Prison Ministry Trip

"Compel them to come in" - choose to not have a choice!

Are you content?

February 8/21, Great martyr Theodore Stratelates.


I went back to the prison yesterday after a long, involuntary hiatus.


It turns out that prisons are sometimes as hard to get into as they are to get out of!


I had not seen my guys for about two months, because I had to unexpectedly retrain (there are only a few retraining sessions a year within a parsec of Dallas). There is no way to let them know that I am coming - I have two standing appointments (in two different prisons) monthly, but if I cannot make it for some reason they do not know until the day that I do not arrive. This is one of the many indignities of prison life. I am not being soft on the "offenders" here; most are in prison because they did bad things and they deserve to be where they are, but it is undeniable that if a person is not careful, the mind dulling routine, daily humiliations and depersonalization of prison life can make a person lose touch with his humanity.


I have been really fatigued regarding prison ministry. It is not a physical thing, although getting up at 3:30am, and a three hour drive one way usually does not have me ready to wrestle tigers afterwards - sometimes I just get worn out. There is stuff that happens in prison. I have only had one time when I wondered if I was in danger (I *really* wondered for about 10 seconds) ; I am not talking about that kind of stuff. People tell me stuff (not always inmates), and there is so much suffering! Only the holy can bear suffering without being worn out.


If I do not see "my guys" (about 20 souls, the number varies), no priest will, so I do not feel that I have a choice - I must go when I can.


Of course we always have a choice, as I tell my parishioners all the time "you have free will" (sometimes I say this when the question is too hard to answer!). We can choose, and be right or wrong. The Apostle teaches this - All things are lawful, but not all things are expedient.


I know that Christians must CHOOSE to not give themselves a choice, when it comes to doing good.


That is a good working definition of Christianity and the priesthood especially - do what is right, even when you are "tired/do not want to/have no idea really what you are doing and are WAY over your head/blah blah blah".


"Choosing to not have a choice" is always the interpretation, or even if you will, "spin" I put on one of my favorite bible verses. It is from the parable of the Great Supper[1]. After so many turn down the King (God), He orders His slaves to go out into the highways and the hedges and *compel* them to come in[2]. Of course, God made us in His image, and this means, among other important things, that we have free will; we are not forced by Him to do things. We can choose anything, but if we choose wrongly, we will lose our ability to choose what is good. That is the mystery of free will - in essence, if we do not use it (to do good), we LOSE it.


The "compelling" that God does is that when we exercise our free will to do good, we become more free, and He visits us with His grace. There is no greater happiness than this. In my experience, because of my sins, I do not always feel this grace right away, and sometimes, such as when I use my free will to exercise my prison ministry, after an 8 hour day, and hearing difficult things, and driving through the rain, I feel spent, but there is a quiet assurance that I did something that is eternal, and this compels me to get up again the next time at 3:30 in the morning and do it all over again. I wish it would also compel me to go to bed early the night before!


This visit was difficult in several ways, but also wonderful in an unexpected way.


The standard stuff went on - long delays because count had not cleared, and half of my guys not showing up because they were either  not released from their houses by a guard, or any of the zillion other reasons why schedules get messed up in a prison. Any normal day in a prison visit is certainly abnormal! Basically, every time, something is going to happen to try your patience.


I felt kind of deflated that some of my guys were missing, including two I am catechizing to be baptized. I guess the imperfect part of me wanted everybody to be glad about my grand reentrance after the second  longest hiatus I have experienced in 15 years of prison ministry. I am also concerned that I am not getting enough face time with the men I am catechizing. I get two cracks at them a month, and if I lose one because of a big Feast day, or there is a security problem, or the big spot on Jupiter is not aligned properly, this is time I lose with them that I cannot make up.


I saw three guys, and all of them are baptized Orthodox (I also see inquirers, and catechumens). There was confession, and abbreviated prayers, and they had communion. Of course, as is usual, they all arrived at wildly different times because of the vagaries of prison scheduling. I show up at 7:30 as agreed, and if I am "lucky", (I suppose I should say "blessed' since we do not believe in luck!) I see somebody by 8am, and maybe the full complement by 8:30. Today I was not "lucky", but as one guard says when I ask how she is, I was blessed!


We had a little time for discussion; I think this is an important part of prison ministry. I am no Saint John Chrysostom anyway, and they need to be able to tell me about their daily lives. Today they told me some stories that I will not repeat. Prison life is full of impossible situations. There is a lot of inhumanity and senseless violence. I know men are capable of inhuman things and some become in some way, not human. I know moral men (and there are moral men in prison; very few men in prison are psychopaths or sociopaths - they love their mamas and their children, and do not want to brutalize another human being) are forced to make terrible decisions. I heard about some of those. My God! Things are just not right in this world!


Part of the priesthood is hearing things you do not want to hear, and somehow God fills the infirm vessel, and I react, really having any idea how, and then I move on to the next thing. I have heard a lot in 54 years, but once in a while, the cup gets a little too full. As I left the prison, I felt physically ill, for a lot of reasons. I have no idea what I would do if  I were the victim or potential victim in some of those stories. I surely know the Gospel, and can say what I should do, but theory is a whole lot easier than reality!


I also was for a moment acutely aware that right now, at this moment, people are suffering and being tested in ways that are too terrible to mention. Our Lord was ALWAYS aware of this, but most of us weak men only have short glimpses into this reality. As I get older, these glimpses get longer, but that's okay, it is the way it should be.


As I walk through the prison corridors or drive home on I-45, or go to the gym, everything looks okay, but I am surrounded by people with terrible burdens, needs and temptations. Only by God's grace can we avoid the snare the devil has put in place to capture us.


I have discovered something that really helps me in my prison ministry. I usually go kayaking on the way back home. I brought the kayak today, but is was rainy and cold. I stopped by the river anyway, and spent a little bit of time there, and then it was on to the next thing.


There was one great, unexpected thing that happened in the prison visit. Actually, I expect unexpected stuff; almost every prison visit there is some great thing - something that feeds my soul. This is also true of anytime I get outside myself. It has happened more times than I can count in the services (both when I was a layman and as a priest) when I was tired and felt like "being a parishioner[3]", but went to the service anyway.  


I was asked by someone, not an inmate, "Are you content?" I knew the answer right away: "No ... and yes!" No, I am not content, because I have passions that assail me, and I feel them acutely. I am not the way I am supposed to be, but I know I am changing, and God is helping me. On the other hand, I have the great privilege, despite my sins and my infirm vessel, to be part of God's economy, and be healer of souls. The stuff I do is eternal and it matters. I am not too good at it, but God helps me, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. I am therefore content. I am reminded of an excellent quote I culled from a catechetical lecture I have recently listened to (more about that later, as God allows):


"Peace is not the absence of turmoil, fights and battles, but the presence of God. When God is present in our hearts, then we will have peace regardless of what happens outside."


I am content.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2013     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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[1] Luke 14:16-24, read on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, the 2nd Sunday before Nativity

[2] Luke 14:23  And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

[3] "Being a parishioner". That is what I sometimes say I want to be when I am really tired and do not feel like going to vigil or Moleben, or whatever. The truth is, most parishioners do not go to vigil!