Hope and Dying


Published March 29, 2022

The Catholic Thing

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of my father’s death; he was barely 60 years old when he died. He died during Lent, which will never not seem fitting to me. Lent is a good time to be reminded, however painfully, of how fleeting life is. It is also a good time to contemplate how the meaning of human frailty is transformed by the glorious events for which this Lenten season prepares us.

For a son who has lost his father, it’s easy to wish things were not as they are. It’s tempting to dwell on the innumerable “what-might-have-beens,” to grasp at possibilities unfulfilled – grandchildren unmet, songs unsung, joys unshared. But indulging in such sadness – and I confess, there is a certain sweetness in it – only masks the splendid gratuity of life, however brief. That all is not as I would have it be is an infinitesimal price to pay for it having been at all.

Lent is a time of preparation, of looking ahead. Lent is somehow dearer to me since Dad died. The hope of Easter is the hope of things yet to come, the hope of restoration, of resurrection. But hope is not for the future only. Hope changes the possibilities for how we suffer, for what we are willing to suffer. Hope allows us, like St. Paul, to “count all as loss,” here and now. Hope frees us.

There is an episode of the great HBO mini-series about World War II, “Band of Brothers,” that I think about often and illustrates this point. Private Albert Blithe parachuted into Normandy the night before D-Day. In the chaos of the invasion, he was separated from his unit. But rather than setting out to find his comrades, Blithe hid in a ditch under a hedgerow out of fear. So great was his fear, that he suffered “hysterical blindness.” He was so frightened he literally couldn’t see.

Blithe eventually recovers his sight and regroups with his unit, but he is haunted by what he takes to be his cowardice – a feeling reinforced by the acts of bravery he sees all around him. One night, out on the line, Blithe meets Lt. Speirs – a man with a reputation for cold-blooded brutality. Blithe decides to confess his cowardice to Speirs. It is Speirs’ response about fear in the face of death that sticks with me:

Speirs: You know why you hid in that ditch Blithe?

Blithe: I was scared…

Speirs: We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.

Speirs offers a dark and pagan view of things. But if his is a pagan view, it also bears a certain realism. The false hope of self-preservation, the false hope that we can hold out indefinitely against death, leads only to paralysis and blinding fear (in Blithe’s case, literally). If death means annihilation and oblivion, then our only option in the face of death is acceptance. This realization lifts the blindness of false hope and allows us to see the task before us with clarity.

And St. Paul, who knows a thing or two about being freed from blindness, agrees! “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” Speirs counsels Blithe to abandon hope so that he can see with clarity the grim task before him. Like Speirs, Paul also knows his life is forfeit. But because he sees with the eyes of faith – “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” – Paul’s sight extends not only to what lies on this side of death, but through it and beyond.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi, “[T]he Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

Add Christian hope, born of faith, to the inevitability of death and the entire horizon of human experience is changed. Christian hope does not prevent death. Christian hope does not even delay death. But because Christian hope is hope in eternal life, it changes completely the way we are able to live here and now. Our hope for what is to come liberates us from the need to cling too dearly to life. Hope allows us to pay out our lives generously and without fear. Hope frees us to face the Cross and embrace it.

This is the heart of the Good News: Hope, born of faith, frees us for love. The one who tries to save his own life – to preserve what cannot ultimately be preserved – will lose it. The one who loses his life out of love – the one who knows he has already died in Christ and counts all else as loss – is the one who will receive eternal life.

Our hope is not in preventing or avoiding death, but in accepting the fact that we have already died with Christ. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we’ll be able to live as a Christian is supposed to live: full of mercy, full of compassion, and full of hope.

Lent is a season in which we practice death: dying to ourselves in small ways and large. To the world this is so much blindness. But the many deaths of Lent are a reminder of our hope which frees us for Easter. . . and what lies beyond.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Photo by Laura Allen on Unsplash


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