Saint Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry
A Labor of Love of Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC
Prayer—Dancing with the Stars
When we want to be good at something, dancing for example, we work at it. We dance and dance and dance some more. The aspiring dancer is inspired by watching TV shows, like Soul Train or Dancing with the Stars, or going to see the Nutcracker Ballet and other live performances. We learn techniques to improve our skills from observation and lessons, but no one gets to be really good at dancing without hours and hours of effort! Even though we may never be a Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, with effort we can reach amazing heights.
Becoming who we want to be begins with desire, with wanting to, but only develops when we face the music, the sore legs and feet and work at it for hours on end. It’s the same with everything: writing, playing guitar, drawing, chess! Maybe some people have more natural talent, or a predisposition towards a skill, due to exposure as a child or physical characteristics (like being tall for B-Ball), nevertheless, it takes time and effort to get good at anything. You have to know what you want and want it bad enough to be willing to put in the effort. Your goal, if you really intend to achieve it, becomes the center of your life!
Just this past October 15th, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, explained (through an interpreter with a heavy Russian accent) that “Liberalism teaches that a man has such dignity and such rights, he becomes authority for himself. Man places himself as center of his life- this is liberal idea. If (our) ego is center, then what could be more important (than oneself); this is why it is sinful idea. If you put yourself as center, then you separate from God, because God must be center of your life. Liberal idea removes God and puts man’s personality as center.”
Patriarch Kirill is right, we live in the “selfie” age, where it’s all about “me, me, me!” Modern secular and religious leaders increasingly promote self-centeredness; the satisfying of our fleshly passions and the embracing our own opinions and interpretations as truth. We are our own sun and moon! And, just as the lights of a city keep city dwellers from seeing the stars, people have become blinded by false doctrine and artificial lights (like the flashes on their cell phone cameras as they take selfies). We forget that God exists! How can we seek God when we can’t even see the sky? After decades of indoctrination, it’s like the concept of a personal relationship with God has been sucked into a black hole or replaced by shiny plastic imitations. Sadly, everything, even Christmas, has become about us.
If you were given 3 wishes, what would they be? To be healthy, wealthy and wise? To protect and heal your loved ones? To undo the past or influence the future? Well, if wishing on stars really worked, it would be safe to say that, even if we can’t see them because of the walls and the lights, stars still shoot across the sky all the time. We just have to have faith and wish anyway to catch one just right!
Similarly, when you look up into the night sky, know that the Creator of the heavens and the earth is there whether you believe in Him or not! Have faith! Wishes are prayers; prayers are wishes that reach the ear of the Creator of the Universe. Live your life focused on Christ and work hard to reach the heavens!
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor. Psalm 8:3-5
Cosmic, Christ-Centered Faith
Early Christians put Christ smack dab in the center of their lives; they lived for Him and fully expected to die for Him and die they did! That was their reality. The Orthodox Church still teaches us to make Christ the center of our universe. Like planets with their moons in the solar system, and solar systems in galaxies and galaxies in the universe, everything in life rotates and revolves and is held together by the invisible forces of gravity. For this GNL analogy, the celestial bodies are the cares of the world. They are our sons and our daughters, or mother and our lawyer, our cell mate and even our enemies. They are the good things and the bad things, the joy and the fear, the sickness and the wellness. Prayer is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the asteroids from colliding with the planets. Constant prayer shines forth from homes and churches and monasteries and, yes, even prison cells. But how can we pray without ceasing? Where do we find the words?
Life as an Orthodox Christian literally starts and ends in the Church, with cycles of prayer and services for every day and every week and every year! There are sacraments, services and prayers for every event in one’s life. From the womb prayers are being said for us! The priest comes and says prayers for a mother in labor and prayers for the newborn child. Sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, Marriage, and Tonsure into Holy Orders mark every important milestone of our lives. Confession and Absolution constantly renew us and prepare us for the end of our sojourn in this world. The funeral and memorial services are most beautiful and significant.
Imagine the Moon rotating and circling the Earth as one’s personal prayers and the Earth rotating on its axis as it circles the Sun as the weekly and yearly services. Invisible forces of gravity hold our feet to the ground and keep planets in their orbits; prayer is that force! As a mystical symphony is played out in the cosmos, stars appear, and others wink and fade from the sky. Here on earth, in our prayer corners, we play our part as we participate in the Great Cycles of the Life of the Church.
Daily Prayers—Praise Him, All His Angels!
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky displays what His hands have made.”
