Doubt Once, and Those Disciples Never Let You Forget It

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas By Caravaggio
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
By Caravaggio

The next apostle on our list is St. Thomas, who we are all very familiar with. We really don’t know how he was called, but we know that he was originally a Jew and that he left it all to follow Jesus. He is mentioned briefly here and there throughout the Gospels.

But of course, what everyone knows St. Thomas for is his reaction to the Resurrection. When all his brothers told him that they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe until he touched Jesus himself and felt his wounds. Well, I guess he opened his big mouth too far, because that’s exactly what happened!

Say what you will about “Doubting Thomas”, but that experience clearly changed him. His immediate response was, “My Lord and my God!”, but that was only the beginning. Whereas many of the apostles went north and west to preach to the people of Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, St. Thomas went to the almost complete geographical and cultural opposite. He started going north through Syria to Edessa (southern Turkey), but then made a u-turn and headed south. He preached to the Parthians, Persians, and Medes through what is now Iran, and kept going south to India.

Tradition tells us that St. Thomas encountered King Gondophernes (a historical king featured on ancient coins!), and eventually converted him and his brother. The king must have wanted to put Thomas to work, because he was put in charge of building projects, several of which were churches. Apparently, this didn’t sit well with a number of the local priests, because they chased him up a mountain (now called St. Thomas Mount – original, I know), and killed him with a lance. His body was buried at the church he built in Mylapore, India. The tomb remains there even to today, although a significant portion of the relics were moved back to Edessa.

Much of the story about St. Thomas in India comes from the Acts of Thomas, which is pretty shifty, and probably not very reliable. It was probably written by Gnostics, who tried to incorporate a warped form of Christianity into their mystical religion. What is true, however, is that later missionaries found a large number of Christians that had been in India for a very long time, some of whom still speak Syriac, a dialect of the language that St. Thomas probably spoke. Even Marco Polo visited the tomb of St. Thomas on his journeys and learned the stories, so if nothing else, there is probably a kernel of truth to these legends.

So what can we learn from St. Thomas? One thing is that as doubtful or weak as we might consider St. Thomas, Jesus doesn’t pick worthless men and women to do his work. St. Thomas’s human weakness, and our human weaknesses as well, point out the fact that real Christian holiness is a gift from God, not something we do on our own. God uses our doubt and weaknesses to transform us, and to do great things through us, just as he did through St. Thomas. Let us entrust ourselves even more to God through the prayers of St. Thomas, that he would make us better disciples!

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