In the Catholic church these past couple of weeks, we’ve been focusing on the stories of Jesus’ appearances after His Resurrection.
Sunday the 15th, we had the Gospel where Jesus appears in the upper room and then later appears when Thomas is present, who at first doubts Jesus has risen, but then when he sees Jesus, comes to faith.
Sunday the 21st, featured the story of the disciples en route to Emmaus when Jesus journeys with them, but they doubt that He has risen as they do not know that the person with them is actually the risen Lord until the breaking of bread.
I wonder what must have been going through the minds of the friends of Jesus in those days after Easter Sunday. Jesus had said He would rise; but not all had seen the Risen Lord just yet. Surely there must have been plenty of doubt.
And while doubt can sometimes come off in a negative light, really, doubt is the companion of faith for the people we meet in the gospels aren’t so much doubters, but people of deep faith.
Consider the story of this century’s Mother Teresa. Not too long ago, she made headlines for a book called “Come be my Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,” in which letters are shared that show a soul that had struggles. In 1959, Mother Teresa wrote: “What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul if there is no Soul, then Jesus, You also are not true.” Her belief in God was put to the test, but it’s clear that her doubts about God’s existence waned shortly after this.
There is a big difference between coming to an intellectual conclusion and reaffirming it over a lifetime that says “there is no God,” and having a feeling that God is distant and far away. Mother Teresa, beatified by John Paul II (meaning she is one step short of canonization to become a saint), battled that for the bulk of the last four decades of her life.
“Pray for me please,” she once wrote, “that I may keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.” She did keep smiling, and is now in heaven.
Fr. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, summarized her very well, when he said,: “It shows that she wasn’t a plaster-of-Paris saint who never had a doubt about God or the ultimate meaning of life. This can only enhance her reputation as a saintly person with people who aren’t easily impressed with pious stories. Those who think otherwise have a lot of learning to do about the complexities of life and about the nature of faith.”
And indeed, part of the nature of faith can often be doubt. Even Jesus, from the Cross prays, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” which is Psalm 22. Essentially, Jesus is saying “Father, I do not know why this is happening to me, nor do I understand it, but I still trust in your plan.”
And as for history’s most (unfairly) notorious doubter, Thomas, who wanted to touch Jesus’ hands and side for proof, let’s not forget that he was a man of deep, incredible faith! His eyes saw one thing a man but when he gazed upon Christ, he cried out “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28). Hardly a doubter, this man left it all behind to follow the Lord.
Faith is a series of highs and lows. I remember once, in my teen years, I had a wonderful prayer experience where I could feel the closeness of God; but when those feelings went away, I became worried that I must be doing something wrong. What I’ve come to understand is faith is about more than a feeling it’s about a relationship with God. Every person knows the people you love sometimes can seem far away; other times close, but the love is always there.
The way we deal with suffering and dry moments in our lives when God feels distant and far away, continuing to live our faith through prayer and through how we carry out God’s work in the world, can be such a testament to faith, and show others so much. The key for me is to have trust, for when I look to the Cross, I look to my anchor of hope that God knows what it is like to suffer and to be a person just like me, and even if I can’t always hear His voice, to borrow from C.S. Lewis and his wonderful book “A Grief Observed,” the silence can be like a loving Father who gives us a gaze that says, “You don’t understand right now, but you will in time.”
One thing I do understand is that no matter what I feel, my God is never far away, and He knows me better than I know myself. Doubts will always be there, but doubt is the true companion of faith, for it reflects a faith that is thinking and alive, rather than stagnant. Unlike atheism, which concludes there is no God, a person with doubt thinks about issues at a deeper level but still has that trust that things will sort themselves out over time.