I’ve just come back from silent retreat. I’ll write about that in time – I’m still processing everything myself. But in the meantime, one of the things I found extremely moving whilst on the retreat was a book of paintings by the artist, Janet McKenzie. Each of the paintings had a commentary by different authors and the one that moved me most was by Sister Helen Prejean.
Sister Helen is the real-life nun whose story featured in the film “Dead Man Walking”. Basically, in the film, Sister Helen befriends a man during his last few weeks on Death Row. I write to a man on Death Row myself so perhaps that’s one reason why I found Sister Helen’s words particularly moving:
He’s only in his early thirties. He’s barely had three years to inaugurate the mission he received from his Father. His disciples are having a hard time getting the mission right. And now, as he prays, he prays alone. They have fallen asleep.
The letter to the Hebrews records his agony: “With loud cries and in silent tears, he pleaded with his Father to save him from death…Though he was Son he learned obedience from suffering.” (Hebrews 5: 7 – 8)
Lloyd LeBlanc kneels in prayer in a small catholic chapel in St Martinville, Louisiana. I kneel beside him, praying the rosary. It’s Friday, so we pray the sorrowful mysteries in Christ’s life, his agony in the garden, his death at the hands of cruel men. Lloyd LeBlanc relives his son David’s terror in the darkness of night in a sugarcane field when he and his girlfriend were abducted and killed by Patrick Sonnier and his brother. He last saw David alive on a November night in the kitchen of their home before he left for a football game. When his son had not returned home by 3 a.m. Lloyd and his wife, Eula, were pacing the floor, making phone calls, praying, dreading, waiting.
Patrick Sonnier is in the death house of Louisiana, three hours away from death. They will soon strap him into an oaken chair and pump fourteen hundred volts of electricity through his body. I am with him, seated on one side of a metal door, he on the other, a mesh window between us through which we talk and pray and sometimes |I put my hand on one side of the mesh and he puts his hand on the other and our fingertips touch a bit, the only way I can touch him. He has said that’s been the hardest thing on death row: no-one ever touches him. He has been convicted of killing two teenagers. In cold blood. Shot them in the back of the head execution style. He cries out in remorse to God for his great sin. When guards dim the light on the tier at midnight he kneels by his bunk and prays for the parents of the teenagers. He hates what he has done. He prays to Christ for mercy. I pray, O Christ be with him now.
He says, “Just pray God holds up my legs as I walk.” I say, “When they do this, Patrick, look at my face. I will be the face of Christ for you.”
It has been anticipating death that torments him, the same nightmare comes: the guards are coming for me, it’s my time, I struggle – kicking, seating, shouting as they drag me from my cell. “No! No! Don’t kill me! Please, I want to live!”
He wakes up. It’s only a dream. He looks around his cell. He’s still alive. Later the execution squad will come for him. Inside him, bracing for death, he dies a thousand times before he dies.
Ecce homo. Look again at the suffering face.
Look deeper. Not with bodily eyes but with the eyes of soul, of prayer, of holy longing. Gaze at him in patient waiting. Gaze and pray for grace to enter into his Presence. Perhaps he will speak to you. Perhaps you will be given the grace to feel his gaze, to know in the deeps of your soul that he is looking at you. And when you know his gaze, you will never be the same again. One way of knowing he has truly looked at you is that you recognise his suffering in others. Not only in people close to you, but in strangers, in scary foreigners, in criminals, in drunks sleeping in doorways.
From Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: the art of Janet McKenzie