Several months ago, His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco received an unexpected letter. It was from four Orthodox men serving life sentences in a “concrete Jericho”—a maximum security prison in California—asking for the “unthinkable”: His Eminence to visit and bless the prison. “Struck by the intensity of their words,” he visited the men during Great Lent, talking and praying with them and offering them Holy Eucharist. Afterward, His Eminence sent a thoughtful reflection to OCPM, which includes excerpts from the letters the men sent him. You can read his reflection here.
It was a typical afternoon in my office at the Metropolis of San Francisco. I was responding to phone calls, answering emails and sorting through my mail. I came across an envelope from someone whose name I did not recognize, but the return address was clearly from a prison. I opened the envelope, wondering who the sender was and what the content might be. Much to my surprise, the letter was from a group of four male Orthodox inmates wanting to share their personal stories with me about their journey with the faith along with a simple request that someday I might be able to visit. For the past six years, these men have been ministered to by one of our Metropolis priests, but they somehow felt compelled to write to me directly, seeking my blessings and visitation. Their sincere and humble words were also marked with doubt, knowing that many obstacles would need to be maneuvered, and that many other Christian leaders had previously tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the walls of the prison.
However, as great as these obstacles might be and regardless of the rigors of my schedule, I was struck by the intensity of their words: “We hope that more than ‘hearing of the ear,’ we will, God permitting, one day ‘with the eye see You,’ in the words of the Righteous Job (42:5). We pray that God’s providence will allow for Your visitation and blessing of this prison….where no Bishop of Christ has walked before. All four of us are serving life in prison, and so when we pray ‘For this holy House, and for those who enter it…’ we really mean the permanent place of our earthly sojourn”. Their letter continued, “Your Eminence, please pray for us, that Christ may complete what He has mercifully commenced in our lives. Pray that we may remain on the road of repentance and faith, that we may be obedient…and that we may keep in our hearts that ‘Pearl of Great Price’ which has thus far kept us.”
It was at that very moment I called the priest who ministers to these men and, through God’s grace, we were able to arrange a visit to the prison. Yes, there were obstacles; forms to fill out, security clearances and scheduling. Everything fell into place and our visit was scheduled for Friday, April 26, 2013. The day finally arrived and, as we traveled to the prison, I prayed for God’s guidance, wisdom and strength to provide for the spiritual needs of these men. Then, I looked up and facing me was a concrete city, surrounded by barbed wire with numerous guard towers watching over the prison. Accompanying me was the priest who has become their spiritual father, and a recent Holy Cross graduate. We were warmly welcomed by the prison staff. They told us we had to wear security vests. The staff were very kind and respectful, allowing me to place the vest under my robe, and letting me wear my engolpion into the prison, even though we were not permitted to bring in any other personal articles.
Now, after all this preparation, the heavy doors slowly started to open and the prison guard led us to what the prisoners refer to as a “steel and concrete labyrinth”. We were about to enter unfamiliar territory, but we all knew that the power of God would guide us in this special ministry, and that the Holy Spirit would give us the right words to nourish their hungry souls. We spent an hour together. Words like “powerful”, “humbling” and “life-changing” can barely convey the impact this afternoon had on all of us.
Following a rather intense yet uplifting conversation, I led these devoted men in reciting the Prayers for Holy Communion, and offered to them the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They approached the Holy Sacrament with humility, with tears of repentance, and with deep and abiding faith. I also prayed for the healing of their souls and bodies, anointing them with Holy Oil of Saint Nectarios. I gave to each of them a small cross and icon card of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, as a reminder of our common faith, and to encourage their continued prayer life for the strengthening of their souls.
Within a week of my visit to the prison, I received another letter. This time, recognizing the sender’s name. I opened the letter, eager to hear from these men with whom I shared a meaningful dialogue about our faith, God’s love, and the power of forgiveness. Here is what they said:
“At first, it was unthinkable: would a simple letter of invitation result in a visit to our prison by His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco? Then, it was unlikely: His Eminence wanted to come, but how could he – in the midst of services of the Great Fast – and with all the administrative red tape; the complexity of visitor approval on such a short notice? After all, we remembered the sad experience of the Roman Catholic bishops, who a few years ago attempted to penetrate our concrete ‘Jericho’, but the walls didn’t budge. Finally, as things miraculously fell into place the visitation drew near, it became downright frightful!”
The letter continues on to describe the moment we walked through the yard door, escorted by a lieutenant from the prison. The prisoners wrote, “We kissed the hand giving the blessing; we were speechless…. We sat and listened, two things became apparent: the Metropolitan didn’t come to give a pep talk or for a photo-op; he really saw us and desired to know us as persons – who we were and how we came to the Faith….He came to impart to us Christ’s truth, which we are not always ready to receive.”
“His Eminence spoke about the ‘real life’, which was not to be found outside of prison, in prison, or even in ourselves – that is, in our thoughts, wants, occupations – but only in Christ, in a life hidden in God. We were reminded of our ultimate blessing to be possessors of that life, no matter our past or what brought us to prison (to be sure, everyone who gathered around Metropolitan Gerasimos that day is serving life for murder). He said that the only substantial difference between the so-called ‘free’ life and life in prison is its structural regimentation, and the reason why the Church Fathers make us feel uncomfortable is because they call us to that higher life outside of ourselves – in Christ, regardless of where one finds himself, on whichever side of the barbed wire.”
Their profound letter concluded with a reflection on their personal struggles. They stated, “It is often through difficulties that God’s love draws His prodigal children home. The Metropolitan said that even though we can’t always know God’s will, we can always know His love and mercy….Our hierarch told us at our parting ‘we are never alone.’ The Saints are praying for us, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), with whom we are partakers in Christ….It is still difficult to believe that the invisible Christ was visibly present to us through His ministers. And yet, as we set our hearts on the events of Holy Week and turn our gaze toward Holy Pascha, we know by faith that this is what always happens in Christ, Who is ‘God with us’: the Crucified and Risen Savior filled our empty man-made tomb with His eternal life, illuminating sinners sitting in the shadow of death. May we keep His grace in our hearts, through the prayers of our spiritual father, and of our hierarch!”
The lesson to be derived from this pertains to all of us, because God offers His healing power of forgiveness unconditionally. Whether we are confined in a physical prison or are a prisoner to our own sins, we have the opportunity and blessing to receive God’s grace and mercy. Forgiving ourselves, forgiving each other, and ultimately seeking the Lord’s forgiveness…these are all acts of great faith and are the stepping stones to salvation.