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Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words . . . .

The front page of last Sunday's paper showed a group of inmates at the state prison system's unit at Wrightsville bowing their heads in prayer at the end of one of their sessions. Had they been speaking in tongues or just speaking? Who but He knows? As for the rest of us, we're told in Scripture: Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.

It's a strange mix of wild words and prayerful silence in prison, just as it is in the free world. But there's always hope that somewhere in this tangled underbrush of verbiage, the strangest creature of all lurks: The truth waiting to be discovered by each of us in own way. Kenneth Janski, for one. He's spent 15 years out of the past 17 in prison for having committed a series of crimes including domestic battery and drug charges. At last report he was unsure about whether he wanted in or out of prison, for behind bars he professes to have found fellowship and in bondage freedom. All of which brought to mind Thomas Merton, another mix of worldly appetites and unworldly visions.

He may have grown up an agnostic, but man, being by one definition the creature who prays, or Homo religiosus, he had to worship something if only himself. Though he might think of it as reason or science or pacifism or self-fulfillment . . . Take your pick, for in the end, which comes to all men soon enough, they may all prove equally unrewarding.

His mother having died when he was a boy and his father when he was a teenager, Merton felt himself free to go a-whoring after a variety of strange gods, most of them political. Not unlike many a student radical today. He thought of himself as a radical though he was just conforming to the age-old pattern of youthful pretensions hardening into the general skepticism of the old. "If what most people take for granted were really true . . ." he wrote, "I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now."

Thomas Merton could have been describing the inmates enrolled in this state's Pathway to Freedom program. "Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, [made] into the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating Him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers." For man hungers not for bread alone but for ... what? The undefinable. "Distracted from distraction by distraction," as T.S. Eliot put it, man hurries and hurries from pillar to post and back again till it hits him, as it did the German poet Rilke on viewing an archaic figure of Apollo, You must change your life.

And so it must be with the souls seeking the right place for themselves through this pathway to freedom. In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the newspaper you're now reading, is on Pathway to Freedom's board of directors and that, when the program was foundering for lack of funds, he led the effort to keep it going. For which Kenneth Janski can be grateful, along with many another inmate and, for that matter, all the law-abiding citizens who may be spared his depredations in the always uncertain future.

Since it began, a total of 893 prisoners have signed up for Pathway to Freedom and 291 have managed to make it through the program at last running count. "We don't make it easy," to quote its director Scott McLean. "You have to give up a lot." Like watching television, for example--the one-eyed god of our own time. To borrow a scriptural metaphor, it's like squeezing through the eye of a needle. One out of every three inmates don't make it to the end. They either give up on the program or it gives up on them. Nobody in the prison system is forced to take part in it, for that would be a violation of their religious freedom. But there are those who recognize that iron bars still do not a prison make so long as one is free inside, accountable to no one but himself and his God.

A word, please, about this Scott McLean, program director of this wonderful idea/ministry. For those of us lucky enough to have heard him speak, it was difficult enough to stay in our seats. And not run out to volunteer in the nearest jail. For every outfit, whether a gang of bank robbers or a prison ministry, needs a leader and guiding light. Scott McLean provides his own in Arkansas.

And what else does Mr. McLean and Pathway to Freedom provide? Not surprisingly, a pathway to freedom.

Instead of a return-to-prison rate of 52 percent like most convicts, Scott McLean's ministry has a 15 percent recidivism rate. Glory be to God.

These prisoners will walk among us again, bet on it. Would society rather them spend their time brooding and scheming and learning from worse criminals? Or praying to Him and seeking capital-G Guidance?

Hallelujah, we know our answer.

Editorial on 03/22/2017

Print Headline: Pathway to Freedom

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