A couple of weeks ago, some of the brethren suggested that I replace my shoes, so a brother companion and I visited a nearby place of commerce. Having promptly made my purchase, I left the store to rejoin my companion, who had been waiting outside, and I found him engaged by a well-dressed young woman who was holding his hand under her eyes and commenting on the texture of his skin.
She was a seller of soap, soap made from minerals found at the Dead Sea. The salinity of the water permits swimmers to float with ease and endows the place with special cosmetic powers. As a pilgrim to The Sea of Salt, I had smeared the mud there on my skin, leaving it remarkably smooth and shiny. I remember the women who were with me stuffing the sludge into large bottles.
“You are not married?” she asked in a South American accent. “A wife does not want dry hands.” English was apparently not her first language, yet she spoke with a confidence that was charming. “No, we’re not married,” I said, glancing at my confrere. “We’re studying to be priests,” he responded. She didn’t seem to understand, so he elaborated, touching on Catholicism, the common life, celibacy. She only became more perplexed and blurted out, “In English, please!” I then raised my hand in a blessing motion and made the sign of the cross: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
She collapsed into a weary disbelief: “Are you kidding? You actually believe that?” “Yes,” I replied. “But,” she winced, “that’s so . . . stupid!” We were a little taken aback. “Well, why are you here?” she asked, annoyed. “I needed some shoes.” “Where do you get the money?” she inquired. “People donate money to us at Church.” “Oh, they think they are giving it to the poor,” she sneered. “No, they know they are giving it to us, and some of the money goes to the poor, too.” She changed the subject: “You know what you should do? You should be a construction worker. Your hands are too soft.” She looked back at my companion.
Luckily, Brother and I had recently been charged with a number of home-improvement jobs, in the course of which I had acquired a sizeable gash on my hand. “Hey, we work, too,” I retorted, showing her my palm. Grabbing my hand (per her usual procedure), she examined the wound and seemed reasonably impressed. Again she changed the subject: “You will need to talk to people, so you need to take care of your face.” She had a soap for that too. “I’m sorry,” I objected, “we are too poor for your special soap.”
“What was the name of the water he walked on?” she suddenly queried. She was unaccountably disturbed by our Christianity. “Galilee,” I answered. “No! It was Gennesaret,” she triumphantly retorted. She seemed to think she had caught the Evangelists in a contradiction. “They are two names for the same sea,” I said. “But he didn’t really walk on water,” she continued, “he floated”—apparently alluding to the extreme salinity of the Dead Sea. So I chided her, “Don’t be so naïve.”
The doubt of Thomas the Apostle seems to have been embedded in a deeper hopefulness that the death of Christ had not been the end of the Christian movement. Thomas was found with the other disciples eight days after voicing his doubt. Even his famous conditions for belief—“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails . . .”—perhaps betray a guarded hope, a fear of things too good to be true. The saleswoman, however, did not entertain even the possibility of the truth of Christ. For her, Christianity was patently stupid, something that had been debunked long ago. But the conviction with which she denied Christianity was vastly disproportionate to the strength of her refutation. Whatever her deeper reasons for reacting against Christ, it seems likely that she had no clear idea of what she was denying. One hopes that her encounter with two reasonably sane and marriageable Christians (let us indulge her yet further) will render Christ more tangible to her. St. Thomas, pray for us.
Image: Peter Paul Rubens, The Incredulity of St. Thomas