Here’s to All the Painful Pilgrims!

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On November 29, 2002 the world was very surprised when the diary of Mother Teresa was made public. We learned that Mother Teresa had painful doubts. She seriously questioned if the work she was doing was right.

She wondered if God really cared. In fact, Mother Teresa sometimes questioned if there was a God after all. It turns out that this holy woman, who was canonized as a saint on September 4, 2016, was plagued with many religious doubts.

In today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), as we hear about Thomas, the perennial doubter, we should remember that everyone walks through life with doubt on one arm and faith on the other arm. Sometimes one pulls the other, but most people follow the tug of faith.

To illustrate this, imagine you are in a shopping mall. You are asked by a group of college students doing a psychology project to participate in an experiment. You agree. You are blindfolded and a cardboard box is placed at your feet. You are asked to tell them without removing your blindfold, if the box is empty or does it contain a live Easter rabbit.

You could bend down, stick your hand into the box and see if there is a rabbit inside. This would be direct experience. Or you could pick up the box, see how much it weighs, shake it and see if something moves. This is called reasoning or deduction.

Or you could call out to people passing by and ask if there is a rabbit in the box. This is called learning by believing or placing your faith in the testimony of others.

Which method do you and I use most often? The 3rd one. We place our faith in the word of others. We are told that 75% of our knowledge comes from accepting the word of others. We accept at face value what is written on the food products and medicines we consume.

When was the last time you asked the pilot of your plane to see his license? We accept most things and most people on faith, on the words of others. We do accept most of our knowledge on faith.

But doubt always lurks, as it must, whenever we do not have direct knowledge ourselves. We wonder if miracles occur. Are the Gospels true? Is Jesus divine? Does God exist? Can the Church with all of its scandals be the true Church of Jesus Christ? Of course, all of our doubts increase when we lose a loved one or a tragedy hits us.

Thomas is a lot like us. Jesus, his friend and mentor, innocent to the core and doing nothing but good, is arrested, beaten to a pulp and crucified. How could Thomas be a believer anymore? He had every right to be called a Doubting Thomas.

So what practical things can you and I do when such doubts hit us?

First of all, we must stay with the community. When Thomas left the faith community, his doubts got the best of him. Only when he rejoined the faith community was he able to say, “My Lord and my God!”

The fact is, no one single person believes all the time. No one feels God’s presence all the time, not Thomas, not Mother Teresa, not you or me. But the faith community does.

The faith community believes when you and I are unwilling or unable to believe. Thomas believes for the denying Peter until he was able to embrace Jesus again. Peter believed for the Doubting Thomas until he could believe in Jesus again.

I’m strong in my belief when you struggle with doubt. You give me a hug when I am ready to throw in the towel. You cry the tears I can’t cry. I laugh the laugh you cannot laugh.

Together we believe more than we believe alone. This is why, even with our doubts, we must stick with our faith community, why we must help others coming to our faith community and why we must invite other Doubting Thomases to come and join us.

Second, when doubt becomes so strong, it is important to become a Painful Pilgrim. A Painful Pilgrim is someone who is going through a period of doubt, but continues to go to church, so they can continue their search. Why? So that they are there the next time Jesus appears in their life. A Painful Pilgrim is not a hypocrite, because they go to church, yet they have strong doubts. A Painful Pilgrim is someone like Mother Teresa – a noble person.

Thirdly, check out who your friends are. If the people you hang out with are pleasure seekers, who scoff at anything sacred, then your doubts will sink deeper and deeper. Belief does not survive well with faithless friends.

Do remember that Thomas was not called “The Twin” for nothing. He has millions and millions of siblings. When we feel the doubt that Thomas felt, we must do what he did – go back to the faith community, accept the very human role of a Painful Pilgrim, and finally hang out with people of faith, people who also have doubts, but folks who have Jesus at the center of their lives.

No doubt about it – Thomas is Our Brother!!

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