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“River of Fire is Sister Helen’s story leading up to her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking—it is thought-provoking, informative, and inspiring. Read it and it will set your heart ablaze!”—Mark Shriver, author of Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis The nation’s foremost leader in efforts to abolish the death penalty shares the story of her growth as a spiritual leader, speaks out about the challenges of the Catholic Church, and shows that joy and religion are not mutually exclusive.
Sister Helen Prejean’s work as an activist nun, campaigning to educate Americans about the inhumanity of the death penalty, is known to millions worldwide. Less widely known is the evolution of her spiritual journey from praying for God to solve the world’s problems to engaging full-tilt in working to transform societal injustices. Sister Helen grew up in a well-off Baton Rouge family that still employed black servants. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph at the age of eighteen and was in her forties when she had an awakening that her life’s work was to immerse herself in the struggle of poor people forced to live on the margins of society.
Sister Helen writes about the relationships with friends, fellow nuns, and mentors who have shaped her over the years. In this honest and fiercely open account, she writes about her close friendship with a priest, intent on marrying her, that challenged her vocation in the “new territory of the heart.” The final page of River of Fire ends with the opening page of Dead Man Walking, when she was first invited to correspond with a man on Louisiana’s death row. River of Fire is a book for anyone interested in journeys of faith and spirituality, doubt and belief, and “catching on fire” to purpose and passion. It is a book, written in accessible, luminous prose, about how to live a spiritual life that is wide awake to the sufferings and creative opportunities of our world.
“Prejean chronicles the compelling, sometimes-difficult journey to the heart of her soul and faith with wit, honesty, and intelligence. A refreshingly intimate memoir of a life in faith.”—Kirkus Reviews
Under the Cover
An excerpt from River of Fire
Bride of Christ
Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I adore Thee, O my God! I thank Thee; I offer myself to Thee without reserve. My Lord Jesus! When shall I be entirely Thine and perfectly according to Thy heart? My God and my all! I love Thee with my whole heart. In Thee do I place all my hopes.
—“Prayers on Awakening and Arising,”
Formulary of Prayers for the Use of the Sisters of Saint Joseph
At the close of the evening meal I’m performing what our Holy Rule calls a “practice of humility.” Along with a few other Sisters I’m kneeling at Mother Anthelma’s table to ask for a penance. Pinned to my veil is a placard that states my failing: “Most uncharitable,” but I have to announce my fault out loud, too: “Mother, please give me a penance for having mean and unloving thoughts about another Sister.” The idea behind the practice is that by declaring our faults publicly, we might be stirred to strive more earnestly to overcome them.
When you’re going to do a practice of humility, you go to a drawer in the dining room and select your failing from a wide selection of placards: “Unrecollected,” “Proud,” “Gossip,” “Selfish” . . . You pin it on and wear it during the meal. In among the placards there is also a string with a piece of broken dish tied to it. That is worn around the neck for failing in the vow of poverty by breaking something.
Among us novices, when we know a fellow novice’s failing in poverty ahead of time—like the time Sister Eugene broke a toilet seat—we’re over the top in anticipation about how she will phrase her failing to Mother. If she says “toilet” anything, the solemnity of the practice will be extinguished by hoots of laughter emanating from the novitiate side of the dining room. It doesn’t take much to set us off. With no TV or radio, we’re starved blind for entertainment. One time our table of six giggled through the entire meal, losing it every time we glanced toward Sister Anne Meridier, who’d pinned the placard “Unrecollected” upside down on her pious little head. It doesn’t help matters that meals are supposed to be eaten in solemn silence.
I have to say that the main reason I’m wearing this “Most uncharitable” placard is because of Sister Roseanne (not her real name). She has one of those bossy, pushy personalities, and in the close, constricted life of the novitiate . . . well, that can drive you nuts. Sister Roseanne had rushed to be the first one to arrive at the novitiate on entrance day, knowing that the “band” (class entering together) would be referred to as “Sister Roseanne’s Band.” It burned me up that she did that, which proved to be but a small harbinger of her dominating character. And now that everything in the novitiate is recoded into religious ideals, she’s doing her level best to be Number One Novice—even in holiness.
Well, to be truthful, competition gets me going, so at first sound of the 5:00 a.m. bell (the bell is the voice of God) the two of us throw on all ten pieces of the holy habit—kissing dress, veil, and rosary as we go—and race lickety-split to be first in the chapel for morning prayers. All it took to launch the race was a casual remark of our novice mistress that a really fervent novice would not only be on time for prayers but would hasten to the chapel early so she could have a few extra minutes with our blessed Lord. That was it. The race was on.
Another thing that galls me about Roseanne is that during meditation—she sits right behind me in chapel—she’s always fiddling and rustling. She can’t keep her hands still, cleaning one fingernail with another, click, click, click, and sighing deeply, one sigh after another. They reverberate seismically through the chapel—where, with everyone quietly meditating, you can hear your own breathing. So imagine click, click, sigh behind you constantly when you’re trying very, very hard to quiet your soul and enter into the depths of mystical prayer with God.
