The Dark Devotional: St. Thomas Didymus: A Heart Made Double by Breaking

The Dark Devotional: St. Thomas Didymus: A Heart Made Double by Breaking March 31, 2016

Martyrdom of St. Thomas, Peter Paul Rubens (image source: Wikipedia)

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:24-29 )

You’d have difficulty picking him out of the crowd. He isn’t the big fisherman standing out abruptly, always just a little out of place–nor is he James with thunder in his eyes. He isn’t the one with an air of confident world-weariness–Nathaniel and his experience–nor is he John with his easy public displays of affection.

But for his part, he isn’t aware of these things–all he knows is that he isn’t her. And there is pain, and envy, and longing in his eyes as he looks at her awkwardness and shame and love more suffocating than her perfume, the woman in such an unladylike posture kneeling at Christ’s feet and wiping them with her hair–or, some are thinking, an all too ladylike posture, this allegedly tender-hearted penitent with a fetish for feet and exhibitionism.

But from his unnoticed place in the half-shadows, Thomas understands, and his heart burns. He understands what it is to read a passage of the Song, Solomon’s, one too many times and do a double take, not because it’s talking about sex–what could be more plain?–but because something about it unsettles you until you realize it’s also talking about God. He knows what it is to have that uncanny desire for Him that you can’t quite name, dangerous and shameful and white hot and in love. And one other thing he knows: he can never be her, because he is practical, reasonable–and scared. He could die for Him. That’s easy. But his heart would never dare burst into flame.

I suspect there are Christians who would not like what I’m experimenting with here, but when I think of emending it, I simply can’t bring myself to believe other than that our loves and responses get confused and wild and strange in the presence of Christ. I have been to Eucharistic Adoration. And where many interpret Thomas’s doubt as a kind of modern skepticism or empiricism–an icon for rational scientific types–I see it as something else. His is the response of a brokenhearted lover.

As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder–the doubting disease–I know a little about doubt. I know the suffocation of contexts where one can never ask questions, yes. But I also know the annoyance of those just a little too eager to embrace and romanticize doubt. If you’re okay with doubt, you probably haven’t really experienced it, the shaking of the foundations and the ripping of the temple curtain from top to bottom. Doubt shatters a person–and those who flirt with it as a religious or anti-religious accessory mock us.

But to return to the matter of the passage, one of the things you learn quickly with OCD is that doubt strikes most deeply where there is love–if there were no love, there would be no obsessions and compulsions, nothing to doubt. There is a story about a man who was hospitalized for OCD–his obsession was a fear of fires, and his compulsion was to set off fire alarms and warn people “just in case” there might be a fire and others might get hurt. And initially when he was hospitalized, his condition improved. However, after a few days it started happening again and he started setting off fire alarms. When staff asked him why, he told them it was because when he first came, he had no particular investment in the hospital, so the matter didn’t concern him–but as he made friends and connected with others on the ward, he began to care; he began to love. And as soon as he loved, the doubts came back and he was setting off fire alarms because he couldn’t bear the thought of his new friends dying in a fire.

And it is a version of this–this doubt and love commingled–that I hear in Thomas’s story. When he says he will not believe “unless I see the mark of the nails etc.,” it’s not because he’s a cool empiricist played in the film version by Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather, it’s because he can’t bear to hope and be disappointed again. His heart had opened once to hope–and was shattered on the cross on Good Friday. Can we blame him if he refuses to believe, not because he thinks it untrue, but because he so desperately hopes it is? Surely no more than we can blame Mary for her grief-touched refusal to meet Christ when he initially visits at the death of Lazarus; surely no more than her meeting Him risen and flubbing it when her wrought emotions mistake Him for the gardener. Where other disciples may be comparatively practical, Thomas, like Mary, gets it–Christ’s love and its loss is what devastated our hearts, and He’d damn well better have a bloody good answer if He’s going to show up again. And he does. And it is bloody. He offers us his wounds and the intimacy of handling them.

“Blessed are those who have not seen me and have believed.”

It is a prophecy rather than a rebuke, concerning what St. John of the Cross would later call the dark night of the soul – the devastation of experiential means of meeting God–the cover of undifferentiable darkness–the miraculous ability that some have to still believe in the dark. But for the moment let us stay with St. Thomas, who has hungered and thirsted and been filled. Let us be answered by Christ’s wounds. Let us find we no longer need envy Mary because we too have her gift. Let us be intimate with Christ:

They said that day it might have fed the poor;
But all I could was envy – not what hates
And wishes to destroy – they called her whore;
But that which, yearning, watches, wants, and waits.
Her alabaster broken at the well
Gave forth its nard; she touched him with her hair;
I darkling wished what tongues but poorly tell:
My heart burst, love and shame suffusing air,
And grace. But silent, shrunk from hope, I stood
And watched – and later doubted his return,
Though not the facts; my soul fled from good
Frustrated; once betrayed, love feared to burn.
Yet what I dared not hope, for this he died;
Tender, I touched him, felt his hands and side.

Life, death, time. That about covers it.
        Life, death, time. That about covers it.

Karl Persson is a scholar of premodern literature and theology, and is a professor in the Literature and Language Departments at Signum University. In his spare time, he enjoys creative and freelance writing, and is a regular contributor to the Patheos Catholic Channel’s Inner Room, a blog focused on contemplative spirituality and the recovery of ancient Christian practices and social imaginaries. Together with his wife, Meg, and his son, Andrew, he spends his winters surviving the polar vortices that descend on Winnipeg, Manitoba, from the Canadian North; his steadfast endurance has led to the deep wisdom that can only be bought through the patient suffering of many winters. Well…perhaps the bits about wisdom and patience and steadfastness aren’t quite true. But the suffering is real.

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