St. Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry
A Labor of Love of Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC
I’m not a sinner, and I don’t need saving!
I hear ya! No one likes to be called out as anything, least of all as a sinner. The court of popular opinion is on your side. These days, people are so sensitive to name calling that sin is currently being reclassified, redefined by popular opinion. And woe to anyone who begs to differ! Seeing someone else’s faults and not our own is easy and of no benefit. Calling a person out, even if it’s just telling your girl to back away from the box of Twinkies, insinuating she’s fat, can get you in a major heap of trouble. I imagine it could get real aggravating if a self-righteous type kept after you, telling you how you’re a sinner and need to get right with God.
For the sake of our discussion, look up the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, (Luke 18:9-14) and take a minute to read it. As you see, my friend, the Pharisee in this story wasn’t a bad guy; he did a lot of stuff right and had a ready list of virtues. Nevertheless, his prayer in the Temple did nothing at all for him. God was not impressed! Whereas the admitted sinner, the Publican, was forgiven of his sins and left that place justified. In this story, the Publican saw himself as a sinner. The Pharisee agreed that Publican was a sinner, but not him; he was not a sinner and didn’t need saving!
Nevertheless, we all know that the first step toward a cure for any disease is realizing that we are sick. Only then can a person begin to get help by going to see a doctor. Just like with AA, NA and all addiction programs, step one is always admitting you have a problem that you cannot fix on your own. It works the same way with salvation. Until a person realizes they are a sinner (and we all are), they have no hope or possibility of salvation. Blindness to our own sins makes it hard to see our need for saving, but the truth is that we all need saving (Romans 3:10-12) (Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3).
Salvation, like recovery from an addiction or dealing with a chronic illness is a life-long process. It starts with admitting “I have a problem and need help”. Our troubles, our pain and our sorrow bring us to seek salvation; to cry out for God! (Psalms 39:12, Psalm 143, Psalm 130:2…) Similarly, physical pain can prompt us to seek medical attention and the worse the pain is the better! For example, if it weren’t for the excruciating pain in their side, a person might die from a ruptured appendix! As Orthodox Christians, we embrace our pain and thank God for getting us through it! (Psalm 34).
Back to Eden
We weren’t created sick. Mankind was created perfect and sinless. When Adam and Eve chose to turn away from God and use their free will to disobey Him, they and all of nature fell from Grace. God clothed them in skins (Genesis 3:21-22). The flesh that suddenly covered their eyes blinded them to God’s face. It covered their ears and they could no longer hear His voice! Flesh covered their bodies and they became subject to heat and cold and susceptible to bodily discomfort, (e.g. hormonal desires, pain of childbirth, intestinal distress, sunburn, diseases, anger, etc.). All of us are born with the consequence of the Fall; we are born with this flesh that causes us suffering and leads to the death of the body. This is original or inherited sin.
When this happened to them, Adam and Eve suffered acutely; they knew what they were missing! They had had an intimate relationship with God and were cut off from it suddenly and completely. Sadly, we don’t know what we are missing (although you may be able to relate, having been separated from your loved ones), we don’t know what it is like to walk and talk with God, to trust Him for everything, to not have to work, or worry, or suffer regret.
They were kicked out of Paradise and had to endure hardships. They had to grow their own food, and fight the elements. Animals, that they formerly had dominion over, turned wild. But God did not abandon them, and He has not forgotten you, my friend! He immediately put a plan into action for us, for all mankind, to return to the perfection for which we were created. He wants to be one with us, and He went to great lengths to make that possible.
In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, it is explained why God came in the Flesh:
“…for Thou who art God inexpressible, existing uncreated before the ages, and ineffable, didst descend upon earth and didst take on the semblance of a servant, and wast made in the likeness of man: for, because of the tender compassion of thy mercy, O Master, thou couldest not endure to behold mankind oppressed by the Devil; but thou didst come and didst save us…”
In the March April GNL, I sent copy of “The Dispute between the Cherub and the Thief”. This 5th century poem tells of how Christ restored mankind to paradise, starting with our own beloved patron saint, Saint Dismas. You can also read this Good News in the Gospels. The Devil’s power to oppress us and chain us in the dungeons of Hell is no more. Christ, in His Resurrection, is victorious over death! By being born in the flesh and dying on the Cross, Christ got Himself arrested and thrown in prison, so he could break us out! The Evil one/jailer cannot keep us prisoner any longer! It is only the paper chains of our ignorance, our not knowing about God’s love for us and His plan to save us (and our stubbornness and self-will, of course), that keeps us from growing closer to Him and restoring our intended relationship with Him; We are meant to be filled with His Grace and be like Him, one with the Triune God!