At our weekly conference, our novice mistress, Mother Noemi, talks to us about putting up with one another’s faults and foibles. Now, there’s a new nun word, foible, part of a whole new lexicon I’m learning, like edifying (good example), and modesty of the eyes (eyes lowered to avoid distractions), and religious decorum, which covers a multitude of actions: speech (demure, never raucous), walking (never swinging arms), singing (like the angels with clear notes and blending voices), politeness (answering “Yes, Mother,” “Yes, Sister”; avoiding nicknames), and even blowing your nose in nunly fashion (with men’s large white handkerchiefs).
And now foible, a quaint little word if ever there was one. I’ve seen it written but never heard it used by real people in real conversations. Well, ol’ Click may well be the Foible Queen of the World. As far as I know, I don’t have too many foibles, but you can never be sure. As Mother says, self-knowledge is hard to come by; we all have blind spots because of pride, which we’re born with as Daughters of Eve, and pride blinds, while humility opens the eyes of the soul.
Lord knows I need humility just to handle Click. I’m praying for a divine infusion of grace to overcome all the mean-spirited things I hope happen to Roseanne, the most benign of which is that Mother will move her place in chapel and foist her onto other poor souls. And it is such thoughts that now bring me to my knees at the feet of Mother Anthelma.
I’m nineteen years old, the year is 1958, and I’ve already made it through the first nine months of probation (called “postulancy”) and am now a first-year novice at St. Joseph Novitiate in New Orleans. More than anything in the world I want to be a holy nun in love with God. I want to be a saint. And, according to Catholic teaching, by joining the religious life I’m choosing the most direct route to sainthood. By my vows I will become a spouse of Jesus Christ.
Or, rather, as I am learning, I am chosen by Jesus because you can’t simply declare yourself chosen and become a nun just like that, because that might be self-will, not God’s will. Jesus said, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you,” so you have to be invited and you have to pray long and hard, listening to your deep-down soul to hear the call. Then you have to ask admittance to the community, and merely because you’re asking doesn’t mean they’ll accept you, and I prayed and prayed and wrote and rewrote my application to Mother Mary Anthelma, the superior, asking to be admitted to the novitiate. I also had to have my parish priest, Father Marionneaux, write to Mother Anthelma to assure the community that I was a Catholic in good standing. The novitiate, where I am now, is the training ground, the place where you and the community see if there’s a “fit.”
In senior religion class at St. Joseph’s Academy, where I went to high school, Father William Borders taught us that religious life, or the Life of Perfection, is the “highest” state of life for a Christian, higher than marriage and the single life. That’s because the other states of life must be lived in the world, which is full of traps, seductions, and temptations—all lures of Satan, who is hell-bent, you better believe it, on separating souls from God.
I still have a pocket-sized New Testament given to me by my sister, Mary Ann, on my entrance day into the community. In it she inscribed:
To my favorite sister, Helen [I’m her only sister, her little joke]
I hope that you shall be very happy. You are one of God’s children who has been chosen to be in His special family. I’m very proud to tell people that I have a sister in the convent praying for me. I will need your prayers, Helen, for the way of life I have chosen is a worldly one, and I’ll have many obstacles in my way. I shall remember you always in my prayers. May you love God always and stay close to Him, as you are now.
All my love,
The highest state of life? A life of seeking perfection? Bride of Christ? I always did have high ambitions. When I was in eighth grade I announced to Sister Mark and my classmates that I intended to become either the Pope or president of the United States. A joke, of course, thrown out with a thirteen-year-old’s flippancy, and everyone laughed, but even then I harbored within my young breast a desire for greatness. After all, as president of our class had I not already exhibited solid, if not brilliant, leadership? When Maxine, our dearly loved classmate, was forced to leave us because her father was transferred away from Louisiana to the other end of the world—somewhere way up north like Detroit—had I not given a stirring speech of farewell, which moved many to tears, including Maxine herself (and almost me myself, had I not hung strenuously onto my self-control)? I reached this pinnacle of emotion in my speech simply by pointing out that Maxine’s passage from us was truly a form of death, for we, remaining in Baton Rouge, would probably never see her alive again this side of the grave.
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is known worldwide for starting a dialogue on the death penalty. After witnessing the electrocution of a condemned man in a Louisiana prison in 1984, Prejean wrote the bestselling Dead Man Walking and set out, through storytelling,to bringcitizens close to the hard realities of government killings. Her mission has taken her to every U.S. state and to the Vatican, where her personal entreaties to two popes helped to shape Catholic opposition to the death penalty. When not on the road, this lifelong Louisianan, loves to share Cajun jokes, eat Southern cooking, play spirited card games, and write, exploring her fascination with the Divine spark she believes is in everyone: to seek truth, love ardently, and meet, head on, the suffering world.