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An Interview with Tomáš Halík, Author of “Touch the Wounds”

Tomáš Halík is a Czech Roman Catholic priest, philosopher, theologian, and scholar. He is a professor of sociology at Charles University in Prague, pastor of the Academic Parish of St. Salvator Church in Prague, president of the Czech Christian Academy, and a winner of the Templeton Prize. His previous books with University of Notre Dame Press, I Want You to Be (2016, 2019) and From the Underground Church to Freedom (2019), were selected as the Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards in Philosophy and in Religion, respectively. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Touch the Wounds: On Suffering, Trust, and Transformation (March 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

Many years ago, I visited Madras, the heart of Indian Christianity, where the tomb of Thomas the Apostle, the patron saint of India, has been venerated since ancient times. In the morning, I celebrated Mass in the cathedral and read the famous text from St. John’s gospel about the doubted Tomas, touching the wounds of Christ.

On the hot afternoon of that day, my Indian colleague, a Catholic priest and professor of religious studies at the University of Madras, took me first to the place where, according to legend, the apostle Thomas was martyred and then to a Catholic orphanage close by.

Tomáš Halík

During my travels to Asia, Africa, and South America, I looked poverty in the face. I am familiar with moral wretchedness from my clinical practice and my experience as a confessor—the hidden torments of people’s hearts and the dark recesses of human destinies. I have visited the “Golgothas of our times,” the sites of Nazi and Communist concentration camps, as well as Hiroshima and Ground Zero in Manhattan, places that powerfully emanate the still vivid memories of the criminal violence perpetrated there, but even after all that I will never forget that orphanage in Madras. 

In the seemingly endless corridors lay small, abandoned children, their stomachs swollen with hunger, tiny skeletons covered in black, often inflamed, skin. Their feverish eyes stared out at me from everywhere. I wanted to run away as fast I could from there (and not just from there), to close my eyes and heart and forget; I recalled once more the words of Ivan Karamazov, who wanted to “give God back the entrance ticket” to a world in which children suffer.

But at that very moment, a sentence came back to me from somewhere deep inside: “Touch the wounds!” And again: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.

Suddenly there opened up for me once more the story of the apostle Thomas that I had read from John’s gospel at that morning’s Mass above the tomb of the “patron saint of doubters.” Jesus identified with all who were small and suffering. In other words, all painful wounds and all the human misery in the world are “Christ’s wounds.”

I can only believe in Christ and have the right to exclaim “my Lord and my God” if I touch His wounds, of which our world is still full. Otherwise, I say “Lord, Lord!” simply in vain and to no effect. 

We must not run away from the world’s wounds nor turn our backs on them; we must see them at least, touch them and let them involve us. If I remain indifferent to them, uninvolved, unwounded—how can I declare my faith and love for God, whom I have not seen? Because at that moment I really do not see Him! 

It suddenly became evident to me there in Madras: I have no right to proclaim belief in God unless I take my neighbor’s pain seriously. A faith that would close its eyes to people’s suffering is simply an illusion or opium; both Freud and Marx would be right in criticizing that kind of faith! 

To the Christian faith, God appears as a wounded God—not the apathetic God of the Stoics, nor God as a projection of our desires or a symbol of the power ambitions of a person or a nation. It is a sympathic God, i.e., co-compassionate, co-suffering, co-passionate.

Certainly, these are unprecedented times in the United States and worldwide. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

I wrote this book in 2008. Since then, many wounds have emerged in our world (the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine with global consequences) and the churches (abuse scandals). All these phenomena have confirmed my warning vision of a vulnerable and wounded world, a shattering of traditional religious and modern secular humanist certainties. Even more than before, our world needs faith, which is the subject of this book—faith not as a soothing narcotic (the opium of the people) but as the courage to accept the whole of reality and to show solidarity and closeness.

What did you learn while writing Touch the Wounds?

I have visited and meditated in places of present and past suffering—slums in South America, Asia, and Africa, sites of former communist and Nazi concentration camps, and “Ground Zero” in Manhattan. I learned what Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov: “Bow down, on all four sides of the world, deeply to the great human suffering.”

How does Touch the Wounds relate to your previous books?

Almost all my books are different answers to the same question: What are the signs of our times, and how should we respond to them. All of my books are testimonies of an inner struggle for faith, hope, and love in a challenging time in a complicated world. I’m not too fond of too simple answers to complex questions. And I like challenging questions.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

I was inspired by Christian and Jewish mysticism, modern thinkers like Dittrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil, and contemporary authors like Richard Kearney and Miroslav Volf. I was undoubtedly influenced by my own experiences from the time of my activity in the underground church during the communist persecution.

Is there anyone you would like to thank who helped with this book’s creation?

I am grateful to theologians, philosophers, and church leaders who have helped me to broaden my perspective during study and lecture tours in Europe, Australia, the USA, Asia, and Africa over the past few years.

I am also grateful to the University of Notre Dame and the Templeton Foundation for providing me with the opportunity for an intensive exchange of ideas with several American theologians, sociologists, and philosophers during my two academic stays at The Institute for Advanced Study in 2015 and 2017, to the University of Oxford for inviting me to actively participate in a stimulating conference on religion in public life in 2017 and Boston College, where I served as a visiting professor in early 2020.

What is your writing schedule like?

For more than twenty years, I have spent five weeks every summer in complete solitude in a small forest hermitage near a contemplative monastery. That’s where all my books were written.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

I started writing books when I was fifty years old. I think one has to experience, suffer, study, travel, and think for a long time before one can write good books. I recommend humility and patience to all authors.

Who would you like to read Touch the Wounds and why?

All open-minded people see the wounds of our world and feel a responsibility across all religious and cultural boundaries.

What book are you currently reading?

Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church by Austen Ivereigh.

What book should we look forward to next?

Last year I finished my most important book to date, The Afternoon of Christianity: Courage to Change. In it, I show that secularization was a cathartic, transformative phase of Christian history, a “collective dark night,” and that today we stand on the threshold of a new post-secular epoch, a deeper and more mature form of Christianity. The book has already been translated and is gradually being published in nine languages. I look forward to the finished English translation that will be published by Notre Dame Press.

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