The Very Short Distance Called Hope

When my father hanged himself, the general consensus on the state of his soul seemed to come from two camps.

In the first, there were those who said with a certain blind confidence, “He’s in a better place.” In my grief, I doubted their sincerity. I imagined they said it out of habit, because it is what you say when you want assurance that death is surely sweet and only Hitler is in Hell. Perhaps this was uncharitable or at least unfair. Regardless, the sugar-coated consolation grated as I smiled, too weary to argue or even disagree.
The second camp covered me in blankets of compassion and told me they hoped the Spirit would guide me when I did not know how to pray. They did this because they had no more hope for my father. Their understanding of God’s mercy did not extend to him any longer. From their perspective, there could be no salvation for this errant man who strayed so far from God that he took his own life. This perspective came with conviction and charity, but it was bitter, because it tempted me to give in to the hopelessness, to say good-bye forever.

But, I did not give in. For, there is always hope.

Catholics are unique within the Christian world for our teaching on life after death. Rather than speaking of our “assurance of salvation,” as our Protestant brothers and sisters do, we Catholics speak of our hope of salvation. We are the last people on earth to say everyone is going to Heaven. We are also the last people on earth to say that any given person is headed for Hell. The jury’s even out on Hitler. We know only that we can never know the state of another person’s soul, and we put all our hope in the Hands of the God who created all souls and knows them utterly.

There is a story sometimes told of a woman who once came to St. John Vianney for consolation and spiritual guidance after her husband committed suicide by jumping off of a bridge. The woman despaired, “Father, my husband is damned. He has not been to Mass or received the sacraments in years. He lied about his business dealings. He committed adultery. He was wicked and unjust, and now he has died a double death of body and soul.” St. John Vianney answered her, “Madam, there is a very short distance between the bridge and the water–but it is that distance which forbids you to judge.”

There is a very short distance between the jump and death at the end of a rope, but it is that distance which gives me hope. It is that distance which is hope.

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