“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” So begins Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poems of Europe’s Medieval Period. The long (over 14,000 line) epic is written as a first person account of Dante’s travels through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). Recently my sophomore Catholicism class was reading an excerpt from Paradiso — the third and final part of his journey, in which, having been saved from his dark wood, he sees the Light of Paradise. In his final vision of Heaven, Dante encounters the Triune God (Light), and in doing so, his deepest desires are fulfilled. Dante writes, Within that Light a person is so changed/ It is impossible to give consent/Ever to turn from it to other sights/Because the Good, the object of the will,/ Is gathered all in it.
I imagine many of us have found ourselves in a dark wood at some point in our lives, if not, the poet certainly suggests that some day we will. But Dante’s story does not end in grief and darkness, rather it ends in satisfaction, joy, and Light – a Light that changes him; a Light that pulls him close and captivates him so much so that he does not desire to turn from it; a Light that is the highest level of perfection — indeed, anything that had once seemed perfect on earth is flawed in comparison; it is a Light that casts outs doubts and allows the poet to know and love himself.
In today’s Gospel the Apostles are locked in the Upper Room for fear that they, too, may have their lives taken in the same manner as their Lord. They have found themselves in a dark wood of fear, grief, mourning. But then Light comes in and the Apostles are filled with peace and gladness: Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Thomas though, one of the twelve, was not present when Jesus appeared to them, so in his dark wood he remained. Bound by grief and despair, crushed by the sins and injustices of this world, he is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to accept the news his friends have shared with him and states: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.
A week later, Jesus comes once again through the locked doors of the Upper Room, offering peace. Then he turns directly to Thomas and says to him, Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe. He does not ridicule Thomas for his doubt and disbelief, but instead mercifully meets him in the depth of his despair. I’ve always loved that Jesus retains his wounds in his glorified body. It is as if he is saying to Thomas, “see these wounds, see these marks? They tell a story — that the sin and injustices of this world did not win, that darkness did not triumph, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Here Thomas, do not believe in the world, believe in me.” Moved by Christ’s salvific wounds, by Light, Thomas proclaims My Lord and my God!
Today, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, remembering the many ways God has made known his mission of mercy, and acknowledges, in a particular way, the revelations of this mercy recorded in the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska. St. Faustina was a Polish religious sister who received many visions and messages from Jesus to spread devotion to Divine Mercy. Jesus desired that everyone would know that he died out of love for us and that nothing will stop him from pursuing our heart. He says to St. Faustina:
If souls would put themselves completely in My care, I Myself would undertake the task of sanctifying them, and I would lavish even greater graces on them. There are souls who thwart My efforts, but I have not given up on them; as often as they turn to Me, I hurry to their aid, shielding them with My mercy, and I give them the first place in My compassionate Heart.Diary, 1682
The interaction in today’s Gospel, between St. Thomas and Jesus, makes known how great our Lord’s love and mercy is.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Even when the doors of our heart are locked, even when we find ourselves in a dark wood, Jesus reaches in and offers us peace, drawing us to the Light. Not only that, but he offers us his wounds so that we might believe. When we allow ourselves to become recipients of his love and mercy, we cannot help but be changed. It is then that dwelling with God eternally in Heaven becomes the object of our will.
As we journey through this life, onwards to heaven, may we allow God’s mercy to touch our deepest and most painful wounds, so that in time, these too may be glorified. Then, we can turn to others and offer them this salvific story — “see this scar? Let me tell you the story of how God led me from darkness to light, how injustice and pain did not triumph, how God transformed evil into good. Touch it, that you too might believe.” Then, perhaps, we will help others to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”