My July Column

My July column in the Scottish Catholic Observer has been out for more than a week now.

The full text is shown below. My theme this year has been “A Journey of Faith”. I’m examining how we get the Faith and how it grows. This month I looked at doubt.

Faith and Doubt

I’m writing this article on the feast of Saint Thomas, Doubting Thomas. Doubt is often thought of as the opposite of faith. Parents tend to panic when their children express doubts about Catholic belief. Sometimes we have doubts and wonder why God allows doubts to creep into our heads. Is it the Devil putting these thoughts in my head?  Is doubt so bad? If so, what about Thomas? Was he less of an apostle than the others because he doubted? Perhaps he was the one who voiced the thoughts that some of the others had but were afraid to say.

Doubt is not the same as refusal to believe. When Thomas expressed doubt about the identity of the risen Lord he was being cautious. He was not willing to accept everything he was told. He gave Jesus the opportunity to show the proof of His identity. He gave us a good example to follow. The Church is cautious. Reports of miracles and apparitions are not accepted readily. Only after close examination of the evidence will the Church eventually recognise such incidents. When someone is canonised it is the last stage of exhaustive examination. Thank God I’ll never be canonised; imagine having every aspect of your life scrutinised.

I visited the tomb of Saint Thomas in India and saw the spear head that reputedly killed him. There was some doubt about this. Some claimed that this was a different Thomas but Pope John Paul II had been there before me, so I thought it must be ok. My visit was just after the Tsunami that made the headlines here. The tomb is in a basilica in Chennai. At the time of the tsunami the water came up into the town, causing a great deal of damage but stopped at the Basilica. That banished the doubts of many people about this being the tomb of the saint.

So, what role does doubt play in developing our Faith? When doubts creep in we are forced to think seriously about our Faith. Edward DeBono, a writer on educational psychology, declared that we only think when we don’t know. For example, we can do long division without thinking about it because we know how it’s done. If we are asked to do a long division in roman numerals, that’s a different story. We have to think about that. Having doubts can make us think more deeply about our Faith and make it stronger because we have deepened our understanding.

When I was growing up we were taught about mysteries of faith. As one teacher, I remember, put it “That’s a mystery and you’ll never understand it.” That seemed too simple to me. If we just accept things without trying to understand then faith does not grow. Why would God give us the ability to recognise a problem without giving us the ability to learn from it? It is in recognising our doubts for what they are and trying to solve them that we deepen in faith.

But, what if we can’t solve the problem? Is that our faith declining? I don’t think so. It’s just the same as any other problem, if I can’t sort it out myself I ask for help. Turn to someone who has some expertise. We are lucky to have priests who are well trained and know what they are about. Being asked for help with a doubt that bothers me will be a welcome change from some of the questions priest are asked.

Priests can have their doubts too. A few years ago I was visiting Ecuador (I wasn’t looking for political asylum) and staying with a missionary order there. One of the priests told me about a problem he had recently encountered. Their cook had a little boy who became seriously ill. She could not afford medical treatment so the priests arranged for him to go to hospital. Despite the best medical care he was getting worse and the doctors offered no hope.

The founder of the order had been recently canonised and this priest found himself in the little chapel, praying for the boy’s recovery. He looked up at the statue of the founder and, in a fit of anger, said “How could you let this happen? Ach I never believed you were a saint anyway. If you really were a saint you would do something about this.”

Next day the word came that the boy was sitting up in his bed; on his way back to full health. Now the priest never really understood how that had come about but he felt that his problem with doubt had sparked some action.

So how should we handle the situation when our children express doubts? We could just tell them that they are wrong and they should put aside their doubts and believe. I don’t think that will do much good. Perhaps we are better to see this as opportunity to get them to think more deeply about questions of faith. When we don’t really understand ourselves, we should be honest and admit that. Encouraging them to find help to get the solution might help them to see that our Faith is not blind faith. It is through engaging with questions of faith that we can grow in Faith.

Sometimes I think God could have come up with an easier way for us to deepen our understanding of our faith. Why do we have to suffer the anxiety that doubts bring? Could there not be an easier way? Perhaps there could, but it seems to me to be the story of our lives. Nothing comes easy. I was watching my wee grandson via the computer link from Vancouver the other day (I know, I’m too young to be a grandpa). He was dribbling away and shoving his hand in his mouth. He has just cut his first tooth and others are on the way. His sore mouth is just a symptom of growing.

Our anxieties about doubts are just symptoms of our growing in Faith. If we look at it that way then we should be happy when we are in doubt. That is evidence that we are still in a process of growing in Faith. If we had sunny days all year and no rain the garden would dry up and there would be no growth. If we see our doubts as a challenge from God rather than temptation from the Devil then we can happily get on with deepening our understanding and strengthening our Faith.

Joseph McGrath

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