I try to follow where grace leads, and now its pulsing current brings me to Australia and the opera of Dead Man Walking. When the opera was first spun out, I did not know how I might be of service, but now I know that I can play a part in getting the word out about the opera by doing media interviews. It’s a John the Baptist role. Marya Grathwohl, OSF, friend and fellow-adventurer is with me. In Sydney she and I gave a presentation to a group of religious -men and women - all doing great Gospel work with refugees, ecology, drug addicts, Aboriginal people, and prisoners.
When we arrived in Sydney on July 23 via Kuala Lumpur, Malasia, I hit the ground running with a kazillion media interviews, my Louisiana voice going via radio and t.v. all across the vast continent . During the interviews I don’t have to summon energy for the words. Stories of the executed ones and the victims’ families flow freely now. I tell the stories as clearly as I can and link them to the opera and the powerful way it unfolds the story of redemption. In Sydney I visited Long Bay Prison and met a young man, Geoff, doing 18 years, which means his crime must have been serious because 18 years is a long sentence in Australia. But happily he landed in a prison that restores human life rather than simply warehousing and punishing people. Geoff is learning drawing and painting, and has a teacher interested in him, a very great gift. I liked him immensely the minute I began to talk to him, his voice soft and his eyes with unsureness in them and sadness but full of energy as he talked about painting. We talked about talent, and I told him of the French writer Gustave Flaubert’s definition of talent, that it’s not so much genius as it is a long, long patience, and he sort of laughed when he heard it. He doesn’t think he’s very talented, even though his art teacher says he is. He promised to send me one of his paintings, and on the road I have already written to him. He is one human being, only one, and already bearing the burden of having committed a grievous offense against his fellows. But in the incredible twists and turns of Providence he and I connected , and I am coming to appreciate more and more our CSJ charism that spurs us to connect people with each other and with God. Whenever I travel to countries my hosts often arrange for me to visit prisons, which I am glad to do; and I found myself telling Geoff that I thought if Jesus were to visit Sydney, his first choice would be to visit people like him, not the Lord Mayor or other “important” people, which made Geoff smile and say that “myself and all the men here, really, perhaps don’t have as high a sense of self esteem as we should.” Cataclysmic understatement. Aussies are like that - understated, and they use a lot of diminutives in their speech, such as “sort of” and “a bit like” especially when they talk about feelings. They’re a reserved bunch, and they talk at quite a clip. I have to ask them to repeat about one in every ten words they say. They put quite an accent on words and G’day is the least of it.
After three days work in Sydney, Marya and I in the company of Father Nick Lucas, OFM, traveled into the holy interior of Australia, called the Red Heart, where the ancient mountains of Uluru and Kata Tjuta are located. Over 70 per cent of Australia is desert and near the holy mountains the sands are incredibly red. Kangaroos are about, but the only ones we saw during full daylight were those on the side of the road, killed by cars. We did see live camels, though. Two were in the middle of the road, but skittered off as our car approached. We spent two days in the company of Aboriginal people, desperately dislocated now in modern life after sustaining life on the land for 30,000 years, the oldest surviving culture on Earth. We met Betty and Tahnia and Doris, who are working for the rights of their people to secure land rights. As with Northern Cheyenne people, alcohol is the ubiquitous enemy of Aboriginal people. For eons they had little sugar in their diet and so alcohol is lethal for them because their bodies don’t have an enzyme to process it. No one can handle it safely, and it has brought great sadness, violence, and rupture into families and communities. We heard of some community leaders, mostly women, struggling to make their communities “dry,” where alcohol is forbidden.
We sat at the feet of these women and learned about bush “tucker,” food, which their forebears and some of them today know how to find in the desert: wichitti grubs,(fat, white worms, dug from the roots of certain bushes),kangaroos (big guys, the main source of meat: don’t have to dig for THEM), wild bananas and figs, plums, and water in the most unlikely places. The new and growing edge of my spiritual life is learning to find God’s face in Earth and the mysteries of science and evolution. The Great Work, according to Thomas Berry, is for us humans to learn how to live in a mutually sustaining way with Earth, not to continue recklessly exploiting and poisoning her. Thomas Aquinas spoke of two sources of divine revelation: the scriptures and the natural world. I have studied and prayed long with the first source, and now I am descending in my prayer and study to the second source. As I’ve said before, Marya and the Northern Cheyenne people are good teachers - and now in Australia, the Aboriginal people teach me, these incredible beings, who reach out to us with such love and are so willing to share their wisdom with us.
