The inimitable Edward Hays, a Catholic priest, recently retired from the active ministry and is spending his days trying to master the craft of being "an escape artist." He last served as a chaplain to the Kansas State Prison in Lansing. Early on, Hays notes that more than two million people are incarcerated in the United States. But millions more are locked up in anger, fear, impatience, prejudice, religion, old age, and death.

For the author, Jesus is the Great Liberator who promised: "My work is to set the prisoners free." Throughout this innovative devotional work, Hays challenges us to reflect upon the prisons that hold us, the addictions that keep us in lockup, and the mental attitudes and behavioral warps that prevent us from accepting our inheritance, which he describes as "the glorious freedom of the children of God." Like the saints of yesteryear, we can all learn to be escape artists who follow the zigzag course of the Spirit.

Hays begins with a tour de force chapter on "Timelock Prison." He notes: "A vast majority of people in the Western World live in poverty. To people who live in the Third World, it may seem like those fortunate enough to be citizens of developed nations are free from the curse of being poor. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The majority of people in our high-tech Western World suffer from a great impoverishment — they are subject to a dire privation of time. Indeed, one of the greatest escapes of the twenty-first century may be from the prison of the clock."

Those of us who don't wear watches can identify with the author's characterization of them as "a restraining service used for prisoners in custody." Throughout the book, Hays presents helpful and practical breakout spiritual exercises. One of these for Timelock Prison is stopping the full-speed-ahead train for the pause that renews the soul. Another is disciplining yourself to fully engage in whatever you are doing rather than rushing through activities with one eye on the clock. He quotes Meister Eckhart: "Do the next thing you have to do with your whole heart and find delight in doing it." An especially apt suggestion is that all cell phones and pagers be left outside the door of every sacred place similar to the Muslim tradition of having worshippers remove their shoes or sandals when they enter the mosque.

"No is a twenty-first century survival word."

The author's imaginative élan even extends into the arena of penance and asceticism. He counsels us to practice "the self-inflicted penance of hurrying only in emergencies." And, in order to handle the all-too-frequent problem of overextending ourselves, Hays suggests a "new spiritual austerity" of saying no after tallying up our commitments and responsibilities. Or as he puts it: "The primary purpose of saying no is so that we can say a wholehearted yes to those significant activities like prayer, play, reflection, love, and friendship. No is a twenty-first century survival word."

The next time someone asks you for the correct time, you might consider responding: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Reign of God." Hays believes we can attune ourselves to the unfolding of the "Kindom" of God where all people are our family and relatives.

Many of us have served time in Angerville Prison rebelling against authority figures. Couples often know every inch of the prison yard. And Americans now feel they have the right to express their indignation over anything from a late plane arrival to an officious clerk at the post office. All this leads to another filled-to-the-brim institution — Impatience Jail. We've all been confined there. Hays suggests a breakout spiritual practice of playing life by ear rather than trying to control everything. Patience is a virtue that must be learned over the long haul of a lifetime.

"We are each originals, divinely designed not to be copies or clones of others."

Hays calls Jesus "the patron saint of eccentric saints and the holy hero of all of those who dare to be truly themselves and those bold enough to live out as fully as possible the embodiment of God in their flesh." Try Jesus' three-word mantra "Be not afraid" as a fear buster for the start of a new day. Hays also envisions the Great Liberator as the one who enables us to escape from Prejudice Prison where xenophobia is saluted in the yard and diversity is scorned.

As usual, the well-read author uses illustrative material from all the world's religions to fill out his salutary presentation of a spirituality of liberation. He hits high stride in chapters on the prisons of old age, death, and the tomb. With a deft touch, Hays writes: "Like Jesus, each one of us is a one-and-only incarnation of God. We are each originals, divinely designed not to be copies or clones of others."

There is no one writing in Christendom today who has so consistently, zealously, and creatively wed spiritual practice with imagination in ways that deepen and enrich our devotional life and everyday activities. The Great Escape Manual is Edward Hays's twenty-fifth book and it is teeming with fresh insights into gratitude, attention, being present, kindness, forgiveness, love, and joy.

In these times of rampant fear, insecurity, and myopic thinking, Hays offers us an expansive vision of the Great Liberator who continues to train us all to become more accomplished escape artists. This book is a blessing that will perk up your spirit and put a smile on your face. Which are both signs of the Ever Free Spirit!

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