The daily prayer cycle for the average Orthodox Christian includes a minimum of morning and evening prayers and prayers before and after meals. In addition, Daily devotions often include specific Bible readings (found on Orthodox Calendars) and readings from the Prologues of Ochrid on the Lives of the Saints, etc. All together the prayers said at home would take about 90 minutes a day. That may seem to be a lot, however, the full cycle of daily prayers includes eight designated times of prayer! The Hours of Prayer, as they are called, are kept by monastics who have dedicated their lives to prayer. It is their life’s work. Each “hour” brings to mind specific events in the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This idea of daily prayer began in Jewish Tradition and was how Christ and His disciples prayed since childhood. The daily prayer cycle begins at sundown with Vespers. Here is just a sample of each Hour:
Vespers 6:00 pm: Vespers is a prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the day and marks the beginning of the new day. It includes, among other prayers, various Psalms of David (NOTE: when there are two numbers, the first is for the Orthodox Study Bibles and the second is for other translations). If you take the time to read the Psalms in their entirety, you will find that David was very real with his prayers; he spoke from the heart. He praises God, sure, but he also complains, laments over past mistakes and asks for protection from, and the destruction of, his enemies! Reading the Psalms helps us put our feelings into words.
“Lord, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men who work iniquity; And do not let me eat of their delicacies…” Psalm 140 (141)
“Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty, Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, Who stretch out the heavens like a curtain. He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters, Who makes the clouds His chariot, Who walks on the wings of the wind, Who makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire…” Psalm 103 (104)
Compline- 9:00 pm: This is part of our evening or “bedtime prayers” and includes several Psalms. Psalm 4 ends with “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” In addition, there are specific psalms and prayers added for different days of the week. Here is a prayer from Evening Prayers:
“And grant rest, O Master, to our souls and bodies as we sleep; preserve us from the gloomy slumber of sin and from the dark passions of the night. Calm the impulses of carnal desires, quench the fiery darts of the evil one which are craftily directed against us. Still the rebellions of the flesh, and put far from us all anxiety and worldly cares. Grant us, O God, a watchful mind, pure thoughts, a sober heart and a quiet rest free from every vision of the devil. Raise us up again at the hour of prayer, strengthened in Your precepts and holding within us steadfastly the thought of Your commandments. Grant that we may sing praises to You through the night and that we may hymn, bless and glorify Your all-honorable and majestic Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Midnight prayer – Midnight: The tradition of getting up and praying at midnight goes back to the time of King David who wrote the Psalms. Even today monks get up more than once every night to pray! In Psalm 119, King David wrote: “At midnight I will rise and praise you.” This prayerful Psalm pleads with God to “Deal bountifully with Your servant, That I may live and keep Your word. Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law. I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me. My soul breaks with longing for Your judgments at all times…” Day or night, it is well worth taking the time to read the whole Psalm.
Matins or Orthros – Sunrise, or around 3:00 am: On Saturday nights, in preparation for Liturgy the next day, priests hold Vigil and immediately afterwards the Matins prayers. This is a most beautiful service and when confessions are heard. Orthros is done Sunday Morning right before liturgy. Monastics, however, get up and hold the service at 3 AM! “O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. So, I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. At dawn we rise at sunrise and experiencing the goodness of God praise Him, give thanks, make petitions, and seek His blessing for the activities of the coming day…” (Psalm 63)
First Hour – 6:00 am: This is the hour when Christ was led into the Praetorium before Pilate and Peter heard the cock crow, reminding him of his weak and sinful nature. “Give heed to the voice of my cry, my King and my God, for to You I will pray. My voice You shall hear in the morning, O Lord; In the morning I will direct it to You, and I will look up…” (Psalm 5)
Third Hour – 9:00 am: If we get up at 6:00 that is the first hour of our day; the third hour after that is 9:00. This is how time was kept back then. It was in the 3rd hour that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2: 2-4) as related to us in this beautiful prayer by Saint Basil the Great:
“O Lord our God, You have given Your peace to men and sent down the gift of Your All-Holy Spirit to Your disciples and Apostles, opening their lips with fiery tongues by Your power.
Open also my lips and teach me, sinner that I am, how and for what I ought to pray.
Guide my life, O calm Haven of the storm-tossed, and reveal the way in which I should walk.
Renew in me a right spirit and make my mind steady with a governing spirit, so that guided and guarded each day by Your good Spirit, I may be enabled to practice Your commandments, always remembering Your glorious presence which looks upon the deeds men do. Do not let me be deceived by corrupting delights of this world, but rather strengthen in me the desire to attain the treasures of the world to come. For You are blessed and praised in all Your saints, unto ages of ages. Amen. Through the prayers of the holy Fathers, may the Lord have mercy on us. Amen.”