What is sin?
Sin is anything that separates us from God. It is the consequence of the Fall of Mankind. Although death has been defeated and the way back to Paradise is open again, sin/evil still infects the world. Evil is everywhere, like pollution or a toxic fog. Let’s compare it to the smoke in a smoker’s house (sorry smokers). The smoke is everywhere and affects everyone—even the innocent babies, dogs and goldfish. It penetrates the furniture, the walls, gets on everyone who come in the door. The smoke is thicker in some places than in others, and when it’s really concentrated, can be felt on the skin like a rank oil. It smells terrible! However, if you stay a while or live there, you’ll get used to it.
Sin isn’t just what we do against ourselves, or others, it’s not black spots on our soul that will count against us and only us; it is a condition that infects everyone in the world and the world itself; it is what causes tragedy. All sins, from a kid pinching a fiver from her grandmother’s purse, to horrendous crimes against humanity, feed this toxic fog and the fog fills the Earth. Sin fuels the works of the evil one who delights in hurting innocent children and oppressing all of mankind; Our collective sin is why the innocent suffer! It’s intoxicating effect on us is also why we sin!
Evil pops up “like a lion seeking who it might devour” (1 Peter 5:8), hoping to catch us off guard. When we quit one bad habit, it seems we soon fall into another one. When one tough situation is finally over, another is waiting in the wings! If we wrestle ourselves away from one addiction, we soon find ourselves embroiled in another! It’s like a game of whack-a-mole; Sin, or the calamity it brings, pops up in one place and, as soon as we attack it, it pops up in another! We feed our own oppressor with our anger, our judgement of others, the very words that come out of our mouths! As much as we try, as hard as we struggle to have faith, we cannot get better on our own (Romans 7:15-20).
We are naturally attracted to sin (James 1:13-14). Our flesh craves it, like a smoker craves a cigarette and reaches for one automatically. Christ came to restore us to health, to help us kick the habit of sin. He told us to love our neighbor, even our enemy! By seeing Him in every person, we minister to Him in them (Matthew 25:31-40). As we do this, we acquire God’s Grace and become more and more like Him. As we obey, our hearts change (Ezekiel 36:26). It is not the knowledge of God, but our relationship, based on the experience of Him and familiarity with Him, that will draw us to Him and save us (John 10:26-28).
The Church as a Spiritual Hospital
Christ didn’t leave us orphaned! He established His Church as a Spiritual Hospital and trained His Apostles as physicians. He told them to care for us, all of us, until He returned. Christ told many Parables during His earthly ministry. He told them in a way that not everyone, not even the kings or wise men, could understand. He chose, rather, to reveal His wisdom to fishermen and tax collectors because they were not puffed up with pride and would listen. One such parable is found in Luke, Chapter 10:25-37. Kindly, take a minute and look it up before you continue.
As you have just read, this Parable is told in answer to the question “What must I do to be saved/to inherit eternal life?” The asker of the question, a lawyer, knew the answer and quoted it on the spot. He wanted to entrap our Lord, by getting Him to qualify the words of the prophets (Lev. 19:18) and define who was the “neighbor” God expected him to love. The man wanted to keep all the ethnic and political barriers in place. He wanted Jesus to say that his neighbors are those who look and think like him; people from his neighborhood. Christ gently corrected him by telling the simple story of the Good Samaritan and instructing everyone on how to be a good neighbor. Christ’s teachings had layers of meaning, the obvious and the mystical. In this parable, as in others, Holy Tradition has preserved the lesson He taught to the Apostles.
