A lesson in grace from a case of weeping flesh

By on October 1, 2004

Do you think a prison is an appropriate place for a seminarian?

During my years as a theological student I was assigned as part of my field education to a correctional facility in Brampton, Ont. A weekly requirement was a written verbatim report of an interview with an inmate, which was submitted to my supervisor. One of the prisoners whom I chose to report on was a young man from a small town who was nearing the end of his sentence of two years less a day. Peter had not come to terms with his incarceration; the result was a terrible skin rash, for which no amount of medical attention brought relief.

“Weeping flesh,” my wise supervisor called it. Then in reviewing my report he asked a pointed question, “Why are you so protective of this inmate?” I explained with some passion how I understood his background, until my supervisor interrupted with a second question: “Who are we talking about here, Peter or you?” It was a breakthrough moment of self-understanding.

Then came another question, “Are you happy with who you are?” I conceded that although the journey had not been an easy one, up to that point I was content with the result. “And what do you suppose has made you the person you are today?” asked my mentor. His question went far deeper than the qualities I had inherited from my parents. I realized that I am who I am as a result of the sum total of my experience in life. One more question was posed “Why should you want to protect Peter from his experience? … From becoming a person like you?” It was an important moment of discernment. In that lonely and hurting young man I had seen both Christ and myself. I came to realize that by grace, I had been given a faith to live by that had assured me that through the most difficult times of life I was never utterly alone or unloved. In the words of John Newton’s famous hymn:

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“…’tis grace that brought me safe thus far/

and grace will lead me home.”

The lesson from prison has stayed with me throughout my life. So often I am humbled by those who have so little and endured so much, yet are spiritually rich. Equally I am saddened by many who have so much and are so evidently blessed, yet are spiritually impoverished.

Christians are called to lead in the cause of bringing justice and peace in the world. That will, of necessity, involve the sharing of material wealth and opportunity. Even so Peter’s “weeping flesh,” and the healing of the world come through the grace of Christ who is with us through it all — and with what Dr. Jim Wilkes refers to as “The Gift of Courage” enabling us to live into that reality.Archbishop Andrew Hutchison is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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