Pastoral Letter to Prisoners. Eve of Great Lent, 2015

Prison Ministry News. 1

Purpose of Great Lent 1

Cheesefare Friday Feb 11/24 2012 Zech 8.7-14 Zech 8.19-23. 1

Zechariah 8:7-17 SIXTH HOUR.. 1

Zechariah 8:19-23 VESPERS. 1

Forgiveness Sunday Feb 13/26 2012  Rom 13.11-14.4 Mt 6.14-21. 2

We are going to do violence now. 2



From: Priest Seraphim Holland PO 37, McKinney Tx 75070. Date: Feb 21,2015

Dear Brothers:


Great Lent is almost upon us. This is a very important time of the year, and so this letter will be about it, but I also will include a test (if I have room in the envelope) I wrote for my grandchildren over Matthew, chapters 1-3. The eldest is in the equivalent of 5th grade (she is home-schooled), so you can see if you are "smarter than a fifth grader"! I hope you will answer the questions and give the test to me or mail it. I am not trying to work you to death! You can ask for help, read the chapters, and anything else you have at hand.

Prison Ministry News.

A little news first. The next person I have the privilege of baptizing will be the tenth. I am amazed at how this ministry has gone. In the early years, I just barreled down the highway with my hair on fire, barely knowing what I was going to do, and taking consolation in one of life's greatest truths: "90% of life is just showing up". I was working full time, writing sporadically, and visiting was very hard because of work requirements. Now I am living a life of ease, working only one day a week, and able to dedicate Wednesday to prison visits. I even write somewhat regularly. There were very lean years, but now we are in plentiful times. I know things are cyclical, but I like this part of the cycle better. It is good to see 8-12 smiling faces when I come! It is also wonderful to have some many other volunteers to come with me, and I am thrilled that Anna is writing to so many of you.

Purpose of Great Lent

I want to write to you first about the purpose of Great Lent. It is a time of year that exists because of our human nature. The unfortunate fact is that we humans cannot concentrate on holy things with intensity for a very long time. We lose attention and focus easily, and need a rest. We forget what is important in life, and sometimes just be-bop through the days and weeks. This is not good for us, and we must find ways to compensate for this weakness, which is shared by all Christians, except the most perfect.


Great Lent is a big part of that compensation. It is basically a tenth of the year - a "tithe". This is a time to read more spiritual things, pray more, and fast more. Great Lent consists of 6 full weeks, and then Holy Week, which is the week before Pascha (called "Easter" on Joe's Garage calendar, but we do not like to call our greatest feast of the year after some Babylonian god). I am excited at this time of year, because it is an opportunity to get better! I try to start "fast", by fasting strictly, and having services every day, and reading a lot during the day. There is a kind of spiritual "zone" I get in, and I try to see everything more spiritually. Inevitably, I will slow down, but still, past experience has shown me than the momentum I created during the first week will carry me throughout the fast. I have always seen a correlation between my intensity during the fast, and how much the resurrection fills me on Pascha.


My first piece of advice to you is to start with great effort. Fast as much as you can, and be sure to read ALL the readings prescribed. I will include a list with this letter.


My second piece of advice is to have a goal! My goal is always the same. I want to, in some way, be better and know God better. I want to get rid of, as the Apostle Paul says: "the sin that so easily entangles us". I want to see through the glass LESS darkly. I never fully reach my goal, but I am getting there in little steps!


I love Great Lent, because it is a time to be really honest about myself. This makes me feel free. Our services help immensely with this, because they constantly talk about our sinfulness AND  certain hope for redemption in the SAME BREATH! If we learn to pray as the prodigal son, and the publican, we will be empowered to become perfect. There aint nothing in the world greater than this.


Here is something I wrote some time ago about the reading in the week before Great Lent. It repeats and amplifies what I said above.

