“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (from the appointed epistle, 1 Peter 1:9)
Perhaps it would be more accurate and more helpful not to call him “doubting” Thomas, but “honest” Thomas.
It is his honesty that Austin Farrer, whom many regard as the most significant theologian of the Church of England in this century, admired. Farrer asks us a series of probing questions about that commendable honesty: “When Thomas said to his fellow disciples, ‘unless I see and touch, I shall not believe’, what do you think it was? Was it a refusal [to believe], or a boast, or a confession?” ” If when he said this, Thomas was telling the truth, he could hardly have done better; do you think he would have done better if he had lied? When we come to Christ… shall we tell him a pack of lies? Shall we pretend all sorts of noble sentiments we do not have: pretend to believe as firmly in him as we believe in our own existence, pretend to care for his holy will as warmly and constantly as we care for our own comforts and ambitions? Of course not: for whom can we hope to deceive? Not him: we could deceive only ourselves. No. We will confess ourselves as we are, and know that he will treat us on our own level, and according to our own need, as he did Thomas….”
Because honesty about our own doubts, our own half-hearted attempts to follow him, is the first step to an authentic faith, we can admire Thomas and perhaps never think of him again so much as “doubting” but “honest” Thomas. We can admire him and we can learn from him.
Another spiritual giant of this century who spoke candidly about real faith was another Thomas, Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk who took a vow of silence and then wrote fifty books. Just after his ordination, he published The Seven Story Mountain, a classic of spiritual self-discovery and the book for which he is best known. But near the end of his life, he wrote another little book. The title is Life and Holiness. In it, Merton makes an important discovery about the necessity of honesty in our spiritual lives.
“…Each of us has to work out his [or her] own faith in fear and trembling, in the mystery and often bewildering confusion of [her or] his own life. In doing this each [of us] actually comes to a new sanctity which is all its own because each one of us has a peculiar vocation to reproduce the likeness of Christ in a mode that is not quite the same as anybody else’s, since no two of us are alike.”
When “honest” Thomas said he had to see and touch the Risen Christ, he was not just being honest, he was being himself. And so must you and I if we are to develop a faith that is unique to each of us. And it is the only way to an authentic faith, not the faith of our parents or in rebellion against our parents, or the faith of any other person, or even whole groups of others, but our own real, personal faith, the result of our own honest questioning and seeking.
But this is not permission to stay in a permanent place of questioning.
Dorothy Sayers points out the irony that after Thomas sees and touches the Risen Christ and then declares “My Lord and my God,” he makes “the one absolutely unequivocal statement in the whole Gospel of the Divinity of Christ….”
“Honest” Thomas becomes “no-doubts-whatsoever” Thomas.
If we begin with honesty and in our questioning and seeking we also begin to develop a faith that is, as Thomas Merton says it must be, as unique as the individual personality of each of us, then we can attain our own level of certainty.
In that same little classic Thomas Merton wrote at the end of his life to which I alluded earlier, Life and Holiness, he writes something more that is important to what we are considering on this Second Sunday of Easter. Merton observes: “..sanctity is not a matter of becoming less human, but more human….” “This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life. “The Christian who wants to imitate [her or] his Master must learn to do so not by imposing a violent control on… emotions…, but by letting grace form and develop [her or] his emotional life in the service of [love].”
Authentic, personal faith does not make us less of who we are but more of who we are. The difference is that we are now shaped in a life-long back and forth between our own personal strengths and weaknesses and God’s grace. Grace molds and shapes and forms who we are when our questioning and seeking is honest. And we can know that it is really God’s grace, and not something else, that is forming us because we become more compassionate, more caring and take more delight in the mundane miracles of daily life.
Angel met Steve Wallenda when she was 17 at the Dipper Dan. Ice Cream Shoppe in Mohegan Lake, New York. It was love at first sight. They married soon and she immediately joined the family’s high wire circus act, the Flying Wallendas. Within a year, she was diagnosed with cancer. In 1987, her right leg had to be amputated. In 1988, part of both of her legs were removed. But she kept performing, still getting up on the high wire as part of the act. Facing her third surgery, she told a reporter: “When I’m way up in the air, walking on a fake leg, people look up at me and pay attention. They see I’m using everything I’ve got to live my life the best I can. When people think of that, it makes them think about themselves. And some of them see how much better they can live their own lives.” Angel Wallenda died three years ago next month at the age of 28.
Each of us has our fake limbs, you have yours and I have mine. All we are asked to do is to get up each morning and get out there on the high wire and do the best we can with what we have. The first step that hits the floor when we get out of bed each morning puts us out on that high wire where we struggle to keep our balance, to keep our integrity and our identity as a baptized child of God.
“Sanctity,” Thomas Merton says, “is not a matter of being less human, but more human.” Faith does not make us less of who we are, but more of who we are; more of who God wanted you to become from the day you were born. It is being gently re-shaped over a lifetime by God’s grace. The test of authenticity is that we are becoming more compassionate, more understanding and a more natural sense of humor, joy and appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life.
You are Thomas. I am Thomas. You must find faith that works for you. And when it works, you will know it is authentic because you are being re-shaped by God’s grace.
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”