In the Gospel of John, there is a man among the disciples of Jesus who is absent on Easter Sunday, when the risen Lord appears to them to cause the first furor and relief and the awakening of faith. Thomas Didymus is told of this but refuses to believe until he has hard and undeniable proof of resurrection: his fingers in the nail holes of the Teacher’s hands, his fingers in the wound in the Teacher’s side. Amazingly, a week later the risen Christ obliges his doubting Thomas and repeats the whole performance of the previous Sunday, appearing inside a locked room and everything. Thomas gets his gross, bloody empirical proof of the reality of mystery and, fully persuaded, delivers perhaps the strongest exclamation of faith in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God!” This is one of very few texts that identify Jesus’ divinity and one of perhaps only three in the whole New Testament that are explicit about it. But what holds me to this gospel so often for so long is the response Thomas’ conversion gets from his Lord, who just went to all this trouble to make him see, to help him believe. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus tells him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” (Jn 20:24-29)
This is what kills me, what fascinates me, bewilders me, what makes me wonder. Because this description of the blessed ones certainly does not fit anybody in that room. They all have seen. We tend to think of them – the apostles – as the most blessed. They got to see Him. Alive! In person! They got to touch Him and to hear Him and to walk with him and to know. For sure. Everything that matters. They also lost Him and buried Him and suffered and hungered and bled, and died martyred, most of the lot of them. But they were blessed. Weren’t they? Beyond anything we can imagine?
The ones who must believe without seeing – that’s us. Every single person who came after the people in that room. Every person for whom John was writing his Gospel, his audience. For the duration of human history, almost the whole of humankind is in the same predicament, and those of us who manage to believe are blessed because our faith is a leap with no proof.
Or is it?
What does one have to experience to “see”? Touch? A vision? An interactive event? Did Isaiah see? Did Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Ezekiel, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Genoa?
This is what I wonder sometimes: who are we in this binary of the risen Jesus from John’s Gospel, each one of us? Where do I fall in this? What does it mean, to see? What does it mean, to be blessed? What does it mean, to believe?
I identify to a sadly great degree with poor Thomas the Doubter, though I don’t really regret the inquisitive, skeptical streak in my nature. In a strange twist of irony, it was my questioning that pushed me in good time toward the place where I could put down skepticism and, drenched in sweat and spent, walk into faith like into a warm sea. Faith that didn’t have to be blind. Still. I am much like him. How long after I had recognized what was real in my heart did I persist in looking for the bits of logic-held knowledge to fill in all my blanks? Refused to surrender to the depth of Truth without certainty of understanding? I had to “come to see” in order to believe, and in that I am like Thomas.
But oh, when I saw, did I see!
When Thomas demanded an immediate, raw, skin-to-blood and breath-to-breath encounter with the mystery of triumph over death, complete immersion as a condition of faith – no second-hand information, no reliable sources, nothing less than his own pulse in the glorified body of the Divine still bearing the scars of humanity – and for some mind-boggling reason he was indulged, the result was something I am sure I cannot quite understand but can begin to begin to imagine. A complete, overwhelming, explosive conversion, and he spilled over the words then that no other disciples had gone insane enough in their Judaism to say: “My Lord and my God!” I don’t know what Thomas saw or felt, but in a way I know how he feels. In that, I am like Thomas.
I don’t know. Thomas might have been a difficult pupil and tried the teacher’s patience, but he sounds pretty blessed to me.
Could it be there is a whole chunk of humanity out there even more blessed? Blessed on a whole different level?
I know them, I think. Some of them. Plenty of them. People like the Sisters who, for all intents and purposes, had made the Church my home before I ever discovered faith and who guide me now and show me what it’s like: to believe without seeing. In my mind, one doesn’t have to exclaim, “God!” to express faith, but it is the Sisters I know who embody to me the steady, faith-filled life that demands nothing in return and who did not require a flash of unearthly light to illuminate their first steps. Many of them have told me their stories that start with quiet, assured faith. They began their lives with open hearts and have believed always, without the skies opening up above them in a dramatic scene of conversion.
When they hear my story, they are awed by it. They are envious even. My long, painful struggle for answers seems to have paid off in such a spectacular way – all ecstasy now and conviction undeniable, the blood of the risen Lord dripping off my fingers in a poignant moment of agony and joy that lasts and lasts. They look at me and sigh and smile, and they tell me I am blessed. But they, whose dispositions were not so stubborn and skeptical as to require the struggle – they’ve walked a lighter path. Their losses and challenges were not less than mine, but their bitterness was. In the same world that swirls love and suffering, they’ve lived gentler lives, and they have done more good and hurt fewer people along the way. I wonder if they aren’t more blessed.
Or are they? Are we really that different? What is it I have seen that they haven’t? Am I really Thomas and they, the other side of the binary?
If “seeing and believing” is being struck with certainty upon perceiving something, experientially, then yes. Yet my knowledge is not scientific or repeatable, not exactly empirical. I heard without hearing and saw without seeing, and I did not stick my fingers into bleeding wounds. Did I really “see” to believe, or is the faith that showered me the very definition of believing without seeing, a leap I made when I was ready, the same leap all other believers make every day?
Faith is a mutual embrace, and I cannot know how the arms of God feel to the rest of humanity beyond what I can discern when I listen to them. I’ve seen less than Thomas Didymus. More, perhaps, than some of the faithful who didn’t need so much help to understand the Truth of things. What is our blessing?
I don’t know.
I often think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It seems, if anything, I am much like a prodigal daughter in this – wayward and stubborn for decades, insisting on finding my own way in a world too dark for me to see through alone, crawling back to the Source of me battered and exhausted, not even knowing why, knowing only I had to do this to keep breathing – and here, falling into the loving arms of Him who is home and safety and all things good, with His other children who never left His side standing near, looking on. Except, in my parable of the prodigal daughter, my sisters and brothers resent me not at all, and there’s a feast, and there’s a life, and work to be done, and more of our siblings to be welcomed back.
I don’t know. We all sound pretty blessed to me.