RELIGION: Doubt is one of the markers of our age

Canon Gerry Conroy

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel it has a strange little episode that tells of how the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee just before he ascends into heaven. It says in the Gospel that ‘they worshipped him, though some doubted’.  Those two same verbs appear in our Gospel passage today: Jesus asks Peter why he doubted; then they all worshipped him acknowledging him as Son of God. St Thomas earned the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’ because of his initial refusal to believe in the Resurrection. Then there is the fact that this Gospel speaks of Christ coming at the 4th watch, or when the night is almost over, just before dawn, when the women came to find an empty tomb, plus the fact that the disciples thought it was a ghost, as they did after the resurrection. All this suggests that the Gospel is a little bit of teaching on the issue of doubt, or hesitation in our faith. Doubt is one of the markers of our age; but it’s doubt that arises not so much from an intellectual uncertainty, but rather a doubt a hesitation that rises from disillusion. The question isn’t so much, ‘what is the meaning or purpose of life’; it’s ‘why bother?’

We live in a world that does not know God; it lost its faith a long time ago. We live in a society that does not believe in anything other than to live for the present because it has lost trust in just about every institution and every claim to know the answer. The past is a failure and the future is uncertain, unknown. The only thing left to people is anything that fills up the emptiness that is left when there is no purpose, when there is no point to anything. Faith is considered at best a coping mechanism, at worst just another empty and false claim.

Perhaps, it’s only when people come to see the depth of the emptiness that they can begin to recognise their need of God. Perhaps our society still has depths to plumb before it can search for God. I am not sure why Peter wanted or needed to walk on the water to be assured it was Christ. It some ways it was a typical impulsive reaction of St Peter, an act of faith in Christ, a way of proclaiming loudly he knew Christ could do it. But there was still, too much of himself in his request of Christ to tell him to walk across the water and so when he felt the force of the wind, he doubted. What about the people in our era, when they feel the force of the wind that’s has swept away all their certainties and left them with that question of ‘Why bother’, What can they do? What can we do in the face of such disillusionment. When he was sinking, Peter didn’t reach out to grab hold of Christ, Christ reached out and grabbed hold of Peter. Our obsession with ourselves leads us too easily to think that if we doubt or hesitate, then we must try harder, we must overcome the failing. If our society is faithless, what can we do? The Gospel says the answer is to cry out with St Peter, ‘Lord save us’. That is not to abandon our efforts but it is to realise that whatever we do is done by the grace of God. St Therese of Lisieux, used the image of a lift to teach us how she would get to God. Not by her climbing the stairs, but by Jesus lifting her. St Peter’s faith didn’t manage to allow him to walk on water, but Jesus saved him anyway. That’s where the hope for our faith is also. Christ saves; we need to trust him a bit more and not think it is all up to us.

  • Canon Conroy concelebrated his final Mass as parish priest of St Patrick’s and St Peter’s on Friday evening before his transfer to the University of Glasgow where he will be Catholic chaplain to the students and staff.

Picture captions: A shrine to St Therese of Lisieux in St Patrick’s, Dumbarton, and top of page hundreds queued to pay their respects to the saint when her relic was brought to Scotland.

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