I've had the pleasure of spending a little time with Sister Helen Prejean over the past several years whenever she visited Fayetteville or the University of Arkansas. She shared the stage with Vincent Harding and the Dalai Lama here at the University in May of 2011, and that was a memorable visit.
But every encounter with Sister Helen is memorable, and while most of us associate her exclusively with the tireless work that she does to raise awareness about the death penalty, I began to suspect that this work alone did not entirely account for the impact that she has on her audience. What I discovered, as I looked back over my time with her, and as I reread portions of her books, was something else entirely.
What I found, simply, was joy—joy in her work, in her commitments, in her engagments, in her vision, and in her love of the human condition, with all of its glories and its foibles.
And joy, I also learned, is a potent fuel for social change.
But where does this joy live? And how do we find it?
She wrote recently on her blog about reaching the "tipping point" concerning the death penalty:
While I’ve been traveling the country I’ve been sensing the changing shifts in the Catholic community, a tide rising against the death penalty. At the same time, I’ve seen Christians in general and, indeed, people of all faiths doing important, determined work to create a country-wide shift towards abolition. I believe we are moving much closer to that national shift. The signs are good, our movement is growing, the once-strong fervor for the death penalty is on the wane. Still, there’s much work to be done to make this the tipping point.
Long before I met her, I'd read her two books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, and what I discovered in them, after I'd confronted the incomprehensible reality that is America's capital punishment, was Sister Helen's passion to serve. Period. (And tell stories, too, but that's another story, another talent.)
It's a quality we talk about all the time, this quality of service, but it's also one we seem not to understand fully because we're always limiting it with modifiers like "community" or "weekend" or "volunteer." But Sister Helen, and the life that she has constructed, give us another way of thinking about service. She mentions in Dead Man Walking that when she heard Sister Marie Augusta Neal speak in 1980 of Jesus's commitment to the poor, something changed within her. She'd reached her own tipping point:
Something in me must have been building toward this moment because there was a flash and I realized that my spiritual life had been too ethereal, too disconnected. I left the meeting and began seeking out the poor. This brought me one year later to the St. Thomas housing development.
And it was, of course, during her work at the housing project in St. Thomas that she accepted the invitation in January, 1982 to become a pen-pal with Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row at Angola State Prison in Louisiana.
And so the Sister Helen that we all know was born on that winter day in 1982.
That's one way of looking at it. But it's not the way I look at it.
Sister Helen's life tells us clearly and loudly that we all have our tipping points, our internal, sacred scales that are balanced and tipped toward goodness through the hard work of introspection and contemplation. We learn from her that this work leads us back out of those silent sessions to the even harder, louder work of service that our own newly discovered inclinations, our own deepest natures, have been shaped to undertake and follow.
This is a genuine discovery, it is joyful, and it is deeply human.
And we also learn this from her life: however hard this journey becomes after we've made this discovery, after our scales have been tipped, we will know that we're on the correct path partly because of the joy that manifests within us, sometimes clearly, even brazenly, but most of the time, quietly and even unnoticeably. I have seen this joy in the Tibetan monks that I know, in many of the teachers I have had, and I have always found it in Sister Helen as well. Always in her stories, and in her presence, there are bucket-loads of joy.
And when there is joy in the work, an authentic, deep-drilling joy that sends us back into our communities, then we simply want more of that joy because it feels right, and it doesn't matter how many people are watching us work, or how many people are telling us how well we are doing, or how badly, because the joy we feel is the joy of serving those who need what we can offer. This is a joyful transaction between two people: someone needs something that another can offer, and so the one gives freely to the other. This transaction is always enough. It always sustains. Sister Helen's life teaches us that.
No one is immune to this joy. Sister Helen embodies it. Everyone can lay claim to it, and when it rises, our communities are strengthened, and our compassion grows. And compassion is what finally tips those tipping points.
Spend a moment around Sister Helen, or read her books, or watch her anywhere on YouTube and because something within you has been "building toward this moment," as she wrote of herself listening to Sister Marie, there will be a flash within you.
And you will have been tipped. Remember that feeling. Understand its power. And then act on it.