Fasting in the prison
Purpose in life
Extracts from a letter to a prisoner.
I visit two prisons in Texas twice a month each, and also try to correspond with everyone. I do the latter quite poorly, God help me. There is so little time, and therefore, when I write, I am a little terse. I try to write personalized things, and then include stuff I have written recently, in the pastoral journal and/of on the blog. Here is an excerpt from a recent letter.
On the road again... Somewhere on I-35 at 4 or 5 in the morning, on the way to prison.
If anyone feels moved to help our ministry in any way, please contact me. you can see a somewhat dated write-up and donation opportunity at http://www/orthodox.net/ministries/orthodox-prison-ministry.html. You can also send funds to St Nicholas Orthodox church, marked for prison ministry, at PO 37, McKinney TX 75070. I need someone who has Wednesday available, and can sing, so I can start serving the liturgy. Of course, we need funds (we have a prison ministry account, and I spend over $200.00/month just in gasoline, I also try to supply Jordanville prayer books, and have run out), and prayers (I will send first names only, with no prison affiliation, to those who ask). I have been writing to the guys more and more with "Jpay", which is a type of email. It is more expensive (one stamp per page, and when I write old fashioned letters, I print double-sided and squeeze in 6 to 8 pages for one stamp), but it gets the job done, as there is a lot of rigmarole to sending snail mail.
I have rcvd your mail, and am responding. I will be in a church camp this coming week (June 10-16), so I will miss the usual visit this Wednesday (June 10). Please tell anyone you know about this. I plan to send a few more letters to let people know. Please remember the date you rcv this letter via jpay. I am sending it Sat, June 8, about 1pm.
I will try to respond to your email and questions. I do not mean to be so formal, but I find that if I do not get down to business, the business does not get done, as I am a poor letter writer. I planned to write over a week ago, and here we are.
You write "there are many things I wish to explain but often seem to be of no assistance, or serve no purpose". I understand you, I think. Most of life is without purpose. Only Christ gives us purpose. Even those who call themselves Christian must struggle mightily to live with purpose. This is only accomplished with great effort, warm faith, deep humility, and of course, guided and helped by grace. There is an Orthodox ascetical term which applied here: "the remembrance of death". I will speak about it more; it is very important. It does not mean that we remember that we are going to die; it is a comparison of everything in the world and in our heart with God. Most things in the world and much in our heart is dead, without purpose. We must learn to see the difference. I will explain more later.
You also write about Great Lent and how this helps us "to become more truly human". That sounds like something I have written. I write and talk about this subject all the time, because
Christianity is not a legal system, or a set of doctrines, or anything else except a relationship with God. We were born to be like him (we were made in his image), and sin deformed that image. He made Adam and Eve truly human, but they became less than human because of sin. The only true human was Christ, and He became incarnate to restore our humanity.
This is exciting news! I do not like the weakness that is within me; I intuitively understand it to be beneath the human nature God intends me to have. I will include here a few things I have written (that I can remember) about being human. Let us never say as an excuse that "I am only human!" We are learning to be human, and the God-man, the true human being, is teaching us.
Here are some things about fasting. The "Why" is more important than the "How". We fast for some very good reasons. I will give a short outline below.
1. The Lord told us to fast. He did not order us in so many words, but the church has always understood His intent. He said: "Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? (15) And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." (Mat 9:14-15) It is obvious from context that He fully expects that we will fast after, He, the bridegroom, is not longer with us (after His Ascension, when He would no longer walk the earth and teach us in this way).
2. Fasting was always part of the Jewish tradition, and the Jewish religion became Christianity. We worship basically the same as the Jews - we have a sacrifice (Christ), we read the Psalter, we have vestments and a priesthood, we are always aware of the greatness of God, and we fast.
3. Fasting is needed to cast out the passions. This has always been in our mind - the mind of the church. The Lord taught this important skill when He explained to His disciples about the demoniac son: Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? (20) And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (21) Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." (Mat 17:19-21). He is talking mystically here about our passions, which are so firmly rooted in us that we must struggle greatly against them. In may ways, our passions act as a demon who possesses our will and has us do things we do not want to do, or at least weakly resist. This does not mean we are possessed by a demon, but we are enslaved to sin!
St Paul also discusses this terrible problem: "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. (15) For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. (16) If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. (17) Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (18) For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. (19) For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. (20) Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (21) I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. (22) For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: (23) But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (24) O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (25) I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin." (Romans 7:14-25)
4. We know by experience that fasting works.
This is enough about "Why" for right now.
The general rule for fasting is that for those who are physically able, on all fasting days (with only a few exceptions) we abstain from meat, fish, animal products of all kinds (eggs, milk, cheese, etc), olive oil (or all oil), and wine. the usual days are Wednesday and Friday, every week (with a few exceptions yearly).
You are in an exceptional situation. I recommend to you that you do not eat meat on Fasting days. According to your strength, abstain from other things too. If you can make commissary, I advise you to spend most of your money on rice and beans, peanut butter etc - things to eat on Fast days, so you do not go too hungry. I think this is a problem for you. Perhaps you can write to family for some help - if you are frugal, and buy in order to keep the fast (a little coffee too once in a while, after all, we are not barbarians! :)), you can stretch your funds. Even if you cannot make commissary, you will benefit greatly in your soul if you abstain from meat on Wed and Friday.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2013 St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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 I do not know where this picture was taken, but I have been to this exact type of prison many times. This is definitely a guard tower from one the twenty gabillion Texas prisons.