‘Sister, how do I get to Heaven?”
In Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship that Answered Life’s Greatest Questions, John Schlimm recalls asking his friend, Sister Augustine, that question. She pointed him to every conversation they ever had over the course of five years.
Embracing the joys and the sorrows of life with gratitude; forgiving those who have hurt us and seeing them as teachers; connecting with our fellow living beings through love and patience; opening our hearts and minds to tap into our true potential and gifts, then using those gifts to help others and the world; accepting one another for who we are and as God has made us; realizing that change is a good thing, fear is something we can walk right through, and simplicity is powerful; seeing God and His blessings through the many different eyes He has given us; remembering that life is precious; understanding that every moment is a new beginning — those are all pathways of compassion and humility that anyone can use to get to Heaven.
Schlimm talks about the late Sister Augustine, his book, and more, including Pope Francis, in an interview. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did you come to be friends with Sister Augustine?
John Schlimm: When I was 31 years old and at one of those crucial crossroads in life that we all encounter — questioning my purpose and direction in life, trying to find my way out of the darkness and learning the secret to living life to the fullest — a friend took me to the ceramic shop hidden away on the grounds of the 150-year-old convent in my hometown of St. Marys, Pa. Born and raised in St. Marys, I never knew the ceramic shop was there for my entire life, but I was led there and to Sister Augustine, who had founded the shop in the 1960s, when I was most in need of her guidance and wisdom. It truly was divine intervention that led me to Sister Augustine.
I believe that our country and the world at large today are also at a crucial crossroads, which is why I’m so excited to share Five Years in Heaven with readers everywhere. It is my hope that Five Years in Heaven will be a light in the darkness for each reader and the world.
Lopez: What was visiting her like? Was the very environment important?
Schlimm: Over the course of five years, Sister Augustine and I shared hundreds of visits. Her simple and humble shop was a place I could go to escape the frenzy of the outside world and the challenges of my everyday life for a few hours each week. With Sister Augustine in her shop, I could vent any frustration, share any secret, and float any brainstorm — or just sit quietly. And I always knew that she would have just the right words and answers I needed at any given moment.
It’s so rare in today’s world to have a place of solitude, contemplation, and peace where we can go when we need it. Or someone with the answers we are seeking. We all need that place and person in our lives. Now, Sister Augustine and Five Years in Heaven can serve that purpose for readers.
Lopez: What was it about forgiveness that she taught you that was so important?
Schlimm: In “Chapter 6: Tiny Crosses,” I recount the discussion Sister Augustine and I had about the importance of forgiveness in each of our lives. She told me, “Forgiveness is the crucial turning point for so much of what happens to us in this life. People often see it as an end goal. But it’s really a beginning. With it, we move forward. Without it, we are at a standstill.”
She told me, “Forgiveness is the crucial turning point for so much of what happens to us in this life. People often see it as an end goal. But it’s really a beginning. With it, we move forward. Without it, we are at a standstill.”
Like so many of our conversations, her words flipped on light after light in my mind, especially in reference to the many hurts I was dealing with, even some from childhood, such as bullying. She continued: “Forgiveness is not easy. By design, it’s not meant to be easy. If it were, it would have little meaning. Yet, it’s one of the greatest gifts in this world that we can give to one another, and to ourselves.”
The brightest point of this discussion was when she told me: “Forgiveness is an act of love and compassion. Yes, it is a gift we give to the person who hurt us, which is often the hardest part for people to understand. In our minds, that often means we’re letting that person off the hook for whatever they did to us. But ultimately, when we forgive someone, that act is also a gift of love and compassion, and freedom, that only we can give to ourselves.”
If Sister Augustine were alive today, I would love to send her and her message about the power of forgiveness into the streets of our cities where people are hurting, confused, and at war with one another. I would send her into schools where young people need to hear that they have unique gifts within them that are waiting to be discovered and shared with the world. I would send her right into the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, where her example of living humbly, faithfully, and lovingly would be a much-needed inspiration for the candidates and voters alike.
Lopez: What was it that was heavenly about visiting her?
Schlimm: From an early age, we learn how Heaven is a beautiful and peaceful place, a happy and humble place, and a place where we will finally get the answers to so many questions that seem to elude us here on earth. My visits with Sister Augustine and the answers she revealed to me provided a glimpse of Heaven right here on earth. She helped me to realize that every one of us — no matter who we are or where we are — has opportunities to experience and benefit from little slices of Heaven in our lives. Beauty, peace, light, humility, happiness, second chances, and salvation are always within our reach.
Lopez: What was the most important thing she taught you about friendship?
Schlimm: Regarding friendship, Sister Augustine demonstrated that age means nothing (we were separated in age by 56 years), that two friends are teacher and student in ever-reversing roles, and that the bonds, blessings, and lessons of friendship are eternal.
