Who here is a Scrabble fiend? Do you know what a macarism is? No, it’s not some sort of sweetie! A macarism according to the dictionary is a declaration that someone or some group is blessed. Or it’s the practice of making them feel blessed by saying good things about them. As you do. Here is a macarism for you to enjoy right now: blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. The punchline of the episode of the conversion of Thomas the apostle to faith in the Risen Lord; a story told for an example to follow of coming to faith from disbelief. Notice that Thomas wasn’t blamed for not believing at first, the poor man just couldn’t stretch his mind to accept what had happened, that’s all.
Believers today, just like the Lord’s original disciples, are never left unquestioned for long. People will expect an answer for the faith that is in us. Some are angry with belief. What sort of God is it who allows Putin and pandemics? To have a belief of your own sticks out, it’s awkward this weather! Discussing belief in general, St Thomas Aquinas was careful to point out that refusal to believe does not have to be culpable, blameworthy. Folk have their freedom to believe or disbelieve as they like. And we don’t generally advance our cause with our good secular humanist friends by pretending to be shocked at their scepticism. Frank discussion with the atheist platform has better chances. Wouldn’t you like to crack an Easter egg with Stephen Fry?
The story though does seem to be saying that it would be better not to be like the apostle Thomas who demanded his proofs. Though it would be better, too, not to tip over into credulousness, the sort of mind-set that wants something new to believe every day. Do you believe with all your heart and mind everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches? Good for you but the Church herself makes a clear distinction between what is given that we should believe, what we may find very helpful to believe, and what we are free to believe and disbelieve, as seems reasonable to us. So for example I have no doubt at all that Our Lady appeared at Lourdes. But no Catholic need believe that she did, it’s not an article of faith.
What should be believed? The Church’s traditional answer has always been, what always and everywhere and by everyone has been believed, the great truths. Not the small print then. A bible fundamentalist has been brought up to take Jonah’s whale as literally true but you and I are free to recognize it as a fisherman’s tale. G. K. Chesterton said that people who lose hold of the great truths of Christianity generally end up not believing in nothing, but believing in anything at all. If they don’t believe in the Holy Ghost they get spooked by any other kind of ghost: having no trust in the Blessed Trinity, they put their faith in the blessed tealeaves. So perhaps rather than blaming Thomas for his lack of faith we should thank him for his robust scepticism, which as it turned out provided the occasion for his reassuring future generations of the truth of Our Lord’s divinity.
St Thomas Aquinas again discusses faith and its counterfeits. I might be perfectly contented with myself that I subscribe to the truth of the Resurrection, and yet still be by no means personally touched by that truth, and in real terms quite indifferent to it, makes no difference to my life. Unlike with Thomas the apostle there has been no passage from ignorance to knowledge, from disinvolvement to adoration.
St John Henry Newman distinguished between notional assent, giving a truth the nod, and real assent, believing it with mind and heart. Anyone can stand up and recite the Creed without questioning a single article, yet with no personal act of faith at all, or even curiosity. There’s a word for it, fideism, meaning faith that doesn’t look for reasons. But true faith is an act of the intellect, guided by divine grace. And how it changes lives! I do want to know God in His mysteries, though I can only know in part. Like St Paul I see now in a glass darkly: then, in the kingdom, face to face.
Faith seeks understanding. Sometimes the language in which truths are taught is not robust enough. A papal encyclical or an article in the Catechism sparks a debate, does this line of argument work? I’m not convinced by every word I read. And that’s alright. Believing is giving assent to something one is still thinking about, St Thomas Aquinas quotes St Augustine as saying. Living faith, faith that saves, always asks questions, wants to know, lifeless faith doesn’t really know or care whether a thing is true or not, and it has no effect in the real world. But if I say Amen to the offer of Christ in the blessed sacrament of the altar, I must also recognize him and reach out to him in the bodies of the wretched of the earth: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, thirsty, sick or in prison? As often as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. So where lies the difference? The apostle Thomas is here to teach us, if we can put ourselves in the way of hearing him say those amazing words. “My Lord and my God!”
Here in that expression is the language of deep love and adoration. The object of our faith is God Himself, who is worthy of all our love and who has created us to be capable of paying that debt of love, that we call charity. So love is what informs real faith, what shapes and forms our faith in the God who loves us, and it comes by way of gift. Faith goes the way of questioning, puzzling, looking for answers: it reaches to the limit of what is thinkable, for what we know we know as beyond our sight. The search comes to rest in the contemplation of the Paschal mystery, in love and adoration. When we come to the Father we shall have nothing else to do! What we truly believe in, that we love, and the more we learn to love, the deeper our faith. So, Lord, help me to pray like the father who asked Jesus to cure his troubled son: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.
So do enjoy your macarism today, the Risen Saviour meant it specially for you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. St John adds, this is recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name. Perhaps it’s good for us to celebrate Doubting Thomas today, we have a lot in common. At the first Easter Thomas missed out, he was not in the apostle’s company so could not meet the Easter Jesus. And I am missing out, I’m missing the glad company of his friends, and so are you, it is like an ache inside us. We need to be together, it makes for faith. The sacraments are the signs that make for faith; we receive the Body of Christ, that we may become the Body of Christ. The Blessed Eucharist is the sacrament of what we are. We really needed to celebrate the sacraments properly again!
If anyone likes to discuss these things, well why not? You only need to drop by if you want an argument. In the meantime, will you not be Thomases today and come with my brothers and me? Shall we come to the Risen Jesus in our hearts? “You do not see him yet you love him, and still without seeing him you already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described. Because you believe.” Jesus, be to me a Jesus. Lord Jesus, you know that I love you. My Lord and my God.