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A Thanksgiving Message from Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.” Psalm 107:1

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We would like to wish you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving!

Amidst this difficult and challenging year, we still have so much for us to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season. Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry is forever thankful to all of our supporters, especially during this pandemic, ensuring that those in prison and jails can continue to receive Christ and His Church.

Our brothers and sisters in prisons and jails write to us every day saying how thankful they are for this ministry and all who are a part of it. Through your support, an orthodox presence is possible and we are able to accomplish Christ’s commandment to ‘visit Him’ in prison.

“Wanted to take a moment to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your supportive cards and letters. You cannot imagine how much it helps a prisoner who has lost everything to hear consistently from a group of God’s people that never judge, never criticize, but offer support, love, and kindness. THANK YOU so very much!”

While the holiday season can be especially trying for families with an incarcerated loved one, Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry tries to fill that void with the love of Christ. Our experience and guidance ensures the church is well equipped and trained to provide the emotional and spiritual support required for the entire family.

“God bless you all. I am so very thankful to you all and my
kids too. They have seen a big difference in my life thanks to you all.
They told me to tell you thank you for all you have done and the
difference you have made in my life.”

As we end this year strong, we give thanks to the Lord for all the lives that have been transformed by His grace. Though we are unworthy servants, we humbly carry His light into the darkest of places so Christ and His church are never removed from one’s life during their incarceration. We also give thanks to God for all those who generously provide for this ministry so we may continue to do His work.

In Christ,

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

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“ The Meal” By: James (Seraphim) Blackstock

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From Behind the Desk to Behind Bars

From Behind the Desk to Behind Bars

By Paul Politis

OCPM Director of Operations Paul Politis describes his first experience visiting a jail.

It was a cold and rainy Thursday morning when I met Father Nicholas Solak at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I had traveled to the seminary to make my first visit to a jail. Fr Nicholas introduced me to the group that I would be accompanying: seminarians, priests and Master of Divinity students. We packed up into a few cars and headed off. On the way to the jail, Father Nick discussed how he became involved with prison ministry and the great need for it across the country. He explained to me what to expect and told me not to be nervous. I was nervous, but I kept a reserved manner. I didn’t know what else to do. Would it be like television makes it out to be, or would it be worse? Despite my fears, I knew that this visit was a necessary one, and that it would help me understand more deeply the important ministry of OCPM.

Father Nick pulled into the jail parking lot and advised me to leave everything in the car except for my driver’s license. We stepped out of Father’s vehicle and proceeded to the first security checkpoint, a guard booth surrounded by high chain-linked fences and razor wire. We checked in and walked toward the jail, which was similar to walking through a college campus—green lawn, well manicured, and the building looked somewhat like dormitories that you would find at large universities. We arrived at the main building and entered to go through the next security clearance. I approached the main desk with three corrections officers behind it. They asked for my name and identification. They cleared my paperwork, took a photo, and provided me a visitor’s pass. The last part of the security clearance was having everyone proceed through a metal detector. Once my group was cleared, we proceeded to the jail’s chapel.

The walk to the jail’s chapel was an eye opening experience. To enter the jail you must enter a containment area and wait for a large steel sliding door to open; once it opens you enter the main vestibule of the jail. In this area, you’ll find the mailroom and other administrative offices. Once we entered this area, Father Nick told us to make a left and walk to another set of steel doors. As I turned, reality hit me. Two burly men were sitting behind the door we need to pass through, wearing orange jump suits. I was getting anxious and didn’t know how they would react to our group’s presence, but once we passed them, I soon got my answer. The two men saw Father Nick and our group and said, “Good afternoon Father! Good to see you all! God Bless!” It was the most unexpected yet wonderful greeting I had received in my life. At this point, our group continued down the hallway and passed other inmates. At first glance these men seemed intimidating, but the moment eye contact was made, they were very welcoming. We passed another security checkpoint and were directed towards the chapel.

The chapel was a large recreational room with chairs, a podium, a piano, and wood carvings of the Cross, Star of David, and the crescent moon and star. The group arranged the chairs in a large circle and heard the announcement over the PA system that Bible Study was beginning and being held in the chapel. Within a few minutes about 25 men came, some with Bibles in hand, ready to start this week’s session. Father Nick started off with a prayer and then one of the students proceeded to discuss the day’s lesson on Forgiveness and Forgetting. After reading a parable and reviewing some discussion questions, we divided into smaller discussion groups. Each group was composed of three people from the seminary and ten inmates.

When I joined my group, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves. One inmate pulled up his sleeve to show off his tattoo which spelled out Bam. The seminarians didn’t understand what it meant, but I understood that Bam was his nickname on the street. I asked the man what his real name was and he hesitated, but then said to the group, “My name is Dimitri.” He put his head down, but I immediately said that it was a really cool name because one of the best known saints in the Church shares the same name. The man looked up in awe and disbelief. He was amazed that he had a connection to a saint! I sensed that everyone in the group wanted to speak and discuss what was on their minds. The group became further interested in our discussion and all felt more comfortable in joining in. When our time was finally up, our visiting group had to make its way back to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

The men we met really enjoy these Bible Study sessions and the chance to interact with the clergy and seminarians. The visits give them something to look forward to every week and provide a connection to the outside world, as well as a connection to a community that truly believes in forgiveness and repentance. They had so many questions and wanted to learn more about the Orthodox Christian Faith. I wish that we had had more time for our visit and that we had more clergy to help answer their questions.

