Prison Ministry Letter, Mon, Jul 30/ Aug 12 2013
[This is the contents of a letter sent to the men in prison whom I visit in prison. Personal references are removed.]
I am writing on Sunday (oops, actually now Mon morning), with the hopes that this jpay letter will reach you on Tue. I am healthy now, and just as stubborn as usual. I have not after effects from the Shingles, except an autograph on my forehead. No big deal. I appreciate your prayers, and the card that some of you sent from the Hughes unit. I showed my wife the card, and she was very touched, as was I. I suppose it is good to be reminded of one's mortality. but I was never really, really sick, although the pneumonia, before it was treated, made me feel pretty puny, and the shingles, while they were active, although the discomfort was minimal (especially for shingles!), made it impossible for me to be in groups of people that could get infected (Chicken pox, from which Shingles comes, is dangerous when an adult gets it). I went to the Michael unit last week, and then kayaked, and plan to come to the Hughes unit this week (on Wed, Aug 14). May God allow it.
The Dormition Fast begins this Wednesday (Aug 1/14 until Aug 15/28 - the 1st date is the church calendar day, and the 2nd is the date on the civil calendar, the one hanging on a typical wall in America, such as in "Joe's Garage"). I will chant the supplicatory canon to the Mother of God at church every day for this 14 day fast. This canon is in your prayer books. I recommend highly that you also read it during these 14 days. In this way, we will all be praying together, and this is a very powerful thing. I will explain about Dormition and the supplicatory canon when I see you, and write about it if I am able.
I also ask you to try as best you can to fast also. 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." Pro 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
Priest Seraphim Holland 2013 St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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