I’m not a big reader of nonfiction, but sometimes my attention is caught and a nonfiction book sneaks onto my To Read list. I became aware of Sister Helen, who’s been a nun since 1957, through hearing her interviewed on NPR. She’s a social justice activist working to abolish the death penalty. Have you heard of the award-winning 1995 movie, Dead Man Walking? It was based on her 1993 memoir, which I plan to read too — River of Fire is its prequel.
Most of what I knew about Catholicism came from comments by the four older girls living next door in my childhood. I remember them taking catechism classes. One told me about sex, which is funny when you realize she was relaying what she learned from nuns. What Sister Helen writes about changes stemming from Vatican II, which propelled the Catholic Church into more enlightened thinking in the 1960s, is fascinating. I previously thought of Catholicism as a monolithic structure that didn’t allow the freedom of individuality.
Unexpectedly, reading this book awakened my dormant interest in philosophy and religion and made me aware of some personal feelings bordering on prejudice against “Christians,” which largely arose since the 2016 election. I don’t identify with a political party but have strong feelings about a certain former president. Why did I let his “us vs. them” thinking get into my head, even a little? I’m going to do my best to root it out.
Without further ado, let’s dive into quotes from the “Sparrow Song” chapter, titled after a paper Sister Helen wrote:
… I’m learning to embrace the natural goodness of things, knowing that God is in the goodness, and I no longer have to practice a lot of penances and sacrifice to curry God’s favor. Not as we had learned in the novitiate: “If something was good, it was always ‘more perfect’ to sacrifice it,” I wrote. “I had in my mind that the more difficult a thing was for me, the happier it made God.”
This attitude that pain pleases God has a long religious history. In the novitiate I remember picking up a book on asceticism (stripping away attachment to earthly things), which recommended that if something really delicious was served at a meal, to counteract the pleasure, one should quietly raise a leg under the table and continue to hold it in a strained position. Keep that aching leg up. Don’t you dare enjoy that fresh, sweet, succulent corn on the cob.
Good God almighty! That’s distressing. Why would God create functioning brains yet prefer miserable adherents? What an absolute relief Vatican II must’ve been to Catholics yearning to use their ingenious brains. Embracing “the natural goodness of things” is such a simple pleasure.
Sister Helen’s closest friend was a nun named Chris, with whom she corresponded whenever they were separated. Chris was a nurse holding down a stressful job, helping to support their community, whereas Helen was getting opportunities for additional religious and educational training, which made her feel guilty.
In this quote from the “Cabrini Parish” chapter, Helen’s debating what to tell Chris about a fellow student she became close to while away at a training course but barely mentioned in letters. That new friend is a priest: William.
… I’m the one inside myself, and I know what I think, what I feel, and what I intend, and I’m figuring that there’s room inside my soul for both her and William — and the community. Maybe I’m like a carbon atom with valency to form bonds with a lot of other atoms. Different people spark different parts of me — humor, curiosity, spirituality. (Doesn’t every interaction between two people have a unique “chemistry”?) Maybe Chris is more like a hydrogen atom with just one portal open for close relationships. Maybe, when it comes to relationships, different people are just configured differently. …
High valency or not, I know I need Chris. I need the way she slows me down, the way she quiets me. Everything she says comes from her soul.
I enjoyed learning a new word here — valency — and Helen’s description of the chemistry of human interactions. Later in that chapter:
We’ve been friends now for four years. Enough time for the contours of our relationship to take shape. … Chris and I have invested a lot of ourselves in each other. We’ve built trust. And we keep seeing that we’re good for each other. Our friendship tree keeps sprouting fresh green leaves.
Now, here comes William, upsetting the balance. I can tell Chris feels tense about my closeness with him. The tension hasn’t hit the air — it’s unspoken — but it’s there, and it makes me feel tense as well. …it’s not like Chris and I are married — as if we’re linked solely to each other for our happiness. We’re part of a community, and in our vocation our two boats will never nestle in a snug, domestic harbor. We’ll always be out on the open sea. Maybe that’s true for all of us.
Pre-Vatican II, Helen wouldn’t have had much opportunity to form, let alone acknowledge, a friendship with a priest. As a woman who enjoys and has chosen marriage twice, I find Helen’s rejection of it — in favor of living a religious life — challenging. Healthy secular people aim for “work-life balance.” I guess I simplistically perceived nuns’ lives as being all work and no separate “life.” It’s hard to imagine obtaining life satisfaction from a community, not a personal family.
A few pages later:
Will knows I’m happy as a nun, and we banter about how I could never be “domesticated.” He admits that marriage would hem me in. …Whenever we discuss this subject, he always comes away sad. …When all is well between us, Will says that he wants from me only love that I can freely give, that he’ll never force me into giving what I don’t want to give, and it’s enough for him to know he has a special place in my heart.
Helen’s descriptions of her relationship with Will, which did not exclude kissing, were eye-opening. You know what? Nuns are people too! I knew that in my head but not emotionally. She matter-of-factly mentions other nun/priest relationships ending with individuals leaving the Church. That’s not what she wants at all.
From the end of the next chapter, “An Evening at the Garveys’,” comes this:
Pope John XXIII has his own … mantra to guide us as we launch this new way of being Catholic into the world. “Unity in essentials, freedom in nonessentials, and in everything, charity.”
Let me repeat that: “Unity in essentials, freedom in nonessentials, and in everything, charity.” What a succinct and excellent affirmation and goal for us all amidst tumultuous times that bear resemblance to the ’60s. We presumably learned some new things then and can hope we’re in the process of building on them — and taking the next step — now. Those words might apply in all sorts of relationships: in homes (especially in marriages — love really is a verb); in workplaces; and in cities, counties, and countries.
