We Sisters of St. Joseph have this maxim: “Never leap ahead of grace. But when grace comes, follow it generously and faithfully.”
I guess, in a nutshell, this is what I try to be about in my vocation as a religious sister. It’s like riding a wave, and I’m trying to stay poised on the tiny surfboard of my life, in all the peaks and troughs — give or take a few wipeouts — trying my best to listen to grace and be true to its call.
Just like you. Just like all of us who seek to have the mind of Christ and follow his holy way of compassion. Aren’t we all just trying to live out the call to be Christ in the world — his eyes and hands and heart — that we received at baptism? I pretty much slept through my baptism. I was a baby. I don’t remember a thing. But here was the first gift of grace — a loving Catholic mama and daddy, who brought me to the font in St. Agnes Church in Baton Rouge, La., that day and taught me to pray.
When you think of it — what prayer really is — isn’t it learning to be quiet so we can listen to the nudges and stirrings of God’s Spirit moving in us? I think of the spiritual life as this continual waking up to God, with the burning question always: What? What? What do you want me to do?
That’s a dangerous, risky thing to ask of the living God. It’s what brought me to death row. It’s what brought me to stand up for some of the poorest, most despised people on earth that plenty of people have been eager to dispose of. People on death row aren’t even considered human by some of us. Many see them as so evil, so unredeemable, that the only way we can be safe is to kill them. We cut them off from the land of the living and say “Good riddance.” Or, when they’re executed: “Justice is done.”
Believe me, when I joined the Sisters of St. Joseph as an 18-year-old “bride of Christ,” I didn’t have a clue about what lay in store for me. No idea. But, of course, that’s the way grace works — slowly, imperceptibly, building, steadily rising and then, bam! The next thing you know you’re riding the current of a strong, huge waves, then the wave crashes, and you’re tumbling helplessly underwater against sand and rocks and swirling foam, and you find yourself thrown onto a beach. And you know you’ve been changed forever.
Riding the current of God’s call isn’t always exactly a smooth canoe ride on a glassy lake. I say: Watch out for Jesus, watch out for his invitations. He’s sneaky as all get-out. Sneaky Jesus.
When I got an invitation one day to be a pen pal to a death row inmate in Louisiana, I thought all I’d be doing was writing letters. I said, hey! — I’m an English major, I know some poetry, I can write some really nice letters. I never dreamed the state of Louisiana was going to electrocute this man to death — much less that I would be there 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. It was the early 1980s and there had been a moratorium on executions, and I hadn’t even noticed that the Supreme Court had put the death penalty back. See what I mean? Sneaky Jesus. Of course, when I got the invitation to write, I had no idea of how it was all going to end.
Simply put: 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. Maybe this is how the saying in Latin America came about: “The path is made by walking.” No map first to chart the way. It unfurls as we go. I’m learning to trust that there’s no blueprint, that the way the kingdom of God is within us, as Jesus said, is that the Spirit calls, we listen, then cooperate with God’s light and strength to do the deed.
Gift of sisterhood
Like Mary, we stay alert to the annunciations that come our way, then struggle to discern the call and say our “yes” to bring Christ to birth anew in the world. Be it done to me, be it done within me, be it done, even in an ordinary soul like me. And we cling to faith, and we know and believe and live in the hope that with God nothing is impossible.
Which brings me foursquare into the role my religious community plays in my life. The great gift of sisterhood is our prayer together, our searching out our Gospel mission together, our supporting each other and challenging each other to be generous in service to the poor ones, the shunned and despised ones, the elderly castaways, our besieged planet, abused children, battered women, immigrants, trafficked young men and women, and criminals as well as their traumatized victims.
I know this much — really know — that if I didn’t belong to my beloved congregation, I might well have lived my entire Christian life as a nice person, maybe a polite and charitable person, but never a woman who rolls up her sleeves and tackles huge issues of injustice. Without community I wouldn’t have the courage. I wouldn’t even have the insight in the first place. It was, after all, through my community that I awoke to justice as integral to the Gospel. Apart from my community, I’d be — who knows? — but certainly not the woman I am. All by God’s good grace.
Lives dedicated to service
And you know that wherever Christ is, the cross and suffering will always be close by. That’s where Christ always is — close to the suffering ones. As we nuns get old and many of those we walked with and served with age and die, the cross comes close to us, as it comes to every human being, every family. Dying and behold we live.
But in every way we can, we marshal our energies and resources to keep expending our lives for people who need us. We entered religious life to serve the people and we will do that until our last breath. Blessedly, new women are joining us as vowed members and also associates — women and men — who share our spiritual life and join us in our ministries. Not in huge crowds as happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but that’s OK. It’s a new day, and in God’s grace we are ever new.
Close to the Cross
In my ministry to death row prisoners and to murder victims’ families, I have come close to the cross. Through my presence to the condemned at their executions, I have stood, literally, at the very foot of the cross.
And in this surreal situation, it is to Mary that I have turned to most of all. She knows what it means to stand there. She gives me strength. I never dreamed there could be such pain in the world, such searing loss, such unspeakable grief. I look back now on the 25 years I’ve been involved in this ministry and wonder how it’s all happened in such an unlikely disciple, and how I’ve made it through six executions and gatherings of victims’ families in a room so thick with pain that I could scarcely breathe.
And at every step of the way, 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 — and 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.
Never leap ahead of grace … I look back and recognize that it had to be God’s good grace that has awakened me and carried me — all within my religious community, which, when all is said and done, may be in my life the greatest grace of all.
Sister Helen Prejean is a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille.