Thomas could not be described as an animated preacher. No hand gestures. No pacing. Nothing with an offbeat rhythm. He just stood, stationary and composed. Thomas’ hands would shake violently when public speaking, but this is not to say he wasn’t good at it. For emphasis he would hammer down an inflected point—each line memorized with perfect syntax. His articulation of theological ideas was clean and easily digested by the country bumpkins who came to hear him. Rarely did he even have to look down at his spiral notebook. “It’s the words that hold all the power,” his father used to say. And of course, the scriptures.
Thomas’ father, Pastor John, rarely spoke on things that he believed the Bible could speak to better. For instance, Thomas’ mother died when he was an infant, and whenever he would ask about her, Pastor John would hand him his old Bible opened to the book of Job, and say, “Read this, and you’ll understand.” It was the same with all the questions that a child’s naivety spurns forth. When Thomas had asked why his father and mother had never tried to have more children, he’d open the Bible to Genesis and point Thomas toward the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. He’d say, “Read this, and you will understand why we chose only to have you.” It could even be something silly. On the drive home one morning, there was a rainbow shimmering through the dreary sky after a rain shower. Thomas had asked his father what rainbows were made for, and he handed him his Bible and told him to turn to Genesis and read the story of Noah and his Ark. “We should be slow to speak, and quick to listen—to listen to the words of God,” he’d say. There was always an answer in the scriptures.
He heard a mosquito buzzing in his ear, but he didn’t reach up to slap it, lest he reveal his jazz hands to the thirty or so congregants before him. The members of the church were looking at him, waiting to hear what words of wisdom he would impart on them. He had been dreading this day for many months. These people, coming every Sunday without fail, to hear thirty minutes of what they already know; to be told what they believe is true; to have someone who is not from this dying, farming community come to them and validate the one thing that gives meaning to their lives.
Most of the congregants were over the age of sixty. Farmers and wives of farmers. The oldest of the church ladies that sat on the back pew were going to town with their little fans, attempting to combat the sweltering heat of the church house. Some of the old timers that the church calls “deacons” were standing at the back near the foyer, next to a wooden altar inscribed with “This do in remembrance of me,” on its front.
Thomas leaned into the microphone with confidence, “Turn in your bibles to the gospel of John, chapter twenty, verse twenty-four.” He paused, listening as the crowd flipped and flicked their pages in synchronicity. He waited until the dull roar of pages stopped.
“This morning my sermon is on doubt,” he paused, feeling a single drop of sweat shoot from the top of his brow, down the bridge of his nose collecting at the tip.
“Um, I’ve always felt a kinship with the apostle Thomas. And that’s not because we share the same name.” This got some chuckles. “Follow along with me as I read from John 20:24-25:
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.””
Thomas looked at the crowd, their faces stoic, bearing no thoughts about what they had just read, over what they had read thousands of times before.
While Thomas was sitting in the ICU’s waiting room alone with his thoughts, the folks at church called an emergency prayer vigil on behalf of his father, Pastor John. When his father had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in the spring of Thomas’ senior year of high school, the church at Fisher made sure that “Pray for Pastor John” was posted on the prayer list bulletin board. His father’s heart made it difficult for him to travel and preach, always turning him into a frail husk of himself when he exerted too much energy. Thomas began to cover every other Sunday, practicing that family trade of oration. Any sense of uncertainty that Thomas had about his public speaking skills were met with his father’s rebuttal—a reading of Moses and the burning bush.
That year, each month Thomas would take him to their family doctor, always with the same lecture: his father must change his diet and stop preaching. Pastor John would have none of it. Pastor John’s last year marked his fifty-fifth birthday, and he always would boast to the doctor that he had outlived his own father, who died at fifty-four of a heart-attack.
As Thomas sat in that waiting room, all he had on him was his father’s bible. He hysterically tore through the pages, skimming for an answer to what was happening.
After six hours of heart surgery the doctor came in and called Thomas over.
“We have him stable and awake, but I’m sorry to say that he doesn’t have much time left. His heart is too weak, for any more surgery.”
Thomas walked back to the ICU where they were holding his father. When he entered the room, he was struck by the smell of formaldehyde and piss. His father was lying down on his back, eyes barely open. Like a machine he had tubes and wires coming out of his arms and nostrils. His mouth was gaping, but no words echoed from that once boisterous diaphragm. He looked as if he was in so much pain, he couldn’t muster the energy to even make a sound. Thomas slowly came in and sat in the chair next to his bed. His father’s left hand gripped his chest, bobbing up and down with each concerted breath.
