March 2019

Looking into the eyes of doubting Thomas

On a visit to Cyprus at the end of last year, I was introduced to someone who creates icons. (Actually, the technical term would be to say that she writes icons, but let’s not get too bogged down in that.) Icon, and its related adjective, are much misused terms, being used generally to refer to anything or anyone that seems remotely remarkable or significant. In fact an icon is a religious image. In Christian terms, it is often an image of Christ or other holy figures used as an aid to devotion. They have always been much used in Eastern and Orthodox Churches, but have become increasingly used in the west, where many people find them an aid to prayer and meditation.

I asked the lovely lady whom I met to create for me an icon of St Thomas, and it duly arrived the week before I am writing this. (The curious may see a photo of it on my Facebook page.)

St Thomas has long been my favourite of the New Testament saints. He does not appear much, simply having a few references in St John’s Gospel, but each time the picture is the same: whenever Jesus says or does anything difficult to understand, while one gets the impression that the other disciples nod and smile encouragingly, Thomas says, ‘I do not understand’. In his most famous contribution, on the evening of Easter, when Jesus appeared to the other disciples in Thomas’s absence, he famously said that, unless he can put his hand into Jesus’s wounds, he will never believe. (It is, perhaps, worth noting in passing that, for the other disciples, Jesus had had to enter a locked room and shown them his wounds before they believed.) Thomas simply set himself clear and comprehensible criteria: and when he did see Jesus the following week, and accepted the resurrection, he said ‘;My Lord and my God’, words of a profound faith that had never dropped from the lips of the other disciples. 

In all of his appearances, the picture - and the message - is the same: Thomas was faced with doubts - just like the other disciples and, I trust, like all of us. But when faced with doubts, Thomas addressed them, questioned them, thought about them, and so gained greater clarification and insight.

That, I fear, is by no means the case with most people. It is not helped by the fact that, for many people, the only time that they learn anything about the Christian faith is when they are at primary school, and, as in most things, an understanding based upon what one can expect primary school children to be able to grasp is going to be of limited value to teenagers and adults. So, when faced with an infantile understanding of the Christian faith, it is hardly a surprise that that faith seems pretty infantile. That is why it is so important from the earliest age to develop a reaction to one’s faith that is questioning rather than dismissive. 

That is why our Lent course this year is designed simply to address the sort of questions that occur to many people. Indeed, I have been quite overwhelmed by the number of suggestions that came in. They merely scratch the surface. Details appear elsewhere in his newsletter, and I do encourage you, whatever your commitment or otherwise to the Christian faith, to turn up and share your view with others.

In the meantime, I will be spending time looking into the eyes of St Thomas and hoping and praying that, when doubts and questions arise - yes, they do: even with vicars - I will adopt his same positive approach and so develop an even greater love with and trust in God.