'Five Years in Heaven': Author Q&A with John Schlimm

John Schlimm is an American Catholic author, educator, activist, and artist. Named after Saint John Evangelist, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Marymount University with a B.A. in Communications & Public Relations and a minor in Studio Arts, earned his dual Secondary Education Certifications in English and Speech Communications at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and completed his Master’s Degree in Education at Harvard University.

A fifth-generation member of one of the country’s oldest and most historic brewing families (Straub Brewery), his past books include “The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Happy Hour: Over 325 Recipes for Your Favorite Bar Snacks & Beer Cocktails” (2014) and "Grilling Vegan Style" (2012). John also recently debuted his participatory art piece “THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours)” with installations in Canada and Washington, D.C.

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John’s newest book, “Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship that Answered Life’s Greatest Questions,” is due from Image on May 5. A free reading group discussion guide for “Five Years in Heaven” iscurrently available online. On March 17, I interviewed John by email about his writing and new memoir.

What inspired this new book?

"Five Years in Heaven" is a project that has been on my mind for several years, but because of its personal nature—the special friendship and illuminating, private conversations I shared with Sister Augustine—I thought it might be the one book I would never be able to write. But then, after about four years of my agent encouraging me to tell this story, I sought divine intervention and received it! I detail this divine intervention in the Acknowledgments section of the book, which further demonstrates the close connection and admiration I continue to share with Sister Augustine, who would have turned 100 years old this year.

Who are you writing for?

The journey in "Five Years in Heaven" began when I was 31 years old and Sister Augustine was 87 years old, and proceeded as the title suggests for the next five years. This story is about two people, from two very different walks of life who met unexpectedly (albeit I now know it was divine fate that brought us together, especially when I most needed Sister’s wisdom in my life), and how each of us inspired and impacted the other over the course of hundreds of visits. Our conversations covered the spectrum of questions we all have, whether you are young or approaching the golden twilight of your life. Therefore, I chose to write this story in such a way that no matter who you are, no matter how old you are, and no matter where you happen to be along life’s journey, you can pull up a chair and find your own meanings and inspiration in the answers that are revealed within these pages.

Where did you get the phrase “five years in heaven” for your title?

The title "Five Years in Heaven" alludes to one of the book’s themes of experiencing Heaven on earth—oftentimes when we least expect it, yet usually when we most need it. I want readers to realize that glimpses of Heaven, and the moments that ultimately light our way to Heaven, are a part of their everyday life. We just need to choose to see and to understand, and to embrace, those moments and experiences when they come along.

What is the “unlikely friendship” of your subtitle?

At face value, the “unlikely friendship” is a 31-year-old guy at a crucial crossroads in his life who meets a uniquely humble, 87-year-old nun—long forgotten by the world—who contently works the days away in her ceramics shop on the grounds of a 150-year-old convent (the oldest Benedictine convent in the U.S.). But even deeper for the reader is the message that we are all blessed with special people who pass through our lives at various times, some briefly and others for extended periods. It’s important for us to recognize when these people appear, and embrace them for the God-given gift they surely are to us at that moment in our lives. For readers, Sister Augustine will now be one of those people, just as she once was for me.

What are some of “life’s greatest questions” treated in this book?

A page doesn’t pass by in "Five Years in Heaven" without some universal question and answer we all face being addressed or some other lesson that will speak to each reader concerning their own lives. These include issues such as how best to face daily challenges, handling the joys and the sorrows in our lives, the importance of forgiveness, trusting God and His plan for each one of us, dealing with fear, embracing change, discovering and utilizing the unique gifts and talents we have each been given, the power and benefits of sharing our lives with each other, and so much more.

In what way do you understand yourself to be a Catholic writer?

I’m continually inspired by the stories of how Jesus and the Apostles, especially my namesake Saint John Evangelist (my full name is John Evangelist Schlimm II), took what we would now call a grassroots approach in reaching out to people from all walks of life—both in groups and one-on-one. Through my writing, whether it’s a social media post, an essay, a cookbook, or "Five Years in Heaven," I seek to also reach out to each reader and inspire them wherever they happen to be along life’s journey. Even when I’m delivering a speech, I do my best to make eye contact with everyone in the audience, whether it’s a small gathering or a full auditorium. To me, as a Catholic writer, this is one more extension of “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We are all in this world together, and we are each other’s responsibility. We each are teachers and students in ever reversing roles, which is another strong theme running through "Five Years in Heaven."

How has your Catholic faith evolved or changed during the course of your writing career?

