The risen Christ shows himself in the wounds of the world. This is the apparent paradox—actually, the heart of the good news—that organizes this set of thirteen reflections by the Czech priest Tomáš Halík. The essays were composed in 2008, and the preface to the English translation was written on Easter of 2020—most appropriately, for Halík’s thoughts center on the paschal mystery of death and resurrection, not as events of the past but as realities that challenge the present.
The scriptural passage that grounds his thought is John 20:24-29: Jesus appears a second time to his gathered disciples and shows his wounds to the doubting Thomas, who declares, “My Lord and my God.” Halík draws the intended inference, that as the exalted Lord Jesus bears even in his resurrected body the wounds of his human suffering, so is he to be identified with the fresh wounds of suffering humanity. But in Thomas’s declaration of Jesus as “God,” another truth is disclosed: the Christian God is one who has in Christ identified himself fully with—has participated in—the suffering of all the world, and by doing so has enabled human wounds to be transformed.
Halík offers a vision of Christian existence that is kenotic and thoroughly anti-triumphalistic. He eschews the vision of “Christ the Victor” that he more than once associates with American “Evangelicals” and “fundamentalists,” who enthusiastically fill auditoriums with joyful noise. His starting point is rather the suffering that he has witnessed in his travels among the poor and oppressed of the world. But he observes that people are not only wounded materially; the acute secularization of “advanced” societies has caused suffering of a more subtle but no less hurtful sort, the wound of the loss of meaning that makes it difficult even to speak of God.
The multi-dimensional Halík combines the traits of the philosopher, sociologist, psychologist, theologian, and activist, and serves as the pastor of St. Salvador Parish in Prague. His many interests appear in various ways in the separate essays of this volume, as he engages in a number of intellectual debates (most of them involving his long-time sparring partner, Nietzsche), and social commentary, alongside essays—perhaps originally homilies—that focus on the fundamentally pastoral character of his theme.
The prose in most of the pastoral essays is unadorned and clear. Surely such clarity is not due to the translator, Gerald Turner, but to the homiletic instincts of Halík himself. In contrast, the four essays that are more obviously philosophical or theological in the continental fashion—“Arcana Cordis,” “A Torn Veil,” “A Dancing God,” and “Worshipping the Lamb”—are difficult even for a reasonably knowledgeable reader to appreciate. They clearly serve to give Halík the opportunity to position his thought within the universe of professional thinkers. But they are stylistically congested, clotted with technical terms (in Latin) and constant reference to intellectual authorities. They have the feel of academic exercises (perhaps even journal articles?) that seek more to display knowledge than to pursue wisdom.
The simpler—and in my view also more profound—essays each offer readers a dimension of the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. These reflections have no trace of academic posturing. They are themselves exercises in the kenotic theology that risks the vulnerability of naked thought exposed to public view, not unlike a body baring its wounds to the gaze of others. The opening essays, for example, “Gate of the Wounded” and “Without Distance,” form a set of Easter reflections, developing the distinctive witness of Thomas among Jesus’ disciples, namely to stand as witness between two kinds of “fundamentalist” assertions: the one from the side of believers that claims to possess God as “a given,” and the other from the side of atheists that claims “there is no God.” Thomas represents those who resist such flat reductions and see God as a possibility and a challenge, who find themselves in thought and action within a dialectic movement that includes doubt, rather than in a fixed position of certainty.
A second set of essays focuses on the woundedness of humanity in its contingent and alienated condition. In “Stigmata and Forgiveness,” Halík draws on another theme in the Johannine resurrection passage: the wounded (stigmatic) Jesus sends Thomas and the other disciples to continue his own mission of forgiving sins by them in turn forgiving the sins of others. Halík reflects on the remarkable example of John Paul II seeking out his would-be assassin and offering him forgiveness. Being wounded is not a basis for retreating from humanity or for seeking revenge. It is, rather, an empathic lens that allows the forgiveness of others, who are viewed as also wounded.
Similarly, “Knocking on the Wall” extends the theme of forgiveness to embrace intercessory prayer for those who have wounded us. This powerful essay takes its point of departure from the striking statement of Simone Weil (which also appears as an epigraph fronting the book): “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing that separates them but is also the means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link” (Gravity and Grace). Thus, Halík argues, being wounded is a threat to meaning, but it is at the same time an invitation to understand “meaning” at a still deeper level. And here he speaks of prayer as “God’s forge, in which we are to be, in the words of the gospel, remelted and forged into God’s instrument.” God’s answer to our prayers is to enable a faithful life of hope that extends love even to those enemies who do not will our good and even seek to harm us.
In two essays, the reader hears the voice of Halík as a critic of the secular worldview that distorts meaning and thereby wounds humans. In “Bodies,” he recounts the challenge he posed to the exhibition in European and American cities of the “artfully” preserved and posed cadavers of actual people presented as masses of muscles and sinews and nerves, dead bodies in the simulacra of life. The exhibition drew massive crowds of the pruriently curious in the same locales where the display of crucifixes in the classroom had been forbidden. Halík’s essay exposes the “taboo-breaking” nature of the “educational” display and presents this objectification and commodification of the dead—the cadavers are simply objects whose appeal lies only in the shock value they represent—in contrast to the mystery of death as celebrated by faith. Likewise focused on contemporary culture is “A Little Place for Truth,” which takes its origin in a televised conversation with politicians, when, off-camera, Halík asked his interlocutor whether there might be a “little place” for truth amid the conscious ideological position-taking at the heart of modern politics—a question met with incredulity. It is not simply that all discourse is regarded as relative, Halík notes, but that any question concerning the truth in any context is regarded as an arrogant and hegemonic power play. His essay probes the way in which disciples might “witness to the truth” in such a disordered world in imitation of Jesus, not with an arrogant assumption of personal possession, but in the humble posture of seekers.
In “Wounds Transformed,” the themes of trust and transformation stated by the book’s subtitle are made explicit. Once more, the wounds of which he speaks are less those of physical hurt than of spiritual distress and alienation, from others whom we fear as enemies and from ourselves whom we don’t trust sufficiently to be honest. Halík connects the two: “The first step to healing the world’s wounds is our conversion, repentance, humility—or in everyday language: the courage to be truthful about ourselves.” The wounds in ourselves begin to be healed, transformed, when they are accepted in trust. But what about the wounds that we have afflicted on others? Again, when we have made every effort to make amends and be reconciled, we must accept our finitude, “let go” what we have done, and place such wounds in the infinitely merciful hands of God.
The book’s final essay, “The Last Beatitude,” juxtaposes the eight beatitudes pronounced by Jesus to his disciples at the start of his ministry in Matthew 5:1-10 and the “beatitude” that Jesus pronounces in John 20:29 in response to Thomas’s recognition of him as Lord and God: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Halík reflects on the character of genuine faith as a lifelong fidelity to God’s call that inevitably involves moments of doubt like Thomas’s, but that is found most truly not “in what we ‘see’ or ‘think,’ or what our convictions are, but [in] our hopes, our faith, and our love. These are what we must prove and demonstrate, so that more light may penetrate the dark recesses of the world.”
Perhaps some readers will like most the essays in this book that demonstrate learning. My preference is for those essays that seek wisdom. They are the ones that make the book a fine resource for Lenten and Eastertide reading—or, for that matter, in any season when wisdom is sought.
Touch the Wounds
On Suffering, Trust, and Transformation
Trans. by Gerald Turner
University of Notre Dame Press
$25 | 170 pp.