book for the soul: sister helen prejean’s “river of fire”
i’ve been waiting to tell you about this one, one that pulled me in from the very first pages.
here’s how it begins:
“They killed a man with fire one night.
Strapped him in an oaken chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead.
His killing was a legal act.
No religious leaders protested his killing that night.
But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes.
And what I saw set my soul on fire–
a fire that burns in me still.”
that’s the very beginning of Sister Helen Prejean’s fiery baptism into her role as the Dead Man Walking nun who, ever since that night in the killing chamber, has devoted her days to fighting mightily and gutsily against the death penalty. and as she writes a few paragraphs later in the preface to her latest book, River of Fire, a memoir at once hilarious, soulful, and intimately detailed, recounting the spiritual journey that drew her to the executioner’s cell that night: “Once when I was inside the Louisiana death house awaiting an execution, Captain John Rabelais, a guard, asked, ‘What’s a nun doing in a place like this?'”
River of Fire is her answer to that question. and it’s as soulful a book as i’ve read in a rather long while, and a glorious read to boot! as i didn’t write in my review for the Chicago Tribune, i wound up hauling that book wherever i went for a few days, carving out hours and space in which to sidle up beside Sister Helen, who came to feel like the nun i didn’t have in fourth grade. oh, i loved sister leonora mary, but she wielded a sharp-tipped pointer, kept every hair on her head in hiding, and sure never told me the tales of the loves in her life, nor referred to herself as “a sort of free-range chicken version of a nun.”
sister helen is, by her own admission, highly free-range. and that’s how i best like my chicken — and, apparently, my nuns.
oh, lordy, to sit down beside her in real time…who knows the tales that she’d tell in the confessional of kitchen-table tête-à-tête?!
turns out, two fine friends here at this very table know her well (one is and one was a sister of the congregation of st. joseph, the very order of nuns to which Sister Helen belongs, and one is spelled out in the shortlist of acknowledgements at the end of River of Fire). both can — and animatedly do — unspool a skein of Sister Helen stories: how she shows up at sundown on the front stoop fully equipped and raring to go for a long night of story-swapping; how she holds any audience anywhere utterly spell-bound and never brings so much as a note to the podium; how in real life she’s the real deal — every bit the iconoclast and rabble-rouser she seems on the pages of her books.
before i plop down my tribune review, i’ll add this one community service announcement: sister helen will be at The Well Spirituality Center in lagrange on wednesday, october 30 at 7 p.m. (click the link above, and secure your $25 seat in the room). without notes, of course, she’ll be telling tales from the pages of her life and her books. and, as she does in her book, she’ll leave you laughing one instant, and covered in goosebumps the next, so utterly stirring is her brand of free-range wisdom and soulful epiphany.
here’s the review, as it ran in the tribune:
‘River of Fire,’ Sister Helen Prejean’s new memoir, is as irreverent as it is wise
By BARBARA MAHANY
CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 02, 2019
‘River of Fire’
By Helen Prejean, Random House, 289 pages, $27
Sister Helen Prejean is known as the nun from New Orleans who wrote prayerfully and piercingly about witnessing death-row electrocutions in a Louisiana prison. That her book about her experience, “Dead Man Walking,” rocket-blasted to best-seller status, spawned a movie, an Academy Award-winning performance, a play, and an opera that’s been produced on five continents, says something undeniable about her storytelling powers.
Prejean has done it again in her new memoir, “River of Fire.” While the subject here — her own spiritual evolution — might not be as harrowing as what she terms “government killings,” Prejean’s capacity for truth-telling, for holding little back, makes for can’t-put-it-down page-turning.
A truer title might have been “Inside the Nunnery: 1,001 Things You Were Afraid To Ask.” And Prejean tells plenty. We start innocently enough, reading about life beneath a nun’s habit of so much black serge she felt “mummy-wrapped.” She recounts the story of a nun friend once mistaken in a fabric store for a “bolt of black material,” so voluminous was the to-the-floor flesh-masking swirl of standard-issue black wool. Prejean holds back little in detailing a seven-year relationship with a hard-drinking priest, a celibate bond, to be sure, but one charged with more than some of us might ever have imagined vis-a-vis our fourth-grade nuns.
But Prejean isn’t practically a household name in social justice circles and beyond because of her knack for titillation. She oozes hard-won wisdom, soulful epiphanies, and wraps it all in breathtaking humility that shrinks any distance between author and reader. The whole way through, “River of Fire” reads as if a tête-à-tête on the schoolhouse steps, where one sits beside a beloved, much-wiser soulmate and sops up a lifetime’s worth of lessons learned, often the hard and roundabout way.
Most of all, Prejean cuts through church-preach. Time and again, she zeroes in unswervingly on the essence of radical non-conformist Jesus, the one who preached love, the one who reached out to those on the ragged margins of society.
And she’s laugh-out-loud funny. And irreverent. Sometimes, both at once. Writing about the saints — Joan of Arc in particular, the saint who was “burned at the stake on charges of heresy and the unpardonable sin of cross-dressing” — Prejean writes matter-of-factly: “I just know I’d never be a good martyr. I burned my hand once making brownies and I nursed my wound and talked about my wound and held up my poor burned hand for all to see and sympathize with. Burn at the stake? For something as trivial as holding beliefs considered to be a little unorthodox? Be burned alive for that?”
Don’t mistake her narrative hijinks or her yarn-spinning capacities as sideshows to dilute an otherwise indelible confessional and testament to the power of a life devoted to God and godliness. Rather, it’s the pure joy of reading Prejean — her gift for knocking herself off any saintly pedestal, making the reader believe that we might all leap into her river of holy fire — that makes this a spiritual work of high and radiant order.
“I have a hunch I’m going to be waking up till the moment I die,” she writes. And in so writing, the good sister opens up for all of us the doorway into our own humble stumblings toward what can only be termed the lifelong walk toward holiness.
Her parting words, almost as if she’s leaning in, there on the schoolhouse step, where you’ve now been sitting side-by-side for 286 pages, as if imploring one last life-or-death time: “I urge you to get in the conversation on human rights and stay in it. It’s the only way the arc of the universe bends toward justice.”
Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”
and what fine reads have you read of late?
Grace read Dead Man Walking a decade or so ago and Sr. Helen became her heroine. We went to see her speak at Old St. Pat’s shortly after that and as you said she is a delightful yarn-spinner! She and Grace had a lovely conversation beforehand. I have the most wonderful photo of the two of them from that evening.
of COURSE she and grace had a lovely conversation, because that certainly seems to be his sister helen rolls! hers seems a life rich in conviviality and connection. i hope someday i get to hear her yarn-spinning in person, with my very own ears. also, the opera, Dead Man Walking, based on her book and considered “one of the most riveting operas of the 21st century,” as it “explores friendship and forgiveness in the most profound ways,” opens at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on november 2. link to tickets and description here: https://www.lyricopera.org/productions/2019-20/dead-man-walking/
oh, and happy almost birthday, dear HH!!!!!!!!!!
Dead Man Walking as opera? Sounds like a must-see/hear production falling into the category of Patchett’s Bell Canto. River of Fire will also find
a space on my shelf. Happy Rosh Hashana, dear Friend.
indeed, can you imagine?!?!?! i should get my sweet self downtown….and L’Shana Tovah to you dear, dear Mary…..may this new year be sweeter than sweet…..
Thank you and bless you, dear one.