One of the most beautiful aspects about faith and life in general is that we continue to learn new and wonderful things everyday. I went through twelve years of Catholic school and then attended a Catholic university, Marymount University in Arlington, VA. But like many things during our youth and school years, so much goes in one ear and out the other. However, into my twenties, thirties, and now early forties, I have chosen to better understand my Catholic faith and to continue learning and being inspired by it. For example, last summer, while alone in a refreshing creek surrounded by tall pine trees on land that has been in my family for generations, I had an incredible experience and revelation involving the Holy Spirit. Up until that point, the Holy Spirit was largely a mystery to me, as I think He is to many people. Now, every day I speak to Holy Spirit as if to a dear friend and I am continually awed by the sheer power He has in answering my prayers, guiding me to become a better and more humble person, and shining a bright light in my life.

Who are the biggest influences on your faith and writing?

I have been very blessed to come from a faith-driven family. My mother, Barb, is a model of compassion for me, tirelessly giving of herself to others, and spending a significant portion of every day reciting prayers and novenas. My father, Jack, is a model of humility for me. Also named after Saint John Evangelist, he exemplifies the truest form of selflessness and humility—much like Sister Augustine did—which is rare to see firsthand these days. "Five Years in Heaven" is dedicated to them.

Ultimately, whether it’s faith or writing, I draw inspiration from just about every person I meet. We each have the power to inspire and impact others in ways great or small, and to allow others to do the same for us. Even when I am volunteering at our local Elk County Humane Society shelter where I walk rescue dogs every week, I always pause to look into each dog’s eyes and say “I love you” to them—I see God’s handiwork in those eyes just as surely as I see it in human eyes.

To name a few of the more celebrated influences on my faith, they include Mother Teresa and Saint Francis (also a favorite of Sister Augustine’s and who is referenced in "Five Years in Heaven"), who have both revolutionized my concept of humility; Pope Francis, who makes my heart sing; Saint John Evangelist, who is a cherished and inspiring namesake (and one of the world’s greatest authors!); Blessed Mother, to whom I have prayed ever since I was a child; and Holy Spirit, who recently renewed my spirit and devotion to faith. And, as you will see in "Five Years in Heaven," Sister Augustine embodies so much of the divine spark that these other individuals also have.

I also have what I call my Heavenly Board of Directors, which I write about in "Five Years in Heaven." My Heavenly Board of Directors consists of favorite saints, family members and friends, and others who are each very special to me and who have all passed away. I figure it never hurts to have an extra army of inspiring guardian angels watching out for me!

What’s your next project?

I’m currently working on several projects, each one extending the work I have sought to perform in spreading and embracing compassion across the country and the globe. In addition to other books, I am also working on future installations of my participatory art piece titled THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours), which debuted in Canada and Washington, D.C. last year. Like "Five Years in Heaven," my SMILE piece emphasizes how each one of us has the unique power and God-given gifts to change our world for the better, in ways great and small.

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

Oh, there are so many! As a writer, I am always in awe, not only of the incredible lessons revealed through the Scriptures, but of how beautifully crafted the actual language is. I am often carried on the wings of Ecclesiastes 3:11— “God makes everything beautiful in its time.” Just reading or hearing that short line is like taking a deep, reassuring breath of the freshest air! The very powerful message expressed in those few words is a robust theme running throughout "Five Years in Heaven," and is, indeed, a theme running through each one of our lives.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

It is my hope that readers will join me and Sister Augustine as I recount the journey of the five years that changed both of our lives forever, and that they will find their own meanings and inspirations to the answers and lessons revealed. I will forever feel blessed that Sister Augustine’s and my paths crossed in this lifetime, and she will remain one of the most extraordinary individuals and teachers whom I will ever have had the honor of knowing, no matter how long my own earthly life is. "Five Years in Heaven" now belongs to every reader who picks it up, and it is also my gift to the generations to come long after I, too, have passed this way.

What are your hopes for the future?

This is a such a beautiful question.

My hope for the future is to continually become a more compassionate and humble person, and to be able to always use my God-given talents (we all have them!) to further connect with and impact the lives of others in this world. For me, the greatest joy of being a writer, artist, activist, and educator is travelling and meeting my fellow neighbors everywhere I go.

Any final thoughts?

I’ll give my dear friend Sister Augustine the last word here. Each time I recall one of her lessons, I glance upward towards Heaven and smile!

Among her many wise lessons in "Five Years in Heaven," she once told me: “Each step, whether in happiness or in sadness, is a gift. What we do with those gifts is what makes all the difference.”

AMEN TO THAT!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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