As I write this I’m in Adelaide and it’s Willie Matthews’ birthday, August 4, and I have a free hour before going over to the opera house for a few more media interviews and the dress rehearsal for the opera. There are banners all over the city announcing Dead Man Walking and across the front of the opera house is a huge banner, which stretches all across the front of the building. Stephen Philips, the director, has been working very hard to promote the opera, and keeps expressing how appreciative he is that Jake Heggie, the composer, and I have come to get the word out. They are sweet to me, and take care of my every need.
I fly out very early tomorrow to Melbourne to do media - in fact I am on the last leg of the journey there now, then fly back in the afternoon. There are some receptions that will take place in Adelaide, with the Lord Mayor, hosting a reception for me and other nuns who serve in the city. The Mayor’s assistant heard that I was coming and persuaded the mayor to have a special gathering to thank the sisters for their service to the people. I’m amazed and delighted to see how the opera’s performance in a city serves to highlight the precious and pervasive work we Sisters do.
There’s quite a buzz in the city about the opera, made more timely by daily news about the death sentence recently given Amrozi, the extremist found guilty of the Bali bombing last October that killed 220 people, 77 Australians among them. Upon hearing his death sentence Amrozi smiled and raised his fist, which led to the headline: “Dead Man Smiling.”
The opera opens next in Pittsburgh in June 2004, and Jake tells me that the next international performance will be in Dresden, Germany in 2005.
I get back to Northern Cheyenne Country in Montana on August 11 and will be writing away on the book, now tentatively called The Machinery of Death. That’s how Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia described his role on the Court, that, when he joins his vote to four others on the Court he becomes part of the “machinery of death,” and the image is becoming so central to the book that it will probably determine the title. The last chapter in which I analyze the constitutional issues of the death penalty has taken a long time. But Jason Epstein, my editor, tells me that time is not the important thing, quality of writing is, so I’m being content to work organically on the book and let it be born when it’s ready, probably March 2004.
I’ll return to New Orleans on August 28, and then my speaking engagements begin again, mostly in the U.S., but on September 5, accompanied by Eleanor Bernstein, I go to Aachen, Germany for St. Egidio’s tenth peace gathering of world religious leaders. I’ve attended two of their other conferences, in Padua, Italy in 1997 and in Bucharest, Romania, in 1999. St. Egidio is a main collaborator of our worldwide Moratorium Campaign to end the death penalty. Mario Marazitti, one of St. Egidio’s leaders, is responsible for the spirit and organization which has gathered close to five million signatures for a moratorium on the death penalty. He has enlisted my help in planning a human rights concert in the Roman Colliseum in 2004. I’ve invited Bruce Springsteen, who sang the title song, “Dead Man Walking” in the film to participate, so we’ll see what hatches. Already the Colliseum, a symbol par excellence of state killing, is lit with a special amber light whenever a country abolishes the death penalty - now 111 countries around the world and growing each year. Our country, the U.S., is out of sync with most of the rest of the world on this, but we’re working steadily to change that. Suddenly I looked around and realized that the abolition of the death penalty has been central to my ministry for almost 20 years, ever since, back in 1984 I walked out of Louisiana’s death chamber after watching Patrick Sonnier’s execution in the electric chair.
“Never leap ahead of grace,” one of our Maxims says.
And so I wait for grace and try to follow …
And now today, August 12, back in Northern Cheyenne Territory in Montana, the current of grace leads me to write this to you and then turn back into writing the last chapter of my book. After all the travel a quiet writing day is welcome.
Thank God for the Sisterhood, which sustains us all in our holy and good and privileged work for the Gospel.