means that we see death and darkness in the
things that are dead - passions and the false things in life - wealth, and
fame, and entertainments and all the rest.
It is the greatest human tragedy that most do not see their darkness. We live in an age where darkness is called light. We
should weep because of all the people that live in darkness, even though the
light is shining upon them, since God, because He is love, causes the rain to
fall on the evil and the good.
Most who saw the "great light" of Christ remained in
darkness. This light only removes the darkness if it shines from within
us, and not just on us. The darkness within people upon whom the great
light shines is a tragedy worthy of bitter lamentation. This lamentation is
what caused St Silouan of Mount Athos to pray daily many times: "I pray Thee, O
Merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the world, that they may come to know Thee by
the Holy Spirit."
I love "definitions" of salvation. There are many in the
Scripture. My favorite is 'This is eternal life, that they may know thee and
Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3), and this one is much like
it, since there is no darkness in those who know God: "Salvation is the
replacement of all darkness within us with light".
Our Salvation is very near.
The Lord preached: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at
hand." In another place He said that the "kingdom of heaven is
within you". This is another "definition" of salvation. It is
too beautiful to put in human words. Salvation is when we become like God. We
will have no sin, no darkness, no sadness, no ignorance. Jesus tells is that
our salvation is very near - "it is at hand".
Have you ever been on a long journey? In the last half of the journey.
we are tired but as the end approaches we are energized. A Christian should
also be in the last portion of the journey! The Kingdom of heaven is ALWAYS at
hand! Remember that when things are tough. I do.
May God help us poor ones to always feel Him "at hand" and to
not despair. Amen.
I promised you the Kontakion to Patriarch Joseph the All-Comely, big
print, so you can learn it. He is the patron and protector of our prison
ministry. We will sing this every time, and you will learn tone 8 (and have
only 7 more to go!) Please read it every day, and sing it as you are able.
Joseph the All-Comely (Holy Monday)
Jacob lamented the loss of Joseph, / but his righteous son was seated
in a chariot and honored as a king. / For he was not enslaved to the
pleasures of Egypt, / but he was glorified by God who sees the hearts of men //
and bestows on them a crown incorruptible.
I have one page to go! I print everything double sided, and hate to
waste a whole side, so I must find some filler now.
The Holy Apostle commands us saying "Let us put on the armor of
light. Let us walk becomingly as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness,
not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the
Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts
thereof." From the time of the Apostles, Prophets and Fathers till our own
day, it is evident from the life of the Church that fasting is part of our
"armor of light"; it is a mighty weapon against the enemy given into
our hands by the Savior Himself, Who is a type and example for us in all things
and Who fasted in the flesh in order to teach us to fast. To those weak and
ill, it is a medicine and antidote -- a bath in which to be washed and
Armored with holy fasting, St. Elias the Tishbite withstood Ahab and
his army singlehandedly and called down fire from the heavens. By fasting St.
Moses, the seer of God and the elder of Israel, prepared to ascend the mountain
in the desert and behold the Glory of God. By fasting the Three Children were
shown forth to be fairer than the other children in Babylon in the house of the
king, and Daniel was shown forth to be a shepherd of lions.
Fasting, therefore, should always be understood as a thing most
necessary in our battle with the evil one. Only a man who has lost his mind
would put down his weapons, strip himself naked of his armor and then jump into
the line of fire to do battle with the enemy. Such a one would be committing
suicide. A man who calls himself a Christian and does not fast, is such a man.
In the final analysis he who does not fast does not believe in God, for
he does not really believe in the existence of the enemy and the great victory
gifted to us over him by our Savior. He who does not fast does not believe in
Him Who said to the enemy, "Man shall not live by bread alone." This
is why Apostolic and Patristic canons proclaim that all who do not keep the
fasts have fallen away from the Faith (i.e., have become excommunicated), and
our Holy Father St. Seraphim of Sarov instructs us not even to speak with such
Those who fell away from our Holy Faith through schism and heresy, by
distorting the dogmas and truth of Holy Orthodoxy, in consequence distorted the
life of the Church also, and especially the teaching concerning fasting. Thus,
to the Latins, fasting became primarily a means of atonement, satisfaction,
retribution, payment for sins committed or for earning merits, wages, favor,
etc., when all sins had been paid for. The Protestants correctly abhorred the
use of fasting as "works" which won merits which, in turn, were
banked as surplus in the treasury of the Popes to be dispensed to "poor
souls" in purgatory; the few that continued to fast, however, were not
able to free themselves from the error of Anselm concerning atonement and
punishment. Thus, after some centuries of keeping fasts as 'a pious and ancient
custom,' yet having lost the correct understanding and position of fasting in
the life of the Church, both Latins and Protestants have totally abandoned
Now we see that even those that were nearer to Holy Orthodoxy in
Liturgy and practice --the Copts, Armenians, Jacobites, etc. -- in their last
gathering in Addis Ababa have "reformed" their rules concerning
fasting. This was to be expected, since they have fallen into heresies and are
separated from the Holy Church. But now we hear even from those who bear the
name Orthodox similar trends and aspirations. For us sinful folk, who
nevertheless are still Orthodox in our Faith, this is one more indication that
these people are despisers of and apostates from Orthodoxy. They are only
proclaiming to all that have ears to hear that they no longer wish to walk in
the way and tradition of our Savior, the Apostles, Prophets, and Fathers, but rather
wish to make "provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof."
