This week was one of our healing Masses and this time nearly 20 people came forward for anointing and laying on of hands. It was a powerful experience, bringing some to tears, others to a more secure belief in the power of prayer and healing. The homily from that Mass follows:
In the later years of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson, the novelist, became a person of faith. He didn’t start out that way. Raised in Scotland in a strict Calvinist family, he couldn’t wait to get out of the house and away from religion, which he called, “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man.” Most of us here understand exactly what he meant by that. As he grew older, he came to have doubt about his doubts. “The church is not right,” he said, “but neither is anti-church.” Still later he wrote, “There is a God who is manifest for those who care to look for him.” Like Thomas, in today’s Gospel reading, Stevenson made the journey from doubt to faith.
We are all like Thomas, of course. We want reassurances and proofs that we are not being foolish in believing in something that cannot be proven. That is normal. Thomas’s experience suggests that it is normal to struggle with doubt. Thomas did that a lot! When Jesus indicated that he was going to go into the territory of his enemies to see Lazarus, his friend, Thomas doubted that any of them would get out alive. Later, in the upper room, when Jesus spoke of going to the Father’s house, Thomas didn’t think he understood. Then, following the death of Jesus, Thomas doubted that there was anything left to believe in. In his disillusionment, he chose to go it alone, to cut himself off from the fellowship. When the disciples told him of their experience with the risen Lord, he doubted what they were saying.
Some of us perhaps think that doubting is a bad thing, but the reality is that people with faith often struggle with their doubt. This is been true of many of the Biblical heroes. Gideon, who eventually leads his people to victory over foreign domination, starts out on the path to victory with the question: “If the Lord is with us, why have these difficulties befallen us?” He doubted God’s presence. Jeremiah, who is looked upon as a great prophet, became so discouraged about God’s availability that he called God “a deceitful brook,” “waters that failed,” and then said, “cursed is the day that I was born.” And Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He, too, was struggling to make sense out of suffering. Yet, all of these people are remembered as heroes of the faith because they discovered a strong faith born through the agony of doubt.
We hear often about the faith of Christian heroes, but we do not hear about their struggles. We know how Mother Theresa lived her life, but in her autobiography, she records how for several years the presence of God was completely outside her experience. It was an excruciating experience for someone who so easily saw Christ in the poor people around her, and yet in her soul, she felt completely alone.
Harold Bosley writes: “When someone tells me that he has never had a moment of probing religious doubt, I find myself wondering whether he has ever known a moment of vital religious conviction. For if one fact stands out above all others in the history of religion, it is this: the price of a great faith is a great and continuous struggle to get it, to keep it, and to share it . . . . It is a serious mistake to think of faith as a placid lake under the full moon. It is much more like the ocean in storm, the swift current of the full river where one must stay alert if he would stay alive. Faith is a fight as well as peace.”
The second thing I learn from Thomas’s experience is that if we are going to deal with doubt, we have to be honest about it. In each of the events we mentioned earlier, Thomas was not afraid to acknowledge that he was skeptical. He had an honest mind which said, “I can’t help it, I have doubts.” When the others told him that they had met the risen Lord, he no doubt attributed it to overactive imaginations, or to hallucinations. “I’ll believe it,” he said, “when I can touch the wounds on his body.”
It is healthier for our spiritual life to admit our doubt than it is to deny it. If we can’t admit our doubts we become rigid and un-teachable. I believe that people are often dogmatic in direct proportion to their insecurity. The more they know their faith is just a house of cards, the more intolerant they will be of a contrary opinion. “True believers” are generally far more dangerous than heretics. Someone once said, a fanatic is someone who, having lost sight of his goal, redoubles his efforts. Our world is full of examples of this.
Robert Pope is pastor of a church in New Jersey. “I can recall two things about my childhood Christianity,” he says. “One is that I couldn’t bring myself to believe all those miraculous stories they told me, and the other thing is that I couldn’t wait to grow up so that I wouldn’t have to go to church anymore.” Mr. Pope had an inquiring mind, but it was not acceptable in his church to express skepticism. He became a mechanical engineer, rising to a position where he had primary responsibility for one of the rocket engines involved in the first soft landing on the moon. He continued to wrestle with his doubts about the church, about God, and about himself. He eventually found a group in which it was permissible to express his doubts. When he brought them out into the open, he came to the conclusion that Christianity is not necessarily intended to be the answer to all questions: it is a way of life: a life not filled with answers, but a life spent preparing for the questions. At thirty-five years of age he left his successful career in engineering, entered seminary, and became a minister. He says that he now uses the healthy skepticism of an engineer’s mind to help his parishioners honestly work through their doubts as he has done.
Paul Tillich, one of my personal heroes in the world of contemporary theology, says, “Sometimes I think my mission is to bring faith to the faithless and doubt to the faithful.” It was his contention that faith cannot exist where there is too much certainty. A little doubt can help us to hold our beliefs in humility, and it is in humility that we become teachable. Bringing our doubt into the light allows us to find possible ways of dealing with it.
The third thing Thomas’s experience says to me is that, at its best, the Christian community helps us to deal with our doubts. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, Thomas disassociated himself from the rest of the disciples. The other disciples had managed to stay together, perhaps more out of fear than loyalty. Nevertheless, it was to them that Christ appeared, an appearance that Thomas missed because he was not present. Others have made that mistake. When sorrow comes to us, when sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves away and refuse to meet people, and in so doing we deprive ourselves of one of the basic resources of the faith: supportive brothers and sisters. We will all have times of discouragement, and there are going to be times when God seems far away. When it is difficult to hold on to God with our own strength, that is precisely the time when we need each other to help us hold on.
That is what Thomas discovered. He had lost hold of his faith when he became disillusioned. He found that when he was by himself, his faith only became weaker and he missed out on the experiences others were having. He may not have believed the experience they were telling him about, but out of loneliness if nothing else, he rejoined the tiny community. Once he was back in their company, Christ became real to him again, and his faith took on new meaning. Some things can happen to us within the fellowship of the church that will not happen to us when we are alone. This is one of the reasons we have healing services during Mass, to celebrate the fact that we are all together in this quest for wholeness and healing.
On a Saturday afternoon in August, 1944, Bishop Hans Lilje was in his study putting the finishing touches on the sermon he was to preach the following day in St. John’s Church, Berlin. The doorbell rang. He went to the door and there stood two men from the Gestapo. They arrested him, and a few hours later he found himself in a prison cell. He tells us that it took all the courage and faith he had not to lose self-control when the steel doors slammed shut behind him. He felt utterly alone. Then he heard someone in a prison cell across the courtyard whistling the melody of an old hymn. He sprang to his window and whistled back. So it went, back and forth, each answering the other with whistled hymns: a congregation of two, supporting each other’s faith. And in that mutual support they found, mysteriously, that their tiny congregation was multiplied by the presence of Someone they could not see but who was very much alive.