Sister Helen Prejean
The clip at the beginning of this episode is from Dead Man Walking a 1996 film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Penn as an inmate on death row.
If you want to start writing letters with someone in prison, Sister Helen has put together helpful tips. Click here to read and learn how to get connected to people who are incarcerated in your area.
If you’re interested in getting involved with the work Sister Helen does to abolish the death penalty, click here.
Kate Bowler: You might remember that clip from the movie Dead Man Walking. It’s the story of a man on death row in Louisiana and the nun who accompanied him on his journey, both spiritual and physical. That nun is sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book on which the movie was based. Sister Helen’s experience on death row made her one of the best known and vocal opponents of the death penalty in the world. She continues to counsel inmates on death row as well as the families of murder victims.
Kate Bowler: Her most recent book is called River of Fire, about her own spiritual journey. I think when you meet someone with a big, beautiful life, the question is, what gave her the courage and what can we borrow from that for our own lives? Sister Helen, I’m so delighted to have you as a guest.
Sister Helen: I’m delighted to be here, Kate. This time is going to fly by, so let’s get talking.
Kate Bowler: All right. You you grew up in a really warm, very Catholic family in Baton Rouge and you chose at a very early age to become a nun. As a historian, I’d like to think I know a lot about Catholicism, but until I read your book I had no idea how much you had to give up. Can you give me a sense of what it was like to leave one world behind for another?
Sister Helen: Yeah. It literally meant once you stepped into the convent you were never going to step in your family home again. You would never eat another meal with your family. There were some sisters in those days that had to face the agonizing choice when a parent was dying, if they’d go and be with them when they were dying or if they would go and be with them after they were dead for the funeral.
Sister Helen: It also was a life where you give over your will and you were going to find the will of God strictly by being obedient to your superiors. Obedience was the highest, highest virtue, and so it didn’t matter what work you did it as long as you were doing it in obedience or if you were mopping a floor or you were writing a book or you were teaching a class, it kind of was all the same because you were doing God’s will through obedience. When Vatican II happened, Kate, nobody took the reforms of Vatican II more seriously than the Catholic nuns, and everything in our life changed because it was away from … You’d listen to one superior and there you know the will of God to discerning the needs of the world and your own gifts and what it is that you were called to do.
Kate Bowler: Vatican II might not be a familiar term for some people. Would you mind just giving a little explanation of what that was and why it changed the order of your religious life?
Sister Helen: It was the first worldwide council of the Catholic church called Pope John the 23rd, a little roly poly, older Pope.
Kate Bowler: Yeah.
Sister Helen: It was the first time the Catholic church had a council, not to condemn the heresy of other people, but to look at the modern world and to see how we could better respond to the needs of the modern world. All the doors were opened to freedom, self-development, and then the Latin American bishops coming right after Vatican II were the first to say, “It is the place, the prime place of the church should be to be with the poor.” We had then then this movement that happened, so it was a huge change.
Kate Bowler: Can you paint me a bit of a before and after, because you had this very contemplative, rich spiritual life, but then you have this huge transformation that you described almost like lightening striking. What happened?
Sister Helen: Yeah. You have to understand, the way religious life was described was you were seeking a life of perfection, and that meant a deep life of prayer and before Vatican II it was to do penance for the world. The vows enabled you to live very simply. You had a vow of poverty, you only had what you absolutely needed, shared everything in common, life of obedience, as I mentioned earlier, and chastity that you would not marry, to give your life over completely to Christ, to the church, to its people really.
Kate Bowler: Yeah.
Sister Helen: I really wanted the prayer and now that I look … I wrote about it in a humorous way, because I was so over the top on this. I wanted to be like a mystic. You know how the Bhagavad Gita says you never seek the fruits of your actions, well man I was in it for the fruits, pure and simply in it for the fruits. Bring in that bushel of apples, man I want to be a mystic. I had read about how Saint Teresa of Avila, she was such a mystic she’d be in the kitchen, she would start levitating near the stove. Wouldn’t that be great to have such union with God that you would levitate out of your pew?