Through my visit, I saw firsthand that people in prison, like all of us, have spiritual needs that they long to have filled. That’s why OCPM is so vital. I am planning more visits to jails and prisons, and I hope clergy and laity will join me.

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A Life Transformed

After 15 years in federal prison—including 22 hour-a-day lockdowns at Supermax facilities—Clark Porter achieved what was once unimaginable: a scholarship to Washington University, two university degrees, a full-time position with the US District Court, and a stable family life. And that’s not even the most incredible part of the story.

Fr. Stephen Powley can laugh about it now. At the time, his early encounters with Clark Porter weren’t funny. Fr. Stephen was a prison chaplain; Clark was serving a sentence for robbing a federal post office. “I used to dread walking down Clark’s range,” Fr. Stephen says, referring to his weekly visits. “I knew he would be livid with me and would cuss me out, I just didn’t know why.”

Clark admits he was an angry man when Fr. Stephen met him. Though it wasn’t yet obvious, he was trying to change, to turn around a young life that had gotten a troubled start. The sixth of seven children, he was raised first by his mother, then his grandmother, and then put into foster care at age eight. After bouncing around the foster care system, he skipped out at fifteen. Two years later he and a friend robbed a post office in downtown St. Louis, making off with little more than $600 and stamps. In 1987, at age 17, Clark was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

He could have been paroled early in 1999, but two years were added on for bad conduct. As he neared his release, he was determined to be ready. He was reading whatever he could—books on self-help and anger management, teachings on Hinduism, Buddhism, mysticism, and Islam. And he was praying. He was looking, he says, for a faith he could hold on to. Christianity was not a possibility. “I hated it,” he says. Convinced it was exploitative, he saw it as “We get the land, you get the Bible.”

Yet for all his searching, he had hit a wall. About the same time, a man was transferred from another section of the prison to the cell next to his. He was a Buddhist who, through long conversations with Fr. Stephen, had converted to Orthodox Christianity while in prison, taking the baptismal name Zacchaeus. Clark began confiding in him, telling him how he was feeling. Zacchaeus told Clark he was suffering from “coolness of heart.”

“When Zacchaeus was moved

[to the cell] next to Clark, it was one of those divine appointments that God has for somebody,” says Fr. Stephen. “It was Zacchaeus who God used to show Clark how Orthodoxy could help him.”Zacchaeus began recommending Orthodox books for Clark to read and Fr. Stephen provided him the books from the Chapel library. Clark says his introduction to Orthodoxy wasn’t watered down. “I read the patristic fathers. It was straight to the heart of it.” One of the first books he read was the classic Unseen Warfare. He had to keep stopping and contemplating what he was reading, because the book hit him so hard. One book led to another: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Philokalia, writings by St. John Chrysostom, and books on the Jesus Prayer.

“I did a lot of reading,” he says. “I would read an hour of an Orthodox book and then an hour of the Bible. My goal was to read the Bible in a year and I did. And then I started it over again.” He says reading the Bible and Orthodox books gave him focus. He was no longer raging at Fr. Stephen, seeking counsel from him instead. He began fasting, and he read the prescribed Orthodox prayers five times a day, beginning with matins in the morning. When people ask him today why he’s not a big football fan, he points to his prayer rule. His steadfastness to the prayer rule meant he had to miss watching Sunday morning football games. “I couldn’t do both,” he says.

Eventually Clark sought to be baptized. But with his release date drawing near, Fr. Stephen wanted him to wait and be baptized within an Orthodox community in St. Louis. “Orthodoxy isn’t just a matter of joining a denomination. It’s a way of life and community. If he was going to be in prison another 10 years, it would have been different and his baptism would have taken place there,” Fr. Stephen says. Clark wrote to a few Orthodox churches; one didn’t write back, another sent him books and told him to be in touch when he got out.

Once out of prison, he started calling those same churches. He was concerned how they might react, both to his felony conviction and to him as an African American. He called one church and explained his situation to the priest. On the other end of the line, dead silence. Clark thanked him and hung up. Undeterred, he looked in the phone book and realized that St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a mile from the halfway house where he was staying. He called and was put through to the priest. As he began to explain his situation, the priest cut him off. “Just come to church,” he said. So he did. There he met the woman who would become his Godmother. She wasn’t concerned with Clark’s background either. She too kept telling him, “Come to church.” He was baptized in 2002, six months after his release. He knew the St. Nicholas community had accepted him when, in the kitchen during the Church’s annual festival, one of the women yelled at him for getting in her way. Seeing the shock on Clark’s face, she retorted, “You better get used to it, because you’re with the Greeks now.”

