TO A generation brought up on The Nun’s Story or The Sound of Music, the film Dead Man Walking struck a note of brute realism, and offered a different stereotype. Sister Helen Prejean was portrayed as an earnest and compelling campaigner. She is a thoroughly grown-up woman whose life is dedicated to advocacy on behalf of, and the pastoral care of, people — mainly men — who live on death row in the United States.
A book of the same name had led to keen interest in her work and its potential for a film. And now she offers the prequel: an account of her early life in the “cocoon of privilege” of her ultra-Catholic home, the calling to join the Sisters of St Joseph, her formation and years as a young teacher. The style is witty and pacey, and the anecdotes from what she describes as a “boot camp for Brides of Christ” a revelation.
Somehow, within this constrained atmosphere, she became close friends with a contemporary, a Sister called Chris, who was a nurse. Prejean, through her letters to the hospital where Chris worked, developed the habit of analysing her experience and putting it out on paper.
She was sent for further training to Canada, and discovered the attraction of studying theology, of living in a regular home with her fellow students, and discovering the friendship of men — or, rather, a named man, the young priest William with whom she developed a strong emotional bond — and then back home to a new job educating adults and exposing them to that most exciting of documents: the Dutch Catechism.
Above all, the book describes how her vocation within a vocation developed. Put simply, a conversation developed between her desire to serve and to be faithful and the changes demanded of her order as it responded to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In the most abnormal of contexts, Prejean managed to become normal; in an apolitical vacuum, her social conscience sought the light; in an emotional void, she found friendship and love. And, above all, a cause.
The pious Catholic child came to burn for justice; improbably, she found the source of true fire — a river of fire which has taken over her entire life.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
River of Fire: My spiritual journey
Sister Helen Prejean
Hodder and Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30