Letter to Prisoners

The Most 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

Why Memorize Scripture?

Darkness and Light

Our Salvation is very near.

On Fasting

[Note: 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.

Priest Seraphim Holland seraphim@orthodox.net]




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 prayer.

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 wish.

Prayer of St Ephrem to the Saints for intercession

Psalm, 47
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 wrathful.

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 feebleness.

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 раrаdise!

Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind Who saves us!

Matthew Chapter 4

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 read it!

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."
(Matthew 4:13-17)

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 the light.

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."[1]

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.

Patriarch Joseph the All-Comely  (Holy Monday)

Kontakion 8th Tone

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.

On Fasting

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 cleansed.

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 persons.

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 fasting!

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 fast.

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 https://www.orthodox.net//articles/on-fasting.doc

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, Texas

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