Thomas wanted to pray, to get on his hands and knees and beg God to spare his father. But he couldn’t. The thought that, “it won’t change a damn thing,” lingered in the back of his mind. So, he sat holding his father’s hand, speaking to him softly, waiting.
After some time had passed his father gasped, “It’s all dark. It’s all dark!”
Thomas quickly stood up and held his father’s face toward his. “What’s dark dad? What is it—let me grab a nurse? Nurse! I need a nurse in here!”
Thomas held his father’s head in his hands. Watching his dad’s eyes opened wide with fear. Thomas knew that his father could not sense that his son was holding him. Only darkness. His father continued to mutter, “it’s all dark,” quieter each time than before, fading into silence. His breath rattled, strangled on draughts of air that heaved his father’s whole abdomen into a shudder.
The nurses pulled Thomas aside right as the flatline flashed across the monitor.
Thomas looked down and closed his notebook and Bible. He looked about him, staring not at the people that were seated before him, but at the sanctuary’s architecture—the walls that arched in the center, the stage stepped into a pulpit, the six stained-glass windows whose kaleidoscope of colorfully arrayed sunbeams were squelched by the hideous fluorescent lights above.
“You know, I’ve always found it interesting that churches are designed as an extension of the ancient Israelite’s temple. Here you are, seated in the Holy Place singing hymns, believing fully that Elohim Adonai is hearing your sacred chants. The fervor of the collective voice becomes louder, while your sight becomes dimmer. Very few look to the Holy of Holies for fear of being struck dead by an ineffable God, and in your willful blindness you believe yourselves to be St. Paul. In all actuality, you have refused to let the scales fall from your eyes. In the place of God, you have substituted a podium.
A clamor of disgust began to trickle through the crowd. Heads were shaking, mutterings were muttered. But Thomas continued:
“When my father died, I realized that I’d never really questioned this. I’d never consciously asked myself whether this god thing was something I truly believed. I’d just accepted it because that’s what I was told to believe. But that first seed of doubt, that moment when my father’s dying eyes searched frantically in the dark for the God he loved–the shock on his face when he couldn’t see the pearly gates, that’s when I realized we’re all in the dark. There’s just darkness. That was the shattering of my faith, when I knew that I could choose to blindly follow nothing, and profess it as ‘Lord’, or to acknowledge that ‘nothing’ is all there is.”
The crowd was no longer quiet. A collective anger was brewing, and individuals began shouting, “How can you say that!” or “you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing!” or “Your father would be ashamed!” Here and there congregants began to stand up and trickle out the door.
“I looked to the Holy of Holies, where no man should look, only to find that because I am still breathing, that the Lord God—”
The room was compressed with silence as the few indignant church members left waited to hear what words would conclude his blasphemy.
“That the Lord God wants nothing to do with me.”
A cacophony of disbelief and shame echoed from the congregation as the remainder of people shuffled out in small droves, scoffing as they moved toward the exit. Thomas held up his shaking hands for the first and last time.
“Please understand! I have tried, I’ve tried faith. I’ve tried to reach out and touch the holes in Christ’s hands. But all I’ve ever felt—all I feel is the trembling of my own.”
Someone had hit the lights on the way out, leaving Thomas standing alone in the dark.
He descended the steps and sat down on a pew. Hunched over, Thomas held his face in his hands. His father’s last words, were now a reality he shared. Through his fingers he stared up into the darkness to combat the tears that rolled down his face. His tears subsided, as he stared at the stunning sight before him. He saw for the first-time something beautiful. Something beautiful in a place that brought him so much disgust. The beams from the six stained-glass windows projected a menagerie of hues that refracted off the darkness, converging into a fiery opus of color at the center of the aisle. He walked the aisle but stopped and stood before the convergence of light. Thomas had never witnessed a natural beauty such as this because nobody comes to church to be in the dark. Thomas extended his trembling palms into the light, and his tremors ceased.
Then and there he recognized a deep truth that was absolute: that radiance and beauty exist, regardless of if we are there to witness it. The least we can do is try. Thomas kicked off his shoes and removed his socks.
This was holy ground.
Scott Cravens is a short story writer from Arkansas, and is based in Oklahoma where he teaches literature at the secondary level. Currently, he is pursuing his Master of Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, CafeLit Magazine, and The Periodical Forlorn.