Lopez: What was the most important thing she taught you about the spiritual life?
Schlimm: When I met Sister Augustine, I had many questions about my spiritual life — many of the same questions everyone has at one time or another: Is it a sin to doubt God? Why isn’t God answering my prayers as quickly as I want? How can we more easily believe in a God we can’t see?
Sister taught me that it’s okay to ask these questions, because “doubt and questions are pathways that lead to answers, if you allow them to.”
She also taught me how God’s time is not the same as our earthly time, and that He eventually leads each of us to where we are meant to be. I have often coasted on the wings of Ecclesiastes 3:11, “God makes everything beautiful in its time.” Five Years in Heaven demonstrates the truth of these poignant and powerful words in each of our lives. Sister Augustine showed me how God was making my life meaningful and beautiful in its time, and readers will learn to experience the same with their lives.
Finally, Sister Augustine told me that our physical eyes are only one way of seeing and experiencing God. Each of our senses provides opportunities to see God in many ways. She said, “God gave you those gifts that only He can create in order to let you see the world and feel Him around you in infinite ways.”
Lopez: Why was St. John the Evangelist important to you both?
Schlimm: I am named after St. John the Evangelist. My full name is “John Evangelist Schlimm II.” He is important to me on many levels. He’s the patron saint of writers and communicators, and I am a writer. His beloved friendship with Jesus provides a blueprint for our own friendships, and often reminds me of my friendship with Sister Augustine. Sister Augustine helped me to more fully appreciate this heavenly mentor as one more source of inspiration in my life and career.
Much like Pope Francis, Sister Augustine was especially enamored with St. Francis of Assisi. She would say a prayer to him every time before closing the kiln lid in her ceramic studio. She put him in charge of making sure the clayware art pieces she created emerged safe and sound when the firing was completed. Pope Francis and Sister Augustine are modern-day role models of simplicity and humility who personify these blessed qualities that St. Francis lived and proclaimed.
Lopez: What’s so special about nuns and religious sisters?
Schlimm: Just about everyone on the planet loves nuns and religious sisters! There is something so special and illuminating about them. Nuns and religious sisters so often embody the purest forms of humility, wisdom, grace, and even humor.
Sister Augustine had a great sense of humor! I can still hear us laughing together.
Lopez: There’s was a #ThankANun campaign Tuesday on Twitter, inspired by your book. Why do you think it’s important?
Schlimm: It has been such a joy to see thousands of people of all ages around the world show their gratitude to the nuns, past and present, who have touched their lives in special and unforgettable ways. I think the #ThankANun movement is important because so often the hard work and compassion of nuns everywhere go unnoticed and unappreciated. This campaign was a chance to celebrate them and let them know just how great an impact they have had on our lives, whether it’s someone iconic like Mother Teresa or a 92-year-old artist and nun hidden away on the grounds of the oldest Benedictine convent in the country.
It will always be one of the great joys and honors of my life that my Five Years in Heaven launched the global #ThankANun Day movement.
Lopez: At the same time, is the power of your book that it is potentially accessible and attractive to all kinds of audiences, including those who, like you, were searching for answers to questions all men and women have?
Schlimm: I believe that all readers — no matter who they are or where they are — will find a part of themselves in this story. I wrote Five Years in Heaven so that readers can pull up a chair to the table with me and Sister Augustine, and draw their own meanings and inspirations from the answers and lessons revealed within its pages. The topics we discuss are universal and apply to every person at some point in his life.
Lopez: How can embracing compassion change the world, to borrow from a talk you once gave in Washington, D.C.? What does that look like?
Schlimm: A few years ago, I had the privilege of delivering my keynote speech titled “Embrace Compassion, Change the World” on Capitol Hill, just as I have done elsewhere across the country. For me, compassion is about respecting and loving our fellow living beings, human and animal, as well as the earth. Compassion is about respecting and loving ourselves. When we take even a moment to pause, and to be grateful, and to see how compassion can inspire our own daily lives, that moves the world ahead in a positive direction. Even if it’s just in baby steps, showing compassion always has worth and purpose.
For the speech on Capitol Hill to Senate and House staffers, it was a powerful moment when I got to look straight into their eyes and tell them: “Each of you is showing the world that compassion is not limited to a political party or ideology, and that, even in the most powerful place on the planet, compassion is a priority and it matters.”
I recently debuted a participatory art piece titled “The Smile that Changed the World (is yours),” with installations in Canada and Washington, D.C. For the piece, the audience is invited to choose a favorite paint color and then add a smile to one of the hundreds of faces I’ve drawn on an 18-foot-long canvas. Each of those colorful smiles, just like our own smiles, is one way to see what compassion looks like.