This prayer draws from Psalm 51 which says “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me…” This Psalm is so beautiful; I hope you read it! Psalm 25 is also read at the 3rd hour. “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in You; Let me not be ashamed; Let not my enemies triumph over me…”
Sixth Hour – Noon: In Luke, chapter 23, we read about the sham trial and Crucifixion of Christ. This was the sixth hour of the day and when they Crucified Christ the Sun went dark and darkness covered the earth for 3 hours. No eclipse ever lasted that long! Take a moment to read Luke chapter 23 and Psalm 54. which includes a plea for help against “Arrogant foes (who) are attacking me” and “ruthless people are trying to kill me…” Here is a prayer from the sixth hour:
“O Christ God, on the sixth day and hour, You nailed to the cross the sin which rebellious Adam committed in paradise. Tear asunder also the bond of our iniquities, and save us!
You have wrought salvation in the midst of the earth, O Christ God.
You stretched out Your all-pure hands upon the Cross, You gathered together all the nations that cry aloud to You: Glory to You, O Lord!”
Ninth Hour – 3:00 pm: this is when Christ died and the curtain in the Holy of Holies ripped of its own accord (by the hand of God) from top to bottom and the Roman centurion declared “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Read the account, as told by Saint Mark, in Mark chapter 15. Psalm 84 is part of the prayers at the Sixth Hour, as is this prayer that remembers our ministry’s patron saint, Saint Dismas, the repentant thief:
“O Christ God, at the ninth hour You tasted death in the flesh for our sake: mortify the rebellion of our flesh and save us! In the midst of two thieves, Your Cross was revealed as the balance-beam of righteousness. For while the one was led down to hell by the burden of his blaspheming, the other was lightened of his sins to the knowledge of things divine. O Christ our God, glory to You!”
Moses, one of the brothers of this ministry, wrote a while back and said that at first he “fit the prayers into his life, around his daily activities”, but then, after a time, something changed and his day “started to revolve around the Hours of Prayer.” Now his world, his personal planet, revolves around the true Sun of Righteousness! That’s the beautiful fulfillment of a goal! We train and train to reach a goal and suddenly what was hard work becomes natural, we fall into a stable orbit around our goal! Here is a pic of Moses (aka Walt) from a few years ago. Salutations, friend!
Weekly Prayers / Praise Him, Sun and Moon
“Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his armies!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens”
God established time and in His perfect plan there are 7 days in a week, 6 in which He worked and one on which He rested. There was the morning and the evening of each day and it was good. In our prayers, each day of the week is remembered in a special way to bring to mind events and people who play an important role in history of Christendom. Did you know there is an 8th day? It is often overlooked! The 8th day is the first day of the next phase of God’s plan; The day Christ rose from the Tomb was/is the first day of Eternity; the day without end! We call it the Lord’s Day.
- Sunday/The Lord’s Day. Sunday didn’t replace the Sabbath day but outshines it! On this day, Orthodox Christians come together to celebrate the Liturgy, which is the work of the people. We celebrate the Resurrection by partaking of the Holy Eucharist just as Christ told us to do, “in remembrance of Him”. The Orthodox Church, which holds these Teachings since they were first established, has not lost sight of the meaning of Christ’s words in Luke 22:19-20 and John, Chapter 6: 41-66. One of eight sets of verses, or tones, is sung every Sunday in commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ. Here is Tone 7:
Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 7
Thou didst destroy death by Thy Cross, Thou didst
open Paradise to the thief.
Thou didst change the lamentation of the Myrrh-bearers,
and Thou didst command Thine Apostles to proclaim that
Thou didst arise,
O Christ God, and grantest to the world great mercy.
Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 7
No longer will the dominion of death be able to keep men captive;
for Christ hath descended, demolishing and
destroying the powers thereof.
Hades is bound; the Prophets rejoice with one voice, saying:
A Savior hath come for them that have faith. Come forth, ye faithful, for the Resurrection.
- On Monday, the Bodiless Powers (Ranks of Angels) are celebrated.
- On Tuesday the prophets, especially St. John the Forerunner (aka the Baptist) are commemorated.
- On Wednesday we fast as we recall Judas’ betrayal of our Lord.
- Thursday, we give special attention to the Holy Apostles and Hierarchs.
- Friday, we commemorate the Holy Cross and remember, with prayer and fasting, the Crucifixion of Christ.
