Thinking Big

One of the things I like about Catholicism is the Church’s ability to think big. The feast of St Thomas the Apostle, which we celebrate today, reminds us of the Christians in India and the different forms of Catholicism there, e.g. the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. People often forget that the Catholic Church includes several million Eastern Catholics in communion with Rome. Ours is not the rigidly centralised entity many think. The heart of the Church may be in Rome, but her limbs stretch across the globe. Even for a died-in-the-wool European like me, I can’t think of the Church as a European organization. She is too big, too various for that.

St Thomas was surely the original big thinker among the apostles. He was sceptical, asked questions, wanted to test the evidence; and when he did so and realised he was wrong, he let go his own ideas and discovered that Truth was so much bigger and better than his own limited vision had suggested. Sometimes we are anxious to keep God small, to hem him in with our own notions of what is right and proper. Today we should ask the prayers of St Thomas to help us think big: to ask probing questions, to be ready to give up our own ideas if need be, to embrace the Lord as he chooses to come among us.

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Faith and Doubt: a Diptych

When the solemnity of the Annunciation follows close on the heels of Low Sunday, as it does today, we are presented with a beautiful diptych of faith and doubt. On the one hand we have Thomas, hesitant about believing his fellow disciples, wanting to prove that the Risen Christ is indeed the Christ he has known and loved but seen buried in the tomb; on the other, we have Mary, opening herself to the angel’s word that she may conceive the Word of God, not doubting, simply questioning how it may come about.

The Fathers loved to say that Thomas by his doubting did more for our faith than all those who allegedly have no doubts at all; while Mary is the type of perfect faith whose surrender to God is the most complete any human being has ever made save for that of Jesus to his Father on the Cross. Faith and doubt, two sides of the same quest for God, two ways into the mystery of the divine; but why a diptych?

I use the analogy of a diptych for two reasons. First, a diptych can be closed. The dynamic of faith and doubt can indeed be a closed book to many. How often have you heard someone say, ‘I envy his faith’ when what was really meant was, ‘He seems untroubled by the same difficulties I am’? Faith does not protect against difficulty. Quite often, it seems to multiply difficulties. There is the constant struggle to know what God is asking in any particular situation, to square our experience with what we believe — most of the time — to be true. How are we to respond to the political questions of our day; how do we work out the right response to bioethical issues; how should we conduct ourselves, and so on and so forth. St Thomas had to work out what the Resurrection meant for him, but it wasn’t a once for all decision, after which life held no further complications; any more than Mary’s fiat solved all future problems for her or for her family.

Secondly, to open a diptych, to see what it contains, you have to use the hinge, the least obvious part of the whole structure. I think of prayer as the hinge between faith and doubt, holding both in tension, allowing us to see the bigger picture. Our Lady’s beautiful ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’ is equalled only by Thomas’s adoring ‘My Lord and my God.’ Faith and doubt alike bring us to the moment of wonder on our knees.

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St Thomas: Luminous with Love and Delight

St Thomas has always been a favourite of mine and, I daresay, of many people. His doubt makes him easy to relate to, but his faith — that clear-sighted ‘My Lord and my God’ — makes me tremble. It is the kind of faith I would like to have myself: gloriously generous, absolute. Fortunately, it is not the kind of faith I have been given. I say ‘fortunately’ because the questionings and hesitations that I, at least, experience are undoubtedly part of the way in which God draws me, and without them there would be a dissonance between my ordinary life and my supernatural one.

St Thomas is a great encouragement as one who made sense of religion, who worked through the doubts and difficulties to come to an understanding that was luminous with love and delight like the very Wounds he touched. It is an understanding and knowledge that I pray will be given to all of us one day.

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