Trust wins out over despair

There’s a story told of a father asking his young son to go down into the basement to get a wrench.

“Dad, it’s dark down there,” the boy said. “I’m afraid of the dark!”

“Son, Jesus will be with you in the darkness,” the father replied.

The little boy walked over to the basement door, and shouted down the stairs: “Jesus, if you’re down there, please throw a wrench up to me!”

Most of us have some fear of the dark. Mostly, we have an even greater fear of the darkness of death.

I think of the playwright Dylan Thomas’ famous lines: “Do not go gently into that dark night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I remember a deathbed conversation I had with a man who had been a Catholic his entire life. At one time he had thought of becoming a priest. He had been principal of a school of religion in a large parish. He practiced what he preached.

Yet, now, in the face of impending death, he shared with me his doubts. Specifically, I recall him speaking about the ancient Egyptians.

“They had a civilization that lasted for thousands of years,” he said. “They had ordained clergy. They had very clear beliefs about death. Yet, we think they were wrong. Suppose we’re wrong?”

I was caught up in the emotion of his dying, so I didn’t exactly feel like debating. I remembered the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and said: “Faith is a leap in the darkness, hoping that someone will catch us.” I went on to explain that I believed that that someone was Jesus.

Jesus didn’t die a comfortable death. Crucifixion is arguably the cruelest way to die. Yet, we still remember Jesus’ words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus experienced his moments of doubt as well. But his final words were not words of despair, but words of trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

When we die, we fall not into the arms of darkness but into the arms of God.

At death, we experience the truth of what we have believed. The Blessed Mother whom we prayed to in life will be there in death. The saints we have called upon in prayer, particularly our patron saints, will be there to usher us into God’s Kingdom. The angels we have celebrated in life will be there with us in death just as the angel comforted Jesus in the garden before his arrest.

In death, we go from faith to fact.

In this month dedicated to praying for the “poor souls” in purgatory, let us not forget to pray for the dying. Those in purgatory can see heaven waiting for them. Those dying may experience only darkness and doubt. Let’s pray daily that the dying may move past fear and doubt into the peace and joy that only Christ can give.

Father Joseph Breighner

Father Joseph Breighner

Father Joseph Breighner is a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a columnist for the Catholic Review.