The Gospel reading for today’s Episcopalian/Anglican liturgy is the very human story of Thomas, who refused to believe reports that Jesus was alive. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side,” John (20:24-29) reports him as saying, “I will never believe.”
Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman R. S. Thomas has a remarkable poem about the despair one experiences when, like Thomas, faith has gone out of one’s life, leaving only a vast looming abyss. The “still small voice” mentioned in the poem is the voice that God, foregoing whirlwind or fire, used to speak to Elijah–but even that voice, Thomas says, seems no more than the onslaught of decay. At such moments, he asks, what can one do but reach out one’s finger, like Adam’s reaching out in the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting, and hope that God reciprocates?
True faith is to have doubts yet forge on anyway. Or as Anne LaMott says, the opposite of doubt is not certainty but faith. In the passage from John, it may be significant that, upon seeing Jesus (and unlike in the famous Caravaggio painting), Thomas does not appear to actually touch Jesus. The sight of his Lord is enough. But Jesus pushes the lesson further. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asks. “Bessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Would Thomas, feeling alone on the surface of a turning planet, have reached out had he not seen Jesus? Balanced between doubt and faith, what would he have done? Better to continue following the soul that had been leading him toward the light, the poet says. Better to reach across the threshold into unknown space and hope for a reciprocating touch.
I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?