What a priest, two poets and doubting Thomas taught me about love
In a story read at Mass on the First Sunday after Easter, Thomas says it’s malarkey when his buddies tell him they saw Jesus, who had come back from the dead. His friends do not throw him out. Instead, they sit with him, break bread, drink wine. Then Jesus comes back again, and invites Thomas to reach his hands right into Jesus’ wounds. Thomas finally understands.
“My Lord and my God!” he cries out.
Jesus tells him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Which, the priest says, is all of us.
A week later, I am listening to the poet Marie Howe read at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Howe’s latest collection of poetry, called Magdalene, begins with a quote from the Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas: “His disciples said, When will you be visible to us? And when will we see you?... Jesus said, When you undress and are not ashamed.”
For so many years, by so many men, Mary Magdalene was depicted as a prostitute, and in that way, Howe says, was a foil to Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary. “And therein is the wound so many of us women have lived with for centuries,” Howe says. “The split between the body and the spirit, between the secular and the sacred, between the virgin and the whore.”
Before Howe became a mother, she says, she used to go to a monastery overlooking the Hudson River to write. Once it was snowing, and she was thinking of a story about Jesus: how he comes back after he is tortured and killed, and Thomas doesn’t believe his friends who tell him they have seen him. Thomas tells them he will believe it when he puts his finger in Jesus’ side and in his wounds.
At the festival, Howe then reads “The Snowstorm,” in which the protagonist is walking through snow that is elbow deep. There are deer tracks in the snow. There are tiny prints of a bird. There is no deer nor bird. Only the tracks.
“Put your finger here and see my hands then bring your hand and put it into my side,” the poem goes. She reaches her hand into one track to touch the bottom of an invisible hoof, then reaches a finger into the mark left by the jay.
The next day is the Saturday before the Second Sunday of Easter. I’m in the Calvin College chapel listening to the poet Natalie Diaz read. Diaz is introducing a poem, saying the rate at which Native American and indigenous women “are disappeared” is alarming.
“For so long the non-white female body has been the object of desire and pleasure that bordered on violence for someone else,” she says. Diaz says it is easy to see the brown body as the body of trauma. She says the brown body and pain have become a sort of currency; the wound, in some ways, a kind of performance.
It is remarkable that here is yet another reference to doubting Thomas. Three times. Three people. Less than one week.
“We can reference the doubting Thomas, but in some ways we’re all walking around saying, put your finger in here,” Diaz says.
I think: It is remarkable that here is yet another reference to doubting Thomas. Three times. Three people. Less than one week.
Later that day, I am driving home from Grand Rapids in an April snowstorm, going 85 miles per hour in a 70-mile-per-hour zone because I am way too anxious and I do not want be alone anymore after three days at the conference and two nights in the last room the motel had available after the first room they tried to put me in had Cheetos stains and cigarette burns on the sheets. My thoughts are flying as sleet whips against the windshield, and I think of the priest and the poets, of doubting Thomas, the invisible hoof and the invisible jay. I think of pressing a hand or a finger into a wound in order to see, in order to believe.
Then I remember the girl.
Seven years ago, there was a girl with a brown body staying in my home for a day or a few days, or maybe it was a few weeks, or maybe it was longer than that. Every day with her, my first child, a foster child, was a lifetime. I carry her with me still, in some wound, from some split she caused, or maybe my mother caused it, or maybe her mother did, or maybe it’s been there all along.
She was young when she came to me, and when she had been still younger, only my daughter’s age, barely 4 years old, she reached her small hand into the wound a bullet from her mom’s boyfriend’s gun made in her mom’s neck and pressed her fingers down. Was she trying to see and believe, or was she only trying to keep her mother alive? Her mother split open. Disappeared before her eyes. And the girl coming a few years later to me and my husband, Sean, trauma incarnate, daring us to put our finger in her wound, learning to live with it for a few days or a few weeks or a few years or for all of the centuries since the first bite of the first apple from the first tree.
Every day with my first child, a foster child, was a lifetime. I carry her with me still.
One night there came an end to our breaking bread. Still, I remember her. The memory of the wound strikes me, driving home way too fast from Grand Rapids, like a bat swung through my chest, my body the tee, my heart the ball. In what was that baby girl being asked to believe when she was made to see and feel that wound, to press her fingers into the mark in her mother’s neck?
I don’t know what Jesus would have to say to that.
We don’t go to church on the Second Sunday of Easter. The next day, Monday, we wake to snow on the ground. I am hurrying my daughter, Magnolia, out of our house to our car because it is mid-April and I am tired of being cold. I am tired of all the snow. I am tugging the sleeve of her coat, and she stops on the middle step down our back porch, rubbing her toe back and forth in the thin blanket of snow that has accumulated.
“Wow,” she says, dreamily.
“Come on,” I say, impatiently, and tug her sleeve.
“It is so beautiful,” she says, like an enchanted bird.
“Let’s go,” I say, and she starts to move. When we get to the grass, I say I’m sorry.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” I ask, apologetically, knowing I was being a jerk, hurrying my daughter and myself through her wonder.
The memory of the wound strikes me, driving home way too fast from Grand Rapids, like a bat swung through my chest, my body the tee, my heart the ball.
I’m feeling guilty again in the car about having rushed her off the back stairs.
“I’m sorry I was hurrying you,” I say. “What were you making back there on the porch in the snow with your shoe?”
“A smoosh angel,” she says. “It was beautiful.”
When my son Henry comes home from school the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter, yellow paint stains his fingernails. I ask what it’s from. He says they were painting petals on flowers that day.
“There’s a little tiny plant inside of the seed, and there’s a coat for it to keep it warm,” he says. “But if the coat breaks, it won’t grow.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because it has to be warm. If it’s cold, it might not work.”
When Henry and I leave the house later that day to pick up Magnolia from preschool, most of the snow outside has melted. I head down the stairs from the back porch and am sad that the only thing left of Magnolia’s smoosh angel is my memory of it.
At some point that Monday between Magnolia’s leaving and Henry’s arriving, between all the snow outside and then none, I looked out the window at the snow in the trees and remembered another snowstorm seven years earlier when the girl with the brown body, who was my first daughter, my foster child, was staying with Sean and me. In that snowstorm, the snow had fallen way past elbow deep. So deep there were no tracks. There were no cars or deer or birds. We had to shovel a path so our dog, Lola, could do her business.
Our foster daughter ran through the snow. She followed it over the fence into our neighbor’s yard and helped him shovel. She chased Sean into the front yard and ran into the street. There was no danger. There were no cars. The snow was so deep.
She threw her hands into it and her feet into the air, and she cartwheeled. Joy incarnate, her body flew around and around as she reached her hands into the snow. Over and over, until she grew tired and cold and went inside, where for a day or a week or a lifetime, Sean and I helped keep her warm and safe, and she reached her hands back for more, leaving her mark.