Of them the Psalms say, "They mingled with the nations (heathen) and
learned their works"; and the Holy Apostle says, "They have a form of
godliness, but deny the power thereof."
St. Abba Isaac the Syrian says, "The Savior began the work of our
salvation with fasting. In the same way, all those who follow in the footsteps
of the Savior build on this foundation the beginning of their endeavor, since
fasting is a weapon established by God. Who will escape blame if he neglects
this? If the Lawgiver Himself fasts, how can any of those who have to obey the
law be exempt from fasting? This is why the human race knew no victory before
fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this
weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset. Our Lord was
the Leader and the first example of this victory, in order to place the first
crown of victory on the head of our nature. As soon as the devil sees someone possessed
of this weapon, fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours,
who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his
strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon given us by our
Supreme Leader burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always
afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to
meet and repel all violent passions."
Those who do not fast --especially those of the clergy-- teach that
fasting consists in not thinking and doing evil and quote from our Savior, the
Apostles and Fathers to support their views. They usually forget that our Savior,
the Apostles and Fathers all fasted the physical fast as well as the spiritual
When man partakes of the glory of God, he does not partake of it in the
spirit only, but physically also -- in a complete sense. When one praises God,
he does not praise Him only in the Spirit, but with physical voice also in
chant and prayer. When one worships God, he does not worship him noetically
only but physically also --the body participating by standing in prayer, by
making prostrations and using the fingers and hand to seal itself with the sign
of the Cross. When one communicates God, he does not communicate in spirit only
but eats the very Body and drinks the very Blood of the Lord unto healing of
soul and body.
Thus one praises God and is united with God not in part, but completely
as one whole -- soul and body. When one labors in virtue, one labors not only
noetically but physically also, even unto blood, in order not to deny our Savior.
Our Holy Martyrs did not witness just by words and thought, resisting evil in
their hearts and minds, but gave their bodies up to torments and their heals to
be cut off, that they might remain with our Savior.
Thus, since we are not just spirits, but "wear flesh and live in
the world," we cannot possibly fast spiritually only and not fast
physically also. There is a unity and interaction between the body and the
soul. They cannot be separated while we are still in the body. In the Ladder of
Divine Ascent, St. John writes "Satiety of food is the father of
fornication; an empty stomach is the mother of purity." He who always
keeps his stomach full and he who fasts know the strength of this saying.
A Monk of the Orthodox
Church This homily is at: https://www.orthodox.net//articles/on-fasting.html
Perfect love is to sell all your possessions and to give alms, and even
to sell yourself as a slave, and whatever you get to give in alms. In the East
there was a bishop from whose province a hundred slaves were taken captive. He
sold all of his possessions and ransomed them. Only a child of a widow remained
enslaved. What did the bishop do? He shaved off his beard and went and begged
the master who held the child to free it and to keep him in its place. And so
it happened. The bishop lived a life of great hardship, but because of his
patience God found him worthy of performing miracles. Later his master freed
him and he returned to his episcopal duties. It is this kind of love that God
wants us also to have. Is there anyone here who has this kind of love? No!
Don't sell yourself, sell only your possessions and give alms. You can't do
this? Give half, a third, a fourth. You can't even do this? [Then] don't take
your brother's bread, don't persecute him, don't slander him. Father Kosmas,
The Apostle of the Poor, Third teaching, page 46
We venerate the Theotokos because of her
great, voluntary holiness. Many people are not comfortable with this level of
holiness. Many others, who read the Scripture without deep understanding, or think
in secular ways, do not believe that the Theotokos was virgin before, during
and after giving birth. The unanimous witness of the church on this dogma is
clear to those who know such things scholastically, and our God-inspired
services mention it often and scripture speaks of it in a type shrouded, and
mystical way. There is however, one clear witness to her virginity that is not
in books, but is in the heart, if it experiences even a little bit of holiness.
We discuss this important witness, and also ways to learn of it. (This is a description of a talk I gave, https://www.orthodox.net//sermons/feasts-of-the-theotokos_2014-08-288+dormition+why-is-the-theotokos-ever-virgin.mp3)
I wish I could it transcribed
Priest Seraphim Holland 2014 St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney,
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