- Grace of the Ordinary
I have always had trouble with the story of Thomas. Absent when the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to the other disciples, Thomas cannot believe their story. He demands sensory evidence, a type of blood compact; he needs to put his hand in the holes created by the nails and spear. This seems all too natural to me. The senses enable us to understand reality, and until recently belief always implied too much of a surrender to the unknown. I imagined my self lost.
I have discovered that belief is an emptiness, but not the abyss I had imagined. The emptiness is filled; the self is not lost.
I remember in the Duomo in Florence looking up into the hundred-foot ceiling and being struck by a sense of grace. “Struck” in that the grace came as a sudden blow, unexpected. I had settled into the wood pews of a side chapel to rest from the day’s walking, from the abundance of art: the carved marble bannisters around the altar, the darkened paintings on the walls, the careful symmetry of the church. My eyes hurt. I sat and prayed briefly. I felt in my pockets for coins so I could pay the customary donation to light a candle for one of the saints. When I opened my eyes and looked up, I was struck.
My throat loosened and I cried. I cannot describe precisely what I saw on that ceiling. I remember blue, like the blue of sky, the impossible blue of the soul and heaven; the golds and blues of the artists’ spirits magnified in this one view of God. The artists’ whole lives were written in that one effort, rising like a song. I do not know how long I cried, filled with the knowledge of grace, understanding “infinite.”
Perhaps it was the effect of distance, the ceiling soaring and immense. In another part of the church, my husband was climbing the stairs after the architect Brunelleschi; he was getting as close as any person could to the top, to laying his hands on the dome. Far below I had soared above even that.
Still, I find belief elusive. I have begun to understand it as something not found, but constantly sought—not at all the catechism of my childhood. As a child, sitting at a picnic table after classes in my school on a military base carved out of a jungle, I had listened to a nun whose name I no longer [End Page 44] remember, a nun who wore stern blue, and somehow I came to understand belief as something that would come easily if I would only let go.
The cumulative effect of such teaching was that I continued to search. Somehow the need for belief had been planted in me, and life without it was inconceivable. Besides, I couldn’t have escaped it. In the Philippines, to live without faith—regardless of the degree—is almost unheard of. I could see it in the prostitutes of my town who on Easter lined up with everyone else to climb to the grotto on the hill next to the cockpit. It was in the old women who, dressed all in black and covering their heads with lace veils, traversed the center aisles of the churches on their knees as penance. Every May, we children and young men and women dressed in fine barongs and elaborate gowns to parade through the streets in the Santacruzan, commemorating Queen Helen and Prince Constantine’s discovery of the cross of Jesus. I remember faith in the picking of sampaguita flowers late afternoons in my grandfather’s garden.
We placed them on the altar at the top of the stairs. I stared at the polished wood strips of the floor as we knelt and prayed. On All Souls’ Day we went to the cemetery and lit candles. Faith in our world was balanced by fate.
Such are the memories that have found their way into my stories. Belief is not only intangible, but indeed physical. It lives in daily acts—the saying of the rosary, the displaying of carved figures of Jesus, the...