Dead Man Walking in Lent

Say “Dead Man Walking” today and many Americans will associate it with the 1995 movie of the same name about a man on Louisiana’s death row.  The film was a fictional adaptation of Sr. Helen Prejean’s 1993 book about her work with death row convicts in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  Both film and book received many awards and had a key cultural impact in the mid-1990s in terms of mobilizing the anti-capital punishment movement, both in the Catholic Church and American society more generally.

The phrase seems to have been a pre-1960s practice: prison guards called it as they led a condemned man down passageways to his execution.  The phrase’s origin is unclear: it could be cautionary (“beware a dangerous and potentially violent prisoner who might risk anything”), “honorific” (death row prisoners had a unique status, so “make way!”), and/or stigmatizing and jeering (“here comes a man who is already as good as dead yet look, he’s still walking!”).

I had filed away in my mind such explanations of the phrase “dead man walking,” assuming that it came from something like that.  To my surprise, nearly 30 years later, two references in less than a week, changed my mind.

One was discovering that the phrase had been used by the English poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy.  His poem, “The Dead Man Walking,” was published in 1909 (though probably written in 1890).  Many commentators claim the poem is autobiographical.  Because of his biting attacks on class, religion, and social mores in his time, Hardy’s reception as a novelist was mixed – certainly not as positive as Hardy thought his work deserved.  If this gloomy poem is from 1890, it reflects a more personal woe.

Hardy’s life was something of a mess, especially in his marriage, which seems to have become something like a living death:

They hail me as one living
but don’t they know
that I have died of late years
untombed although?”

But a second insight into the phrase came in a sermon by my pastor and TCT contributor, Fr. Paul Scalia.  The Gospel of the Sunday just before Lent featured Jesus’s healing a leper.  As Scalia observed, leprosy was a kind of living death, perhaps more accurately a living dying.  A leper’s body, although animate, is already decomposing.  It’s why in Scripture, Scalia noted, physical leprosy is a symbol of the spiritual leprosy of sin.  One may still be walking physically, but is morally dead inside.

This, of course, is no reason to discriminate against real-life lepers: the easy, one-on-one correspondence of the earlier Old Testament between sin and suffering (already under stress in the Book of Job) is not Christian theology (see John 9:2-3).  But it is also not Christian theology to see no relationship between suffering and sin.

The skull sectioned by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489 [Royal Collection Trust, Great Britain]

Suffering and death are consequences of sin, at least in the sense that the progressive breakdown of relationship that culminates in death mirrors the progressive breakdown in human relationships across-the-board – with God, one’s fellow men, and even oneself – which originates in sin.  Sin, after all, is responsible for the lack of human harmony and internal integrity – the conflicts among emotions, intellect, and will.

And that internal “dis-integration” is comprehensive.  It’s not just moral, but physical as well: what, after all, is death but the internal breakdown of psychosomatic unity, that the body and soul can no longer remain together.

In that sense, then, “dead men walking” are not found just in Louisiana jails or on the Wessex heath.

Several modern popes have criticized the “loss of the sense of sin.”  One way that Catholics have lost that sense is not just in not talking about sin but also how we do talk about it on the rare occasions when we do.  For a while, and in some places still, the traditional (especially homiletic) attention to sin has gone into eclipse.  But, even to the degree that the eclipse is not total, it often remains partial.  Rather than speak of the need to flee sin, some Church figures prefer to divert the conversation to “accompaniment” – as if conversion were not the real goal.

Even when we speak of sin, we often focus on “structures of sin” and other kinds of “impersonal sin” to which personal sinful acts bear only the vaguest of links. So we get absurd forms of the examination of conscience: Is the “existential crisis” facing “our common home” really the result of my plastic grocery bag and adequately repented of by my paper straw?

The very fact of speaking of “sin” bereft of further specification is, in itself, a loss of the sense of sin.  Catholic theology speaks of “mortal” and “venial” sins because it’s pretty clear what acts generally fell into which categories.  “Mortal sin” was mortal because it killed the life of God in one’s soul – grace.

When we still spoke and catechized in those categories, the concept “dead man walking” was neither esoteric nor exclusively for the perpetrators of capital crimes.  The person in a state of mortal sin was a “dead man walking.” He was advised to walk towards a confessional before that death became total – and eternal.  Lent is a good time for that stroll.

The paradox of Christianity is that man cannot die, though he can become a complete and eternal existential contradiction.  God, in His goodness, does not take back his gifts, including life.  That is why Hell for unrepentant sinners – and not annihilation – is just.  Hardy was wrong in thinking himself dead, though right in admitting “I am but a shape that stands here.”

In a scene in the Polish film Historie miłośne (Love Stories), an unfaithful general is accompanied by his guardian angel down an elevator (representing his death) to a gloomy basement.  As he exits, the general asks, “Did I die?”  The angel’s answer is: “No, you’re alive.  But what kind of life is this?”

It’s the life of a dead man walking eternally. The life we seek to avoid by our penances and practices during Lent.


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John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.