Though he’s been a parishioner at St. Nicholas for years, he’s still moved by the trust the church showed him from the beginning. For the first two years he served in the altar, wanting to “understand the Liturgy from a personal level.” And he teaches Sunday School to the first graders. “They never cared about my situation,” he says, still marveling that they never judged him for being an ex-felon. The church gave him money from its scholarship fund every year to help him through college. And every year the church continues to show their support by making donations to the US Federal Probation Office where Clark works, donating appliances, clothing, gift cards, and toys in support of men and women who’ve recently been released from prison.

The church may have trusted Clark, but trust in himself and God played a role, too. His first job out of prison was washing dishes in a restaurant. The environment wasn’t a good one—the staff was using drugs and hiring prostitutes. The owner was verbally abusive, something Clark couldn’t tolerate. “I got two choices,” he told himself. Quit, or wind up back in prison. So he did the former, and had faith that something would work out. When his Godmother questioned his wisdom he told her, “I’ll find a new job within the week.”

Days later, on campus at the community college where he was taking courses, he learned of a work study opportunity through another student. Clark approached the woman who was hiring and explained his situation. She lectured him for having quit his job, but she gave him a chance. She understood where he was coming from; her husband was in jail. That led to part-time jobs on campus, including as a writing tutor.

Not long after that, a professor at the college, impressed with Clark’s writing, showed it to a dean at Washington University. The university offered Clark a scholarship. In 2006 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn a master’s in social work from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Since 2009 he has been a project support specialist for the Probation Office of the US District Court—the very office he was released to in 2001—where he helps ex-offenders transition into their new lives. He and a colleague created an intensive supervision program, Project Re-Direct, which targets offenders who are at high-risk of returning to prison. The program demands a 20-hour a week commitment from participants, requiring them to engage in GED courses, job readiness, counseling, and community service. The theory is that intensive and comprehensive support is needed to reduce recidivism. Project Re-Direct has had impressive results, with one of the highest success rates of any program of its kind in the country.

Working with men who’ve been released from prison, Clark understands their struggles. For all his success, he is deeply humble and doesn’t see himself as special. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he says. “I always relied on church and family,” explaining how he made it once he was released. “I’ve had a lot of grace in my life.”

July 24, 2013 / C. Loizos

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Your Opinion Counts!— Or Does It?

Monasteries run into various problems with the internet, but let’s not try to unravel that mess right now. Maybe another time. Right now I’d like to mention just one thing in that connection because it provides a good example of what we leave behind—or at least we should—when we commit ourselves to a life according to the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The internet, you see, can ease our fall into temptation. No, I’m not going to talk about the temptation to look at pornography. Still other temptations abound. Let’s look at one that might appear harmless. One that seems, well… ordinary. In reality it poses a serious threat to the life we have chosen. Funny thing—we don’t subscribe to magazines and newspapers here, we don’t listen to the radio or watch tv, and yet the internet delivers everything they contain. Curiosity about current events and recent controversies, though, distracts us from the life in Christ. The news items alone would create a big enough problem. So would the ads, all by themselves. But the real threat to our efforts at ego-free living in communion with God and our brothers ambushes us from another angle. Along with each story come opinions about it, and an invitation to each of us to submit our own. As a result, we try to resist the temptation to toss in our two cents’ worth about current events, scandals, legal cases, and issues of ethics, taste, and common sense— tax cuts for the rich, the poor, and the middle class, which of two actresses looks prettier in a particular dress, bullying and how to handle it, insensitive remarks and cruel deeds by famous people or average citizens, slips of the tongue by politicians, lovers’ quarrels between singers or athletes, whether movies or popular music have gotten better or worse over the last decade or two, behavior to avoid or adopt in the workplace or while driving down the highway or while texting or e-mailing or while out on a date. We try to resist the temptation to voice our opinion about newly introduced goods and services, how to clean the kitchen or bathroom, economic and political crises, and plenty of other topics. I find all these things and more on the program that hosts my e-mail service. And below each news item the comments begin—pro and con about all or part of the story, and then for and against the other comments. They want my opinion, too. They beg me for it. And they make it easy. Underneath the comments already expressed they solicit my opinion with the note “post a comment.” They have pre-loaded it with my name and everything! They care what I think! If I didn’t know better, I might regard this as a chance to let people who I am and what I stand for. I do feel the temptation. Hold on a minute, though. I’m going to say something alarming. It originates in monastic spirituality. Apply it to your own life if it works for you. Here it is: Nobody needs my opinion, not even me. Especially not me. If I think of myself as the sum of my opinions, I remove myself from the life in Christ. And although we tend to believe

