"A Message from the Universe"
by Sister Helena St. Martin
"Behind the Iron Curtain,
Beyond the Fall of Rome,
There's hope in the uncertain,
And truth in the unknown.”
My last conversation with Helena was a one-sided argument, which I recall too vividly. How can you forget the joy of yelling furiously at someone who refuses to speak.
Sister Helena knew how to torment me. As a Pulitzer-nominated poet and political advocate, she had a way with words that moved mountains in your mind you never knew were there. Digging deep to reopen hidden wounds while cutting into your soul. This time, she had me begging, using mere silence as a weapon.
"No!" I screamed at her, grabbing her stash of letters and poems she'd planned to slip to the press behind my back.
“…Beneath the stars and planets,
Along the coral reef,
A method calms the madness,
And war gives birth to peace…."
"You'll destroy everything you've worked on for years! Why are you doing this, Helena? Sabotaging your own battle we're on the verge of winning?"
Helena stared up at me, tears of defiance filling her dark brown eyes. And that damnable slogan taped across her mouth from her "LIFE ROW" hunger strike, protesting the execution of her friend Jesse. I wanted to grab the ends of the tape and rip it right off her stubborn face.
She scribbled hastily on her notepad, while I continued to blow my temper at her, pacing the floor of her cell like a madman.
"Retribution is Antichrist," she wrote. "Christ Jesus is Restorative Justice. I will not go against God!"
Helena handed me the note, determined to carry on her silent strike. After conflicting sides had finally agreed to settlement talks, on terms of prison reform, she suddenly turned. And rebelled against closed door negotiations, pressuring me to speed up a process that was out my control!
How in God's name did I get in the middle of this? One minute, I was the youngest volunteer lawyer on a civil rights team, helping student journalists cover a peaceful border demonstration. Next I find myself defending Sister Helena and her fellow renegade activists, jailed for protests pushing authorities and church leaders to convert this tiny prison into an alternative "Life Row" -- to abolish the death penalty while setting up work-study jobs for immigrants to earn their amnesty.
Unlike other activists tackling one issue at a time, Helena had divine visions of God healing humanity, and curing social ills with one solution – a series of campus towns, designed to provide criminal rehabilitation through teaching hospitals guarded by military bases. Such ideal plans were certainly cost-effective. But her idea of utopia required seamless collaboration between church and state jurisdiction. Only Jesus returning in the flesh could command near-miraculous unity, where no agency had authority to change policies to this extent.
Nor were the sides even talking. Only individual citizens, not government, had that freedom; but with the public divided in political deadlock, no action was ever taken toward meaningful reforms. After endless frustration with the backlogged system, Sister Helena led a group of a dozen prisoners, along with a few other nuns and student journalists, to launch a prison strike.
And here I stood. The only lawyer both sides trusted to mediate, before news of this small bordertown rebellion leaked out and spread to other prisons. All pressure was now on me, to settle the conflicts and present a unified solution to the state.
At stake was Helena's chance to achieve her lifelong vision of a prisoner-exchange program between church leaders and authorities on both sides of the border. If we kept negotiations directly between local leaders, we could pull enough leverage to propose a comprehensive program to government as a done deal. But if the Feds found out how far this had gone, and marched in to take over, we all knew how badly that would end.
Regardless, since negotiations never moved fast enough for Helena, she was now acting on her promise to go on "silent strike." Threatening to hand everything over to the press, and spark a media frenzy to force government to take action. She knew that was a mistake, playing the media only to force my hand.
Helena had always pushed to establish alternatives before further executions took place. But after losing her closest friend Jesse, that's what finally broke her. All agreements we made suddenly meant nothing. She had lost all faith and patience, and went against everything we planned.
"Helena! This is God's plan, his timing! We agreed to take this step by step. It's exactly your vision you predicted, years ago. It's happening, Helena! Please, don't do this now!"
I tried to calm down and remain positive, but only anger came out.
"The negotiations are working - the immediate terms first. The rest will follow. You're the one who taught me to trust the process. Preaching to me to be patient, and now look! Who the hell are you testing? Me? God? Why?"
Helena sat silent. I already knew why she was pushing everything on me, which I resented. I never asked for this either.
"I'm sorry about Jesse. You have every right to be outraged. We're all aggrieved and heartbroken, Helena. But destroying what you and Jesse worked for isn’t helping."
I struggled for words, for strength to say the right things.
"We'll get that moratorium passed. We've agreed to stay executions. That's a top priority, Helena! All this happened, because of you. Please, look at me!"
She only cried and looked down. She was trying to break me down to cry with her, but I could only scream. I could barely contain every urge I had to strangle the one person I’d sacrifice my sanity for. Putting my career, my marriage, everything I had in life on the line, fighting for her plans to save any more inmates from dying. And now she was killing me!
"Helena, look at me!" I yelled. "We agreed not to go to the press until the terms are final. That's coming soon. Next month! Can you just wait one more month?"
I knelt and pleaded with her. "We'll translate and publish your poetry. Dedicate it to Jesse, everyone who ever died on death row. That's the plan! We can still do this, Helena. Because of you, Jesse, everyone who fought to get us this far. We can't let that be lost now.
I love you, Helena, you know that! You've got to trust me, as your friend, your lawyer. I've never asked you to do anything except protect your interests. To make this work! You taught me to trust you, and your vision from God. Now I need to you to help me fulfill your vision. Please!"
Neither anger reached her, nor my appeal using reason and compassion. I had no choice but to use her own tactics against her, which I hated more.