In this icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan we can pick out scenes from the story. We see the man who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The priest, who saw him lying there, is shown hurrying by on the far side of the road. Bound by Hebrew Law, the priest from the temple could not help the man. In this icon, in addition to the story at face value, the Church teaches that the Law cannot save us. The Levite, top center, came closer even looking at the man but did not help him. Again, the Church explains: The prophets cannot save us! ( also see: Luke 16:19-31).
In this visual lesson in theology, the Good Samaritan is shown to be Christ, Who came from another place, a foreigner in this world! He attends to the man’s wounds and puts him on His own beast and takes him to the Inn. Notice how the man looks a lot like Christ! This represents that, when we do a kindness to the least of these, we do it unto Him (Matthew 25:35-40)! Christ gives the Inn Keepers, shown as the Apostles Peter and Paul, two coins representing the Teachings and the Sacraments of the Church. He instructs them to care for the man, who represents all mankind, until His return (Matthew 28:19). There are many lesson’s here, not the least of which is that the Church is the Spiritual Hospital, entrusted to care for mankind until Christ’s return.
The Early Church was the receiver of the faith, entrusted to keep it unchanged, preserving it for all generations (not always an easy task) until Our Lord’s return. The Apostles, led by the Holy Spirit, spread the Good News/Gospel to all corners of the known world. They forgave sins (Matthew 16:18-19 and Matthew 18:18), healed the sick of bodily illness, cast out demons and even raised the dead (Acts 20:7-12). They fed the flock, as Jesus had commanded them, with the all Holy and Pure Body and Blood of our Lord (Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:18-20,1 Corinthians 11:23-25, John 6:22-66). Within a few short years they had started churches as far west as Spain in Europe, north into what is now Russia, south into Africa and east to Persia and India and beyond. Being close to the source of the Truth, the Apostles were of one mind and, despite constant persecution, the body of believers grew.
The Church Christ established still exists and is still the keeper of the faith. The Apostles continued Christs work. Through Apostolic succession, the unbroken line of priests and bishops, the Church continues the work of the Spiritual Hospital founded by Christ Himself; the Church He founded exists to this very day.
The Great Physician …
Jesus Christ is the great Physician. Our All-wise and Loving God wants us to be healthy in body, mind and spirit, and to cure us from all disease. During His time on earth, Christ healed people of bodily and spiritual illness, often beginning by first forgiving them of their sins. But he didn’t come to make us comfortable. His goal is to perfect us! He wants you and me and everyone to live for all eternity with Him in Paradise! (John 21:20-26) (Luke 15: 1-7) He came to Earth to heal us and restore us to perfection.
He became man and taught us by example. He taught us to fight evil with good, to be good neighbors and to love our enemies. He suffered to show us how to make our suffering fruitful. He carried His Cross to show us how to carry ours. He died to show us that we need not fear death of the body. He rose to show us that death can’t hold us and oppress us anymore.
Once cured always cured?
Christ cares about our total health, body, soul and spirit (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). When I think about the comparisons between the Church’s healing ministry and going to the doctor for a medical condition, I see so many similarities. There are doctors who will perform triple bypass surgery on a patient, saving their life, but then never suggesting a change in diet or adding a serious exercise routine. Is that a caring physician? Others do prescribe lifestyle changes, but the patient does not comply! Is this a patient who values his rebirth?
Christ didn’t come to give us a heart transplant, pay the bill, and then leave us on our own! He left us in the care of the Church! For example, we are taught to examine our consciences and describe our symptoms, our sins, in confession. When we do this, we are confessing to Christ the Great Physician through his PA, His Physician’s Assistant, the priest! The PA grants us absolution (God’s forgiveness) for the sins we confess (Matthew 18:18). Then, he counsels us on what to do, consulting and basing his advice on the teachings of his boss, Christ! Through confession, the priest puts our mind at ease. He often tells us that the symptoms we have are common and, metaphorically, we shouldn’t let the devil beat us up with the guilt of that piece of cake that nearly sent our diabetic-self to into a coma, but we shouldn’t eat things that can kill us either. Like Christ, Who said “go and sin no more”, the priest suggests ways to avoid temptations and stay away from things that harm our relationship with God. Confession is healing, like ointment on a rash.
