Unless I see.

“Saint Thomas,” Diego Valezquez

I remember a statue in the Catholic grade school I grew up in. I remember all the statues there. But this one, this one aggravated me. I did not understand it at all.

In one of the weathered corners stood a statue of Jesus, all shadows and pale marble. He stared out into the middle distance like a Greek sculpture. Just next to him along the wall, on the left, was metal lettering that read UNLESS I SEE. And I would always stop dead and wonder, “Unless You see what, Jesus?”

I remember being actively agitated over the mystery. I would stare and stare. Several elaborate answers developed in my mind, most of which I can’t remember. All I can recall is theorizing it might be some deep statement I wasn’t old enough to discern yet. There were also indents along the wall, drilled holes next to the words. I remember touching them and thinking a phrase must be missing. The answer to the puzzle was somewhere, though. I knew that part. It just had to be somewhere.

It is important at this point that you learn I attended a school called “St. Thomas the Apostle,” and that the statue is an obvious homage to the episode in the Gospel of John when Thomas doubts that Christ is resurrected. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands,” says Thomas, “and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). This is exactly what happens, and Thomas believes. This is exactly what the statue references.

We heard this story at least once a year as a whole school gathered at Mass when we celebrated our patron saint together. We talked about “Doubting Thomas” countless times in religion class. I wandered around in a uniform that only St. Thomas kids wore. We had shirts for P.E. that read “St. Thomas the Apostle.” The name of the school, the answer to the puzzle, was literally everywhere.

Other than that I was a really little kid when I started school there, and perhaps not all that swift of mind, I’m never sure why it took me so hilariously long to crack the code of the Jesus statue in the corner of the hall. Then again, most of the statues and paintings that haunt my youthful memories were that way. Jesus can wear His heart outside His chest because He can. Saints glow. Jesus is bloody on the cross, and Jesus is also bright and risen. We crown Mary in May because she is pretty, and her rose crown suits her.

All of these symbols have rich meaning that five-year-olds don’t know. This is to say nothing of liturgical symbols, which are far richer. In the liturgy, though, these signs are accompanied by words. Thomas Aquinas says this is always so with the Sacraments because we need words to understand signs better. “This is my body,” says the priest while lifting the host. The words are not an accident.

Still, even my lack was given meaning. My world was filled with richness and liveliness because it was crowded with its statues and paintings, its signs and words. Yes, I played pretend a lot. But the saints in the statues watched over me, too. And I thought they did. Gardens and churches were filled up with people because God had filled them up. My small world was enchanted. By which I mean it was filled with holy things.

It is necessary, when growing up, to learn about the holy things God sends into the world. This is not disenchantment. Perhaps it can seem so. It is an intensity or an awareness that, yes, shatters – but only to make things more real. We might even say that what is real keeps breaking through to us with its splendor. We need this. We need to remember what happened to the saints that crowd the church and we need to read the Scripture that recounts Christ’s life. Whatever inward transfiguration allowed me finally to be aware that Thomas the Apostle spoke the words along the wall – and that I speak them too – this is a necessary transfiguration.

It happens again and again, and more intensely the more real it is. Hearing the words “this is my body” again and again, as if I could ever really understand them, still begs again and again that I always try. Jesus himself asks that I do when the words are spoken. He speaks them.

I think perhaps that this transfiguration occurs in theology as well. True reform unveils what is real in a way that makes it more alive for us. We cannot forget either the inner reality or the living eyes that look upon it, waiting to see.

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