THE FEAST OF ST. THOMAS
Love your brother as your soul; guard him as the pupil of your eye.
–The Gospel of Thomas.
They come from far and wide, these men and women,
carrying babies on their hips,
solemn in their Sunday best.
Scraggly lines of them shuffle along
to view my body in this open coffin where it has lain,
unblemished and immaculately preserved,
for two thousand years. That miracle
so impressed the pope, he proclaimed me a saint.
So they come, these fishermen and shopkeepers
housewives, grandmothers, murmuring
prayers, entreaties, bargaining with God.
Their prayers rise up to heaven, as smoke.
The air in this church is thick with incense, yellow
with the light of sulphurous candles lit
by these pilgrims for the souls of their dead.
Love your brother as your soul . . .
The Syrian Bishop of Kerala raises his arms
in blessing; purple robes and snowy mitre proclaim
his holy office. Thousands kneel to kiss his ring before
bending to kiss the feet of the body I left behind
so many centuries ago. Hundreds faint, unable to breathe
the close and humid air in St. Thomas’s cathedral.
Imagine! They named a cathedral after me.
After me, Thomas, who never knew
where I’d rest my head at night
once I entered my Beloved’s holy service.
Ah, but that was the joy of it! In my youth
I believed what my senses told me. If I couldn’t
see taste touch smell or hear it
it didn’t exist. I was sure of that. Until God demanded
everything I cherished most: my Beloved’s sacred life
my livelihood my attachment to family friends security
home name country proof everything.
I roamed the world and found my faith anew each day
as this family or that shared with me
whatever they had. Some nights I slept in royal chambers;
on others I was lulled to sleep by the whisper of the sea
as I laid my head in the sands of some foreign shore.
. . . guard him as the pupil of your eye.
When my time came to leave this mortal body, it was here
on the west coast of India, its southernmost tip,
in the lush and verdant plains of Kerala, that God demanded
my life. And I gave it, most gratefully, surrendering this
perplexing burden-God made human in me.
Every year since, on the anniversary of my death,
they wheel my coffin on its teakwood catafalque
out into the apse of this cathedral.
Thousands of prayerful pilgrims wait
to view my mortal remains, searching
in my miraculously uncorrupt body for a sign
that there is a God; that some Divinity has the power
to answer their prayers.
In this mass of sweating humanity my eye
catches glimpses of illuminati. This woman
in a brown cotton dress, holding her toddler
on her shoulders so the child may breathe
a clearer air; that ancient pushed
along in a makeshift wheelchair
by his rapturous grandson; and there
by the far wall an aging thief
washing his soul clean with tears
of repentance: each of them
bears the glow of inner knowing.
God is everywhere.
Walking up to the coffin, now, is a young man
so jittery, so uneasy in his skin,
that even in the press of this throng
he is set apart. The people near him
pull away, repelled by the aura of violence
he wears around him like a carapace. He edges
nearer the foot of the coffin; bends down,
as others do, brings his mouth to the relic’s feet.
Then, sudden screams from the woman behind him
bring the ushers running. There are shrieks and cries
shouts and wailing all around. I look, and see blood
spurting from the right foot of my newly desecrated
body. The young man is kneeling, still, before the coffin
his eyes glazed, unseeing. Tears pour down
his sallow cheeks. The ushers grab him roughly
by his armpits, drag him to his feet. Blood
stains his chin; his mouth is clamped firmly
around the bleeding digit that is my severed big toe.
He has bitten it right off, in a transport of ecstasy
or indignation. And I am angry. This is all that’s left
of my incarnation; witness to my terrible struggle with being
human. Now my body, twin and mirror of my Beloved’s
own, is utterly defiled, fills the mouth of this hungry
stranger. Like the rumbling of an earthquake, then,
I hear God’s loving laughter deep
in my soul: One more thing, Thomas,
I ask of you. Will you give it? Willingly? And I struggle
with my heart: “This is all I have left, Lord; why
would you ask this of me?”
God’s voice, rutilant with Divine joy: I do ask it,
Thomas. You are free to say yea or nay. What
will you do? My soul’s answer rises, singing:
“Yes, yes and yes!” even while
this stubborn darkness in me growls, “How can this
be? I am a saint, worthy of reverence. Punish
I turn my gaze upon the sacristy. Uniformed
guards come rushing in. They shout questions, exclaim
angrily, wave their arms about. The crowd
presses in. The young man stands meek and amazed,
all the violence drained out of his soul. He says
nothing, bows lower as the voices around him rise
like the tide. The glow of illumination is upon him.
I can see, in his stillness, he hears nothing.
His ears are filled with the voice of God.
And I hear my Beloved’s voice, echoing
down the centuries, clear as water now, priceless
gift from this troubled man, my brother,
struggling, as I have done, to reconcile
those fractious twins, human divinity:
Love your brother as your soul,
guard him as the pupil of your eye.
(As always, Sunday is Poetry Day on my Blog. If you feel moved to, please share your poems in the Comments. Let’s celebrate poetry together.)