Sick Day: something from the #njpoet archives


There once was a month in 2010 when I worked as a janitor in a Catholic Church. It didn’t last long, of course—far too much baggage from my attempted Catholic upbringing. But it did inspire a small blog that enjoyed a roaring success, for a very little while. I called it: Cleaning God’s Toilets

Here’s one of my favorite posts, unaltered, despite my deep desire to edit. Enjoy! And please pray for my poor sickly stomach, if that’s your thing. Thank you.

My Catholic History: Sister Helen Prejean
By Charles Bivona 

Originally Posted  on January 19, 2010

For those who don’t know, Sister Helen Prejean is the author of the book Dead Man Walking—a true account of her experiences counseling an unremorseful convict on death row. The book became the movie, directed by Tim Robbins, starring Susan Sarandon as the Sister, and Sean Penn as the convict. The book and the film are both widely regarded as Anti-Capital Punishment masterpieces.

About seven years ago, a friend of mine heard that the real life Sister Helen was speaking at a local college. Knowing that I am logically opposed to the death penalty, and a fan of Dead Man Walking, my friend, Janet, offered to drive me to the talk. She even paid for my ticket, as I recall.

Sister Helen was the second most unassuming person I had ever laid eyes on in flesh. The first being the Dalai Lama. The man is almost invisible. The sister exuded the same humility, the same minimized ego. She talked—rather bemusedly—about the experiences in the book. She seemed to be puzzled by the adoring crowd, and unsure what she was supposed to talk about. She kept saying things like: Well you all read the book. So you know that. Or, my favorite: Is there anything in particular you all want me to talk about?

I adored her instantly. She genuinely couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. She had simply done what was she felt was right. Someone probably told her it was a great story. They told her she should write it down. She figured, why not, it would be good for her to review this journey—conceptualize the lessons she had learned.

Then, suddenly, the manuscript is published. It becomes a best seller. Then Tim Robbins and Sean Penn are on the phone. Then Academy Awards and interviews and invitations to talk, and now she’s standing here, on a rainy Thursday night in November, trying to fulfill the desires of a hungry crowd. They wanted answers.

The first question of the Q&A was from an obviously traumatized man—he was shaking from his head to the soles of his feet. He was barely containing his rage.

Sister, how can you defend monsters. There are monsters in this world. Real live monsters who hunt the innocent and kill them for their own twisted pleasure, and you say we shouldn’t kill these animals? He was screaming and crying. We should just let them go one killing! How can you justify that? Society has a right to kill it’s monsters! That last line became his chant as he charged from the auditorium. He never returned.

The stunned crowd turned back to the Sister. She was visibly shaken. She calmly explained that only God has the right to kill someone. The crowd seemed restless. I had to help her out. I stood up and approached the microphone.

Hi, Sister Helen. I am a huge fan of your work. I do have a question, but I should tell you who I am first.

I’m a writer, a philosophical Buddhist, and a convinced Atheist. But I have read the Bible a few times, and I’ve read the gospels of the New Testament dozens of times.

Here is my question: Isn’t it a contradiction for a Christian to support the death penalty?

Sister Helen relaxed a bit. I was offering her familiar territory. She sighed and slightly smiled.

Well, the Ten Commandments seem clear: no killing. The problem is that in the original language there is a difference between murder and killing. The Commandment should read: Thou Shalt Not Murder. Killing for a good reason is obviously fine. There is a lot of righteous killing in the Bible.

I laughed. Of course, but I was thinking more along the lines of the life of Christ. I mean, how can you be in favor of state executions when your savior, your Messiah, was executed by the state? And if you believe that he is coming back someday, shouldn’t you make it almost impossible for the state to kill anyone, so it doesn’t accidentally kill the Son of God, again.

I was giggling a little. So was Sister Helen. I asked her what she thought about my questions. She laughed and softly spoke:

Well, young man, I think you are a philosophical Buddhist and Atheist who understands Christianity more than most Christians do.

The crowd chuckled and lightly applauded. I sat down.

When I approached her in the vestibule to get my copy of Dead Man Walking signed, Sister Helen recognized me instantly. She smiled as she scrawled her name on the title page. She thanked me for my question. I said no problem. And just before she patted my shoulder and walked off to her car, she offered me some of the best advice ever given to me.

Keep asking those difficult questions.


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