Testimonies of faith in honest doubt

“Seeing is believing”, they say. “Yet blessed are they who believe and have not yet seen” we are told in the gospel of the Sunday after Easter. This was in response to the famous incident with Doubting Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he could put his hands in the wounds of Jesus after he appeared to him and the disciples in the upper room.

The famous evangelist Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles in his dialogue with people of faith and none would claim that the greatest challenge to the thriving of the religions of the world is the fact that people struggle to actually have faith. Church related scandals, modern day secularism, cultural trends, the existence of evil in the world militate strongly against faith and belief, but for many they simply don’t have the gift of faith. Period, as the Americans say.

I remember as a young man, finding my feet in exploring the world of faith coming across a traditional prayer of petition that the Pope’s faith would not fail. The pope losing his faith?! Was this not a contradiction in terms, my young mind queried, thinking that such certainty would surely be a cast iron feature of the Petrine personality. But then… we note the fickleness in faith of the original of the species with the doubt of Peter in nearly drowning in turbulent waters due to lack of faith.

When Thomas finds his way to his friends in the upper room he is full of doubt. Although St. John paints a critical image of Thomas, I have a lot of sympathy for Doubting Thomas. After all, Thomas is merely asking for what the others have already experienced: a first-hand encounter with the risen Lord. It seems a bit unfair to single him out as doubting.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said of Thomas: “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.” Alfred Lord Tennyson claimed in his poem In Memoriam that “There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds”.

One of my favourite paintings is Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Thomas. Jesus appears to Thomas who is leaning over looking intently at Jesus’ wounds as he puts his finger into Jesus’ side. But Jesus is not looking at Thomas accusingly. Jesus gazes at Thomas with great love and guides his hand into the wound in his side. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites…they’re often part of the same journey. The opposite of faith in the bible is not so much doubt, but fear. Fear to trust, to let go, to like St. Peter trust the buoyancy of the waves or like Thomas to believe in the risen Christ.

A feature of early morning, staff-room chats with a former teaching colleague often centred around the notion and idea of faith. He was a man who dearly wanted to have faith, but despite his best efforts and much to his utter frustration that gift was never granted to him. To him the world of the believer was like not having a coveted All-Ireland ticket, despite the fact that he had made the journey all the way to Croke Park and would dearly love to support his team at the match.

The story of Doubting Thomas resonates for many of us. Faith is ultimately, however about relationship with the one who died and rose again. That gospel passage points the way: encounter comes first.
According to Thomas Aquinas “To one who has faith no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Faith is a gift. It needs to be nurtured and developed, however. Even the most naturally gifted athlete or musician need to work on her or his talent. You may have heard the advice in response to the question “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer being “practice, practice, practice.” The gift of faith is no different. The invitation these Easter days is to encounter the risen Lord and put your cares firmly in the wounds of his hands, his feet and his side.

I leave the final word to St. Francis of Assisi in his famous prayer: “Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. / Where there is despair, let me bring hope. / Where there is darkness, let me bring your light. / Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.”

✠ Fintan Monahan is Bishop of Killaloe

Clare Champion article 9th of April 2021