Cheesefare Friday Feb 11/24 2012 Zech 8.7-14 Zech 8.19-23       

Zechariah 8:7-17 SIXTH HOUR

Here are your marching orders for Great Lent. This is especially the time to learn this:


“These then are the things, which you shall do: Speak ye truth every one to his neighbor: judge ye truth and judgment of peace in your gates. 17 And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his friend: and love not a false oath: for all these are the things that I hate, saith the Lord.”  (Zechariah 8:16-17)


There is a glimpse here of the inner life of man, and how everything begins with thought. If you change the way you think you will change and rise to perfection.

Zechariah 8:19-23 VESPERS

Here is explained the purpose of fasting – to change, and love truth and peace. Without struggle for righteousness, fasting means nothing


“Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.” (Zech 8:19)


Let's, you and I, make a pact. Let's struggle together to be men who love truth and peace. Let's fast together, and pray together, and EXPECT together that the Lord will help us to attain our most deeply held spiritual desires.


This coming Sunday is called "Forgiveness Sunday". The next day is "Clean Monday", the first day of Great Lent. Unfortunately, my timing is not great, since you will get this letter after Lent has already started, but nonetheless, I hope you benefit from my poor words. The following is a homily I gave on a Forgiveness Sunday

Forgiveness Sunday Feb 13/26 2012  Rom 13.11-14.4 Mt 6.14-21

We are going to do violence now.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.[i]


Today is the Sunday of Forgiveness, and it is also the day we enter Great Lent.  After we pray the Vespers service of Forgiveness early this afternoon, we will then be in the Holy Fast.  Why is it that we fast?  We have a blueprint for our life, and why we fast, in the Gospel today. 


Today is also interesting, because we are also commemorating the Finding of the Head of the Forerunner, and so we have this additional Gospel reading that has much richness in it. I want to quickly focus on one thing that it said:


"… the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."[ii]


We are going to do violence now.  We are setting out on a path of doing violence to the violent one.  We are casting that which is corrupt within us, and the Church has given us a path to do so. 


Our Lord said, first of all, "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you."[iii] 


First and foremost in the Christian life is to forgive.   To forgive is to be like God - because God forgives all.  God loves all, without any respect for persons.  So when we forgive, we are participating in the energy of God.  We are acting like God!  And indeed, that is what we are to do.  In the scripture it says, "Ye are gods"[iv].  We are to act like gods.  We are to acquire virtue, compassion, holiness, yea, even perfection, because the scriptures also say, "Be ye perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect"[v].


So one must become like unto God, and the first step is to forgive.


And He says, "But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."[vi]


This is actually a promise and a threat, but the promise is so much more powerful than the threat.  Oh, yes, if you do not forgive, you won't be saved.  If you hold grudges, even though someone has harmed you greatly in this life, you won’t be saved, because, over and over, the Church says, the Holy Scripture says, the saints say, the Holy Spirit says: forgive, forgive, forgive.


And if you do forgive, what will happen?   You will see Christ.  You won’t be corrupt anymore.  You'll have peace, you'll have rest.  The promise is greater than the threat.  Absolutely.


And then He gives us some counsel about fasting. 


"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."[vii]


These are among the most terrible words in all of scripture: "They have their reward."  This life, this life of corruption, and foul odors, and difficulties, and sadness and strife, and tempests - that is where they have their reward.  These are terrible words.  So if you want your reward now, God will give it to you.  You can be as a hypocrite, you can make it appear that you are holy, and some people will say, "Isn't that remarkable what he is doing.  I could not do that.  He must be filled with the Holy Spirit."  But if you have the reward only now, your life is a total waste.


Then He tells us, in a figure through the glass darkly, as it were, what our reward will be.  He says,


"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: {20} But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: {21} For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."[viii] 


Do you know what we have been promised?  The entire world tells us a story of death, dying, difficulties, passions and sadness - all the world.  No matter how rich a man becomes, the world is a difficult place because within, there is a pitched battle.  And a man with a conscience is not at peace with who he is.  He wants to become better.  The whole world is corrupt, all we ever see. 


But what does He say?  "If you lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven, they do not corrupt.  They will last forever."  These are amazing thoughts here: Forever.  No corruption. Full of satisfaction, peace, rest. 