- Saturday is set apart to remember all the Saints, especially the Theotokos (aka Mary, the Mother of God). As part of this commemoration we remember all who have departed this life with the hope of resurrection. We also pray for ourselves as we contemplate eternity and our own fate:
“…Be gracious to me, Master, and do not let my soul see the dark countenance (face) of the evil spirits, but let her be received by Your angels bright and shining. Glorify Your holy name, and by Your might set me before Your divine judgment seat. When I am being judged, do not allow the hand of the prince of this world to take hold of me, to throw me, a sinner, into the depths of hell, but stand by me and be a savior and mediator to me. Have mercy, Lord, on my soul, defiled through the passions of this life, and receive her cleansed by penitence and confession, for You are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.”
Praise Him, Heaven of Heavens!
Endlessly, prayers rise to the ears of Almighty God. They rise from the lips of the lost who seek Him, the suffering who need Him, as well as those who know and trust Him. The purpose of prayer is manifold. It is praise, thanksgiving and supplication (requests), but it is also remembering! Prayer firmly plants the knowledge of God, and the marvelous lengths He went to in order to open Paradise to us, in our hearts. The prayers of the Church engrave the history of our Faith in our hearts and minds! It is not only the building of our relationship with Christ, but also with our brothers and sisters who went before us in the faith and those who pray with us–both in the world and in the heavens! Prayer builds our faith and our connection to the miraculous works of Christ through His saints, to miracles that have happened and continue to happen today.
“He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. He counts the stars and calls them all by name. How great is our Lord! His power is absolute! His understanding is beyond comprehension!”
Every year we celebrate the Resurrection or our Lord on Pascha (aka Easter). This is a movable feast and the date is determined by a formula that includes the equinox and the lunar cycle. This is the Feast of Feasts, the center of all, the bang in the big bang of the creation of the universe. In addition to Pascha* we celebrate 12 major feasts, five minor feasts as well as feasts of various saints and miraculous events.
Just as the stars are too numerous to count, these 8 pages are insufficient to even begin to describe the services of the Church. There are so many Saints and Martyrs that is impossible to name them all. But we do try!
Here is a list of the Major and Minor Feasts of the church: The first date is the Old Calendar date that we use in the Russian Church. The second is the date according to the New Calendar, used by the OCA and Greek Church. Pascha is celebrated by all Orthodox on the same date, which is usually 1 to 4 weeks after Western Easter.
- September 21 / September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos
- September 27 / September 14, the Elevation of the Holy Cross
- December 4 / November 21, the Presentation of the Theotokos
- January 7 / December 25, the Nativity of Christ (Christmas)
- January 19 / January 6, Theophany, the Baptism of Christ
- February 15 / February 2, the Presentation of Christ
- April 7 / March 25, the Annunciation
- The Sunday before Pascha, Palm Sunday
- Forty Days after Pascha, the Ascension of Christ
- Fifty Days after Pascha, Pentecost
- August 19 / August 6, the Transfiguration
- August 28 / August 15, the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos
- January 14/1 The Circumcision of Christ
- July 7/June 24, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
- July 12/June 29, The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
- September 11/August 29, The Beheading of St John the Baptist
- October 14/1, The Protecting Veil of the Theotokos
We could go on and on telling you about the wonderful prayers, services and feasts of the Orthodox Christian Church, but then this GNL would never get in the mail! Let us end here with an invitation to join your prayers to ours, and those of millions of Christians around the world.
In the coming year, we hope to share more about each of these feasts and about the saints and martyrs who pray with you from the world beyond!
Isaiah 40:26-29 “Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.”
St. Dismas Prison Ministry and The Good NewsLetter (GNL) are a labor of love of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC. Unless otherwise stated, MJ Dukas is the author and compiler of the GNL. We send these letters to approximately 70 people in prison, raising funds for postage and printing through donations. As of February 2018, we have baptized 7 souls through this prison ministry and had two accepted into the Church (at their repose) by volition. We have recently started a post-release program. Read more of our publications under Outreach at https://www.stnicholasoc.org/ Interested in prison ministry? Want to support us with a donation? Do you have a loved one in prison you would like us to add to our list? Write us at [email protected] or St. Dismas Prison Ministry PO Box 19616 Asheville, NC 28815. Blessings from heaven!
Fred Ataire: https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=2D8FC5BEB4C36C284F9D53FA39865B2576B91560&thid=OIP.DfmIWWCYs5pptZQSKCqnjwHaJq&mediaurl=http%3A%2F%2F3.bp.blogspot.com%2F-k1d9vHWqQP0%2FUg6Oqb_WjYI%2FAAAAAAAAfds%2FZFBF0P41Hig%2Fs1600%2Fginger-rogers-fred-astaire-the-barkleys-of-broadway.jpg&exph=1435&expw=1100&q=fred+astaire&selectedindex=238&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=0,1,6
Last pic, looks like the eye of God!: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/news/photos/000/472/47258.ngsversion.1422036232334.adapt.1900.1.jpg