John Schlimm on “Five Years in Heaven,” Doing God’s Work, & the Smile That Changed the World

John Schlimm on “Five Years in Heaven,” Doing God’s Work, & the Smile That Changed the World May 3, 2016

JSchlimm-1I interviewed John Schlimm one year ago about his memoir “Five Years in Heaven.” It was inspired by his friendship with an 87-year-old nun named Sister Augustine and the ways in which she changed his life.

Since that time, The Christophers have honored the book with a Christopher Award; “Five Years in Heaven” has just been released in paperback (with the Christopher Award medallion on the cover); and John has heard from people around the world about the positive effects that Sister Augustine’s spiritual wisdom had on their lives.

John recently joined me once again on “Christopher Closeup” to share some stories from this past year. Here is an edited version of our conversation. The full podcast is below:

Tony Rossi: For those who may not have heard our interview a year ago. Tell us about the basis of this book.

JSchlimm-2John Schlimm: “Five Years in Heaven” is the story of a five-year friendship that I had with an 87-year-old nun. I was 31 at the time. Like many of us, I was at one of those crucial crossroads in life where I wasn’t sure I made the right decisions; I wasn’t sure what was coming next. Divine intervention led me into this humble little four-room ceramics studio on the grounds of the oldest Benedictine convent in the country, which happens to be in my hometown of St. Mary, Pennsylvania. That’s where I met Sister Augustine, who was just barely over five feet tall, slightly hunched, in full traditional habit, and had the most amazing chuckle and twinkle in her eye. That started a great five-year friendship and hundreds of visits that we spent together.

TR: I know one of the things that appealed to you about her is her sense of joy. Where did that joy come from – because she had undergone some pretty tough times in her life?

John Schlimm: I think that her joy came from two main sources. First, her faith. She was so dedicated to her faith. In fact, anytime I would compliment her or someone else would compliment her on her artwork, she would say, ‘Oh, that’s God’s work. He’s the boss.’…But the other source, I think, came from her work as an artist. She had founded this ceramics shop in the 1960s, and even into those final five years of her life, even at age 92, she was working six days a week, full time in that studio, creating the artwork and running the business.

TR: Do you think that sense of purpose is one of the things that kept her going?

John Schlimm: Absolutely! And I think that’s one of the big takeaways from her life as well as from this book. We have to find that sense of purpose to keep us going no matter how old we are so we can age gracefully and still contribute.

JSchlimm2016-2TR: We were happy to recognize “Five Years in Heaven” with a Christopher Award, but even more importantly, this book has touched many lives. How did you first start hearing about the impact this book was having?

John Schlimm: The stories just started pouring in, whether it was over social media, people writing me letters, or people just coming up to me on the street or in the grocery store…The range of how it has impacted people is most extraordinary and quite humbling. I’m only the messenger with a pen here, and I feel blessed that I got to share this story. For example, a mother of a drug addict came up to me – and drugs are nowhere in this book – but she told me how the universal message and lessons that Sister Augustine talked about in the book were helping her to cope with this latest challenge in her life. I heard from a grandma in Iowa whose six-year-old grandson had recently passed away from cancer. She told me how “Five Years in Heaven” was helping her and her daughter – the mother of this child – to cope with that challenge. She actually asked me to inscribe a picture of a hummingbird in the copy of the book for her daughter. No one just wants a silly signature, so when I’m inscribing books, I usually draw little guardian angels because we can all certainly use guardian angels. She asked if I would also add a hummingbird, which I had never drawn, by the way, so I looked up and said, “Sister, you better guide my hand.” I think it turned out okay.

But also, I’m starting to hear from teachers and students who are starting to study Sister and her works. For example, a recent public school art class just spent two months studying her Gussie’s Specials, which are the bowls she created during those final five years – beautiful abstract bowls using leftover paint. They studied those bowls, and then they created the Gussie Tribute Collection, which was a limited edition of about 160 bowls that were then sold for charity in a gallery.

I happened to be at the event, which was great fun. But these bowls sold out in under two hours. So fantastic. And another class I just heard from – it’s a class called Christ in Art – they just started reading the book this past week and discussing it in the class. I’m hoping to at some point be able to visit that class, hang out with the students, and get their thoughts on what’s in the book.