I do not have a day that I am at rest.  There is not a day that I do not endure sadness.  There is not a day that I do not sin.  But there will be a day, in the eighth day, if I struggle now, and also, if you struggle, that we will be in the presence of God.  The mind cannot conceive and understand what this means, because all we see is corruption, and everything changes.  It is so hard to stay good.  Things change all the time, and so often, it seems, for the worse.  But our Lord and Savior is telling us, If we lay up treasures for ourselves now, in heaven they will not corrupt.  We won't corrupt!"


The evidence is all there, even though the world constantly countermands and slanders that evidence, every single day of our life, but we know the truth!  And this is why we are entering upon the Fast.  Because we want to lay up treasures in heaven, and we want to win the kingdom of Heaven by violence - violence against our passions, violence against that which saddens us - that part of us which is incomplete.  We want to cast it out, so that we can be filled.  That's why we fast. 


The reason one must forgive is because the task in our life is to become like God, to be filled with Him, and to become like Him morally - to share in the energies of God.  His love for us will transfigure us and make us incorrupt.  And a man cannot become incorrupt, he cannot become like God, if fundamentally he disavows himself from that most fundamental aspect of God: God is love.  Love forgives.  Love forgives seventy times seven times; love forgives infinite times.  No matter how great the transgression, the forgiveness is greater.


This is why we begin Great Fast with Forgiveness ceremony.  No, it is not just a ceremony.  Every man who looks into his heart sees that he falls short with every breath he takes, and that he wrongs every man.  If you see one of your brothers or sisters, and they have a difficulty, some conflict in their marriage, or with their children or with some substance or some other such thing - we all fall into difficulties - you should berate yourself and say, "Have I prayed for my brother?  Have I done something to help my brother?  Is it possible that he or she is in peril because of my incompetence?"  That's why we ask forgiveness of one another, even if we have not exactly offended everyone specifically.  But then again there might be grudges that need to be settled today, too, and we must do this if we wish to enter into the Fast.


The Apostle says, "And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. "[ix] 


This is the time.  The church sets aside this time, this tithe, or tenth, of the year, so that we would be able to intensify and remember who we are, and who God is, and change.  The first step is to forgive, and then we proceed with the Fast.  And I tell you it will be difficult.  I have been through seventeen of them, and all of them were difficult.

 We all have our different temptations.  One is tempted to eat meat.  Another is tempted to be angry.  Another is tempted to fall into despondency.  Another is tempted in another way.  As many souls as there are, so many temptations are there.  But we struggle together as a community praying for one another and fasting and believing that there is a reward and that it is permanent. 


Nothing in this life - nothing - is permanent, and we are living for permanence.  And when I think of these thoughts, it makes it a bit easier to abstain from this food or that, or to make more prostrations, or to forgive my brother, even when he has harmed me, even when he has hurt me purposefully, because everything in this life is going away, except for how we have lived.  The way we have lived, if it is holy, is going to endure. Amen.



Here is another little thing I wrote about fasting. I have written so much stuff, that my letters to you are often a bunch of stuff cobbled together. I know it does not always "flow", but I am relying on the rule of letter writing, which is a corollary to the rule of life and ministry: "90% of letter writing is getting it done!". When I cobble stuff together, the letter gets done more quickly.


Please observe the fast in someway. If you have money for commissary, peanut butter and beans will help a lot, and if you have no other protein sources, then fast as best you can according to the spirit of the fast. I know you have few choices, but nevertheless, fasting is greatly beneficial to the soul.


The typical fasting we do on a "fast day" is to refrain from eating animal products (meat, fish, milk products, eggs), olive oil and alcoholic beverages. The latter two are no problem, I am sure, but in prison, they serve mostly things that resemble animal products! In the free world, a person has many choices - we are always allow to eat non-finned seafood (like shrimp, clams, etc), and peanut butter, nuts, beans, rice, and lentils and even quinoa are easy to come by. The diet may be a bit monotonous, but it never killed anyone. If you have no other protein source, and cannot abstain because of health reasons, then you can make choices like not using cream in your coffee, or not using condiments on that thing (I saw it once!) they call a chicken patty. Talk to me about this too.