In my experience as a patient, I remember not knowing how to describe my symptoms, my pain. The doctor told me to think about it, observe where it is, what brings it on, what makes it better or worse. With time I became an expert. Then, when I’d see him, I was able to give him useful information that led to a diagnosis; preparing for confession is like that—a self-examination!
It turned out that I needed surgery and it changed my life. I was given a new chance at health. The doctor prescribed medications, physical therapy and I enthusiastically did everything he said to do. Occasionally, the pain would return, but I knew what to do, who to turn to. However, without that occasional pain, we tend to grow lazy. To stay healthy, we need constant vigilance. We shouldn’t wait to get sick again to eat right, do our exercises, or pray! Prayer is for us; it is our therapy and our education. Does my going to physical therapy help the doctor who prescribed it? Does your following the diet prescribed by your nutritionist help her lose weight? When someone goes to talk therapy for his PTSD, does the doctor benefit, or does he? The disciplines of the Church, saying prayers, fasting, attending long services, are for our benefit. God is God without us! We are prescribed these things by the Great Physician, for our health. It pleases Him to see us get well. He knows how hard it is.
Our goal is to build a relationship with the Great Physician and become more and more healthy. We gain trust in our doctor by seeing results, both in ourselves and in others. To obtain health, to acquire the Grace of God in our whole self, we must actively participate by following the directions and taking the medicine prescribed for us! Our symptoms and needs are unique. That is why we have our individual spiritual fathers who listen to us as we describe our symptoms in confession. They listen and make suggestions, prescribe treatment. We are naked in front of our doctor and our soul is naked in front of our father confessor. If we do not tell the doctor about our most embarrassing symptoms, we will not get well. We must be totally honest (2 Corinthians 10: 1-6).
Another point worthy of mentioning is that sometimes we have to go through very devastating treatments. Finding yourself in prison can be compared to being in a major accident and left paralyzed by your condition. Cancer patients, for example, are brought to the brink of death with agonizing radiation and chemo therapies. The therapy that saves your soul might be harsh, but God prescribes it out of love for you. The evil one wants to hurt you, keep you from the One Who came to save you. But he is powerless beyond this world, he is powerless against those who fear God (Matthew 10:27-31). Turning your situation into your salvation is the opportunity God has given you; it is an opportunity that is more valuable than all the riches of the world (Mark 8:34-37).
The goal of the Orthodox Christian is to Obtain the Grace of God, to become filled with the Holy Spirit and become one with God. This is accomplished over a lifetime, through contemplation and prayer, through the building of a relationship with God and learning to love others the way He loves us (John 13:34-35). The Grace of God changes us, it becomes part of us. As you take time to get to know Him, you will become confident that Christ came to save you (Luke 15:4-6). Once we realize that Christ already knows our imperfections and loves us “anyway”, even our suffering makes sense.
In the book of Matthew (9: 9-13), the Apostles recounts his own coming to Christ:
9 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
10 Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Homily by Father Steven Webb
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Now and again, as a priest, I come across people who have been Orthodox for many years, who have been struggling with despondency in their spiritual life for a very long time. The services no longer have the fire they once had for them, they’ve given up on prayer and the Bible years ago, they don’t read the Fathers, and maybe they even attend Church simply out of duty or obligation. As priests, our challenge is very difficult in this context, because the very medicines we are told by the Fathers to prescribe to deal with problems such as this, it seems are the very things such people are tired of. These are the most fearful cases, because the child-like excitement and rejoicing that the Lord said are necessary for entering the Kingdom have been choked out, and the garden of the soul is grown over so thick with weeds that the person comes to the point of “why bother? I’m simply too tired and worn out to even make a sincere beginning!” At this point, maybe the most honest statement such people can say is they “believe in God”. However, we know this is really no solution because even the demons believe in God, yet they tremble.