that we know someone when we learn their opinions, or that we become friends when our opinions agree, it really isn’t true. With all the trading back and forth of opinions, we remain distant from one another. We remain strangers. These revelations shocked me when I first heard them. I can still recall our abbot saying, “Monks don’t need opinions.” He said that over and over, probably because we didn’t accept it right away. But after that initial shock, over time I grasped its wisdom. It has to do with letting go of superficial things for the sake of the more essential. From the standpoint of eternity, my opinions don’t matter. Someone who becomes a monk or a nun begins to discard opinions by taking the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. We don’t specifically vow to give up our opinions. But it occurs as we take our vows seriously. Poverty doesn’t reduce to non-possession. We can possess little and still miss the mark of spiritual poverty. If the passion of avarice—the desire for things— still dominates me, I am not living a life of poverty. And a lot of my opinions in a consumerist society consist in a taste for this and a taste for that, a preference for one product or service over another, this sense of style as opposed to that. In a life of poverty, I abandon everything—including opinions—that attaches me to acquiring stuff. Chastity means more than disavowing sex and romance. When I get curious about which actress is prettier, wonder about the opinion of other men on the subject, and feel an urge to express my own, I am toying with the stuff I have supposedly renounced. Along with our vow of chastity, we cast aside opinions like that. They don’t play a part in the vowed life. If I’m not chasing girls, I don’t have to have opinions about which girls to chase or how to do it. Can I dedicate myself to obedience and still cling to my opinions? Probably not. Letting go of opinions here comes especially hard to a lot of us. We’d like to be obedient because it makes us look pious and spiritual, but at the same time we reserve the right to evaluate our abbot, judge our spiritual father, and criticize anyone else placed in authority over us. More opinions that have to go. And how about stability? Well, let’s take a glance at what happens “out in the world” and the purpose served by the vow of stability. In regular life as we know it, if I hate my job, I quit and look for another. If my friends bother me, I drop them and move in different circles. If my neighbor’s dog barks all the time, I relocate. My vow of stability, though, urges me to see my opinions in a different light. Instead of regarding them as an expression of who I am, I regard them merely passions to overcome. I stick with the monastic life through thick and thin, because my vow to God to stay put carries more weight than my opinions about people and things around me. My opinions do not really matter. They do not express who I really am, not deep down. From the standpoint of eternity, my opinions are part of that trash and pollution floating on top of the river that is me. I do not lose anything essential by getting rid of them. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3: 1-3). So do my opinions count? Nope. Not for anything important. I can renounce them without losing what matters. And in fact I must renounce them in order to get on with what matters.

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Summer is a-coming in

Summer certainly is a-coming in.  Here at the Monastery of St. John we aren’t singing cuckoo, but we are seeing many new faces in church, the kitchen, the candle factory, the soap factory, the garden, and the living quarters.  Springs the wood anew at this time of year, and springs the brotherhood anew as well, at least for the months of summer.

Groweth seed, yes, and eager hands set to work in the garden, with tiller, hoe, shovel, and pruning shears.  Those hands cultivate and harvest the produce of the land, which they then bring to the table.  Bloweth mead, and our summer crew head to the mead where the flowers blow—or to the meadow where flowers bloom, to put it in more modern terms—to tend our little winged brothers the bees, who provide honey for our food and wax for making candles.  Oh, yes, and speaking of candles, our summer novices take up their shifts in the candle factory, too, and they help in manufacturing soap.  You see, we enjoy a special influx of eager young men every year during these months who arrive for what we call the “summer novice program.”

The program does them good, it does us good, and it does good to the Orthodox Church at large.

In this way our monastery offers the participants an opportunity to try out our way of life without first renouncing everything.  Don’t let the program title mislead you.  The young men who come for part of the summer do not become novices in the ordinary sense.  Instead, the program offers them a taste of the monastic life without quite the commitment of a regular novice.  In that consists its attraction, because it’s not all or nothing.  These men, typically on vacation from high school or college, stay for various periods of time, from a few weeks to a few months.

A summer novice participates in the life of the brotherhood, but without being incorporated as fully into it as a regular novice.  For example, we don’t clothe him in a cassock with sandals, belt, and skoufia, although he does live among the monks rather than in the guest house.  In venerating the icons, he comes just after the regular monks and novices and before the guests.  He also attends many of the gatherings the brotherhood has apart from the guests.  Naturally we assign him obediences just like members of the brotherhood.  He gets housekeeping duties on the one hand such as setting and clearing the tables, assisting the cooks, washing dishes, and sweeping and mopping floors.  On the other hand he takes up tasks such as maintaining the garden and riding into town along with one of the monks for grocery shopping.  In short, he joins in as much of our life as possible.

He has an opportunity to attend small sessions conducted by our abbot on spirituality and the monastic tradition.  Many men sign up for the program primarily for these sessions.

His apprenticeship, though, includes more than spiritual formation and information on the history of monasticism.  As the need arises, various members of the brotherhood instruct him in esoteric arts and sciences—for example, the fork belongs on the left of the plate when setting the table, with the knife and the spoon to the right, and cold water works better than hot in scrubbing cheese and eggs off plates, and too much soap in the mop water makes the floor sticky.  You might not associate any of this esoteric knowledge with monastic spirituality—and yet all of these things belong to the life in Christ lived in community because they pertain to good stewardship and to an awareness, even in small things, of the good of the community.  If a young man leaves at the end of his summer novice experience with a greater appreciation of the day-to-day and practical details of our life, he has truly tasted its reality.