Why do we fast? It is because we are aware that we need healing, and fasting is something that helps us be healed of our passions. Jesus clearly expected that his disciples would fast after He ascended into heaven: "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)


I try to look at things simply. Jesus expected it, and even prophesied it, so I do it. Jesus established His church to guide us, and the wisdom of the church is from the mind of Christ. If the church teaches it, I do it.


If I fully understand it, that is great, but a hidden bit of wisdom that people in our world do not understand is this - understanding comes AFTER obedience. We are disobedient people - we constantly are concerned with ourselves, and rely on our own understanding. This is always a bad thing to do. We must rely on God for all things, and obeying Him regarding fasting, which His church teaches, is a superb fist and ongoing step.


"Trust in the LORD with all Thine heart; and lean not unto Thine own understanding." Proverbs 3:5 


So, plain and simple, I fast because I am a Christian, and my Savior expects me to do it.


I suppose obedience to someone other than ourselves is the first and best reason to fast. This helps us to defeat self-reliance, which is a product of pride and vanity, which assails almost every human being on the earth.


Fasting is something that we normally do twice a week (Wed and Fri all but about 4 weeks of the year), and is something that we CAN do.


I have learned a really important bit of wisdom over the years, that has served me and those I have counseled well. It is summed up in the aphorism:


"Always do the things you CAN do, so you can learn to do the things you CANNOT do". This sums up the Christian life - we should always be learning and improving.


There are many things we cannot do - control our thoughts, pray with attention, love everyone with a pure heart, etc. In each individual there are sins, passions and habits that are very hard to eradicate - these are things we CANNOT do consistently. In every individual there also things that are easier to do, that are also important in the Christian life. For me, fasting is one of those things.  I hope it will also be so for you.


There are other things that a particular individual CAN do - perhaps you are consistent in reading the Scriptures, or attending the services, going to confession regularly, having communion, or saying your morning prayers, or praying for others. If this is the case, then you will make great progress in EVERYTHING if you obediently do the things that you are capable of doing.


THIS WORKS! One of my most important goals as a pastor is to get people to believe it, to "sign on" to the idea if you will. I hope you "sign on", and seek the wisdom of God to know which things you CAN consistently do, even if they take a little effort.


In my pastoral experience, the person who makes the greatest progress in the spiritual life is the one who is consistent in *something*. The one who makes very little progress is consistent in nothing, or almost nothing. Each person must find the things they CAN do, and do them. Nothing is too small, if you can be consistent in doing it. Even something as small as always taking out the garbage each morning, or doing the dishes even if you have not dirtied them, if you do it consistently, and without complaining, and offer it to God as a sacrifice, will really help you in EVERYTHING.


Other reason to fast are that consistent fasting helps us remember God and our purpose. We are born to be spiritual beings, to think in spiritual ways. When speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus told him:


"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.  (12)  If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" (John3:11-12).


We are earthly in our ways and habits. It takes work and practice to he "heavenly". Fasting helps focus us on heavenly things.


Fasting is in no way a repudiation of pleasure. Food is pleasurable, and it is good to enjoy it, but it is still an earthly thing. 


Abstinence from certain foods teaches us self control and to think spiritually. Self control gained from fasting will extend to self-control in everything in life, especially in the most important area - our thoughts.


If we think rightly, everything is right with us. All sin starts with thought, and controlling thoughts is one of the greatest accomplishments of a Christian. We learn to control our thoughts from self-control in easier things (like fasting - no matter how hard it is for someone to fast, controlling what we eat is infinitely easier than controlling our thoughts, which is often like trying to catch the wind).


Fasting also helps greatly with the really difficult thoughts, those "hot" thoughts which are very hard to control, such as lust, anger, judgment of others, jealousy, etc.


