Years ago, I gave a retreat at a wonderful church. The retreat focused on God’s amazing love for people in prison and how He touched different lives in miraculous ways drawing them to Himself. I talked about things I had personally witnessed over my many years as a prison chaplain and how those men had begun to live lives of repentance following their Baptisms and Chrismations into the Orthodox Faith.
As I finished one of the sessions, I opened it up for questions or comments. An older gentleman stood up and shocked all of us with his words:
“I don’t believe a word of it. There is no forgiveness for those people in prison. They should be locked up and their doors welded shut!”
I responded to the man by asking him if he had any loved ones in prison and discussed how everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t matter how tarnished or covered with the mud that image and likeness becomes, they are still loved by God and they still have the opportunity to repent and become a child of God. The gentleman simply shook his head in disapproval and sat back down.
Over the years, I have heard similar statements many, many times. It seems there are many people that believe there is no forgiveness or hope of repentance for those in prison. To hold this view truly brings God down to the level of being simply a “super” human being that refuses to forgive and it misses the great love that God has for all of us, no matter how far we have strayed.
In my daily devotions, I came across this wonderful story this morning:
“In the time of the Emperor Maurice, there was a well-known bandit in the region around Constantinople. Both in the countryside and in the capital itself, he inspired fear and trembling. Then the Emperor himself sent him a Cross, as a pledge that he would not punish him if he gave himself up. The bandit took the Cross, and did indeed give himself up.
Arriving in Constantinople, he fell at the Emperor’s feet and begged his forgiveness. The Emperor kept his word, had mercy on him and let him go free. Immediately after that, the bandit fell gravely ill and sensed that death was near. He began to repent bitterly of all his sins, and implored God with tears to forgive him as the Emperor had. He shed many tears in his prayer, so the handkerchief with which he wiped them became soaked, and he died after ten days of prayerful weeping.
The night of his death, the doctor who had been attending him had a strange vision in a dream: When the bandit on the bed breathed his last, a number of demons gathered round him, flourishing bits of paper on which his sins were written, and two glorious angels also appeared. A pair of scales was placed in the middle, and the demons gleefully put all the bits of paper on it, and their side of the scales was loaded while the other was empty. ‘What can we put in?’ the angels asked each other. ‘Let’s look for something good in his life.’ Then there appeared in the hand of one of the angels the handkerchief soaked with tears of repentance. The angels quickly placed it on their side of the scales, and it at once outweighed the other side with all its papers. Then the demons fled, howling in anguish, the angels took the man’s soul and carried it to Paradise, glorifying God’s love for mankind.” (The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovc, Lazarica Press, Birmingham, 1986, Volume 4, page 81, October 18th)
May we never confuse God’s willingness to forgive sins with our own unwillingness to forgive others who have sinned. God’s invitation to repent of sins extends to everyone…including those precious souls in prisons. Indeed, some of our greatest saints were once murders, robbers, prostitutes, and more. Let us do our part in reaching out with the love of Christ to those in prison.
By Fr. Stephen Powley