Last Monday, my best friend went to prison. It never occurred to me that I would say or write that sentence. And yet, here we are.
I love all my friends — who doesn’t — but my friend did a few foolish things, and so the court revoked his probation. He will be in jail until June, when he will be sentenced. God only knows what will happen that day.
Aside from the letter that I wrote to him, this is the first thing I’ve written all week, which is uncommon if you are a freelance writer. I’ve spent my days working the phone. It took some time just to find out where he was. He is in a prison that is a three-hour drive from here. I have spoken often to various individuals in various departments of the prison to learn what are their procedures. Although the rules are very strict, the people I have spoken with have been helpful and kind. And these days kindness is rare.
I have had to fill out a visitor application form to be approved by the warden. (There’s another sentence I never thought I’d write.) I am beginning to learn the rules: I can’t bring him a book, or a magazine, or food — no sneaking a file into the cake. I’ve also learned that I can’t be in the same space with him. There will be a plexiglasss wall between us, and we will talk on telephones. It reminds me of prison movies from the 1950s.
It has stunned me how many people, when they heard of my friend’s misfortune, reacted in a way that can only be described as mean-spirited. I was thinking about this yesterday, and I remembered a line from Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice, the most famous soliloquy is Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech. It’s a good opening line, but we’re talking about Shakespeare, so what else would you expect? My favorite line comes farther down in Portia’s speech — “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”
That’s a line packed with theology. In other words, if Almighty God treated us with nothing but justice, Hell would full and Satan would have to hang a “No Vacancy” sign over the gate. My friend didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t rape anyone. He didn’t commit armed robbery. He didn’t sell drugs. But from the reaction of people as they learn that he’s in jail, you would think that he had done all of these things. Yet these same people, who show no compassion or mercy for someone who really needs it, expect that when they come to the end of their lives, God will be merciful. And He probably will. Every day, all day long, God calls to us, “Come back to me.” And at our last moment, with our last breath, or with our last thought, all we have to do is say or think, “Forgive me,” and God will be merciful. In the meantime, it’s not a bad idea for each of us to practice a little mercy here.
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