Jesus taught that fasting is needed to get rid of "this kind" of thoughts when He said:


"... This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting." (Mark 9:29)


He was answering the disciple's question about why they were unable to cast a demon out of a boy. He answered first that is was because of their lack of faith, and followed by telling them about fasting. The juxtaposition of those things (faith and fasting) is important! The church knows that fasting will increase our faith.


We also understand the Lord's words about "this kind" to also refer mystically to the passions that "possess" all of us. All of us are slaves to passions, because the nature of sin is that it always enslaves us. We were born to be free from sin, and it is clear to those who fast with effort, diligence and expectation, that fasting helps immensely in this.


We all have bad days, and sometimes bad weeks, or months. We get lazy, or depressed, or out of sorts. I have found that fasting is a kind of "anchor" for me. I may have a terrible day - I may not have prayed as I should - I may have had trouble controlling my thoughts - but I have at least fasted, and offered God something! This is not anything to be proud of, like the Pharisee, who boasted that he "fasted twice in the week", but it is something that keeps me "attached" in some way to God.


I have fasted according to the teaching of the church for over 30 years, and I am glad for it. I would not want to know myself if I had never fasted. I am not a continent man, and do not always control my thoughts, or have attentive prayer, but over the years, things have gotten much better, and fasting is like an old friend now, who supports me and helps me get through things when things are tough.


My experience as a pastor is definitely that those who fast consistently have much more self-control and a more "even" spiritual life, instead of the "ups and downs" that most people experience. I want you all to have this stability and comfort too, and that is why I encourage you to fast.



What we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from spiritual reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. - St. John Cassian


Prayer and reading are excellent; they stop the aimless wandering of thoughts, shackle the thought which turns on useless things and keep it close by them with profit, occupied without distraction by this excellent doing.' St. Nilus of Sinai


Do not say to me that I fasted for so many days, that I did not eat this or that, that I did not drink wine, that I endured want; but show me if thou from an angry man hast become gentle, if thou from a cruel man hast become benevolent. If thou art filled with anger, why oppress thy flesh? If hatred and avarice are within thee, of what benefit is it that thou drinkest water? Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven. - St. John Chrysostom


As a flame of fire in dry wood, so too is a body with a full belly. - St. Isaac the Syrian


Whosoever rejects the fasts, deprives himself and others of weapons against his own much-suffering flesh and against the devil, who have power over us especially as the result of our intemperance. St. John of Kronstadt


O brethren, as ye take up the spiritual fast, speak no deceit with your tongue, neither put a stumbling block in the way of your brother as an occasion for him to fall: but by repentance let us trim the lamp of our soul, that with tears we may cry unto Christ Forgive us our transgressions, since Thou art the Friend of man.

Vespers of Wednesday of the Second Week of Great Lent


Let us love that fasting of the soul which, by the cooperation of the Spirit, doth wither the grievous passions and doth strengthen us to do godly deeds, and doth uplift our mind towards Heaven, and doth obtain our sins' forgiveness, grant unto us by the compassionate God. Triodion, Monday Vespers of the Third Week


I want to write you more, but if I keep writing I will not get to the mailing. So I will stop here, and assure you of my poor prayers for you every day. Please write me when you can. I do my best to respond to personal letters. I am getting better at this! God bless you and help you in all things.


This document is at:

[i] This homily was transcribed from one given in 1999, on the Sunday of Forgiveness, the last Sunday before Great Lent.  There are some stylistic changes and minor corrections made and several footnotes have been added, but otherwise, it is essentially in a colloquial, “spoken” style.


It is hoped that something in these words will help and edify the reader, but a sermon read from a page cannot enlighten a soul as much as attendance and reverent worship at the Vigil service, which prepares the soul for the Holy Liturgy, and the hearing of the scriptures and the preaching of them in the context of the Holy Divine Liturgy.  In such circumstances the soul is enlightened much more than when words are read on a page.

[ii] Mat 11:12, partial

[iii] Mat 6:14

[iv] Psalm 82:6, Isaiah 41:23, John 10:34

[v] (Mat 5:48)  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

[vi] Mat 6:15

[vii] Mat 6:16

[viii] Mat 6:19-21