By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, Homily given at the Day House Mass, the Detroit Catholic Worker House, April 23, 2017
The vigil continued behind us with honks, signs and a host of elders calling for love and welcome of immigrants and refugees. We had migrated into the trees and grass of the park delighting in the spring sunshine. My sister sat against a tree nursing my nephew and my kids ran in circles around the old oak.
Suddenly, my sister noticed that just inches beside her were the bones and teeth of a squirrel uncovered from beneath a season of snow and ice. We both cringed in disgust watching where my kids were placing their feet.
Isaac noticed our response and asked what we were looking at. He saw the squirrel and immediately sat down right beside it. He sat there looking at it in silence for a long time. I watched in amazement as my child shifted the mood with his spirit. My sister and I realized the foolishness in our disgust, as Isaac said “Oh poor squirrel. I hope his family knows that he is here.” He kept sitting for a long time just watching the body with deep empathy and love in his eyes. He spent the next fifteen minutes collecting dirt and sticks and covering the body hoping that the squirrel would have been happy to be buried below the tree it liked to climb. And soon he was back to running around the tree with his brother and making his cousin smile.
There was a way in which Isaac touched something and it helped my sister and I to see.
Isaac’s middle name is Thomas after Erinn’s beloved grandfather. When we picked the name, I scoured through the Gospel pages making sure that the name was one that I admired, someone after who I would want my children to lean on. Could we name our child after such a “doubter?” But when I read this text, I am always struck with love and admiration for this man.
Here is a time when the disciples are filled with grief and tremendous fear locking themselves in rooms for fear that they will be next. In that moment, news spreads to Thomas of the resurrection, and he says “I won’t believe it unless I put my fingers in his wounds, unless I feel his hands and his side.
I know that desire and feeling when you cannot know something is real until you touch it. When truth goes beyond what our mind and speech can comprehend and must be felt with our bodies.
I remember that when my mom died. Lucy and I weren’t there when she died, but we came home in time to touch her body. We fell on her body and then in a room filled with women (some of whom are in this room), with Taize chants that Beth put on, I washed her head. I ran my fingers through her hair. I felt each surgical scar and the way her bones had shifted. I ran my fingers over her eyes and lips. I had to touch the pain to know that it was real.
I see that in small ways these days with both my kids. If they fall and hurt something, they cry and run to me and ask me to touch it. It amazes me how almost every time, all I have to do is touch their knee or their head and then they are fine. It is like they need me to touch it so that it can be made real. And once it is real, that is enough.
Touch matters. We have to physically get into the messiness of pain and life, let it be known, make it real.
I think that is certainly true within politics. What we touch has so much to do with what we believe.
I’ve had several encounters with people who try to debate me on gay marriage politically or theologically. I am struck by how unhuman it feels, how theoretical it all is. I feel like yelling “We are not talking about theory! We are talking about my life, about human beings, about love.” But unless you let yourself touch that humanness, it stays theory. A game of wits and mind. It is not real.
Unless we let ourselves touch the human pain of what it means for a Muslim to enter an airport security line or the child sitting in the classroom afraid their parents could be picked up by ICE at any second or staring at a bathroom sign and not knowing where to go, unless we touch the pain, it just isn’t real.
Thomas asks to touch the places of pain to know it is real. He could have said “unless I touch Jesus, I won’t know he is real.” He could have just wanted to feel his breathing, warm flesh, but he doesn’.t He says he needs to feel the wounds.
And the request is not laughed at by Jesus, instead Jesus he invites him to come and “touch and see.” I would imagine that the idea of Thomas asking to touch him did not feel odd because of who Jesus was as a teacher. Touch weaves its way all through Jesus’ ministry and that touch is always political.
He illegally heals the blind man with his touch and saliva on the Sabbath. He consistently touches the “unclean” living on the margins. I think that the touching of pain guides his understanding of the world and his work. And he also reciprocates that relationship welcoming others to touch him. He honors the foot washing from a woman marked untouchable. And he is keenly paying attention to touch as he feels the slight touch of a woman in a crowd. Jesus is truly incarnate in this world. He is not just mind and heart, but body. That physical reality of touching one another and the world is part of discipleship.
So, here again, he invites Thomas to come and touch his own pain. To know the truth of life and resurrection, through first encountering the wounds.
It forces me to ask the questions of myself, who am I touching? How deep are the wounds? Who am I not touching? And, am I inviting people to come, and touch, and see my own wounds? What are the moments in my own life where touch has transformed me?
This is exactly who I would want for Isaac’s name sake. A man who can ask questions, who can seek out truth, who is not afraid to touch the pain of others, who can hold onto the pain of another, and can learn that amidst the wounds is where we find resurrection and liberation.
And I already see so much of that in him. This beautiful child who can touch and hold the pain of a squirrel and help us all to believe. I have become a disciple of his as I watch him touch this beautiful world.