So much for them.  What about us?  How do we benefit from their participation in our life?  Well, first of all we have a larger temporary work force.  Our brotherhood, after all, contains a disproportionate number of us old guys, and so we welcome the younger men who can tackle the physical labor that we can’t—digging trenches for new water lines, installing appliances, putting up barns, and that sort of thing.  In the months leading up to summer, we plan projects to give our new arrivals and we look forward to the day they show up.

While we invite summer novices here for their benefit, we also have to ensure that we fit them into our life smoothly.  After a few years of learning by trial and error, we have settled on an arrangement that works pretty well.  Most of them stay for about a month, though the length of their stay varies.  We coordinate their visits so that we have no more than four at a time.  This way we can spread the arrivals and departures over several months.  After all, we want to host our summer novices while continuing to receive pilgrims, who tend to visit us in greater numbers during the summer months.  Besides, with a smaller number of the young men here at any given time, none of them gets lost in the crowd.  Each of them can enjoy a degree of individual attention.

But we gain something more.  In the larger picture, the summer novice program serves for recruitment.  A fair number of men who have joined the brotherhood for the long term participated first in the summer program.  They got a taste of monasticism and decided to come back for more.  In this way brotherhood gets to know them first, and they get to know us.

A program such as this has much to offer the Orthodox Church in this country.  Orthodox monasticism is still fairly new in the United States, and people often see it as such a severe thing that it can scare them away.  This renders it difficult for a young man to get his first taste of monasticism because it can seem overwhelming.  We don’t do things that way.  We place no pressure on anyone, and we do not blame anyone if he takes part in our summer program and returns to the life he knew before.  He still has his experience with us to take with him, and we hope that it will enrich not only him but those he tells about it.

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Freelance Body Parts

Several men have asked me to be their spiritual father.  Wow!—you might say—what an honor!  Slow down—I would reply—I had to say no.  I had to tell them that I do not have a blessing to serve as anyone’s spiritual father. I think in some cases this answer disappointed them.

*

Permit me a digression.  Way back in days of yore, in that legendary golden age of magnificent low-budget film making, the 1950s, somebody made a movie in which a madman’s hands got chopped off somehow and then that pair of hands crawled around all by themselves and strangled people, usually beautiful women.

Several decades later, as I recall, another masterpiece hit the silver screen.  It featured a huge eye that floated about, lurking around corners, zooming here and there and confronting people suddenly.  Somehow it had the capacity to throw knives and various martial arts weapons at its victims.

In yet another triumph of cinematography—sorry, I lack the factual details on this one, too—a human brain, lying in a pan of nourishing chemicals, used its powers of telepathy to perpetrate a reign of terror from its place in the corner of an evil scientist’s laboratory.  If any of these events had ever become the normal state of affairs in the real world, we could imagine signs posted in prominent public locations.  Certainly some government agency would provide warnings such as these:

DANGER BODY PARTS AT LARGE

*

I ask your indulgence as I launch off on yet another tangent, this time a quotation from St. Paul with a short commentary.  Don’t worry, I will tie all these things together.  I promise.  In any case, he offered the following counsel in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing?  If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose.  If all were a single organ, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.  But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the higher gifts.  (1 Corinthians 12: 12-31)

We find the key to the deep mystical understanding of St. Paul’s words in the images of those classic old horror films.  It’s almost as if the apostle had stayed up after midnight watching them on the tube.  He points out that as members of the Church, the body of Christ, we are like parts of the human body.  We carry out our functions and find our fulfillment only when we live in communion with other members.  We must not try to operate in isolation.

*

Let’s get back to the original proposition.  Men asked me to be their spiritual father and I said no because I have not been given a blessing to do so.  What I can do—and I have a blessing to do it—is to counsel these men, primarily prisoners to whom I write, in certain situations when they ask me for guidance.  That arrangement allows for occasions when a man asks me something and I have doubts about what to say.  In those cases I take the question to my own spiritual father and discuss it with him.  He then makes suggestions about what I should say to the other man.  This situation represents the monastic tradition at its very best.  The man to whom I serve as a mentor or spiritual friend benefits from more than merely my experience and my opinions.  He also has the benefit of my relationship with my own spiritual father.  What he receives from me, in other words, comes not just from me but from the Church, the body of Christ.  By this process I am being trained, as other men have been trained before me, to become spiritual fathers when the time is right.

Suppose, though, that someone had asked me to be his spiritual father and I had told him yes in spite of the fact that I had no blessing for it.  Then we would have found ourselves in a state of affairs where I was acting behind the back of my own spiritual father, casting aside my vow of obedience, and going freelance.

Would you trust a pair of maniac hands crawling about on their own, dominated by their own dark, incomprehensible, obsessional urges?  Would you trust a flying homicidal eyeball?  Would you trust a psychotic marinated brain?

Would you trust a monk to guide you when he did not have a blessing for it?

