I don’t love driving on dark rural roads. But several years ago, when I worked for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, I found myself chauffeuring guest speakers around one-traffic-light hamlets as we campaigned to convince citizens to support repeal of our death penalty.
I remember, especially the evening Sister Helen Prejean was my passenger. The energetic anti-death penalty activist had spoken at several venues. She had written “Dead Man Walking,” later made into an award-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen, and eventually helped to reframe Catholic thinking on state-sponsored execution.
We were heading back to Omaha. As I debated my GPS’ advice, Sister Helen chattered. As I squinted into the darkness, Sister Helen fidgeted with my heater’s controls and pushed buttons. When we arrived at my house, where Sister Helen was to spend the night before heading home, I expected she’d be ready for bed. I’m an introvert, and if I had done two days of public speaking and engagement, I would be aching to slam a door on the world.
Sister Helen, on the other hand, accepted a glass of wine from my husband, and the three of us sat down while she regaled us with Cajun jokes. Sister Helen is not an introvert.
Now in her eighties, she’s produced a memoir, “River of Fire, My Spiritual Journey.”
The book barely mentions the death penalty, the focus of her life’s work. Instead, it’s the spiritual journey that took her up to the moment when she was first asked to correspond with a Death Row inmate.
She had a joyful childhood with parents devoted to each other, reminding me of the happy family life of the young St. Therese of Lisieux. For younger Catholics, her description of her Catholic upbringing and her years in formation for the Congregation of St. Joseph may sound like ancient history. For those who grew up on the cusp of Vatican Council II, it’s a sometimes-painful memory lane. Just one example: Sisters were allowed one visit home. They could choose to visit a dying parent, or they could attend the funeral.
It’s also a first-hand look at the seismic shift that the Council projected unto the Church. Of course, as Sister Helen remembers, the questions started earlier: “It feels as if the structure of the traditional religious universe is cracking apart,” she writes. And later: “Out of this upheaval the Second Vatican Council has been born.”
Sister Helen reflects on the meaning of this for her life and vocation. Like many religious sisters then, she was called to study theology and new worlds opened. For me and many others, religious sisters have been the heroes of the last fifty years, Sister Helen among them.
Growing up in upper-class Louisiana society, Sister Helen accepted that African-American servants had separate bathrooms at every house (as in the book and movie “The Help”). The Catholic schools she attended were segregated. The nuns taught the well-to-do. “Social justice” was a foreign concept.
But gradually, Sister Helen realizes she is called to be on the margins where Jesus lives. And that made all the difference.
But the sixties and seventies were crazy times. A jaw-dropping moment for me: while remaining faithful to her vow of celibacy, Sister Helen describes an intense relationship with a priest. I’ll leave it up to others to decide how they feel, but I admire her transparency. We need a lot more of that.
This book is good not just because of Sister Helen’s journey, but for the bigger story it reflects of the journey we’re all making alongside her in this wonderful, chaotic community we call Church.