Sister Helen: Well of course it was filled with ego. So anyway, I prayed and I prayed, tried to be deep and all that. And then it was a real conflict for me when the civil rights movement happened, our sisters went to Latin America, began to get involved with really poor, struggling people. We had these huge debates in the community. Should we be nuns for social justice? And I was taking the spiritual side like, “Look, we’re nuns, we’re not social workers. If we help poor people stay close to God they will have everything they need to deal with their life and they’ll be happy with God now.” But I didn’t know any real poor people.
Sister Helen: We go to a conference and I heard a talk by a nun, Sister Marie Augusta Neal, and she got me and it was what she said about Jesus. I had been studying Jesus, meditating on Jesus, and she said … The line that changed my life, because I guess I was ready for it, was, “Jesus preached good news to the poor.” But she said, “Integral to the good news Jesus preached to poor people is that they had dignity and they had a right not to be poor any longer, that poverty wasn’t God’s will, it’s a human system put in place and they have a right to seek what is rightfully theirs.”
Sister Helen: We look at it played out in our country today. People without healthcare, people without affordable housing, people without education. And I got it and I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans and that’s when African-American people became my teachers about the other America when you don’t have a daddy who’s a lawyer and is connected to judges and religious leaders in the city, and you’re a black kid and the police are coming after you. I began to just shed this superficial, supposedly virtuous life and I realized, I’m not so virtuous, I’m just so blooming protected and cushioned and resourced.
Sister Helen: I began to learn and then I caught on fire. Seeing the suffering is what catches you on fire. I call my book River of Fire. To me, fire is the image of passion, it’s the image of love, and I begin the book with the epigraph of Saint Bonaventure, “Ask not for understanding, ask for the fire because some things go deeper than rational understanding.”
Kate Bowler: The question of purpose that sounds like you’ve just been deeply into your whole life, I think that only started mattering to me more when I started thinking about my life as limited. It was easier for me just to pay into ideas about my career or my family or my life. It was easier just to imagine that longevity would allow me to discover purpose along the way. I don’t know, when I read your book I was so struck by the way that you keep yourself, you just seem to really keep yourself awake to what each season is open to, even if you’re not totally sure at first where it’s going to go.
Sister Helen: Yeah, but Kate you’ve got to realize it was a long time waking up for me to awaken to that dimension of the gospel, that it was more than just … Love your neighbor was more than just about being polite and charitable to the people around you. But New Orleans was a huge slave port. They used to have an auction block for slaves in what we call Jackson Square, and I was oblivious. I was oblivious to white privilege, and so the waking up, I call it grace. When you think of it, you can put yourself in good surroundings, you can read books, you can hang out with people that you believe are enlightened, but when we wake up from inside, I see it always as grace, it’s always a gift. I was 40 years old before I woke up to realize the social justice dimension of being a follower of Christ.
Kate Bowler: In 1982 you became pen pals with an inmate on death row. Would you mind just giving a brief overview of this moment that really turned you toward this kind of presence with people who were on death row.
Sister Helen: Yeah. It kind of happened by chance, accidentally, though I know that really isn’t what happened. First of all, I was in the St. Thomas housing projects. I was waking up to human rights. I was waking up to the Bill of Rights, to the cause and struggles of the poor. When I got that invitation to write to Patrick Sonnier on death row, I was walking on St. Andrew Street, right outside of Hope House where I had come out of the adult learning center. Here is somebody from the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prison, “Hey, Sister Helen!” He had a little clipboard, everybody he was bumping into he’s asking them to be part of this. “You want to be a pen pal to somebody on death row?” I thought … I didn’t know much about the death penalty, I didn’t know much about him, but I knew this, if he’s on death row he’s poor. I was there to serve poor people.
Sister Helen: Truthfully in ’82 we hadn’t had an execution in 20 years, there had been an unofficial moratorium. I never dreamed this person was going to be executed, much less than I’d be there. I thought I was just going to write letters. I was an English major, I could write some nice letters, send a few poems. When I’m talking to university kids I say, “Look, you’ve got to watch out for sneaky Jesus.” Sneaky Jesus, I think I’m only writing letters, I end up with a man electrocuted, are you kidding me? Tim Robbins loves to say … He said this in the afterword of Dead Man Walking when we did the 20-year anniversary edition, “The nun was in over her head,” and indeed I was. I thought I was only going to be writing letters.