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Excruciating Torment

I love hearing about the experiences others have had in the monastic life.  When I visit another monastery or when other monastics visit us, I look forward to what they have to say.  It helps me understand our own life here.

One such occasion came quite some time back when a couple of nuns we knew drove from hundreds of miles away to come and see us, bringing along their portable sewing machine.  They had offered to fix any of our cassocks that had fallen into disrepair, sew buttons back on, put patches where needed, and stitch up any ripped spots.  They knew, of course, that we holy fathers and brothers were perfectly capable of doing this for ourselves, but they also knew—after all, these women weren’t born yesterday—that we were just as capable of ignoring the need to be presentable for as long as we could manage it.

At any rate, right after lunch one day I asked the senior of the two nuns about something that had been on my mind.  I was curious to see how her experience compared with mine.  “Tell me, Mother Elizabeth,” I said, “I think you’ve been in the monastic life as long as I have and I wonder what your impressions have been.  Has anything especially struck you as you continue your life as a nun while new women come in?”

“Yeah—,” she replied, “I can give you something.  For sure.  You know what chaps my hide?  I’ll tell you.  See Sister Anna there?”—and she nodded discretely at her sister in Christ across the room—“Look how she’s got that prayer rope of hers hanging off her belt instead of wrapping it around her wrist or keeping it in her pocket.  Well, I used to do that back in my novice days and I got rebuked for it big time.  In public, no less.  Mortifying, I tell you.  The abbess gave us a whole big speech about it one time and everybody kept glancing it me with their little grins enjoying it as I got chewed out.  I could have just died on the spot.  All about how if we wanted to become real nuns, we needed to act like ladies.  But her, my beloved sister, God bless her—she gets away with it!” I laughed.  I knew what she meant.  I was delighted by the part about how nuns should be ladies because it reminded me of something our abbot had told us—that if we had joined the brotherhood to engage in spiritual warfare, we should behave like officers, not enlisted men.  You don’t usually associate the terms “nuns and monks” with “ladies and gentlemen,” but clearly that connection belonged to our tradition.

Her main point, though, was what impressed me most because I saw that she had reacted the way I have reacted to similar situations.  Perhaps her comments could provide me with some edifying food for thought.  When similar things happened I always asked the same sorts of questions.  Why do others get away with things I get corrected for?  Why do others get a better break than I do?  Why do others receive special favors?  Why should I accept correction about something when some else gets away with the very same thing?  I guess I have a tendency sometimes to think everything’s unfair, but maybe that’s just the interpretation my ego puts on my experience.

We say that the monastic life requires ascetic struggle.  No problem.  I signed up for that.  I’m a tough guy, a warrior, a commando, a guerrilla in the spiritual battle.  I can even picture myself wearing a hair shirt, loading myself with a hundred pounds of iron chains, reduced to bread and water, standing on a rock for a thousand days in prayer—okay, I have to shift my mind into high gear to imagine things like that, but I can ponder those things as possibilities—but you know what I have a really hard time contemplating?  You know what seems totally beyond my comprehension and imagination?  What seems way beyond my reach—the prospect of crucifying my big fat ego.  All the other stuff, the strictly physical self-denial—shucks, what a piece of cake in comparison!  But here’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question—can I really learn to see someone else get something good that doesn’t come my way or accept correction when others escape it, and not take it personally?

Let’s face it—this all comes down to my ego telling me that it’s all about me.  Yeah, I said I would endure in the ascetic life to my last breath and all that stuff, but how come my brother in Christ over there has an easier time of it than I do, at least according to my self-righteous comparison? We get plenty of reminders that we shouldn’t look at things that way.  For example, all the way through Great Lent our services include St. Isaac’s prayer with the wonderful line, “Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.”  Shouldn’t that suggest that I stop focusing my attention on the fact that someone else wasn’t rebuked for something when I was?  In plain old ordinary English, could it be that I just need to mind my own business?

Let’s return to the old statement that if we joined the brotherhood to engage in spiritual warfare, we should behave like officers, not enlisted men.  When I compare my situation to someone else’s and gripe about it, I am acting just like a recruit.  Recruits complain about the treatment they receive while officers accept the fact that on the one hand they give orders to those below them, but on the other hand they also have to carry out the orders they receive from above.  The Gospel of Luke gives an example of a centurion who applied his military discipline to spiritual matters in a way that impressed even Jesus.  I’m thinking of the man who asked Jesus to heal his sick servant.  He sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to You.  But say the word, and let my servant be healed.  For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7: 6-8).  In other words, he recognized that the demons were under Jesus’ authority just as he was under the authority of officers above him and others were under his own authority.  When Jesus heard this, He commented, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

If I want to be an officer and a gentleman—as we monks must strive to be—then I need to see my own sins and not judge my brother.  I need to carry out the orders that are given to me and take the correction that is offered to me.  And in fact if I insist on comparing myself to my brothers in Christ, I might do better to tell myself that if I have received rebukes that my brothers haven’t, what it really means is that I’ve had an opportunity for advanced officer training.

