I Am Thomas

Christianity is a dynamic religion. That doesn’t mean being a Christian requires acrobatic ability, rhetorical skills or flashy spiritual encounters. Christian dynamism comes from a willingness to actively seek and live a personal relationship with God, and with the Communion of Saints. It is a willingness to engage one’s Catholic imagination, whether from the pew, in one’s daily activities – or even from the comfort of the sofa. Faith, worship and Christian witness are serious business; but without some creativity our religious practice can become less than perfect, and more pedestrian than personal. I’m a visual person, prone to boredom and easily distracted. As a result, my prayer and contemplation of Scripture is usually pretty colorful. When I read a Bible passage or hear the Sunday Gospel I try to put myself there. I try to see people, hear sounds, and relate my own experience those of people in the Bible. Scripture isn’t written on dead trees, but in the active witness of those who encountered the living God and were transformed by Him. It is God’s Word made flesh and brought to full flower in the incarnation of His Son. That written Word is to be continuously “fleshed out” by you and me as we “practice” the Faith by following Him.

This month’s important feast of Mary prompted me to think a lot about St. Thomas, and how much the Apostle needed her – and her Son. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: I’m Thomas, too.

“Wait – what? August, Mary…we’re talking about the Feast of the Assumption, aren’t we? Where’d you get this Thomas stuff?” If I might beg your indulgence, read on and engage your Catholic imagination….

St. ThomasThomas was one of the original Twelve chosen by Jesus for what amounted to an apprenticeship leading them to preach the Gospel (Mk 13:10) and found Christian communities throughout the known world. Of course that Apostolic mission didn’t end in the First Century, but continues through the Church today. It was an important mission Jesus entrusted to those men, and He chose them specifically because of their unwavering faith, courage, grace-under-pressure and great wisdom. Or…not. The truth is the Apostles were a lot like us, and even after their infusion with the gifts of the Holy Spirit they retained many of their foibles and faults – even clashing with each other (see Paul throw down in Gal 2:11). Regardless of their personal weaknesses the Apostles went all in for Christ, and in many cases shed their blood on His account. Their devotion to Him wasn’t always pretty, but they never stopped letting Him mold and shape them, and by yielding to the movement of the Holy Spirit they continued learning from Him.

Thomas is the kind of Apostle I think I’d have been: enthusiastic and impetuous enough to blurt out a willingness to die with Christ, without fully comprehending the seriousness of such a declaration.  Thomas was fearful, questioning, and a little clueless. Having lived and spoken directly with Jesus, witnessing many signs and wonders, Thomas still asked, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” In the midst of big events he was often just a little too late, missing out on their significance . Thomas was skeptical, even a bit cocky, when his fellow Apostles testified to the risen Christ. He heard what they said they saw, but unless he saw Jesus for himself he was unmoved. He even declared the notion of the resurrection so far-fetched that he’d only be convinced of it sticking by his hand in the Master’s wounds. Yes, indeed, there’s a lot of Thomas in me. I often dive head first into my devotion to the Lord, making promises I know I can’t keep, taking on more than I can handle, and losing motivation when it’s clear I can’t live up to my own unrealistic standards (Can you say, “54-Day Novena?”) How many times have I expressed my frustration at Catholic/Christian politicians who don’t let Faith inform their public lives – only to look around me at a restaurant as I sheepishly make the sign of the Cross, hoping not to make a too-public declaration of thanks to God? I recall with shame the many challenges I’ve issued to Jesus when I am wounded, restless, scared and frustrated. “Unless I see proof that Your wounds were really endured for me,” I cry, “I won’t believe You hear my prayers. I won’t believe You’re for me. I can’t believe You’d let me down….” I am Thomas, a real “Twin,” who moves from faithful follower to doubting daughter on a dime.

