“In my somewhat limited study of Orthodox theology so far, I have come to realize that because God the Father cannot be understood or fathomed by the limited human mind, any understanding of God that I receive by my own power is idolatry and heresy. I can only understand God the Father by what is revealed in and by Jesus Christ the Only Begotten Son of God. I can only receive true knowledge and understanding from the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church through Apostolic succession of bishops and priests.”
These are the words of Greg, who was introduced to Orthodoxy while serving a six-year prison sentence. Greg came to a genuine and clear understanding of the Way because Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry came into his life.
Scores of men and women languishing in the battlefield that is prison are hungry for reconciliation with God, for the healing grace that is found in the Body of Christ. They have experienced the limits of what non-Orthodox prison ministries can offer. They know there is more but don’t know where to find it. This is where we can offer the ultimate Truth and healing of the Orthodox Faith.
A lack of spiritual direction becomes evident for prisoners when they are released. They may have a place to live, a job, and access to mental health services. However, sometimes, without a healing community and a repentant understanding of what
landed them in a prison cell in the first place, their freedom can’t be sustained. This is an important contributing factor to the absurdly high recidivism rate for ex-prisoners in the United States. According to the Department of Justice, 83% of prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested again within nine years of their release.
Our Lord, Himself a prisoner at the time of his Passion, clearly and unequivocally commands us to visit those in prison in Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Through Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, our Church is able to do for others what we did for Greg: introduce prisoners to the power of iconography and the writings of the Church Fathers; catechize them through a specially designed correspondence course; train priests and laypeople to personally visit and counsel prisoners; and lobby more correctional facilities throughout the country to recognize the Orthodox faith.
Greg is now out of prison and living in a group home in California. He made it a priority to find an Orthodox parish within days of his release. That priority centered him and gave him a focus for his new freedom. Thank God, the Orthodox parish warmly welcomed him, something that Greg did not take for granted. He recently wrote, “I weep now as I realize the love and acceptance that was freely offered to me.” His journey to the true faith started in the unlikely place of prison, but it would not have happened had there not been a prison ministry ready to tend to him and answer his questions.
Soon, we will inaugurate Great Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness. It is a reminder that our gracious Lord seeks reconciliation with us by making us a tool of reconciliation with others. Greg, and many like him, are waiting for someone to be that instrument of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Are you ready to forgive everyone, even a convicted criminal?