"Helena, remember when I was inconsolable after losing Karla. You reminded me this was political warfare. And in war, even after the truce, what happens? Soldiers still die! Killed by bombs or landmines, even after victory is called. You taught me that, to accept and forgive that would happen. That was you, wasn't it!"
She sat up and stared at the wall.
"But now - when it's your turn to grieve for Jesse. Days before the moratorium. Those losses aren't acceptable to you! You can't follow your own preaching, can you?"
Helena turned to reach out to me, bursting into tears, breaking down. I hated to do this to her, but I had to, if I was going to stop this self-destructive insanity.
"Who's the hypocrite now, Helena? Preaching this higher spiritual garbage, restorative justice crap! But when it's your time to suffer, you lose it! Hiding behind a dozen prisoners on hunger strike. And when that's not fast enough, you call a silent strike! Threatening to release everything to the press. Take the Fifth Amendment, and dump everything on me to clean up after you destroy everything!"
Helena desperately started writing again, but I grabbed the paper from her.
“…Fear not my changing surface
For what may lie below,
But trust a higher purpose
Created long ago."
"No! No letters, no poems. No press leaks. Nothing! That was the deal. I'm not leaving here until you agree we stick with the plan.” I seized her journal, and letters she tried to hide from me.
“Admit you're a hypocrite! Telling me and everyone else to wait on God. And forgive the losses. Now look at you!"
The guards were signaling my time was up.
Helena looked down and wept. She nodded okay.
"Is that an okay? I just need to hear you say it. That you agree. Say it!"
She reluctantly removed the tape from her lips, like a hurt child. "Okay."
That was the last word I ever heard Helena speak. Her last written words filled the journal she entrusted me to publish with her letters and poetry, translated into several languages. We didn't plan for the government to hijack the negotiations, where they quickly fell apart.
Without warning, Sister Helena and the other sixteen prisoners disappeared, later reported burned to death in a prison riot fire.
I never fully accepted that. I didn't trust the government, but didn't trust Helena to keep silent for so long. If she were truly alive, as the rumors circulated, she would have brazenly protested any delay -- exposing every flaw in the system through the media she knew how to manipulate.
Her silence crushed me, while I refused to believe she was dead.
I would have gone mad, had it not been for my wife. Sarah was my strength, who had picked me up after every fight I ever lost with Helena. Over the justice system and how long reforms would take, and now my intolerable grief and anger. Sarah always knew what to say to kick my behind, or to save me from wanting to throw myself off the nearest building. And this loss, followed by a shoddy government cover-up was enough to make anyone crazy who wasn't already.
Every day the negotiations continued after the failed strike, Sarah waited with me during breaks in the conference room of the civil law center. To ensure I made it through another hour of another day, without completely losing my mind.
She constantly reminded me of my own words, but gently. Never cruelly the way I threw Helena's words back at her, leaving deeply scarred memories I thought I'd always regret, but grew to miss compared with fighting battles alone. On days I was most out of control, Sarah brought me back down to earth calmly, like a mother rocking a child to sleep.
"Charles, remember your agreement with Sister Helena. There would be losses past the finish line. You made Helena promise never to give up, but to keep fighting for Jesse. Now you're left to fight for her."
"But Sarah, this is different! This is my fault!" I always argued back.
"Jesse, Karla - we couldn't stop their deaths. There's no comparison!"
"No," she replied, assuring me. "You only blame yourself, because Helena's not here. And no one else is willing to admit their fault. It's my fault, too. Every taxpayer who let government run this amok. And backlog the prisons where it takes too long to fix. You just feel the burden more, because you're trying to do something about it. Sorting out what is your part to do and what isn't, that's all."
Sarah hugged me, knowing that nothing she could say could make me feel better when I hit this impossible stage of grief. We had an understanding it just had to pass.
"Honey, I'm so proud of you. Of Helena and everyone with you in spirit. That spirit of justice joins you always. That's Jesus, that's where she is. Our Lord of Justice is coming, as you promised Helena. But by God's will and time, not ours." She held me, resting her head near my heart.
"The turmoil hurts. You're doing fine - not many people could handle such deep pain. It's not yours alone, but the whole world suffering. Pure hell. But after you walk through the fire, you’ll be able forgive and let go."
I found solace in the kindness of her words, while not fully accepting the truth.
There were days I couldn't even face Sarah, knowing what she'd say, being too angry to hear it again. I'd pace in circles around the conference table, while Sarah sat still, sharing the silence with me as part of our time together. Unlike my utter lack of patience with Helena when she shut down on me this way.
My wife was stronger for me, than I ever was for Helena. And I couldn't always deal with that guilt either. It made me wonder who the saints really were in life -- the ones you hear about or the ones you never do.
When I couldn't bear to look Sarah in the eyes, I would turn to the bookshelf, bury myself in the poetry Helena left behind, and think back. To her resonant voice, echoing off the lonely prison walls.
"As I renounce all that I am,
The Lion bows before the Lamb.
Satan now repents to God
And cruel tyrants spare the rod.
Mercy kills what hate cannot,
Destroying every evil thought.
Where once before I fiercely fought,
I now submit to you
In willful servitude...."
Over time, I learned to live with haunting questions that might never be answered. To accept life unconditionally. I grappled with the understanding, whether she was gone, or in hiding, that Helena would always be with me in spirit, on earth and in heaven, with the other saints. But I never could grasp it fully. That was not my idea of justice.
"…So take my stained glass panels.
Arrange them as you please,
To tell the story of God's glory,
Bringing angels to their knees."
-- Sister Helena St. Martin,