Sister Helen Prejean was back in Nebraska recently. The nun, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, has probably done more to turn the tide against the death penalty in America than anyone else.
But beyond that, she’s simply a wonderfully inspirational speaker and a great storyteller. She can move a whole room to laughter with her Cajun drawl.
Since I work for an organization that supports repeal of the death penalty, I was happy to sign up for her daylong retreat, “A Life Against Death.”
My friend Stacy attended as well. She had heard Sister Helen speak for the first time four years before, and it had been a pivotal and spiritual moment for her. She was so inspired that she joined the board of the Nebraska repeal movement, and today she is the group’s executive director. She’s my boss.
Stacy told me about sitting with Sister Helen at lunch four years ago. Stacy expressed how upset some of the issues surrounding the death penalty made her. Stacy recalls Sister Helen’s emphatic response: “Stacy,” she said, “it’s not good enough to be upset. You’ve got to do something about it.”
I don’t know how many times in the past few weeks I’ve pondered those words. It’s not good enough to be upset. You’ve got to do something about it.
“Don’t ask for the light. Ask for the fire.” — St. Bonaventure
Those are words to live by, and they apply to any issue about which we care deeply. How often do we see an event, an issue, a contemporary problem, and feel strongly, but where do our feelings take us? Do we shake our head and feel compassion, anger, a sense of indignation? Do we talk about it at the dinner table perhaps, and then tomorrow move on?
Here’s a quote Sister Helen gave us from St. Bonaventure: “Don’t ask for the light. Ask for the fire.”
In other words, take your concerns about any issue to God and ask how you should translate your concerns into action. Move from concern to passion. Ask for the fire.
Years ago my spiritual director was another great nun. She was a no-nonsense type, and on the end table in her office was a sign that simply said, “Just do it.” There comes a time when we need to act on our convictions.
If an issue calls to us — immigration, prison ministry, human trafficking, working with pregnant moms — it’s time to pray over that issue and act.
If you’re at the time in life that I am — kids out of the house, more free time, looking at perhaps the last third of my life — it’s time to “just do it.”
We don’t have forever, and sometimes it takes a few years under your belt to realize that. None of us has forever.
Sister Helen was moved, not by something academic, but by life experience. She was asked to be a pen pal with someone on death row. It was that simple.
She didn’t realize he would want her as a spiritual director. She didn’t know she was moving down a road that would lead her to be the main witness to his death, that she would tell him to keep looking at her as he died and that she would be the face of Christ to him at that moment.
It all started because she said yes to a simple thing, an easy request. Saying yes is where it starts for all of us. Just do it. Just ask for the fire.