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Anatomy of Resentment II—Breaking Free of Entanglement

We have some wonderful advice in the formula “Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness.”  It works great if I stop myself in time.  But what if I find myself already trapped in resentment?  What then?  Well, I will share with you what I know.  As an old man of my acquaintance often puts it, what I have to say is based on my present understanding.

I’ve found it easier to get into trouble than to get back out.  Since resentment tends to be a habit of thought and feeling for me, though, I jump right into it without stopping to think.  Before I realize it, I’ve become horribly entangled.  I quickly take things personally, attribute bad motives to people when I think they have wronged me, and rationalize my narrative with self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification.  I know how to do those things.  In contrast, spiritual warfare has come into my life comparatively recently.  I cannot expect the accomplishments a more experienced spiritual warrior would have.  I don’t do very well at catching the tantalizing tendency toward thinking that “it’s all about me” the moment it appears.  Not yet, anyway.  I may get there.  But right now I have my work cut out for me as I dismantle something I have already built.  I need to be patient with myself as I move ahead.

One element of our brotherhood’s spiritual heritage is the observation that we enjoy more success in the spiritual life by remembering what we ought to be doing than by feeling guilty for our mistakes.  I believe that and try to carry it out while I continue to undo my old unwholesome habits from the past.

A good first step in the process is to forgive the person I resent.  In fact, one way to understand forgiveness is to consider it as a decision to let go of a resentment.  You’ll notice that I call it a decision.  To bring forgiveness all the way through to completion involves letting go of disturbing emotions such as anger and the thought processes that accompany them such as judgment.  That takes time.  But we have to start somewhere, and that starting point is the decision.  As resentment begins with a choice to take things personally, similarly forgiveness begins with a choice to let go.  This doesn’t mean that the feelings will disappear immediately.  I have sometimes seen them linger on for years.  But every time they came back, I reminded myself that I had made a decision to let go.  In other words, I make the decision to let go and I reaffirm it as many times as it takes.  I don’t expect this type of spiritual warfare to resemble a blitzkrieg.  I prepare for a siege.  Here patience and commitment count for everything.

I don’t suppose I will immediately stop thinking someone wronged me.  And of course in some cases someone really did do me wrong.  But that doesn’t really matter, because forgiveness does not consist in coming to consider the other person innocent.  It consists in ceasing to stew over the matter.  Even when someone did wrong me badly, I can still make a decision to stop dwelling on it.  That step alone will release me from the fixation on details that lead to self-deception, such as picking out the facts in the situation that emphasize my innocence.  Where self-deception has become part of the edifice I have built, I can begin to dynamite its foundations simply by sticking to my decision not to run through the story over and over. As I consistently refuse to replay what is over and done with, I let go of what supports self-pity.  Instead of looking at myself as a victim, I return to a calmer and more normal outlook.  I accept life’s ups and downs.  If something happens that I don’t like, it has no particular significance.  Life happens.  No big deal.  There is actually a practical step I can take at this point, which is to stop talking to other people about how badly I think I have been treated, because one of the ways I support my view of being a victim is to retell the story so that I persuade other people to endorse my view of things.  The decision to forgive, then, requires that I stop gossiping about the person I have forgiven.  I can win my first battle against thoughts by gaining victory over my mouth.

To combat self-righteousness, I don’t necessarily need to believe that the other person is right and I am wrong.  What works more effectively is to let go of worrying about who is right and who is wrong.  Does it matter?  Really?  Instead of putting my attention on who is winning, I can just remove myself from the game.

If I can keep tearing down my self-deception, self-pity, and self-righteousness, I probably won’t have much work left in battling against self-justification.  When I get rid of those things, after all, out goes everything I use to prove I’m right.  When thoughts occur to me that I can get back at someone, they will not belong to a whole package of me against them thinking, and they will stand out as being as strange as they really are.

In a full and balanced spiritual life, more happens than just the battle against resentments and everything built up on top of them.  As I unlearn old and destructive habits I also form new and healthy habits.  One place where we can see the connection between removing bad habits and acquiring good ones is in the prayer of St. Isaac that we say all through Great Lent.  I’m thinking of the wonderful line where we ask God to help us see our own sins and not to judge our brother.  The second part of that line concerns the spiritual battle against resentments.  The first part of the line teaches me to pay more attention to my own sins.  As I gain a clearer view of my own shortcomings, that new outlook makes the occasions when I judge my brother stick out like a sore thumb.  Then I can’t escape noticing when I am trying to persuade myself of my supposed innocence, feeling sorry for myself, and plunging into self-righteousness and self-justification.  In other words, the constructive effort to live the way God wants me to live places resentment and all its rationalizations in their true light.

The strategy in the war against resentment, then, has several elements to it.  These can occur in whatever order I’m able to carry them out.  But they include things like these.  I undo the damage I have created by insisting that I’m right.  I stop acting on those ideas.  I look at my own sins instead of judging others.  I remind myself of how I should act toward people.  Last of all, so slowly that it seems to take forever, I begin to loosen my death grip on emotions like anger and fear—the feelings that accompany the memory of being wronged.  When I manage to do these things, it brings me a new sense of happiness and peace.  It becomes easier and easier to do what I ought to be doing instead of feeling guilty for my mistakes.  As I put this plan into action instead of just agreeing with it in theory, it becomes more and more appealing and I start to enjoy the rewards.