So far this isn’t a very pretty picture of the Apostle – or me. Except that Jesus was always with Thomas – with you and me – in spite of imprudent speech, doubts, and the despair that comes when we think He’s gone for good. When Thomas doesn’t know where he’s going Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” When he can’t believe that the worst loss of a friend he’s ever experienced can be reversed, Jesus gently places Thomas’s hands in His side and blesses his (and our) coming-to-belief. Jesus forgives our comedy (or tragedy) of errors as many times as we, like Thomas, open our hearts and say, My Lord and my God!

Which brings me – finally! – to this blessed Feast commemorating the Dormition of the Mother of God and her bodily ascension into heaven. According to Tradition  (and emphasized in the Eastern Church), Mary died – “fell asleep in the Lord” – surrounded by dormitiondetailthe Apostles. Well, almost all. To be fair, it’s possible that Thomas was out tending to the Church, preaching the Gospel and fulfilling his mission. Still…the Eleven, each one charged with the same mission, were at the Holy Mother’s bedside, keeping watch and then mourning her loss. Once again, I am Thomas, as I recall those times I’ve been busy about my own work – important as it often is – but too self-centered to take that call from a friend in need, honor a request (regardless of how trivial) from my husband, or visit a family member I’ve not connected with in a while. I, too, have heard secondhand accounts of the troubles of someone I care about, about how others had been there, while I was…Thomas.

At Cana Mary told the servants to “do whatever He [Jesus] tells you,” and she followed her own advice. Like her Son, Mary accepts us in our imperfection, embraces us in love, and DORMITION_SLS__41357.1376957417.195.234points us toward the One who can make us new. When Thomas received word that Mary had died – that he’d once again been too late – he begged the others to take him to the tomb to see her one last time. (Yes, Thomas and I, knowing better, doing what we must, forgetting to do what we ought.) When the Twelve arrived the tomb was empty but filled with a beautiful fragrance. In place of the Holy Mother’s body were bunches of flowers. Once our-ladys-slipper-300x199[1]again Thomas gets more than he bargains for, more that he deserves, witnessing the power and the faithfulness of God. The flowers are a sweet and beautiful remembrance from the Mother who, even in her passage from this life to the next, shows the way to her Son.  The flowers say, “I know – and I love you anyway.” Though Thomas often gets in his own way as he seeks to follow his Master, he’s shown time and again it’s never too late.

I am Thomas, both in my stubbornness and my desire to be so close to Christ I can touch Him. I am Thomas, who sometimes opens my mouth too much; who can be over-confident or paralyzed with fear. I am Thomas, with good intentions if not always right actions. Jesus loves me anyway, and invites me to place my wounds in His so He can heal them. Mary loves me, too, and she is my Mother when I miss the mark and when I come to my senses and run to Her. I am Thomas, who believes – and needs His grace to help my unbelief.

I am Thomas. Who are you?

Ann Koshute teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

A Stained Cookbook Means Somebody Used It Often

Sometimes the liturgical calendar delivers punches in such succession that we find it difficult to keep up.  Today is the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus.  And what could be said about the Jesuits that has not already been said? There’s no time to rest, though. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), founder of the Redemptorists, an order with its own proud history of apostolic work.  It is, after all, a good thing that the Church thinks in centuries, not minutes, days, weeks, and certainly not tweets!  (Pope Francis is, though, an accomplished Twitter user.)  We need the liturgical cycle to bring before us this unceasing stream of saintly exemplars.  We do our best to emulate them, knowing that next year we hope to glean a little more insight from the saints as they become familiar friends.  For me, it’s St. Ignatius Loyola (and St. Alphonsus), but my colleague Carmina Chapp attends instead to Dorothy Day. Somebody else might appreciate  St. Charles Lwanga or a saint known only to a few people and God.

St. Ignatius of Loyola Source; Marquette University

St. Ignatius of Loyola
Source; Marquette University

St. Ignatius ranks among those Catholic greats—St. Augustine of Hippo, Cardinal Newman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton—who generate such interest that simple internet searches threaten to melt down servers.  Still, Ignatius’ life seems almost operatic, even movie-worthy.  Born to a wealthy family, Ignatius’ military career broke amid cannon fire at Pamplona, Spain.  His wounded leg had to be broken twice in order to set properly.  Bedridden, Ignatius began reading the lives of the saints. St. Ignatius thus understood fully St. Luke’s depiction of Christ’s injunction to treasure God, not earthly things.

