Sunday, April 23, 2017

Faith And Doubt: A Sunday Rumination

     [The first Sunday after Easter, liturgically titled Divine Mercy Sunday, is also sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday, for it is on this day that the tale of Thomas Didymus, the Apostle who doubted the Resurrection, and his encounter with the risen Christ is told. It’s a good day to reflect on something Pope Benedict XVI told us: Faith is inseparable from doubt. It’s also a good day to reflect on something Dr. Gary Habermas said to investigative reporter and atheist Lee Strobel during his investigation into the Resurrection: How much evidence is enough?

     I first posted the piece below on April 27, 2014. -- FWP]

     On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place for fear of the Jewish authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

     Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!”

     Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”

     [The Gospel According to John, 20:19-29]

     The story of Doubting Thomas, perhaps the most famous of all the events of the period between the Resurrection and the Ascension, is often – usually? – told as some sort of mild condemnation of doubt of the Resurrection, and therefore of Christ’s divinity. Yet the story itself does not reflect badly on Thomas. He, a skeptic of a sort familiar to many, wanted substantiation of the unprecedented event in which he’d been asked to believe. Moreover, it was substantiation the other disciples had already received. It might be going too far to assert that he had a right to such evidence, but at the very least he could demur on the grounds that the others had witnessed what he had not.

     Pope Benedict XVI himself has told us that faith is inseparable from doubt. Indeed, it could not be any other way. Faith is the acceptance of a proposition for which there is inconclusive evidence at best, and against which no conclusive disproof is possible. He whose faith is utterly undisturbed by those conditions is a rare creature indeed, perhaps to the point of never having existed.

     We have reason to believe that the Apostles alone were granted conclusive proof that Jesus had returned bodily from death. If others who saw Him in the days before the Ascension received the same sort of indisputable proof that it was definitely Jesus of Nazareth who stood before them, the Gospels do not record it. The Apostles also witnessed His Ascension, and at the Pentecost received the Gift of Tongues to facilitate the Great Commission. No one else, not even Paul of Tarsus, is recorded as having been granted those boons.

     All of us who came after must make do with faith.

     Doubt is inseparable from faith because we are aware of our fallibility and the variable trustworthiness of human testimony. Indeed, it’s quite possible that were we incapable of doubt, we would be equally incapable of faith and of all that follows from it. That doesn’t make it a pleasant thing, of course. Christians are expected to struggle with their doubts. We’re expected to cope with them as we cope with any other trial of human life. It’s part of the test of temporal life: one of the quintessential barriers we must surmount to win to eternal bliss.

     There is no “answer” to doubt. It cannot be defeated once and for all, but must be endured stoically. If we have reasons to believe – again, not conclusive reasons but evidence “good enough” when mated to the urgings of our hearts and consciences – then we have reasons to resist doubt. All the same, there’s a question of tactics to be faced.

     Which is why I’ve chosen to reprint the following story from my collection For The Love Of God.

The Vampire And The Caretaker

     Gavin's alarm clock buzzed with its usual peevish insistence. He cracked an eyelid, noted the hour and the pervading darkness, and pulled the covers over his head, hoping against hope that it wasn't really his least favorite morning of the week yet again.

     It was not to be. Within seconds came his father's usual sharp knock.

     "Come on, son." Even at three-thirty in the morning, Evan Conklin always sounded as relaxed and jovial as a man who's just finished a fine meal in the company of his best friends. "We've got work to do."

     Gavin grumbled an obscenity and flung back the bedcovers with a sweep of his arm. The winter chill was upon him at once, singing along his spine loudly enough to make his teeth chatter. He slapped at the alarm clock with one hand while he groped for his robe with the other and hurried off to the bathroom for a shower and shave.

     Gavin couldn't linger over his toilet if he was to set out at the appointed hour. Evan allowed him to sleep half an hour later than he allowed himself. It was hurry, hurry, hurry from the moment his feet touched his bedroom floor to the moment he buckled himself into the passenger seat of their car. The work, his father explained more than once, would not permit it.

     Their destination was only a few miles away, but in the wee-hour blackness of a continental New York winter it seemed like an hour's ride. It was long enough for Gavin to fall back to sleep, but he didn't permit himself. One awakening per morning was more than enough. He forced himself to full alertness, stretching out his lower back, loosening the muscles in his arms, hips, and legs, and working his lungs open by steadily deepening his breathing. His father merely drove and said nothing.

     Our Lady of the Pines was completely dark. Evan pulled a ring of keys from his coat pocket, thrust one into the lock that had only last spring been installed in the tall oaken doors, and shepherded them inside, flipping light switches as he went. The nave of the church blossomed into brightness. Evan headed directly for the mop closet, while Gavin went to fetch the vacuum cleaner.

     Gavin had almost finished vacuuming the little church in preparation for the early Mass when the vampire fell upon him.

* * *

     The creature was tall and evil of aspect. Its grip was cruelly tight. Its breath upon Gavin's neck stank of ordure and rotting flesh. Despite its form, it was hard to believe that something so foul could once have been a man.

     It had him at its mercy, yet it did not strike. Its attention was fastened upon his father, who stared from the altar steps, mop dangling from his hand.

     "Well?" the creature snarled. "Aren't you going to plead for mercy? Aren't you going to offer me your blood in place of your son's? It's customary, you know."

