We Sisters of St. Joseph have this maxim: Never leap ahead of grace. But when grace comes, follow it generously and faithfully. It’s like riding a wave, and I’m trying to stay poised on the tiny surfboard of my life, give or take a few wipe-outs, trying to listen to grace and be true to its call.
I slept through my baptism. But here was the first gift of grace, a loving Catholic Mama and Daddy, who brought me to St. Agnes Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and taught me to pray and to be quiet to listen to the nudges and stirrings of God’s Spirit. The spiritual life is a continual waking up to God, with the question: what? what? what do you want me to do?
That’s risky to ask of God. It brought me to death row, to stand up for some of the poorest, most despised people on earth.
When I joined the convent at 18, I didn’t know what lay in store. That’s how grace works – slowly, imperceptibly, building, steadily rising. It isn’t a smooth canoe ride. When asked to be a pen pal to a death row inmate, I thought all I’d do was write letters. I never dreamed Louisiana was going to electrocute this man – much less that I would be with him in the killing chamber and watch him die. When I wrote the letters we hadn’t had an execution in Louisiana in 20 years. I hadn’t even noticed that the Supreme Court had put the death penalty back. See what I mean? Sneaky Jesus. Of course, grace unfurls inside us as we need it. Not ahead of time. The truth is I didn’t have the grace then to shoulder it all.
Which brings me to my community. The Great Gift of Sisterhood is our prayer together, searching out our Gospel mission together, supporting each other and challenging each other to be generous in service to the poor ones, the despised ones, the elderly castaways, our besieged planet, abused children, battered women, immigrants, trafficked young men and women, and criminals and their traumatized victims.
If I didn’t belong to my congregation, I might have lived my entire life as a nice person, but never one who tackles huge issues of injustice. Without community I wouldn’t have the courage, or even the insight, in the first place. Through my community I awoke to justice as integral to the Gospel.
We religious expend our lives for people who need us. We entered religious life to serve and will do that until our last breath. New women join us as vowed members; and associates - women and men - share our spiritual life and our ministries. Not in crowds as in the 50’s and 60’s, but that’s okay. It’s a new day, and in God’s grace we are ever new.
With death row prisoners and murder victims’ families, I’ve met the cross. Mary gives me strength. After 25 years in this ministry I wonder how I made it through six executions and gatherings of victims’ families in a room so thick with pain that I could scarcely breathe. At every step, my Sisters have been at my side. When Patrick Sonnier was executed he needed a place to be buried – please, don’t let the prison bury me, they’re the ones killing me, he had pleaded, it was my Sisters who found a mortuary to prepare his body and gave him one of our burial plots, where Patrick rests to this day.
I look back and see God’s good grace that awakened me and carried me – all within my religious community, which may be in my life the greatest grace of all.
Sister Helen Prejean is a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, whose life was featured in the movie Dead Man Walking. Currently she is writing a memoir, River of Fire, about the spiritual journey that led her to death row. Random House will publish it.