Is anyone truly penitent in a penitentiary?

By: Mary Ann Spears, Mountaineer News Contributor Posted: March 19, 2020 | 03:40AM EST

I have been always been fascinated by words. I ponder the origin of words; their meaning; their expression; their weight; and most of all … their truth. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to tumble on to the fact that a common word in the English language has been taken for granted, seldom questioned, and even more seldom recognized for what it is. This was my experience one bright summer’s day as I stood outside the hulking, decomposing wreck that was once the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. I was gazing up at the edifice against a beautiful blue sky, when it dawned on me: does the word “penitentiary” come from the word penitent?

Hello? Yes, of course it does. It turns out that those early houses of restriction were built with the express purpose of encouraging the sufferer inside its walls to come face to face with God; to arrive at a recognition and contemplation of personal sin; to repent of wrongdoings; and to duly arrive at a spiritual renewal and positive change in his life. Thus, a penitentiary was constructed as a place of confinement which would promote the process of penitence and reformation.

The first true penitentiary in the United States of America was built in Philadelphia Pennsylvania in 1829-1830. The Eastern State Penitentiary, surprisingly, was built by Quakers. “The Pennsylvania System”, as it came to be known, was deliberately constructed with radiating wings containing very small cells made of concrete. There were no windows in any cell, but each cubicle had its own small sky light, hopefully to feature as “The Eye of God”. Each cell had a very small and low door, forcing the prisoner to bow as he entered his room. The entire system was set up as a solitary confinement of each prisoner, in the hope that no distraction would stand in the way of the inmate developing a true repentance and reformation with God. It turns out that the system was more of a house of torture than a place to achieve peace through penitence.

True penitence relies heavily upon one of the most misunderstood words in scripture and philosophy: “Repent”. The word is beautiful in its simplicity. In ancient Hebrew, the word “repent” means simply, “to turn around”. In our busy lives, we repent all the time – we may bypass our very destination; drive past our correct Exit; forget to complete a task; or forget that we are supposed to run a simple errand. In the purest essence of the word, the solution is simple – we turn around. We rethink our actions. We go back, retrace our steps, and hopefully, arrive at where we were supposed to be in the first place.

In our contemplative view of our own behavior, we often see the need to turn around. It is simple. This way is not working; turn around. This behavior is hurting someone else; turn around. This is not the way I want to go; turn away from it. This is not the person I want to be; stop…and turn around.

Unfortunately, Prophets of the Testaments, both old and new, often clothe the word, “repent” with frightening and unattainable descriptions: there is an urgency – it must be done right now. Repent, for the end is near! Repent or be lost! There is a suggestion of public announcement; everyone must hear and see. Additionally, there is a public display, evoking ripping one’s clothing, or the wearing of sackcloth and ashes. Actually, the word means simply: “turn around”. Why can we not be content with that meaning, pure and elementary, and so beautiful? And more importantly, why can we not be content to allow others the luxury of turning around… without the fanfare of public approval or condemnation… or even knowledge of the act?

Can penitence be forced upon a person? Do we need society’s collection of exhibits and measurements to turn around? Or is it the beautiful possibility of a quiet reversal … an opportunity to step onto another path; to travel in a different direction?

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