Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

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