Sister Helen: In fact, the first time I visited with Pat Sonnier we were exchanging letters. I only have his letters and he’s just saying, “No one comes to see me. My mama can’t come, she’s mentally too fragile, she can’t walk in this building where they’re trying to kill her son.” He didn’t even ask me to come, but I thought of him sitting there, condemned to death, and no one to visit him. I just wrote him and I said, “Look, I’ll come see you.” He was sneaky Jesus part two, because you have to fill out a category of visitor, like are you friend, are you wife, ex-wife?
Sister Helen: He said, “Look, you’re a nun. Would you be my spiritual advisor?” I said, “Sure, I’ll put it in.” I don’t know that when they’re going to kill him everybody’s going to have to leave the death house at 6:00 in the evening and the only one who can be with him all the way to the end, to the execution, is the spiritual advisor and it’s going to be me. It was to me the way the Holy Spirit works inside of us, when it’s truly God’s spirit. It’s like a flower bloom, it’s not like these big dramatic jerks and dramatic turns, it’s like a petal comes out. “You want to write a letter?” “Yeah, I’ll write a letter.” Then he writes back and I write and then he has no one to visit him, so I go to visit him.
Sister Helen: And then two and a half years later, there he is being killed and I’m saying, “Look at me. Look at my face.” Grace builds inside of us. The other thing, Kate, the huge grace is to learn to live in the present moment. When I was waiting through with Pat those days in the death house, if I let my mind go ahead, especially on the last day, oh it’s the morning, he’s not going to die until midnight, we have the morning, then it was the afternoon, oh it’s just 2:00, oh it’s just 5:00. But if I let my mind go ahead, because grace only comes up under us in the present moment. I learned, you’ve got to stay in the present moment. You must know that too, you have to know that too.
Kate Bowler: Yeah. I’ve got this friend who always says, “Don’t skip to the end.” I’ve always found that to be very anchoring, because otherwise I just want to fill it backwards and try to have everything I need, but it’s more … Just what you’re describing, it’s the daily or sometimes hourly surprise of somehow having more than enough in a situation where you just didn’t think you could have anything.
Sister Helen: Yeah. Anticipation, that’s part of the reason that one day in this country we will recognize the death penalty is torture because when you sentence conscious, imaginative people to death, you cannot help but anticipate your death. I had to have a root canal done one time on a Friday. Monday I’m going through that root canal, Tuesday I’m going through that. I was almost relieved when Friday came. I’ve been with people who are executed, you can’t … You have an imagination and you have consciousness and human beings imagine and we anticipate and you die a thousand times before you die, but it’s true for all of us. My day is going to come, I’m 80 years old.
Sister Helen: Just like you experience limits when you got that Stage IV, my days are limited let me … Well I know I’m not going to live forever. I’ve got a lot of life and energy in me, so it’s to stay integral, to stay organic as things unfold to say yes to them, to continue to accompany my man on death row now in Louisiana, to be faithful to that.
Sister Helen: But it’s also an adventure when you’re always learning. Imagine the learning experience, Kate, of going for the first time to death row. These people are considered so evil that our society believes the only thing we can do with them is to kill them. To go and to meet this man who had indeed done an unspeakably terrible crime and to see the human being and then what he taught me. What he taught me about love, because in the last hours before he was going to be electrocuted to death, this is Patrick Sonnier, and he’s going, “Sister Helen, are you okay?” Because he was worried about me because he knew this was all trauma for me, but to have the presence to be able to care about somebody. He said, “Sister look, I don’t want you seeing this at the end. You just pray for me, pray God holds up my legs as I walk, but you can’t be there. You can watch this.”
Sister Helen: All I knew was, there’s no way this man is going to be electrocuted to death by the state, every face looking at him wants to see him die. And I said, “Pat, I don’t know what it’s going to do to me, but you look at my face when they do this and I’ll be the face of love for you.” I was so strong, Kate. I was strong, I was there for him. But he was offering to me … Anybody when they’re dying, I would want somebody with me that loves me when I’m dying, you want people close. He was willing to give that up.
