“The Incredulity of St. Thomas, ” Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Recognizing me as a pastor who sometimes preached at the church she seldom attended, the woman sitting beside me in the hair salon apparently felt she needed to explain her absence. So in a voice just above a whisper she confided, “I really don’t feel very comfortable going to church, you know, because I have so many questions and doubts.” A nagging reality for so many—doubts that sometimes lurk around the edges of our faith, doubts that sometimes question the very core of our faith.
Nothing new or strange about that. Even the disciples of Jesus experienced doubts in the heady days following the resurrection. Those disciples had known Jesus well. For three years they had worked and traveled with him. For three years they had watched in awe as he healed the sick, turned water into wine, and fed thousands with five loaves and two fish. They had heard his teaching, heard him tell that he would die and then would rise again. But when Jesus did just what he had predicted and then appeared to his disciples to bless them after his resurrection, St. Luke tells us that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”* It wasn’t only Thomas who struggled with doubt. Faith for all the disciples was complicated and riddled with questions for which they had no clear and certain answers.
“Peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning,”** wrote William Butler Yeats. Perhaps the same is true of faith. Faith didn’t rush upon those disciples with a rock-solid, unquestioning certainty that never left them. It dropped more slowly into their lives. Required a certain ongoing patience. Required an ongoing openness to God. Required ongoing time spent with their risen Master. Required, as well, an ongoing honest openness to all their disbelief and wondering.
I’m fond of Emily Dickinson’s poem “This World Is Not Conclusion.” She begins the poem with a certainty that there is something more beyond this life:
This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
A strong statement of faith. A bold confidence. But then, in the rest of the poem, she very honestly explores her questions and her doubts. Her faith “slips,” she says. “Plucks at a twig of Evidence.” Searches here and there. But in the end, her uncertainty remains, like a “tooth that nibbles at the soul.”
Faith and doubt. Sharing space in Dickinson’s poem and in her soul. Sharing space in the hearts of the disciples of Jesus. Sharing space in most of our lives as well. Good to remember—when faith feels strained and stretched, when doubts nibble at our souls—good to remember that we are in good company. That we are very much like those early disciples of Jesus who experienced their faith, sustained their faith, grew their faith, slowly and erratically, amidst all their questions, all their doubts.
I wasn’t able to respond to the woman who whispered to tell me of her questions and doubts, as it was time for her to go and sit under the salon’s hair dryer. So I can only hope that she, and all of us, for that matter, will learn not to be afraid of our doubts. Learn not to feel that we must keep them very private, daring only to whisper them. Learn to engage in an ongoing and open dialogue with God and with God’s people, many of whom have questions of their own. Learn, in short, to accept the reality that faith, like Yeats’ peace, often “drops slow” into our lives, keeping us ever humble, keeping us ever alert.
**from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”