A Vast Unfolding Design Lit by a Risen Sun

Hendrick ter Brugghen, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”

Spiritual Sunday

As I am currently busy with student essays, I repost an essay I wrote four years ago on Denise Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus,” the subject of today’s lectionary reading.

Reposted from April 27, 2014

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of Doubting Thomas, about which I’ve blogged a couple of times in the past. Once I posted a fine poem by Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman R. S. Thomas and twice (here and here) I’ve turned to my former colleague Dana Greene, whose biography on Denise Levertov discusses the importance of the Thomas story to a poet wrestling with her own doubts.

Dana quotes that part of Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus” that describes the disciple’s moving breakthrough but not where the poet examines Thomas’s previous history of doubt. Levertov first traces his doubts back to an incident where a father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus for healing (Mark 9:17-29). Here’s the story:

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit.“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

According to Daniel Clendenin, who posts today on Levertov’s poem in his superb blog “Journey with Jesus,” Levertov takes full advantage of the fact that Thomas’s names mean “the twin,” both the Greek Didymus and the Aramaic T’omas.  The Thomas in the poem says that he feels closer to the father of the boy than to “the twin of my birth.” He is responding to the fact that this father is confronted by the unfairness of the world—the suffering of an innocent child—so that his

entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
Why…

No wonder he finds it hard to believe. No wonder he asks Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!”

Despite the healing of the child, Levertov’s Thomas still has his doubt as the father’s words linger:

What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough

This magnificent lead-up makes Thomas’s ultimate revelation all the more powerful. The tight knot of doubt miraculously unravels so that he experiences

light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling…

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

St. Thomas Didymus

By Denise Levertov

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

The Son is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!

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