But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”

Providentially, that Gospel reading appears today, St. Ignatius’ feast day. Having endured what he had, earthly possession surely seemed frail indeed.  As one blogger, working with Dom Gueranger, puts it: “It dawned on him that the Church also has her army which, under the orders of the representative of Christ, fights to defend here below the sacred interests of the God of hosts.”  An army for God—in the days of the Reformation, that stirred Ignatius to action.  Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—in 1534, headquartered in Rome.  From there Ignatius sent missionaries all over the work:  China, Japan, India, and both North and South America.  As he did, he charged them: “Go, my brothers, Inflame the world and spread everywhere the fire which Jesus Christ came to kindle on the earth.”

There’s an image: setting the world afire for God!  Yet St. Ignatius’ best-known venue to recognizing that same fire in ourselves came through a most prosaic book:  The Spiritual Exercises. Like much of the Catholic tradition I first met St. Ignatius Loyola while studying at Wabash College, led by a host of devout Presbyterian scholars.  They loved the Church and thus they taught its history, even the Catholics who opposed their beloved reformers Calvin and Luther.  William Placher’s description (p. 176) of the Spiritual Exercises always stuck with me:  “Much of it has all the literary eloquence of a cook-book, and a similarly practical intent, designed as it is for spiritual directors to use in guiding people through a religious retreat.”  Bill liked to cite St. Ignatius’ “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” the thirteenth of which requires: “To keep ourselves right in all things, we ought to hold fast to this principle: What I see as white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.”  For Protestants suspicious of Rome, that’s a great line, but it paints a paltry picture of the saint himself.  E.g., Bill rarely mentioned the other rules which extoll a medieval piety of saint veneration or the preceding “Rules for Distributing Alms” (or, more fundamentally, the thoroughly Scriptural foundation for the entire Exercises).  Loyalty to Rome came as part of that inflaming fire the first Jesuits found God had given them through St. Ignatius.  Jesuit identity certainly involves ecclesiastical fidelity, but not only that.

At one level, of course, Placher is right;  cookbooks are meant to be used.  Which is the better cookbook:  the slick production with recipes requiring several odd, rarely used ingredients or the one that bears clear signs of frequent, sustained use?  After all, if stained with sauces and flour, that cookbook has been used.  The recipes work—cooks can follow and make them and, this is important, those consuming like the offerings.  St. Ignatius’ spiritual direction certainly fits this.    It works and has done so over the centuries.  St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises describe a retreat to be taken over thirty-one days.  Jesuits take the entire retreat at least twice during their lives, and today the laity often seeks St. Ignatius’ retreat-director advice episodically—whether seeking insight on prayerful examination of the day or extra encouragement to lose self in order to gain Christ. The Exercises still generate widespread consideration far beyond the Jesuits’ own members.  The Jesuit cookbook still contains much that satisfies.

Like some diets, though, that draw criticism, not everybody likes it.  In Victorian England both Jesuits and Redemptorists—there’s tomorrow’s saint again—particularly stirred up anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestant elites.  Not content with merely advancing popery, the legacies of both St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus celebrated suspiciously loose spiritualities.  Both seemed willing to contort the Gospel to fit the apostolic situation.  This adaptability, though, should be seen in the context of St. Ignatius’ charge:  ignite the world.   Sometimes, as any camper knows, you need more than one match to start that fire.  St. Ignatius, having lived quite a life before he came to God, developed a reformed Catholic spirituality that provided that ignition.  Through the Exercises’ simple prose have come a plentitude of paths, all through the Church, back to God.

Jeffrey Marlett teaches theology and Catholic social teaching for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs. He blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.