[Not for young readers.]
When my father hanged himself, the general consensus on the state of his soul seemed to come from two camps.
In the first camp, there were those who said, "Now his suffering is over; he's in a better place." In my grief, I imagined that they were insincere, that they said it out of habit, because that is what you say when you have no strong conviction of life after death. Perhaps this was uncharitable or at least unfair. Regardless, I could not swallow it, and the sugar-coated consolation grated, saccharine in my mouth, as I smiled and nodded, too weary to argue or even disagree.
The second camp covered me in blankets of compassion and pity and told me that 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, and it was not saccharine but bitter, rankling in my gut and tempting me to give in to the hopelessness, to say good-bye forever.
But, I did not give in.
For, there is always hope.
Catholicism is unique among the sects of Christianity for its teachings on life after death. Rather than speaking of our "assurance of salvation," we Catholics speak of our hope of salvation. We are the last people on earth to say that everyone is going to Heaven. We are also the last people on earth to say that any given person is not going to Heaven. We are accused of believing in "salvation by works," but this is untrue. We believe in salvation by grace--grace alone--and we cling to the hope of that grace. 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.
A woman 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 has not been to Mass or received the sacraments in years! 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.