Asking God for a sign amid life and death

This reflection was originally published by the Global Sisters Report on May 13, 2021. It has been shortened for publication on CMN’s blog.

If you are like me, you occasionally joke about signs from God. An available parking space or the perfect weather for an important event — both of these and more I have referred to as heavenly signals.

However, I was never one who seriously prayed for signs from God. But all that has since changed. Here’s how it happened.

A Request from Death Row

In 2004, after 17 years on death row in Connecticut, a man I had been corresponding with named Michael Ross decided to end all appeals and ask for an execution date. 

With that date just two months away, Michael was asking me to visit, but only if I agreed to his terms: I could not question his decision to go ahead with the execution.

prison bars


My first instinct was to say “no.” In my mind, there would be no point to a visit if we couldn’t discuss what really mattered. 

My friend Pat gently challenged me to reconsider. She reminded me that there was no way to predict what might happen if I visited Michael. 

Finally she said, “Eileen, why don’t you ask God for a sign?”

So, in the two minutes I had before my next meeting, I decided to give it a try. I would ask God for a sign.

As the meeting began with a moment of silent prayer, I told God how conflicted I was and that only a clear sign could resolve my dilemma. 

At that moment, the leader of prayer began to read a Gospel passage, which said, “John sent a messenger from prison asking, ‘Are you the one who is to come or shall I look for another?'” (Matthew 11:3).

Now that was a sign!

As soon as the meeting ended, I called the prison to make arrangements to visit Michael.

Visiting the Prison

When our first visit began, Michael brought up the very topic he had forbidden me to raise and began pleading with me to support his decision to forego all appeals and move forward with the scheduled execution.

I could not help but think of Sr. Helen Prejean’s reminder to any of us who work with people on death row: that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. 

In my conversation with Michael — a convicted serial rapist and murderer — I was reminded that he is also a caring individual, a person who prays daily for forgiveness and who responds to concern with gratitude.

Two days after the visit, two sisters in my religious community were killed in a car accident and Kay, the driver, with whom I lived in community, was critically injured. 

As Kay lingered between life and death in a medically induced coma, we enlisted the members of our worldwide community to pray for her recovery.

So when Paula, one of the public defenders involved in Michael’s case, called the following week to ask if I was planning to visit Michael again, I told her, “I’m feeling too frail, too vulnerable. Kay is hanging onto life by a thread; we don’t know if she will live or die. And at the same time, Michael is throwing his life away. It makes no sense. I don’t know what I could say to him.” 

“Say exactly that,” she pleaded. “This is what he needs to hear.”

On that next visit, I did tell Michael exactly what Paula had suggested. 

I wish I could tell you that Michael agreed with me, that he changed his mind. He didn’t. 

Instead, he assured me that he too would pray for Kay’s recovery in the days he had left.

I visited Michael on a few more occasions. Each time, his first question was, “How is Sister Kay?” Each time I was happy to report that she was making great progress. 

As Kay moved further away from death, Michael moved closer and closer to death.

Recognizing the Signs

As I drove away from the prison just days before Michael’s execution, convinced that I would never see him alive again, I asked God for another sign. 

And then I suddenly realized: God had been giving me signs every step along the way.

Pat’s gentle challenge to reconsider my decision not to visit Michael had been a sign. Paula’s insistence that I had more strength than I believed I had was a sign. Kay’s recovery was a sign.

In the strength of the bonds of community, in the challenges of friends to expand my thinking, in the invitation to respond when it seemed impossible — and yes, maybe even in the parking space on a crowded city street — I now believe God is giving me signs. 

Because of this experience with Michael, who was executed on Friday, May 13, 2005, I am more attuned to recognizing those signs and a little slower to joke about them.