Lopez: What did you learn about compassion from Sister Augustine?
Schlimm: Sister Augustine taught me that compassion begins with each one of us. We are all connected to each other. When I offer something as simple as a smile to a passing stranger or a hug to someone who needs it, that nod of compassion and love has meaning and worth.
Five Years in Heaven will help to spread the light of compassion, and convey the power of something as simple as smiles and hugs, even to the darkest of places where hatred, terror, and other ugliness now run rampant. Compassion is a unique power we each have to make the world a better place. Compassion is a choice we have.
Lopez: What did you learn about reverence and love for the elderly, often forgotten, from Sister Augustine?
Schlimm: Sister Augustine furthered my understanding of the power and wisdom that come with age. Even at age 92, she still worked full-time, six days a week. She was always quick-witted, humorous, engaging, independent, so wise, and devoted to God. She offered the ultimate blueprint for how to grow old gracefully. She also confirmed that age is just a number, and that being young at heart is the ultimate way to age with dignity, inspiration, and purpose.
Lopez: She told you that “you’ll do many wonderful things you haven’t even dreamed of yet” and that “the world will be a better place because of your work and because of the compassion you have in your heart.” Do you use that reflection in prayer? Does Sister Augustine come up in prayer?
Schlimm: For as long as I live, Sister Augustine will always be a gentle hand at my back and a soft voice in my mind, guiding me forward. Through Five Years in Heaven, she will also be a friend, mentor, and guiding hand for readers.
Lopez: Pope Francis talks a lot about encounter – with Christ, with others. What did you learn about encounter from Sister Augustine?
Schlimm: Sister Augustine opened my heart and eyes to seeing how I can encounter God in every moment of my life. She told me how He is present in both the joys and the sorrows of this life, and how every one of our breaths is a manifestation of His grace. Simply looking — really looking — into the eyes of another is also a way of seeing and experiencing God’s handiwork.
Pope Francis reminds me so much of Sister Augustine. The humility they both exemplify to the world, in ways great and small, is one of the greatest gifts they could ever extend to us. I have no doubt that had they known each other, they would have been the best of friends.
Lopez: Pope Francis also talks a lot about the Devil – and Sister Augustine did too. What did you make of what she said about his activity in the world?
Schlimm: Sister Augustine always reminded me, “The Devil is hard at work, too.” She would then pause for a moment to let that fully sink in, and then add, “So we must work ever harder!”
There is so much hate in the world today. I don’t even like saying the “H” word, even in casual conversation. It sends something ugly out into the world that can’t be pulled back.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, the unrest in the Middle East to politics right here in the U.S., and in our everyday lives, there is so much hatred being spewed everywhere. I hope that, through Five Years in Heaven, Sister Augustine can be a light in the darkness for everyone, just as she has been for me.
As we now enter the 2016 presidential race, I think the candidates would be wise to get rid of the smoke and mirrors that so often dominate campaigns and return to a simpler path by embracing the humility and practical wisdom that Sister Augustine expresses in Five Years in Heaven. No matter what side of the political aisle they stroll along, each of the candidates could surely learn a thing or two from Sister Augustine, and we the voters would be the ultimate beneficiaries of those lessons.
Lopez: Where do you see Heaven on earth today?
Schlimm: Thanks to Sister Augustine’s opening my eyes and soul, I glimpse Heaven on earth everywhere now: in the simple acts of kindness extended to me by others, while quietly walking with the rescue dogs at the shelter where I volunteer, praying in my favorite field, cradling a friend’s newborn son, while writing pieces that will inspire and help others, and in so many other ways.
One of my goals with Five Years in Heaven is to help readers experience and enjoy glimpses of Heaven on earth in their everyday lives.
Lopez: Do you continue to see her influence in your life? How best do you remember her, when you think about her in gratitude? Is this book meant to be a statement of gratitude? Is gratitude one of the most important things in life? How did Sister Augustine help you be grateful?
Schlimm: Every lesson I write about in Five Years in Heaven, I carry with me in practice every day of my life. In that way, Sister Augustine continues to be a cherished mentor. Each time I put one of her lessons to use, such as showing gratitude for even the smallest things, forgiveness, or smiling at a stranger, my life is made a little brighter.
Sister Augustine taught me to be grateful for both the joys and the sorrows of this life. Challenges, great and small, in our life are valuable occasions to offer gratitude. They can be either the roadblock that stops us cold in our tracks, or the stepping stone that leads us to where we are meant to be.
Sister Augustine told me, “Each time you exchange anger, fear, and confusion for gratitude, you remove another restraint that’s holding you back. You free yourself to step a little closer to finding your larger, true purpose.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.