My sister and I grew up Catholic, and when we were kids, my mom would frequently suggest we give up something for Lent. My suggestion that we give up homework never seemed to be appreciated.
Like most kids anticipating Easter, I looked forward primarily to searching our yard for plastic eggs and consuming puke-inducing amounts of chocolate. But the religious significance of the day was not lost on me. I grew up going to Sunday school and Mass and reading illustrated Bible stories that alternately fascinated and terrified me (there was an image of Absalom, his hair caught in a tree, that I still remember being upset by). Back then, both Easter and Christmas induced a sense of wonder, of unmooredness and mystery, that I no longer experience. I miss it, especially at Christmas.
Was I a believer then? I probably would have professed to be, into my early teens. But at some point, doubt entered the picture. When I went to Mass and it came to the time to recite the Nicene Creed, I started to be silent for the parts that I didn't believe anymore. I would mouth the words and hope my parents didn't notice. The part about "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" was the first to go, because it struck me early how unfair it was that unbaptized kids in distant heathen lands who'd never even been exposed to Christianity would go to hell. It didn't seem like the kind of thing God—at least snuggly, post-therapy, New Testament God—would endorse. Gradually other pieces of it dropped too. These days, my performance of the Nicene Creed would probably resemble a Milli Vanilli concert.
My mother blames herself for this. My sister and I spent most of our formative years at good secular schools overseas and here in the U.S. It wasn't until we moved to Australia that we were chucked into a Catholic school, not due to any misbehavior, but simply because St. Clare's was the best educational option in Canberra. My mom sometimes mutters self-criticisms about how she should have put us into Catholic school earlier, because then we'd still be practicing. I think she's nuts: Nothing did more to tip out my dregs of religious piety than Catholic school. The first first day, I left class to go pee, and in the bathroom, a pack of feral adolescent girls were leaping around, shouting at a crying fifth girl and pelting her with feminine hygiene products. Imagine the shower scene in Carrie meets Lord of the Flies. I'm not saying that it was enough to make me question the existence of a benevolent God, but it was certainly enough to make me question the value of Catholic school in shaping good little Catholics.
Along with the picture of Absalom (lesson: When riding a hysterical mule away from service in your father's army, always put your hair in a sensible bun), a scene I remember seeing many times is that of "doubting" Thomas checking out Jesus after the Resurrection—the Caravaggio above is probably the best known. I always thought this was one of the weirdest stories in the Bible: Thomas says he won't believe Jesus has risen unless he checks out his wounds for himself, and when Jesus comes back, he makes him do it. Imagine having belief forced on you in that way! It's almost like fraternity hazing: Oh yeah? Well, here: stick your finger in this, pal, and tell me what you don't believe.
The poem below consists of portraits of Thomas and two other central figures of the crucifixion story, each grappling with what they did and why they did it; it appeared in Tar River Poetry last spring. The most interesting thing I learned while researching to write it was that the "good thief" crucified next to Christ had a name.
What did he want—me to declare him innocent,
set him free to pull lepers out of hats?
I am not comfortable with the insinuation of miracles.
Torchlight laddering up a woman’s back,
the bruised figs brought to me by servants,
the sea-scent of olives and sweat—
already more than I expected.
Too much, perhaps—but worth protecting
against riff-raff sorcerers and all they might imply.
I washed my hands not to show my innocence.
The cloth and water were all I could be sure of.
My hands that night smelled not of blood, but lemons.
The good thief, they called me, leaving out
excellent tax cheat, superior adulterer.
I’d spent time in the company of whores—
in this, our strung-up party of three, I was not alone:
I’d seen him before, threadbare and muddy;
long before he hung bloody beside me,
there were always women around, enraptured,
their dusty hair unbound, poor locals
drawn by those purpled eyes, that green garden
he claimed to have the keys to. My buddy
smarted off. But I was a good gambler
as well—I did not show my tell. I said:
Remember me when. Pain had blurred
my mind, breath and sweat were peeling
away from me in veils, I saw my death
elbowing through the seething crowd,
not a one of them was there to grieve it.
You’d do the same: Say the grace.
Kiss the kingdom. Hope to wake up and believe it.
Unless I see the wounds, I said. Unless I stick
my fingers in his hands. Around us in the room
the faces of our friends
hung slack as sails on a windless day.
Fresh from the tomb, he parted his robe,
drew my hand to his side,
then parted flesh rough cloth had uncovered,
to open in his battered side a small door
my hand slipped through. There were the ribs:
spines of books I could not read;
beneath, the fat hot ropes of his intestines.
I had not known the stuff that made a man:
here was the form of my friend who’d sat by fires
with me, eaten, laughed—died? Yet, not him
at all: I pulled my hand out, terrified,
tried to hide my blush, my fingers still sticky
with that other, inner world. I think he blushed
as well—though for himself inside that flesh
or me inside my doubt, I couldn’t tell.