Kate Bowler: You write, “I want to care deeply for someone and hopefully have someone care deeply for me. It’s not that God isn’t enough, it’s the opposite really. If God truly is love, then the deeper I love, the more I know God. That’s one really good thing about the Christ life, it’s grounded in love of flesh and blood people.”
Kate Bowler: I’m a massive believer in that, that you can’t just love people in general, you have to love them in particular.
Sister Helen: Yes.
Kate Bowler: You’ve found really beautiful friendships, like your friendship with Sister Chris was really stunning to read about.
Sister Helen: Everybody needs intimacy and personal intimacy. Most people just think sexual intimacy, but there’s all kinds of intimacy. Married or not, single or not, if people don’t have close friends, how can we ever really develop fully as human beings? I don’t know how we do it.
Kate Bowler: Yeah. That’s been the big gifts of my life is those close people, the ones who know your absurdities, that’s when you know they’re really in deep.
Sister Helen: Yeah. How true. I wish we could reverse this thing, I could interview you.
Kate Bowler: You’ve been on this wild adventure of faith and I really love the way you write about the great mystery of it. I was wondering if you would mind reading that beautiful passage about the resurrection life.
Sister Helen: Oh yeah. “Maybe the mystery of life coming from death is not only about end of life on earth, but also part of our ordinary experiences of loving and losing, a feeling our life is taking shape, getting purpose, drive, zing, only to plummet, sometimes into confusion, darkness, despair. Soar and plummet, soar and plummet. What does it all mean? My life is fake, hollow. Whom do I love? Who really loves me? Time is running out. We’re talking resurrection, meaning life after death? What about life before death?”
Kate Bowler: That’s so beautiful.
Sister Helen: You know what? That was graffiti on a wall in Northern Ireland.
Kate Bowler: Really?
Sister Helen: Is there life before death?
Kate Bowler: Yeah. There’s this big positive psychology movement where everyone wants to instrumentalize faith. Something always has to make your life quantifiably better in some way.
Sister Helen: Good luck.
Kate Bowler: Yeah, exactly. But I have found that one of the richest ways is just more like an infusion, letting the love of God and the love of others just sink into your pores and then make the difference of life before death.
Sister Helen: Boy, that is so hard to do because where we so try to control, at least I do. Let me lay out this agenda here, these things I’ve got to … But then to be open and simply to receive. You know what’s been a great gift in my life, Kate, is I have a little bird feeder outside my window. When birds come it’s a gift because they’re free, they don’t have to come to your feeder. You just receive them as a gift and then they can fly off. Put water there for them too and just watching birds, it’s teaching me something.
Kate Bowler: Yes. I’ve been totally enamored with birds ever since I got sick. I put bird feeders up everywhere just to see the little delight of it and I can sit there no matter how sleepy or tired I am with my son and just be delighted.
Sister Helen: Yeah. Oh, and a child. Oh God, that must be something, Kate. To see your little child bloom, oh my goodness gracious. What a miracle.
Kate Bowler: Yeah. Kids are the big surprise because they are whoever they are, you just discover them.
Sister Helen: Yeah. Gosh, yes. Yeah.
Kate Bowler: Thank you so much for making faith into a real discovery for me. This has been an honor.
Sister Helen: Oh, it’s all mutual. All the best stuff is mutual, Kate. Thank you.
Kate Bowler: I am so hungry for purpose lately. Just starving for it. I want to know what to do and how to do it, and what even matters! Tell me if I should be quitting my job or calling my mom or seeing the pyramids. Speaking of which, I need to call my mom.
I love how Sister Helen talks about purpose. It’s gentle, like petals unraveling one at a time to point you to the gift you have to give. She knew that hers was to be the face of love, as she discovered that she was capable of love that would transform her life.
So maybe a life of faith and purpose doesn’t have to mean one giant, life-altering decision. But it maybe it looks like trusting Sneaky Jesus to light the way, one tiny yes at a time.
So I’m praying for that kind of bravery for all of us. The gentle nudges. I can practically hear my mom saying, call me back. Oh wait. That is her. I’ll talk to you later.