She probably never wore blue in her life. Indigo and purple and blue were the colors wealthy people wore. Not young Miriam of Nazareth, just one more brown-skinned Palestinian girl.
If the angel had not visited, we would never have heard of her—impossible to imagine, now that our lives have been so changed by her son.
We need a flesh-and-blood Mary because that is who we are. We need to touch the holy fire she touched and to recognize divine invitations when they come our way—even when what we are summoned to do seems crazily impossible. “Nothing is impossible for God,” the angelic messenger sweetly pointed out, having dispatched his thunderbolt of an invitation to the young Galilean girl.
It is helpful to remember, as we read the Gospel stories of annunciations and the response they elicit, that they were written after years of meditation by a believing community. After the thunderbolt, the tranquil account sits there on the page, and we know well the outcome: yes, of course, Mary said yes. It sounds so predictable, so inevitable.
Then there’s ordinary us, just muddling around trying to wend our way through all the angst and anxiety and uncertainty. I get it. I know about muddling around in this ever-unfurling life of mine.
St. Basil said in the fourth century, “Annunciations are frequent; incarnations are rare.” So, Lord knows how many “annunciations” I’ve missed, but there has been one big one that I recognized, where the invitation of grace took hold and radically altered the trajectory of my life.
There is a corner in our little office that we call Annunciation Corner. Sister Margaret Maggio, my fellow C.S.J., who has worked for 20 years at my side to end the death penalty, knows this corner well. On the wall hangs Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation,” with Mary sitting, hands in lap, head bowed, listening to the angel. On the desk sits a telephone and computer and fax machine. Sister Margaret sits at the desk and fields the invitations that come to me—a flood since my book, Dead Man Walking, was published in 1993.
I see each request as an annunciation: invitations to speak or do a media interview or write a letter to a governor or pardon board or, most sacred of all, accompany as spiritual advisor a person condemned to death. The stream of little annunciations emanates from the Big Annunciation in my life, a cluster of revelatory experiences that took place in the 1980s: In 1980 I awakened to the Gospel call to work for justice; in 1982 I responded to an invitation to write to Patrick Sonnier on death row; in 1984 I witnessed his death at the hands of the state.
A Summons Delivered
This, in summary, is the story I told in Dead Man Walking, the writing of which was itself a delayed response to many invitations that at last I heard. It was from this trifecta of grace that I received the sacred summons to work toward awakening the nation to abolish state killing. That may sound a bit grandiose, but, believe me, when the summons came, it came there in the dark outside the prison gates right after I had seen a man electrocuted to death. I was shaken and vomiting and wondering how I had let myself get caught up in this weird, bizarre, surreal situation, and it was then that the annunciation happened and the summons came. I am putting it down in a coherent way for you now, but then it came all in a jumble, though deep down it was clear as crystal. The commitment took root in my heart and is with me still. I thought:
What I have just witnessed, most people are never going to see. They’ll hear the news about the execution and hear about the crime and be satisfied that justice was done. But from a distance. The people are good, not inherently vengeful, and I’ve got to tell this story and bring them close to the suffering, and they will be moved to reject the death penalty.
In 1984, when Patrick was killed, popular support for the death penalty was strong—according to some surveys, as high as 70 percent. It enjoyed the support of a solid majority of Catholics.
Abolish the death penalty? Impossible. Who was I to do such a task? I, who had only recently awakened to the heart of the Gospel to do justice; I, who with all my wispy plans to “convert the world to Christ” was known in my congregation as “Helen—with her feet firmly planted in mid-air”? There was no Dead Man Walking to tell the story, no film, no opera, no stage play, no musical album, no nothing. Just me, me beginning to talk about the death penalty to anyone who would listen. One voice. Impossible.
Which brings me back to Mary and her “who, me?” to the angel: “You will conceive in your womb and bear the messiah....” “How can this be since I have no relations with a man?”
I know we usually interpret Mary’s “How can this be?” around the issue of Mary’s virginity, and that is surely an appropriate way of coming to the core spiritual message that it is divine power bringing Jesus to birth. But I wonder if perhaps Mary’s incredulity might have come from an even more foundational source. Maybe it came from the fact that she knew she lived in a society in which a woman without a man as patron or advocate or husband was zilch, nothing, powerless—a nobody. Maybe Mary’s true sentiment was more along the lines of: “Who me? I’m a nobody.”
It is a common theme in the Bible: Abraham saying he and Sarah are too old to have progeny. And then there’s the runt of the litter, David, being chosen over his strong, stalwart brothers to be king; and Gideon’s protest to the angel calling him to save Israel from the Midianites: “Please, my lord…. My family is the lowliest in Manasseh, and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.”
Okay, so God prefers to work with nobodies.
Which brings me back to the experience of the annunciation in my life, which, when you see the results, you know has to be, absolutely must be, cannot but be an example of a divine “spark in the clod” of me. Just look at what is happening: death as a criminal penalty is dramatically losing the support of the people. The death penalty is dying in the United States—although far, far too slowly.
I continue to serve as a spiritual advisor to people condemned to die. I see the suffering. I feel the anguish, the torture of life and spirit slowly eking away as human beings await death. But it is still very much hidden. The majority of us cannot hear the cries or feel the pain or see the anguish, and so the death penalty drags on and we keep on killing. That is why I stay on the road, telling the story to all who will listen, ever trying to stay alert to new annunciations.
I know that my Congregation of Saint Joseph and I, along with many other hard-working people in this country, are doing our part to end state killing, but we still have much to do. So we press on, praying with Mary as we go, our spirits rejoicing, proclaiming God’s greatness. In truth, our God looks with compassion on our lowliness and in us—even in us—continues to do great things.