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Helen Prejean, C.S.J.April 13, 2009

When you are invited to write an article about “vocation,” it helps if you are already writing a book on your spiritual calling, as I am doing right now. Just last week, in fact, I wrote:

Discerning vocation is not always easy, but one sure sign that we are being called is that the idea keeps coming: Why don’t you do this? You know you want to do this. And we can picture it and we cannot shake it, and we know we are going to have to give it a try just to get some peace. But it is not like being obsessive or compulsive, which deep down comes from some sort of fear. When a vocation fits who we are, by living it we feel ourselves growing into a stronger, truer self, even though the going gets rough and at times we feel confused and tired. The kind of “tired” we feel is worth noting. It is not that heavy, sad fatigue we carry around like a low-grade fever, a form of depression. Life work demands genuine expenditure. We spend ourselves, maybe exhaust ourselves. But the energy flowing out of us feels natural, just the opposite of feeling pulled at by others, who have their own ideas about what we ought to be doing. When we let this happen, we feel resentful and cranky and sad.

I do not feel resentful or cranky or sad, so I guess my boat must be sailing the current of my true calling. Or better, my calling within a calling, because, as you know if you have been at this for a while, the call just keeps expanding—but not in a vacuum, for the Christian call always comes in this way: to follow, to imitate, to embody Jesus Christ.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

In my life I have ridden that current as a Sister of St. Joseph, and as it turns out, the vessel of Sisterhood has proved a trustworthy vessel for me. I was carried a while, seeking to mold myself as an exemplary nun, until the current caught my boat to follow Christ in a very particular, unique work: accompanying death row prisoners to their deaths, being there for them faithfully; visiting, supporting, serving, praying, comforting and confronting, loving, writing and enlisting others to write and visit. Always seeking to show them the face, even as others strap them down to kill them—even when, as a service to society, the state disposes of their lives in a way that’s legal and approved with opinion polls backing it up, shoring up that yes, this is what the people want: your death. And being there to be the face, to be the presence, to assure them, tell them, witness to them even in the last moments of their lives: “You are a child of God, you have a dignity that no one can take from you. Look at me, look as they kill you, look, and I will be the face of Christ for you.”

Then, like St. John in his First Epistle, writing, speaking, traveling, proclaiming what my eyes have seen and my ears have heard and my hands have touched—the trembling shoulder of the condemned, led into the room where the gurney waits—that is, the Word of Life.

This is the amazing journey into the heart of the Gospel of Jesus: to love, to forgive, to allow no one to be enemy—at least for long—to feel the sufferings of others as our own and then to drop the stones at our feet, powerless now to hurl them at another. The call, I hear it, keep hearing it, to teach the people, to keep getting on planes to reach out to the people, to help them navigate the greatest heart journey of all: from vengeance to compassion, right straight into the heart of a merciful Savior. “Go and learn what this means. It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.”

My Own Heart’s Journeying

My own heart traveled first to the condemned, then belatedly to the families of their victims. Belatedly, because at first I did not get it, did not hear the call that I must not choose sides, that I must reach out in compassion to the families of perpetrators and victims alike. After Patrick Sonnier’s electrocution in 1984, the very first man I ever accompanied, I read with distress the angry letters to the editor in the New Orleans paper about me. My soul was untouched by their anger that I was coddling a cruel, cold-hearted monster. On that score my soul felt pure, untarnished by guilt. They just did not understand. They had not witnessed the torture, the anguish, the futility of his death.

No, the guilt came from my neglect of the victims’ families. “She didn’t throw us a crumb,” bereaved parents told reporters. They were right; I was wrong. I had not reached out to them. I was afraid. I was cowardly. I was afraid of their anger, their scalding rejection. So I had stayed away. But I was wrong. Guilt was salutary. The new call of God was in the guilt. I heard my own heart’s anguish. Guilt shoved my boat out onto new waters.

I reached out to victims’ families—even if they scorned me, rejected me, hurled insults at me. My suffering was nothing, piddling nothing, next to their great sorrow in the violent, tearing, irrevocable loss of their loved one.

Grace was waiting for me.

First it came in the compassionate, wide, loving heart of Lloyd LeBlanc, whose only son David had been killed by Patrick Sonnier and his brother. We prayed together, Lloyd and I, and soon I was seated at his kitchen table, eating with the family, they forgiving my terrible mistake, taking me in like a lost daughter.

As I write this, my heart still resonates with gratitude. Lloyd LeBlanc was my first teacher. Through him I got a peek into the chasm of suffering that families endure, who wake up one morning and everything is alive and humming and normal and by evening face the unalterable fact of the death of a loved one.

I am still learning to hear God’s call.

Yahweh in the burning bush to Moses, the first revelation of the heart of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, said: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people and have heard their cry.”

Attuned to the Call

I was 40 years old when I finally heard the cry of Christ to serve poor people. It took me that long to awaken to the call of the Gospel to make a preferential option to be with poor people. I went to live with poor and struggling African-Americans in New Orleans, and from them I began to learn the life-and-death struggle for justice. Unexpectedly, joyfully, out of solidarity in struggle, I learned to pray in a way I had never prayed before.

Now, staying on the road, as Jesus and his disciples did, I stay attuned for the call, which now comes, this week, this month, to help launch a new initiative to mobilize the 66 million Catholics of this nation to end the death penalty. We call ourselves the Catholic Mobilizing Network, and we work in collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who in 2005 initiated The Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. And I invite you to join us.

May I direct you to a book—one of the best out there—on sacred calling? If my words enkindle your soul’s desire to follow God’s call more ardently, this book, like a trusty compass, will steer your way. The book is A Sacred Voice Is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience, by John Neafsey (Orbis Books).

Now set your sails and brace yourself for a riveting ride. Who knows to what shore God will take you? If it is not scary and surprising and an adventure all at the same time, it is not the call of the Gospel of Jesus. Enjoy the ride.

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15 years 2 months ago
I am glad you heard the call of the Lord to serve the poor. I only wish you would also hear His call to serve the unborn. You, holy Sister Helen, have never condemmened abortion. Let us be consistent in condemmning the killing of the innocent as well as the guilty!
15 years 2 months ago
Beautiful article. An epistle, like one of those of St. Paul. And then, "I was in prison and you visited me...". How many Christs have we killed in this country ? Enough, already. I,for sure, will join this effort described by Sister Prejean.
15 years 2 months ago
As I am discerning my own lay calling, it is heartening to hear how these journeys are truly enlightening and strengthen our relationship with God and others. Thank you Sr. Prejean for a wonderfully insightful article. One that speaks to all of us.
Edison Woods
15 years 2 months ago
Over the years since becoming a Catholic in 1977 I have heard a great deal about love and mercy. Everybody myself included wants mercy for themselves when they face the judgment seat of Christ. But to have mercy we must show mercy; unfortunately that is not always easy to do. Especially when one thinks of the victims of crime and their families. How horrible for a mother to think of her only son murdered. The baby she once cradled in her arms brutally killed by a stranger who knows nothing of her love for her child. And yet every child born has a mother including a murderer. Our Lord's mother once cradled him in her arms and he made her the mother of all the human race including criminals. I know no better argument against the death penalty than this divine fact.

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