     Evan smiled slightly. "No need."

     "Oh? You'll concede me your son's life if I agree to spare yours, then?"

     Gavin squirmed in terror, but the vampire's grip was inescapable. Evan shook his head. "Not at all. You won't be killing anyone this morning."

     The vampire cackled. "Really? How do you plan to stop me?"

     "I don't." With his eyes, Evan indicated the crucifix suspended above him. It evoked a snort of derision.

     "Yet you see that I am here, in the heart of your imaginary God's house where I'm not even supposed to be able to enter, doing as I will with your boy." Gavin shuddered as the creature's talons ruffled his hair. "He looks a tasty morsel. I expect I will enjoy breaking fast more than usual this morning."

     His father's gaze remained perfectly serene. "Go ahead, then. Feed on him."

     A stillness forged of cold iron descended upon the church. Nothing moved nor stirred.

     "Well?" Evan said. "What are you waiting for?"

     The vampire did not respond.

     "You have your victim," Evan pressed. "He's helpless in your grip. You know I can't stop you. Why haven't you struck him?"

     "What makes you so sure I won't?" the vampire snarled. It crushed Gavin to itself with lung-emptying force, and he gasped in pain.

     "It's perfectly simple," Evan said. "You won't because you can't. You don't really exist."

     "What?" the vampire roared. "I stand here in your holy place, your son my helpless captive, mocking your Savior as the phantasm you take me to be. I hold your boy's life in my arms, and you deny my existence with such ease?"

     "Of course," Evan said. "If God is real, then you are not. A just God would not permit the existence of a creature that could suck the soul out of a man's body and subject him to eternal torment, he having done no wrong of his own free will. And God exists. Therefore, you do not."

     The vampire's grip loosened, and Gavin's fear was tinted with puzzlement.

     "You see me before you," the creature said slowly. "You hear my voice and smell my odor. Your son feels my claws upon his flesh. Yet you refuse to believe in me, preferring your faith in a being you cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. What gives you such confidence in your delusion, in the face of mortal peril?"

     "It's quite simple," Evan said. "The characteristics assigned to your kind contradict all right and reason. Such creatures could not exist without destroying themselves. In a word, you are implausible. No, wait," he said. "Not implausible; impossible. A creature of supernatural strength and speed that feeds on human blood, yet cannot endure the light of day? A creature that converts its prey into competitors, ensuring both a geometrically increasing number of predators and a dwindling supply of fodder? The laws of nature as God wrote them literally forbid you to exist."

     Gavin twisted again, and broke free of the creature's grip. He stumbled back and gazed upon the thing. But he could not reconcile what his eyes saw with the superhuman monster that had held him helpless a moment before. It seemed to have become insubstantial, ghostly, a mere appearance projected on the screen of reality by some unseen mechanism.

     "You truly believe this?" The vampire's voice had fallen to a whisper.

     Evan Conklin said, "I do so believe."

     And the thing faded from sight.

* * *

     Gavin awoke in a tumult of fright. He could not remember every detail of the dream that had catapulted him from slumber, but the overpowering sense of helplessness and terror, of being at the mercy of something merciless that no human strength could oppose, still pulsed within him. He sat up, switched on his bedside lamp, and breathed as slowly and deeply as he could manage, struggling to calm himself.

     His door opened slowly. His father's head poked out from behind it.

     "Everything all right, son?"

     Gavin nodded, unwilling to trust his voice. Evan entered and sat beside him on his bed.

     "Bad dream?"

     Gavin nodded again, and Evan grinned.

     "I know how rugged they can be. I used to have some pretty vivid ones, at your age." He rose and made for the door. "A shower will help. We'll hit the diner after Mass."

     Gavin extracted himself from his bed and plunged into his Sunday morning ritual. When he'd buckled himself into the passenger seat of his father's car, and Evan had backed them out of the driveway and onto Kettle Knoll Way, he said, "Dad? Do you ever...doubt?"

     "Hm? Our faith in God, you mean?" Evan kept his eyes on the dark ribbon of road unwinding before them.

     "Yeah." Gavin braced himself for the answer. What he got was not what he expected.

     "Now and then," his father said. "It's hard not to doubt something you can't see or touch. But faith isn't about certainty. It's about will."

     "So you...will away your doubts?"

     Evan chuckled. "That would be a neat trick, wouldn't it?" He pulled the Mercedes Maybach into the small side parking lot of Our Lady of the Pines, parked and killed the engine. "No, I simply command myself to do as I know I should do. Faith is expressed just as much by our deeds as by our words. As long as I can consistently act from faith, I can keep my grip on it, regardless of my doubts." He nodded toward the unlit church, barely visible in the darkness. "You might say that's why we're here."

     Gavin marveled. "And all this time I thought it was because the parish was too poor to pay for professional cleaning staff."

     That brought a snort and a guffaw. "Get serious. Though the way you vacuum, I don't wonder that Father Ray would rather have our money than your labor. No, it's that hiring your chores done distances you from them. You can't afford to do too much of that if you want to remain connected to life. I pay a cleaning lady to look after our house, but doing this for the parish keeps us involved in parish life, and mindful of...well, of a lot of things." He cuffed his son affectionately. "Let's get moving. We're already behind schedule."

     May God bless and keep you all.

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