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Anatomy of Resentment I—Entangled in Passion

You might consider me a leading authority on the topic of resentments.  No, I’m not bragging.  I’ve gained my knowledge the hard way—by struggling against them, sometimes with success and sometimes not.  This battle represents a big part of my spiritual life.

I have the benefit, though, of living in a place where I have some sound guidance for the battle.  Our brotherhood has received a nice formula for the ascetic battle against thoughts:  Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness.  It sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well, as people say about other things, it’s simple but not easy.  Most of us probably have to work pretty hard at it.

And in spite of the simplicity—or apparent simplicity—of the formula, the part about resentments presents more of a problem than you might suppose, because we all talk about them (often accusing other people of having them) but we don’t always have a clear idea of what we mean by the concept.  I’m going to try here to sort out what resentment involves and a few developments that can take place once we have them.

One thing that helps us to understand the idea is to look at the origin of the words associated with it.  The verb “to resent” and the noun “resentment” both came to us from the French.  The verb entered our language first, it seems, in the thirteenth century, while the noun “resentment” wasn’t attested until the sixteenth.  The verb is a compound, going back to Latin elements, “re-“ indicating “again” and “sentire,” meaning “to feel.”  So the basic idea is that we feel something again which we already felt.

Another guide to understanding the concept is to see how the Ascetic Fathers talk about it.  Many of the texts we read in English translate the relevant Greek expression rather literally as “remembrance of wrongs.”  In other words, resentment has to do with a memory of something someone did to us to wrong us.  In reality, though, we can see that the Fathers speak about our remembering incidents in which we think someone wronged us.  So this tells us that “remembrance of wrongs” begins with our taking something personally, whether the other person intended to wrong us or not.

When we put all of this together, we get a good notion of what resentment is.  It’s a memory of how someone wronged us or harmed us—or at least that’s how we interpreted it—accompanied by one or more afflictive emotions such as anger, shame, or the like.  It seems to be something that sticks with us.  We can’t easily get rid of it. In that sense, resentment is an example of our failing at the battle against thoughts.  In his texts on Watchfulness and Holiness, St. Hesychios the Priest summarizes the stages in the battle against thoughts:

(46.) The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons.  Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice.  Fourth comes the concrete action—that is, the sin itself.  (in Philokalia, vol. 1.  Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. tr. from the Greek and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.  London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979.  p. 170)

We can say that we fail in this battle because a resentment represents a state of mind—and emotion—in which we have reached what St. Hesychios describes as the third stage, where we assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice.  We remain ready to use the resentment as a basis for action.  At the very least we use it to interpret what happens to us in further interactions with the person we resent.  Here things become more complex, because the resentment can serve as a foundation for at least four more developments.  It’s probably no coincidence that the terms for these all begin with “self.”  Here I will just recount what I know from my own experience and my own struggles.

What do I mean when I say I assent to a provocation that consists of a memory accompanied by anger or other hurt feelings?  Well, in ordinary English it means that I have made a choice to regard myself as mistreated.  I pick out the facts in the situation that support that interpretation.  I construct a narrative that tells a story of the other person’s guilt and my own innocence.  I replace the plain facts with a more convenient version.  I begin to engage in self-deception. From there I move to the second step, self-pity.  That is, I feel sorry for myself.  I may ask myself questions like “why did this happen to me?” or even “why do things like this always seem to happen to me?”  Instead of simply accepting the fact that life has its ups and downs, I view myself as a victim.  I can express this in a variety of ways.  Maybe I complain to others, for example, or maybe I just go around in a bad mood.

In the third development I come to believe that I have been a victim of unusually bad treatment, so that my rights have been ignored in a way that has not happened to other people.  Therefore, I plunge straight into self-righteousness.  In simple terms—I believe that I am right and the other person is wrong.

The fourth development leads me more fully toward what St. Hesychios calls the concrete action, or the sin itself.  This development is self-justification.  Once I convince myself that the other person has trampled on my rights—and not merely a single time, because by now I have started using the original occasion as an interpretive key to all further encounters with that person—I can then regard wrongdoing on my own part as simple justice.  It is a convenient piece of rationalization, after all, to think that wrongdoing in response to previous wrongdoing just amounts to “evening the score.”  It is the childish sort of reasoning that says, “But he hit me first.”

Once a resentment has become an unquestioned support for self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification, it can be very hard to see that it originated in a choice.  The first stage in getting tangled up in thoughts and emotions happened because of something someone else did.  But the second stage, which St. Hesychios calls “coupling,” cannot occur at all unless I let it happen.  The other person may or may not have intended the “affront” as something personal.  The process toward resentment begins only if I take it personally.  In fact, if the other person insults me or wrongs me intentionally and I brush it off, I never start walking down the path that brings me to resentment, let alone self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification.