Yesterday was a really busy day, my first day back properly from shoulder surgery, first day driving and it seemed that everything that had been on pause over the past few weeks had jumped straight to fast-forward. Shoulder really hurts this morning as a result. Might take it easier today as a result.
After a couple of local pastoral visits, I went up to a regional Prison to visit a parishioner there. We know what the papers think about prison: that it’s a cushy life with three square meals a day and Sattelite TV, but like most common misconceptions, it doesn’t hold up to reality. Anyone who has been inside a prison, either visiting or as an inmate will know of the dehumanising, grinding malevolence that broods in such places. These places are truely the habitations of Dementors, as they rob the soul of any sense of light or peace. Built in Victorian times, this prison exudes the stench of institutional bleach which barely covers the human degredation behind it. What is it about that supposedly clean smell which just seems to suggest that there is something more sinister, nasty and malevolent behind it. It’s not just the sweat, blood, semen and fag smell you get from 600-odd men cramped together in very close proximity, it is also fear, insecurity and grinding hopelessness.
This chap has been on remand for the past 3 months, his case doesn’t even come up until next month, and he is expecting 2 years. He deeply regrets his actions: it was a bad call moment, a momentary loss of judgement (made whilst under the influence), and one for which he must pay a price; and yet we recognise that it could have been worse. It has, however, given him a chance for renewal and redemption. I baptised him only a couple of months before this terrible, sorrowful event, knowing that we was already on a journey to escape the drink and the drugs and to embrace the faith. Since being inside he has remained clean – weekly urine screening for the drugs that are very freely available inside prison have been clear, and he has started some education, and been regular in chapel. The prison chaplain (a female Church Army Captain) tells me that he has been building on the work I started with him: bible study, worship, prayer. This isn’t just ticking boxes to please a magistrate, but a continuation of what God was already doing with this young man.
By visiting him (and this was my second visit), he was reassured that in the world which goes on outside of prison there was a community which was still praying for him, for his partner and their children (whom he misses terribly: they are small and they have had no contact since the domestic incident – just to hear their voices was a sad, poignant moment) and for the whole sorry incident. It was only 45 minutes of encounter: prayer, annointing, absolution and blessing, but it was one which will stay with me for some time. A visceral reminder of the reality of life, the fragilness of our existence in society, the nearness of all of us from stupid, terrible mistakes which we must all face up to. And amid all the hopelessness, lies a small kernal of hope: that this young man can use this sledgehammer-of-an-experience to rebuild his life, stay off the drugs, rebuild some self-esteem and grow his fledgeling faith.
Christ was there in that bland room of the prison chapel. He embraced both of us.
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Even in the darkness pits of dispair, Christ is with the prisoners. Regardless of their deeds, for which they will receive judgement both on this earth and in heaven, none are beyond the reach of Christ and his all-powerful, all transforming love. Christ was there, amid that stench. Oh yes.