I come from one of the country’s oldest brewing families, so every once in a while I find myself in a bar (laughs). Late one night in this bar, this young man – I did not know him – he came up to me with tears in his eyes, he hugged me and he whispered in my ear, “Your book taught me how to forgive.” And I’ve never seen him again. It’s things like that…and really that forgiveness chapter – chapter six in the book, which is titled Tiny Crosses, it’s all about forgiveness, even in the toughest circumstances – it’s the chapter I’ve been hearing the most about from across the country.

TR: It sounds like Sister Augustine is going to be one of those artists who achieves real fame after she has passed on because her art is really spreading, right?

John Schlimm: It really is. And what’s really exciting is, at the beginning of June, I’m doing my first museum event at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, which is in Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. I’m doing a two-day event there and part of it is going to be tied into “Five Years in Heaven.” We’re doing a pop-up exhibition of Sister Augustine’s Gussie’s Specials from my collection, which has never been seen publicly. So yes, people are starting to look at her art in a new way and to appreciate it from a fresh perspective

TR: Let’s go back to the people affected by the book because you mentioned a story about a quadriplegic who was affected by the book. Tell me about that.

John Schlimm: Right before Christmas last year, I received this message through my website. It was from this young woman who told me that her brother-in-law who happens to be my age – I’m 44 – he has suffered from a nerve disorder since childhood. At this point in his life, he’s pretty much a quadriplegic, he has trouble speaking. She told me how her husband – this young man’s older brother – was going over to his house every night, sitting down, and reading one chapter a night from “Five Years in Heaven” to him. She explained how Sister’s messages in the book were inspiring this young man and helping him to look at his own mortality and situation in a whole new way.

She and her husband invited me to join them when the last two chapters of the book were read. So about a week before Christmas, I went over and I sat next to this young man as his older brother read the last two chapters of the book. It was this extraordinary moment, and I gave the young man this little cherub that Sister Augustine had painted that I had gotten years ago. And the little cherub had these amazing little blue eyes just like he did. That moment, among all the others we talked about, has hit home for me about how this book is resonating with people. I know the great mission of The Christophers and the work that you do is about shining that light and being that candle in the darkness. Sister Augustine, through this book, is being that candle in the darkness for readers everywhere.

TR: The book also includes a Reader’s Guide. Tell us about that and what you hope readers get out of that section of the book.

John Schlimm: I love book clubs and reading groups. I know a lot of parishes across the country now have their own reading groups. Groups of friends do, libraries do. It’s important for me to give those individuals something to help guide them in their discussions. I’ve gotten to visit with a lot of reading groups over the last year; I’m going to continue to do that throughout this year, whether it’s in person…or via Skype. But for the paperback what I did is develop discussion questions for every chapter. I think people will then be able to get even more out of the book.

Jschlimm2016-3TR: You kind of referenced this before when you said you draw pictures in people’s books. You have your own artwork, including a project called “The Smile That Changed the World.” What is that about?

John Schlimm: “The Smile That Changed the World (is yours)” is a project I developed a few years ago. It actually grew out of an encounter I had with my dad. I would always be in the car with him, and he would be waving and smiling at people going by. I would ask him, Who was that?” He would say, “I don’t know.” So I said, “Why are you waving and smiling?” He said, “The quickest way to make a friend is to smile at a stranger.” Suddenly it clicked in my head that’s the power of a smile. Certainly, Mother Teresa has a great line about how a smile is the beginning of peace. So I developed a participatory art piece.

It’s an 18-foot long canvas, a white background. I draw dozens of circles in black paint with two dots for eyes, but then a table with all different colors of paint is set up in front, and the participants are invited to come up and choose their favorite colors and add a smile to all the faces. If your listeners go to my website, which is JohnSchlimm.com, and click on the Art tab, they’ll see some of the previous installations.

I debuted it in Washington, D.C., and in Canada originally. And when I do my two-day event at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in June, they’re going to debut the installation, which will then be there through July 3rd, which will be great. It will give people another opportunity to add their smiles. But it’s all about people connecting, people of all ages. Sometimes people look at it and go, “It’s just for little kids.” It’s not. Every group from three year olds to 90 year olds have added smiles. And it’s about people realizing that they themselves, through something as simple as a smile, have the unique power to make an impact and change this world for the better.

(To listen to my full interview with John Schlimm, click on the podcast link):

(Photos courtesy John Schlimm)

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