Jesus said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
John 14: 4-7
Today is the Feast of St. Thomas. The passage above is not from the gospel for today but from earlier in John’s gospel. Thomas is best know for his doubting of the resurrection of Jesus and his singular very physical encounter with the Risen Lord related in the assigned gospel reading for today. But he also has a very minor role in what is for me a very key dialogue in John’s gospel during Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. It is Thomas’ question that evokes from Jesus his core “definition” of his own deepest identity and reality: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Despite how little we know of Thomas, the dispositions of heart that he reflects are ones which make him a person with whom it is very easy to identify. It is possible to read arrogance in Thomas’ refusal to believe Jesus unless, as he says, “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.” Yet, when this challenge is combined with his earlier challenge to Jesus in John 14, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”, I prefer to interpret Thomas as expressing a humility I often lack. It seems to me to require courage to interrupt Jesus’ discourse and to ask him a dumb question. Thomas does not pretend to understand, or later on to believe, what he does not understand and believe. He opens himself to learn, to be taught by expressing his ignorance to Jesus and later to the band of disciples. In a real sense, it seems that “doubting Thomas” really is the one with the deeper faith.
We pick up much of the “faith” we have in life from our shared communal lives. We live in a world of “common sense,” out of the beliefs that are held “in common.” This is not enough for Thomas. The excitement of the disciples in having seen the Lord and now sensing a call based on Jesus’ overcoming of death is not enough to convince Thomas, and, clearly, he is not one to keep his hesitations to himself. He risks being ostracized and excluded from the “band of disciples” by voicing the deep concerns and doubts he carries within.
This is precisely what he also did to Jesus’ face in John 14. Jesus tells the disciples that they know where he is going, having been with him and shared his life these past years. But Thomas doesn’t understand. He cannot say he knows what he feels he does not know. Perhaps he does know Jesus, the teacher and Lord, well enough to know that he will not be humiliated by Jesus in revealing his ignorance. Or perhaps, he just has so much integrity, and perhaps desire to really know Jesus more than he already does, that he must honestly open himself, in his unknowing, to Jesus.
The revelation of God that is Jesus does not respond to Thomas’ ignorance by humiliating him or lording it over him. Rather it meets him; it encounters him in that space which his humble questioning has opened in himself. Yes, Jesus does say to him and the gathered disciples: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But he does, in fact, meet Thomas where he is. He does have him put his finger into the nail marks in his hands and his hand into his side. Similarly, Jesus does not diminish or humiliate Thomas when he responds to Thomas’ question about not knowing the way by telling him that he, Jesus himself, is the way, the truth and the life. He tells Thomas, in effect, that although Thomas thinks he does not know the way, he actually does. And the way is the way of Thomas’s honesty, humility, and truthfulness.
My personal “reading” of Thomas is, in good part, representative of my own struggle with honesty and forthrightness. How often throughout life I have pretended to know and understand in order not to be seen as stupid. How often I have remained in the dark because of refusal to admit I was in the dark. How often my relationship to another has remained superficial and insignificant because I did not truly encounter the other by admitting my inability to understand them.
Jesus reveals to Thomas that “the way” to where he is going, to where he lives with the Father, is the way of Thomas’ ignorance. We know the way, but we do not know that we know. We know our own call, but that call only rises into our awareness in brief moments of insight, in what Jan van Ruusbroec calls moments of blic. As Jesus says in John 9:39: “”For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” It is Thomas who actually touches the Risen Jesus and who hears of the Way to life with him. He encounters in the most real and fleshly of ways the Lord, because he opens to the Lord the dark, unknown, and mysterious aspects of himself. Perhaps he is most “doubting Thomas” not in his doubting of Jesus, but in his appropriate and justified doubting of himself. Faith in its depth must come from the place of unbelief, from all in us that resists our true way, the way of Jesus for us, in favor of our own way.
“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.” Thomas expresses aloud his doubts, his hardness of heart, for all to hear and see. As a result, Jesus gives himself to Thomas in that very hard and unbelieving place. May God give us the strength to be who we really are in and before “the world,” so that we may come to know our true way to the place where Jesus lives.
I have thus described for you five groups of sinners who have all been called to union with God. But as long as a sinner wishes to remain in the service of sin, he remains deaf and blind and is incapable of tasting or feeling all the good things which God desires to work in him. If, however, the sinner enters into himself, and if upon doing so he becomes displeased with his sinful life, then he begins to draw near to God. If he wishes to respond to God’s call and invitation, he must freely resolve to forsake sin and do penance. In this way, he will come to be of one mind and one will with God and will receive God’s grace.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,B