If faith is like a walled garden, then the garden wall has many gates that allow both entry and exit. Most of the gates swing open and closed pretty easily, and the latches operate smoothly. But there is one gate in the Garden of Faith that is much harder to open – especially from inside the garden. It is a gate made of thick, heavy wooden planks, with sturdy iron hinges. There is no lock on the gate – it is meant to be opened and closed if anyone wants to - and it can never be barred. But inside the garden, thorny bushes have grown up in front of the gate to make it harder to use. And the letters carved into the sign that is nailed to the gate tell you its name: Doubt.
Doubt is the gate through which we are so often warned we should not pass. Over the centuries there have been many reasons that this is so, one of which is the story of Doubting Thomas, and Christ’s injunction to Thomas that “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In our own day, Doubt is a not-much-used gate because the discourse of faith doesn’t seem to allow for much grey area theses days – either you believe fervently and defend your faith ferociously, or you are a happy and satisfied atheist – or so it seems.
If you live inside the Garden of Faith – or if you even just tend a plot of ground there from time to time – the gate of Doubt probably seems dangerous to you. To begin with, you are not absolutely certain that if you were to go outside the garden through the gate of Doubt that you could ever get back in. There are lots of other gates that you know are meant to open from both sides – the gates of Sin and Repentance, for instance. The Forgiveness and Mercy that grow inside the garden of faith give assurances of this – you can always get back in. But if you were to use the gate of Doubt, then you would be dabbling in something that might keep you outside the garden of faith for the rest of your life.
If you creep up to the garden gate of Doubt late at night and listen carefully, you can hear the voices on the other side whispering questions:
“What if your prayers mean nothing and no one ever answers them?”
“What if there is no God, and the forces that control the universe neither love you nor care about you in the slightest?”
“What if all your silly worship is worthless, self-indulgent pageantry?”
“What if death is all there is at the end of life, and our bodies just become food for worms?”
The voices that whisper these questions on the other side of the gate of Doubt do not sound friendly. And because you like the time you spend inside the garden of faith, you don’t think you want to entertain these voices and their questions; I know I don’t.
So we have learned to steer clear of the gate of Doubt; we just don’t go there. There are plenty of other lovely sections of the garden of faith, and there are so many creative and interesting ways to open the gate of Sin when we want to foray outside the garden, that we don’t really need to bother with Doubt. And, after all, we are assured that on the other side of the gate of Sin there is always the gate of Forgiveness to get back into the Garden. So we leave Doubt alone.
Having left the gate of Doubt alone so long and so carefully, we seldom look around its vicinity, and we don’t notice that creeping over the wall from the other side of the gate of Doubt are two vines that have become intertwined with the thorny bushes that grow in front of the gate inside the garden. These vines are invasive and threaten the indigenous plants of the garden of faith; they are Fear and Self-Doubt. They cleverly present themselves in the vicinity of Doubt as though they were Doubt itself, but they are, in fact, distinct species all their own. And the flowers of these two vines each has a scent – not entirely unpleasant, but not enticing either – something only just noticeable that is carried in the air beyond the gate of Doubt when the breeze is blowing strongly enough. And the Scent of Fear and Self-Doubt tickles our noses and plants still other ideas in our heads, as though they were sneezes trying to get out:
“You are ugly and stupid.”
“You will never be good enough.”
“It would be better to play it safe.”
“You can’t do that: someone smarter, and stronger, and more capable than you could, but you can’t.”
These thoughts are borne on the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt, which catches us unawares from time to time, and it has the power to stop us in our tracks and leave us frozen for a while, unable to decide what to do, how to live, convinced that we have no good choices in our lives. We imagine that these feelings are crises of faith, coming, as they do, from the vicinity of Doubt, and we remember that we have trained ourselves to steer clear of Doubt. And we do not notice how unsteadily we are now walking in the Garden of Faith, having breathed in the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt.
The Tradition of the Garden of Faith tends to overlook the invasive species of Fear and Self-Doubt, because those vines have become all mixed up with the Gate of Doubt – where you shouldn’t be hanging out anyway! And so we are not conditioned to identify the effects of the scent of Fear and Self-Doubt in our lives hence we have no idea what to do about it. Instead, we just tell ourselves that it is all just a part of Doubt and the sooner we get away from the Gate of Doubt the better we will be – wasn’t that the message to Doubting Thomas, after all? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, you sniveling doubter who has been lingering around gates you know you shouldn’t linger around!
But for a few days of the year – right around this time of year – there blossoms in the Garden of Faith a tiny little plant that carpets the garden with its little, golden blossoms in such a way that the lawns of the Garden of Faith put the Yellow Brick Road to shame, so abundant and so radiant are these tiny blossoms that seem to weave themselves into a seamless garment. These little blossoms also have a scent – it is at once reassuring and invigorating – and the scent of these flowers has that unusual quality, found in and around the Garden of Faith, that it brings not only odor to our notice, but also sound.
These blossoms are called Thomas Flowers, because when their scent fills the garden with its perfume, it is accompanied by a sound that at first sounds like an army of cicadas making their incessant chirping noise over and over again. But when you listen closely, at this time of year, when the Thomas Flowers are covering the ground in the Garden of Faith as far as they eye can see, you can hear in the cicada-like chirping the sound of a prayer being made over and over again: “My Lord and my God! My Lord and my God! My Lord and my God!” And by a strange coincidence the sound of that chirping prayer is heard nowhere more clearly than in the vicinity of the Gate of Doubt. And for reasons that no botanist has ever been able to explain, for about a week or two around this time of year, the vines that grow on the other side of the wall, outside the Garden, by the Gate of Doubt shrivel and die back so that they look like a few dying twigs that are at last being gotten rid of.
But after just a few short weeks, as the last golden blossoms of Thomas Flower are fading from the grass, and the sound of their chirping prayer is becoming faint (My Lord and my God! My Lord and God!) a shoot begins to grow at the base of the vines of Fear and Self-Doubt, and you can be assured that they will soon be creeping over the wall again.
And the first lesson of the Garden of Faith is this: There is nothing to be afraid of at the Gate of Doubt except those invasive species of Fear and Self-Doubt that grow on the other side of the gate, and would be happy to keep you there.
And the second lesson of the Garden of Faith is this: That God is able to carpet the landscape with flowers that will proclaim him Lord, and that the beauty of the Thomas Flowers and the majesty of their marvelous prayer (My Lord and my God!) will continue to bloom, causing Fear and Self-Doubt to shrivel, allowing the flowers’ prayer to hang in the air with new music at every chirp: My Lord and my God! My Lord and my God! Thank you for overcoming my fear and self-doubt, my Lord, and my God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 April 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia