“Miracles Take Time”: How the Jesus Prayer Heals Behind Bars

Fr. John Kowalczyk, OCPM Director of Training and Spiritual Care, has gotten used to seeing inmates at their absolute worst.When admitted to the Mental Health Unit (MHU) of Pennsylvania’s SCI Waymart, inmates have a complete break from reality. They are a danger to themselves and others.

“The day I met Ezra, he had written an expletive on his window in his own feces,” says Fr. John. “He got my attention, he was that desperate.” Fr. John spoke to Ezra the way he would speak to anyone in the MHU. “I’m Father John, an Orthodox priest. I’m praying for you. I want you to stay strong. Christ loves you.”

Fr. John Kowalczyk on the importance of small acts of attention.

In three months, Ezra had improved enough for Fr. John to be able to visit with him outside of his cell. “Ezra came out in handcuffs. I held his hands. I said, ‘I want to teach you this prayer called the Jesus Prayer, the Prayer of the Heart.’”

Ezra and Fr. John began praying the Jesus Prayer together every week, and Ezra’s mental condition started to improve. He was even transferred out of the MHU. But something else was happening, too. Ezra and Fr. John were growing closer together.

“The Prayer conditioned his heart, and it conditioned my heart to see him in the Light of Christ. I thought, ‘I have to incarnate love for him. Caress him with my eyes, hold him with my hands.’ I just kept reminding him, ‘Christ loves you, and obviously I love you.’”

Today, Ezra’s transformation has been so profound that the prison staff at SCI Waymart readily acknowledge him as a miracle. Recently, Fr. John found Ezra sitting in his cell with an Orthodox Prayer Book, praying the Daily Afternoon Office. Now, he attends Daily Vespers, which Fr. John regularly offers inside the prison.

“Ezra is a testament that anything is possible in Christ. But miracles take time. It’s not a show. You have to fill your mind with Christ, and your heart has to be broken. You have to allow the love of God to come in.”

Through the support of OCPM, Fr. John is able to meet with Ezra and other struggling inmates at SCI Waymart for over thirty years, establishing relationships that make miracles like this possible. Ezra confessed to Fr. John that he still has moments when he wants to hurt himself, but he feels the Prayer healing him. The work is not over, but look what is possible through Christ.

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