A Lenten Meditation on Mortality and Hope

by | Mar 21, 2023 | Lent, Prayers, Spirituality

I lay in the hospital bed awaiting surgery, watching the clock tick toward the scheduled surgery time. Did time pass so slowly in reality? Alone in the waiting room with nothing to divert my attention for the next half hour, I pondered what lay ahead. This would be my first surgery, and I had been surprisingly serene through the intake process. I say “surprisingly” because the sight of needles such as the IV needle poking into my hand had made me nervous in the past. I felt grateful to God for my peaceful demeanor, and I began to pray.

Remembering our mortality is an important part of our Catholic faith. My surgery was on the day after Ash Wednesday, and the biblical verse “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” was fresh in my mind. Acknowledging the finitude of our earthly lives is a simple yet profound prayer. The realization that everything is subject to entropy and decay can lead one either to nihilism or to deeper trust in Jesus’ promise of eternal life. 

My choice of trust in Jesus over nihilism comes from a Bayesian understanding of the world around me. It seems more likely than not that my life has meaning beyond the experience of the material world which ends at death. When I consider the orderly existence of the universe, its objective moral values, and my own experiences of prayer, I come to believe that God exists, and He desires eternal life for me. It seems unlikely that God would fill my life with wonderful things only to permanently terminate everything at my death, forever ending my experience of hope, love, and joy. I do not believe that my wonderful experiences as a human are ultimately ephemeral and meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe. Thus, my faith in Jesus is a combination of probabilistic reasoning, personal experience of Him, and an explicit choice to trust in Him.

A few minutes earlier in the hospital room, I had overheard the patient next to me explain her medical history which included many complications, device implants, and past surgeries. She sounded as though she was in her seventies, and I wondered how my currently healthy body with a blank medical history would eventually accumulate a long list of complications, implants, and surgeries. And finally at the end of it all, death.

I had death on my mind after a recent visit with a friend whose dad had passed away in a car crash. My grieving friend noted, “it is astonishing how fragile life is. One moment he was going about his business, planning his day, and the next instant he was gone.” We go about our lives thinking that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and that we have plenty of time to enjoy life and to bring plans to fruition. The landowner in the Parable of the Rich Fool describes us aptly when we think our lives and riches are best spent on pleasure and comforts that shield us from the vicissitudes of the universe. Money and technology have provided a false sense of security to our earthly lives, leading to complacency. We strut around thinking that we are in control of our lives with the ability to do as we please. However, a fatal car crash reminded my friend that the luxury of time was not guaranteed. Come to think of it, every day and every moment is a gift from God who holds the universe in existence. And how often do we think about what God would want us to do with that gift? 

Even if we believe with unfounded certainty that we will peacefully grow old, we will all face death eventually. Markus Zusak writes in his novel, The Book Thief, “A small fact: You are going to die…. does this worry you?” I asked myself in the hospital whether dying worried me. To be honest it does, but only to some extent. It worries me because death is the ultimate unknown, a dark horizon that evades description. Even though I trust that Jesus is by my side, the skulking what-ifs are always lurking in the shadowy corners of my mind. What if God does not exist? What if I don’t end up in heaven? What if death erases my loving relationships? That’s when I remind myself that faith is an act of the will, aided by God’s grace. In the words of the Centurion, I need to say “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” I have to constantly choose to believe that a loving God has plans for me, “plans for my welfare and not for woe, to give me a future of hope.”

At the same time, death does not worry me. I truly believe that I will be in heaven not because I merit it through my good deeds, but because God will be with me as long as I desire to be with Him. This eschatological hope of seeing God face to face is immensely consoling when the difficulties of this life confront me in my work, my relationships, and the suffering of the world around me. I remind myself of God’s promise that “He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, when the old order passes away.” My Catholic faith informs me that death is not the end of our existence, but merely a step towards the next stage of eternal life.

Sometimes death worries us because we fear the possible regrets at the end of our time here: broken relationships, incomplete endeavors, and unfinished bucket lists. St Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation helps me realize that a good life is not one marked with many achievements or pleasurable activities, but is one spent in serving God. I truly believe that I will not regret living a life in God’s service. At the end of each day, when I pray the Examen, a reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence, I ask myself whether I have served or tried to serve God. And so I am confident that at the end of my life, when I ask the same question, I will have the satisfaction of having lived a life in service or in attempted service to God. In a way, being satisfied with my life on a daily basis helps me be ready for death whenever God will present it to me.

My meditations on mortality in that hospital room reminded me to focus on the higher things of the human experience. Bishop Barron writes, “Blaise Pascal said that most of us spend our lives seeking “divertissements” (distractions), for we cannot bear the weight of the great questions. We play, gossip, eat and drink, seek the most banal entertainment—so that we don’t have to face the truth about ourselves, the reality of death, and the demands of God.” Sitting in the waiting room, stripped away from distractions, I was faced with the finitude of my earthly life. Perhaps, the Catholic Church in her immense wisdom rightly ponders death multiple times through the year: Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, All Souls Day, the feasts of the martyrs, and funerals. Additionally, everyday at Mass we remember the dead during the Eucharistic prayer. And in the Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours we ask God to “grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” Viewing my life from the perspective of death forces me to ask the important questions: what is the point of life and where am I going from here? Even if I do not know the answers, the act of asking these questions orients my life to higher things: purpose, meaning, and eternity.

I prayed to Jesus to hold me as I caught a glimpse of His painting on my way to the operating room. While I trusted modern medicine, and I knew that the chances of something going wrong in a routine surgery were extremely small, I could not help but pray “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit.”


Daniel Mascarenhas, SJ

dmascarenhassj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Daniel