Dear Pope Francis,
One of the highlights of my Masters program at the Sophia Center was getting to meet one of my heroes. She’s not a rock star, or an actor — though Susan Sarandon played her in a movie. She’s Helen Préjean, and I’ve admired her work and courage for a very, very long time. Ever since I saw the movie “Dead Man Walking,” I’ve wanted to meet Helen. Her tenacity and hard work has lead to the end of the death penalty in many U.S. states. Sadly, it still exists in others, but Helen carries on.
Meeting Helen, for me, was a truly amazing experience. You need to know she looks nothing like Susan Sarandon. She’s a short, unassuming woman with a huge laugh and an even bigger sense of humour. Every other thing she says is a joke or wry observation. She had the whole room in stitches on more than one occasion. At the end of our time together, the group ended with something called the Elm Dance, which was created by Joanna Macy. It involves standing around in a circle, holding hands, and then stepping to first one side and then the other in a sequence. It’s a little complicated and you can get off beat fairly easily. Helen and I ended up together and when she took my hand she stared up into my eyes and said, deadpan, “You know if you do this wrong, you’ll squash me, right?” I laughed, and so did she. Inside I was bowled over. I had just shared a joke with Helen Préjean!
Being around Helen you could easily forget that she journeys with some of the most despised individuals in society — murderers on death row waiting for their execution. It’s hard to love this kind of person, or show them any kind of compassion. They have, after all, allegedly taken a human life — or several human lives. Yet, if you believe that the Divine exists in everyone, no matter what they’ve done, then you need to recognize the Divine in these individuals, no matter how heinous their actions. This is a big leap, and I don’t think many can make it. I’m not sure I can. In theory, moralizing about the evils of the death penalty is easy if it hasn’t touched you personally. If someone on death row had taken my parents, my sisters, my nephew, my brothers-in-law or a close friend from me, I’m not sure I could be so even-headed about why the death penalty is wrong. In grief, you cry out for anything that will make you feel better, to fill the loss, and vengeance is all too happy to rush in. And that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human.
But I claim to be a human who understands that the Divine exists in everyone, and so there’s an added calculation to do in my moralistic math. And the Divine is kind of like multiplying by zero — it cancels out every other factor. With the Divine in all of us, we’re all the same, we’re all occupying the same point on the line graph. Nobody is higher or lower. We may have made mistakes, done horrible things, but, with the Divine inside, we keep our place on that graph. Nothing can remove us.
Even as I write this I feel a kind of tension. This is a really hard thing to accept. I mean, I often go through life being irritated and annoyed by people, and think unkind things about them. How they somehow don’t measure up to me because they don’t act in a way I’d want them to. This is why Helen Préjean so astounds me: she sees the Divine in death row inmates, where I can’t manage to see it in the guy who shoves his way past me in line or accidentally knocks me with his bag in a cramped airplane aisle. If I can’t do a namaste in their direction, what hope is there for me to walk where Helen Préjean walks?
Part of that answer came from Helen when she spoke to us. She talked about how life unfolds and changes. We can’t control it, we just need to understand that nothing is constant, nothing is forever, and we live in an evolving universe. This is both scary — what do you mean I can’t control anything??? — and reassuring. If I’m evolving and changing along with the universe, then there’s hope for me yet. I can grow into embodying a consciousness that recognizes the Divine in others. I still may not like the guy who nearly takes my head off with his carry-on bag (that probably breaks the size limit, but, I”m trying not to go there), but I will recognize that he has as much right to that bit of space on the plane as I do. (I just wish he wouldn’t swing his space into my space, but, hey…). From the guy on the airplane, I will likely have to evolve quite a bit more before I can recognize the Divine in a murderer, rapist, or drug dealer. But I have it on good authority, that it’s there. So, I live in faith until I can come to realize it myself, knowing I’ll backslide into thinking nasty things about my neighbour when he smokes outside and it gets into my winnow.
The other part of that answer comes from both Helen Préjean and another hero of mine, Ann Lamott. Helen’s work to end the death penalty has not been without its trials and tribulations. Consider for a moment the people who don’t exactly like what she’s doing. There have been death threats and hate mail. One of her group had his car shot up and when the police came they claimed they could not see any bullet holes in the car at all — despite the fact that they were right there and obvious to anyone. Helen’s first protest came as the result of a series of letters to the editor she wrote about ending the death penalty — many of which never ran. Then, one day, one did and, in it, Helen happened to promise that she would be leading a protest outside a prison where someone was going to be executed. When it ran, Helen realized she now had to do it. So she did. Her entire movement has been one of fits and starts. One of her first speaking gigs was at a nursing home. Three people came to hear her. Two fell asleep. For one of her long marches, Helen had gained significant media attention, but when they got to their destination, all the reporters wanted to cover was two women who had married death row inmates and chained themselves to the courthouse. Yet, despite all of this, Helen carried on, knowing her mission was good and true. And, we now see the result of that work. So, from Helen, the answer comes that you do what you think is right, what your’re supposed to be doing in this world, and, after some trials and tribulations, things will work. They may not work the way you thought they would, but they work.
From Ann Lamott, the answer comes in the form of her two best prayers “Help, help, help” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The Divine is with in us, and as it unfolds, we unfold. All we need to do is ask for help and then be grateful for however that help shows up. Lamott’s other counsel is: Show up. Ask for Help. If all all else fails, follow directions. If we show up, trust in the Divine, and flow with the evolving universe, we’ll be OK. OK may not equal happy or entirely satisfied, but the universe doesn’t promise that. All the Divine promises is that we are here, we are alive, and we are meant to evolve, change and serve.
So, while I may not be ready to walk into a maximum security prison today and take up a journey with a death row inmate, like Helen Préjean, I can walk out into my own life and work to see the Divine in others. And that includes all the annoying people I’d sometimes wish I didn’t have to encounter. It’s the work of a lifetime, but every little unfolding is a step in the right direction.