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 Sister Helen Prejean
-Margaret Wolff  
Excerpt, In Sweet Company,
Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living A Spiritual Life
 

You write frankly about the appalling conditions in the prisons, the inequities in the criminal justice system, the sorrow and rage of the victims’ families, the humiliation of the prisoners’ families, and the terror of the men you walk to their death. What sustains you in the face of such violence and despair? How do you keep from getting pulled down by it?  

She looks me square in the eyes. “It goes back to the ability to be present with people. When I accompany these inmates to their death, I leave myself—even my fear—behind. I’m totally focused on them. It’s the same thing when I sit with the victims’ families. I’m not thinking about myself at all.  

“Each person I’m with needs something different and I have to be attentive to what that is. Dobie, another man I accompanied to execution, needed me to be his coach. He was very scared. In those last hours of his life, I said things to him like, ‘Dobie, you’re about to do the bravest thing you’ve ever done. Jesus is here with you and you will have all you need to get through. I’m here with you, too.’ I took him moment by moment to his death, keeping him focused in the present every step along the way.  

“After an execution, I thaw out. That’s when I get in touch with the horror of it all. But when it’s happening, I’m so drawn out of myself that I don’t feel my own feelings. Each time, I seem to be moving in a circle of light. God’s grace is there. Strength is there. I have what I need to do what I must do.”  

I start to commend her courage, but she holds her hand up and stops my words in midair. “I never use that word about myself. I’m only doing what love requires. Love dignifies people. Execution is such a shameful, stigmatizing thing. The message these men get is that they are disposable human waste, human trash. It’s not a time to be silent. I don’t intrude, but I do provide a presence that’s there as they need me. Love carries me through. That’s what sustains me.”  

Is this something you consciously think about doing beforehand or is it something you move into when the time is right?   

“I move into it. Having walked with five inmates to their execution, I now know what to expect. There’s a readiness in me to move into that circle of light. It’s unlike anything I experience anywhere else. Time absolutely stops and yet it absolutely races.”  

As she talks, I feel myself slipping into that rarefied place within that wraps me in stillness like a babe in swaddling clothes. For just a brief moment, I have a sense of what she is talking about—the strength and safety and comfort that fuel her ability to do the work she does. I look at her and smile. She tells me how much she is enjoying our conversation, and I well up. “I’m so glad,” I say quietly. I wipe my eyes and ask my next question.  

One of the things that so moved me in your book was the way you confronted every criticism hurled at you about your involvement with these men, how you examined yourself with unblinking honesty, how you did not subordinate your conscience or sense of self in the face of the pressure to back down. How were you able to keep from giving in to what others thought you should do? To not feel hurt?  

“None of that criticism touched me. It was as if the words just pinged off me. I had been in this white hot crucible of seeing these men executed and their suffering was almost like a shield. I also knew that what my critics were saying was not really about me personally; they were acting out of their own pain. I was sensitive to the comments about not reaching out to the victims’ families because there was truth in that. I’d been afraid to confront them in the beginning, afraid I would be overwhelmed by their grief and anger, afraid of their rejection. To be in the presence of people who are in that much pain and know I’d added to their pain, caused me great turmoil. But I knew I would change that, that I would never again be with anyone on death row without first contacting the victims’ families. They almost always reject my help. They can’t understand how I can be for the person who killed their loved one and also be for them. But I reach out anyway.”   

She takes a minute to reflect. “You asked me earlier about my definition of spirituality. I think spirituality is also about the reconciliation of opposites. It’s about diving deep inside yourself beyond the polarities to a place of unity where everything holds together.”   

It’s holistic.   

“It’s very holistic. Initially, it seems as if you have to choose one thing or another; if you’re against executions you must also be against victims’ families. But that’s not true. When you operate out of the wounded places within yourself, places that are not your truest, the extremes seem irreconcilable. Life is too deep for cynicism or polarization. It just is. Compassion enables you to transcend these polarities at a place within yourself where you stand for the dignity of every human life.”  

Her words hit me like a ton of bricks. They are the answer to a paradox I’ve often wrestled with regarding self and other: When I operate out of the wounded places within myself, care of self and care of other seem irreconcilable. Move beyond my wounds, and beyond either/or, one-or the-other. Stand for the dignity of every human being—even myself. There is no polarization in that; no decision to make. There is only unity, only Oneness, only Love.

 Wow.


 Excerpt from In Sweet Company, Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life, Sister Helen Prejean
by Margaret Wolff * All Rights Reserved

 

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