BETWEEN DOUBTING AND BELIEVING
[Second Sunday of Easter]
A beautiful painting that is inspired by the Gospel reading today was done by Caravaggio (1571–1610) entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (1602). This is one of the more famous works by Caravaggio - maybe the most copied with 22 known copies in the 17th century alone.
Originally done for Vincenzo Giustiniani, it is now housed in Sansscouci — a museum in Potsdam, Germany. Caravaggio, the renowned baroque Italian artist, has exercised direct or indirect influence on other painters also famous in their own right — Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez and Bernini. His interpretation of the Gospel text might lead us to some insights most often suppressed and forgotten in usual sermons about the event.
Amidst the euphoria of the resurrection, Cavaraggio brings us to the complexity and ambivalence of such an experience while pointing to the practical hope emerging from the rough grounds where the ordinary people in his paintings live.
Let me try to dissect Caravaggio’s painting.
First is the sense of emotional conflict depicted in the wrinkled foreheads and troubled faces of the three disciples. While the finger of Thomas explores the wounds, Jesus also winces at its impact. In both respects, what Caravaggio intended to convey was the intense psychological tension that serves as the immediate context of the Resurrection.
It was not easy for the disciples after the death of Jesus. Politically, there might have been those who were intent on rounding up his followers. One thus understands Peter’s earlier insistent denials. Or why they all dispersed in a hurry and left him alone. Even if this fear were only a result of paranoia after some harsh tragedy, the disciples were also very tired, frustrated, angry, guilty and in deep emotional pain over their great loss. Caravaggio’s winces and wrinkled faces convey all these internal struggles most clearly.
In such a psychological state, they had two options: to resort to violence (of revenge) or to lead a secluded life (in fear). They chose the second. So, when Jesus broke into their isolation, they were in for the surprise of their lives. Yes! But the joyful surprise did not automatically erase the tensions in their hearts and the pain in their faces.
The experiences of the orphans and widows of EJK reveal the same feeling. They want to protest but could not. So most of them hid the pains away. Some literally left the place to avoid shaming. It was difficult to grieve when both the President and their neighbors blame or ignore them. Yet to their surprise, the Risen Lord came in ways unexpected. People began helping, jobs were offered, children back in school. But they do not live happy lives ever after. Doubts came back. Pains began to recur. Problems start to arise. Again.
One Caravaggio commentator observes that as Thomas looks at the wound of Jesus, his left hand is clutching his own side, as though he too is wounded. Resurrection does not take away the deep pains of our wounded lives. Rather, it makes us look at Jesus’ wounds and see in there a glimmer of hope.
Second detail: there is a sense of realism in the depiction of his characters. Caravaggio, unlike his contemporaries, was not fond of ‘ideal beauty’. His models were street people, prostituted women, beggars, etc. In the painting, the disciples are poor subsistence laborers with worn out hands in their working clothes, not venerable men in flashy robes. Quite ordinary people too: there are no halos on their heads; Thomas’ shirt is torn at the seams; and the hand on Jesus’ pierced side is still dirty, perhaps from work.
Laboring men like them could hardly afford the luxury of time for idle speculation and useless ‘what ifs’. Their lives demand that they be practical and realistic. So the “doubting Thomas” is not at all about intellectual skepticism or agnostic experimentation discussing things endlessly till kingdom come. Thomas’ “doubt” is an honest questioning born out of the exigencies of one’s practical life of the everyday.
Thomas was not wanting in courage. Indeed, he was willing to give up his life. When the disciples were afraid to go back to Jerusalem after John’s death, he said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Tradition has it that he went to as far as Syria and India, and his life itself ended in a martyr’s death.
But he was also a practical man. When Jesus told them that he is going to prepare a place for them and shall lead them there, Thomas said: “Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?” (John 14: 5). Like men used to living in the rough grounds, he does not like vague metaphysical language. He wants things laid down in concrete terms. When things are not clear, he asks, like in the gospel today.
After Jesus’ death, Thomas was not alone in this persistent questioning. Almost everyone ‘doubted’, as it were – the women who first came to the tomb and ran back; the two disciples on their way to Emmaus; Mary Magdalene who blamed the gardener. And Jesus’ response was not of reproach, blame or condemnation, but of deep understanding, openness, and compassion.
This leads me to the third revealing detail. Jesus patiently leads Thomas’s dirty hand to his side as if saying: “I understand your doubts. Come, let me help you.” Such an attitude is a challenge to many individuals and institutions - economic, political, religious - that could not tolerate questions, could not handle dissent, or are afraid of differences and threatened by sheer otherness.
We live in the last six years in a semi-authoritarian regime. Extrajudicial killings, violent and militaristic approach to the pandemic, anti-terrorism law, red-tagging—name it, we have it. All these are instruments to instill fear, to prevent us from asking, to silence dissent. Fear is a sign of death. Freedom is a sign of the resurrection.
Our traditional Filipino upbringing—in our families, our schools, our churches—does not encourage us how to probe or inquire. We are mainly trained to follow, not to question. And if we dare to ask, we are in trouble.
At best, we are coaxed to just follow and tow the line. We are often told: “Sumunod ka na lang. Wala namang mawawala sa ‘yo.” (Just follow and obey. Nothing will be lost anyway!). At worst, we are threatened, harassed, excluded, excommunicated and killed for believing differently.
But it might be helpful to remember that a belief that is not tempered by doubt becomes dangerous; a religion that is too certain of its own truth risks becoming imperialistic. As Mark Taylor wrote: “Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.”
In the end, let me go back to Caravaggio’s painting. The three old men, one of them Thomas, are together in deeply seeking the truth of the resurrection. Illumined by the light source in some chiaroscuro effect, their heads form one circle with Jesus’—a strong image of a continual communal search. Despite their being in Jesus’ presence and beholding his wounds, the searching has not stopped. It is always in process—as their wrinkled foreheads tell us.
If I may digress to what is happening in the Philippines today, we experience fear once more. We fear that the 20 years of dictatorship we suffered under the Marcos regime – with all the killings and corruption — will come back in the person of his son who is leading in all election surveys now. We fear the Duterte’s violent regime which killed thousands of innocent people will come back in the person of his daughter; and with her all her cohorts of political plunderers and corrupt jesters you can ever imagine.
Yet slowly, steadily, simple and poor people, ordinary men and women, the young and the old are marching by hundreds of thousands in Philippine streets today, convincing people house to house, volunteering their time and talent, in a fervent hope that this political “tsunami” is not going to happen. In the spirit of the Risen Lord, the communal effort, the common search continues in hopeful, joyful and creative spirit. Shall we succeed? Only God can help us.
A French Nobel laureate for literature (1947), André Gide, once wrote: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who said they have found it.”
There are two sides to Thomas in the Gospel text: his doubting (“I need to put my hands in his side”) and his believing (“My Lord and my God”). Both are crucial to one’s act of faith. Only when this tension is kept shall our faith be truly alive, and our lives truly faithful.
St. Augustine reminds us that, in fact, “doubt is an element of believing” – a very healthy reminder in the face of the sometimes rabid zeal and fanatical fervor - not just for religion but also for political beliefs. For as the great Lebanese writer, Kahlil Gibran, wrote: “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Doubting is knowing that as we keep the journey, we haven’t yet arrived; as we continually love, we haven’t yet given our all; and as we honestly believe, we haven’t yet and could never fully grasp at all.
Daniel Franklin Pilario, CM
Vincentian Chair for Social Justice
St. John's University - New York