Here’s a humorous “story that’s going around” from the next chapter, “Jesus at Notre Dame.”
Patty Crowley, one of the few laypeople allowed to participate in the birth control commission during Vatican II, tells of a monsignor on the commission who got extremely upset when it looked like the commission was moving toward recommending that the Church modify its teaching on birth control (which it did — only to be overruled by Pope Paul VI). He asked in great perplexity: “For hundreds of years the Church has taught that the use of artificial methods of birth control is a mortal sin, punishable in the fires of hell. If we change Church teaching now, what will happen to the millions we have sent to hell?”
Crowley replied: “Monsignor, do you really believe that God has obeyed all your orders?”
LOL! What a perfect answer. I knew only that the Church’s birth control policy was unchanged. I didn’t know about the commission’s recommendation. Fingers crossed that it will become reality sooner rather than later.
Will we see a Vatican III in our lifetime, with progress toward inclusion and acceptance? How do we lose all the labels and work together again? “I’m right so you’re wrong” isn’t working very well for most of us in the US. According to this story by James Finn, it’s quite different in Germany, where many same-sex unions will be officially blessed on May 10.
In the next chapter, “A Fork in the Road,” Sister Helen ends her close friendship with William after accepting a new, challenging job — director of novices:
I’ll say, “Look, I chose to take on this new responsibility in my community. It’s who I am, and if I’d said no to it I would have betrayed my own soul. I need distance. I feel entrapped by you. Mostly now it’s fear of your being upset that’s behind my phone calls and visits. It’s fear, not love.”
…I can let Will go. Turn him over to God. Like the lady whose husband always came home drunk and one night fell down in a stupor on the front lawn and a neighbor gave spiritual counsel to the aggrieved woman, telling her: “Don’t you go out there. You just let him lay where Jesus flang him.”
It’s interesting to consider “not my circus, not my monkeys” from a religious standpoint. This memoir wasn’t anything like what I expected, going in.
And a page or so later:
As Jean S. Bolen puts it in her book Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women, the core meaning of the Virgin Archetype is integrity in one’s being, “the ‘one-in-herself’ character,” who is owned by no one and does not act out of the desire to be approved of or even to control. “She does what she does … because what she does is true.” Thus, in its core meaning, virginal can be understood as a quality of single-heartedness, purity of intent….”
Bolding above is mine — what a powerful concept, which I interpret very personally. I’m experiencing retirement as increased time for reflection and creativity — similar to my teens but with fewer constraints and expectations. No one “owns” me or my time now. I no longer feel much need to act out of a desire for approval. Am I mature enough yet to stop acting out of a desire to control? Apparently, no.
Though most of my adult life I’ve believed control is an illusion, it’s scary and uncomfortable to consider what striving to act at all times on that belief might entail. Sister Helen is braver and less lazy than I am.
Bolen’s book is now on my To Read list — it’s intriguing that Helen found it quoteworthy. Who knows, it might take me a few steps further along my own spiritual journey.
In this memoir, Helen describes how her religious calling evolved from a focus on religious education to social justice. From the “Director of Novices” chapter comes this quote:
Awakening to the real struggles of desperate people on the margins in a way that ignites compassion and concrete action is a grace, a precious gift — which at this point in my life I clearly don’t have. I just don’t get the Sisters going on and on about all this justice-for-the-poor stuff. As if affluent and middle-class people don’t have spiritual struggles, too?
It’s not that I’m doing anything wrong. I’m not being mean-spirited, and there’s surely nothing the matter with praying for people who are suffering. What I take from these arguments in the Sisterhood is that I have to pray even harder for God to help poor people in the world — and I definitely need to work harder at being charitable toward our in-your-face activist nuns, who are quickly becoming my nemeses.
This description is so timely in light of BLM/white privilege discourse over the last year. At the end of the chapter, Helen’s still thinking “We’re nuns, not social workers.” One of the best parts of reading a memoir — or a personal essay here on Medium—is getting a feel for how the author’s mind works.
And finally, the “Lightning in Terre Haute” chapter informs us how 22 words, spoken by Sister Marie Augusta at a community gathering in 1980, change Sister Helen’s life path:
… Marie Augusta says: “Jesus preached good news to the poor.” And I’m thinking, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know those words by heart, and I’m waiting, I’m sure about what’s coming next, what the good news of eternal salvation must be for poor people. Isn’t the best of Gospel good news that God, like a kind daddy, personally loves each of us, including the poor, and watches over every intimate detail of our lives?
….But that’s not what Marie Augusta says.
She says, “Integral to that good news is that the poor are to be poor no longer.”
….What Jesus was telling them, Marie Augusta says, is that, far from accepting lives of oppression and misery as God’s will, they have God’s blessing to resist the injustices that make their lives wretched. Their very dignity as sons and daughters of God calls them to strive for what is rightfully theirs. Justice, not charity. Active struggle, not passive compliance.
I can identify with this by remembering aha! moments of my own related to same-sex marriage — while listening to an NPR story years ago, and BLM/white privilege — a Twitter quote I ran across on Facebook just last year. Sometimes you have to hear the message repeatedly, phrased in different ways or perhaps in different contexts, before a new concept rings true to your own heart.
I look forward to reading Sister Helen Prejean’s other books and any comments fellow My Selection writers/readers share about this selection. If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much!
The Holy See — A Side Note
A well-known term related to Catholicism has impinged on me since I married and changed my last name at age 24. Occasionally when we meet, people ask, “are you Catholic?” then laugh — or they valiantly attempt a joke about my name.