The demons are not at all indifferent! They work diligently, while so often we can barely stand before our icons in private prayer! As priests, we are called to help these kinds of Orthodox Christians with the same care and intensity as the shepherd who leaves the 99 of his flock to go and help that one. This is yet even more difficult because these kinds of lost sheep often associate their state of listlessness and despondency as a result of the rigors set out by the Church. Already we are faced with a vicious circle; the medicine that will heal is the very thing that seems to be weighing them down for so long. So, what can be done in this case? The first step to pull someone out of this kind of pit is the remembrance of death. There’s nothing more powerful to wake up one’s soul than the remembrance of death.
This subject is especially pertinent today because a few days ago, a priest in our diocese suddenly passed away in the night. By all counts, he was very healthy. He was only 49 years old and simply died in his sleep. We always hear about how death will come when you least expect it, and here we have more evidence of that serious possibility. Of course, this approach is hard for younger people who might be struggling with this problem, because they feel the vigor of their youth, and so often these days that vitality is used mostly for entertaining themselves. But for older people, who have been burdened with the basic responsibilities of life for a long time, this is more easily attainable. Although this a very uncomfortable topic, it’s quite a potent medicine. Once someone has begun to remember death, then such parables as the Parable of the Wise and Unwise Virgins, become meaningful and motivating once again.
Secondly, after someone has woken up a bit after contemplating their death, then we must remind them why we are Orthodox in the first place; and that is to pursue the healing of our Nous. Some fathers describe the Nous as the “eye of the soul”, the lens with which we perceive God, through the faculties of reason and sensory perception. However, since the Fall in the Garden, this eye of the soul—the Nous—as St. Paul has said—has been darkened.
The bottom line is we don’t want to pass into eternity without having received some measure of healing of our darkened Nous. That’s because the fathers tell us—if our Nous is not sufficiently healed—we risk experiencing God face to face—not as an eternal, peaceful, restful, light—beholding the ineffable beauty of His countenance—but, rather, as an all-consuming flame. As it is written, “all men shall see God.” We also know that there’s no repentance in the afterlife which means that this life is given to us for repentance.
So, first, we have remembrance of death, and second, the proper understanding of why we are Orthodox and what Orthodoxy is: the spiritual hospital for the healing or our darkened Nous! Indeed, the fathers tell us that the Church is spiritual hospital where we have the medicine of immortality – the Body and Blood of Christ.
It’s important to state here that it’s one thing to understand all of this intellectually, however, if a person does not reach this understanding, coupled with the experience of a longing for closeness to God, then chances are very high that one can indeed enter into the spiritual hospital while, at the same time, not actually engage the healing.
It’s through this state of longing that one can get to the fourth step, and that is heart-felt prayer with fear of an eternity separated from God—the kind of genuine prayer that will be a vehicle to bring us closer to God. From this sense of longing to experience closeness to God, we now have a renewed perspective when we read the scriptures, when we pray, when we attend services. We long also to join the Saints who are close to God. This should be the fragrance of our prayers at this stage – wanting what we don’t yet have, but knowing what is necessary for Salvation. This kind of “longing-for-God prayer” brings about the necessary sense of urgency. It’s the sharp ax that lays waste to the thick weeds that have grown over in the garden of our soul. Then, just as the feeling comes back to a frostbitten leg, so now does prayer once again begin to warm a cold, hardene— and previously disinterested—heart.
Then we can begin to experience what Evagrios the Solitary meant when he said that, “Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger. Prayer is the fruit of joy and thankfulness. Prayer is the remedy for gloom and despondency.” Surely, we all desire what Evagrios is describing, because from that place Liturgy can once again be worship; Vigil can once again be invigorating. Indeed, we first must be “fit for prayer”, and remembrance of death, and a sincere longing for God helps us to that end.
So, in closing, when we find ourselves starting to lose our fire, let us come to our senses, remembering that—like a thief in the night—death can surely come upon us. And as Fr. Seraphim Rose said, “It’s later than you think.”
The Good News Letter (GNL) is a labor of love of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC. MJ Dukas is the author unless otherwise noted. We send these letters to approximately 50 inmates free of charge, raising funds for postage and printing. Contact us at [email protected] or visit our parish website at https://www.stnicholasoc.org/. Donations of books, time, and financial support are always welcome. Want to help or start a prison ministry at your parish? Write us at: St. Dismas Prison Ministry PO Box 19616 Asheville, NC 28815.