“Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.”
I thought I knew the story of Doubting Thomas, but when I heard it read at Mass last Sunday, I kept being surprised. Of course I remembered that Thomas, who missed the risen Christ’s first appearance to the disciples, said that he wouldn’t believe that Jesus had really been resurrected until he could place his fingers in the holes in his teacher’s hands and side. But I’d always thought that was kind of a perverse, sarcastic joke: “Sure, you saw Jesus, alive again after being tortured to death. I’m going to need more than your word to convince me.”
I’d forgotten that seeing those wounds wasn’t Thomas’ idea: the very first thing that Jesus did was show his disciples his disfigured hands and side. And I’d forgotten that Jesus’ invitation for Thomas to put his hand inside the nail marks and the gash was sincere, not a rejoinder or a punishment for doubting. And I’d forgotten that Thomas never did feel the wounds for himself, that he looked, but he did not touch.
Here we are, still at the beginning of the Easter season, and already our attention has to turn from being overjoyed and awed, to dealing with the wounded who surround us.
That’s not just Biblical. That’s real life.
This past week, the Erie diocese released a list of diocesan employees who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior. It’s a long list. And I don’t need to tell you that it’s very painful to think about what it represents.
As a recent transplant to the area, I’m sure I can’t understand what this time is like for people who have lived here for a long time, who know the abusers and those whom they harmed. But I tend to think that this openness is for the best, both in matters like this and in matters of more personal hurts. And I think that this Gospel passage has a lot to teach us about coping with the ripple effects of suffering.
Everyone wants to avoid pain. When something is wrong, there is a very human impulse to look away, to not know. You can understand how it sometimes happens that well-meaning people end up covering up abuse or explaining it away. Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are they who believe without having seen,” and it’s true: people who can trust the word of those who are injured, even when what they describe is mind-boggling, really are blessed with a rare set of personal qualities.
Speaking for myself, when I do have to come face-to-face with suffering—mine or someone else’s—all I want is for it to be over. For the ugliness to be gone. (I wonder if Thomas’ skepticism came, in part, from a fear that the horror of the Crucifixion still wasn’t finished, that he could still watch his teacher and his friends suffer more.)
And I suspect that that’s why, so much of the time, we want to jump ahead to forgiveness, to letting go, as if that will make the suffering end. I understand that forgiveness is important… but it doesn’t erase pain. Don’t you think it’s significant that even after the resurrection, even after (as John would say) “Jesus has been glorified,” he still appears with visible, palpable wounds?
So, as attractive as moving past suffering sounds, I don’t think forgiving is the first step we’re supposed to take after tragedies. Instead, I think what we should take from the story of Thomas and the risen Christ is that it’s crucial for us to really examine the wounds of those among us who have been harmed. Even if we’re afraid to. Even if we’re repelled and made uncomfortable by thinking of what they experienced.
I wish Thomas had put his hands inside the wounds, and I bet that on some level, Jesus would have wanted him to do it. To experience a little bit more fully the extent of the damage that had been done. To not just observe Jesus’ suffering, but to feel it with him.
Thomas couldn’t bring himself to do it. But maybe in our own ways, we can.
I tend to be pessimistic and cynical, but that’s not what I mean to encourage here, when I say that we put more of our attention on wounds. Spending some time dwelling on pain and suffering doesn’t have to downplay the goodness of God, the goodness of the world. Clearly, the two extremes coexist side-by-side, nowhere more clearly than on Christ’s risen body, which is both glorified and disfigured. It’s just difficult to live with that tension, with that complicated both-and.
But maybe in some way, coming to understand the extent of the cruelty and horror around us will throw beauty and holiness into stark relief, and help us to better appreciate and safeguard the vulnerable among us. Maybe.
As I try to stay optimistic but realistic about this Church, about this planet, I keep returning to the following poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," by Adam Zagajewski. I hope it helps you a little bit, too.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.