Friday, July 3, 2015

Ronald Knox for St Thomas' Day

Ronald Knox (1888–1957), son of evangelical Bishop of Manchester, E.A. Knox, attended Eton College and won several scholarships at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1912 he was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England  and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford. In 1917 he swam the Tiber, and the following year he was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Knox wrote many books of essays and novels. Singlehandedly he translated St Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible into English. His works on religious themes include: Some Loose Stones (1913), Reunion All Round (1914), A Spiritual Aeneid (1918), The Belief of Catholics (1927), Caliban in Grub Street (1930), Heaven and Charing Cross (1935), Let Dons Delight (1939) and Captive Flames (1940). He was known for his ability as a communicator and had a witty turn of phrase. He was a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio.

The following is a radio sermon by Knox, taken from: Pastoral Sermons and Occasional Sermons (reprint), Ignatius Press, 2002.

Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have learned to believe. -John 20:29.

When you read in the newspaper of some momentous decision taken, which, for a moment, fills the headlines; when you glance down the column to see what comment has been made on it by public men and by political observers, at home and abroad; the question often suggests itself. What will be the verdict of history about all this? The verdict of history— that was the important thing, the really important thing, on Easter Day all those centuries ago, when Easter Day first earned its title. A Man had died, with the formalities of a legal execution after a trial in which the evidence had broken down, and the judge had disclaimed responsibility for the sentence. What jury was now to sit on the case, and give the verdict of history? The dead Man had appointed them himself, a jury of twelve, good men and true, you would have thought; common folk, such as have a right to sit on juries, a fisherman here, a toll- collector there. He made a prophecy, and invited them to judge him, invited the world to judge him, according as the prophecy came true or not; he would rise from the dead. One of them, alas, was neither a good man nor a true; he vacated his post, a traitor and a suicide. It was not possible to impanel a fresh jury; only the dead Mans nearest friends were competent to make a decision. The eleven survivors are left to make their report. There, then, they sit, in the upper room, a place haunted by memories, charged with emotion. Had the dead Man risen again? Only one of them claims to have seen him; the rest have nothing to go upon except the empty tomb, and some rather confusing hearsay evidence. Their deliberations are cut short when, suddenly, behind locked doors, they see the dead Man standing in their midst.

No difficulty remains now; there can be only one verdict. He who was dead, is alive; he is our Lord and our God—that is the message they will publish to the world. And then—perhaps only after he has gone, a sudden thought occurs to them. They were not, after all, in full session when he came; one of them had been absent; Thomas, for what reason we don’t know, had been absent. Well, it is a pity; but after all it won’t make much difference. Thomas can hardly refuse to go by the vote of the majority, when he has the evidence of all his colleagues, without exception, to sway his judgment. They crowd round Thomas when he returns, with the confident cry, “We have seen the Lord!’

They had reckoned without their man. Thomas, as we know from his record, was loyal to a fault; had been the first to suggest that they should all go and die with their Master. But he was one of those people who will always ask the inconvenient question. One of those hard-headed, you might almost say bulletheaded, people who give so much trouble on juries and on committees of every sort by refusing to take the majority view until they, personally, are satisfied. He has been chosen to be an eye-witness, vouching personally for every event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And he was not an eye-witness of this appearance in the upper room; it will not do. How can they be certain it was really their Master they saw? What tests did they make? “Until I have seen the mark of the nails on his hands, until I have put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, you will never make me believe.”

That it was all providentially ordained, one apostle being absent, and that one Thomas, with his bulldog way of looking at things, is beyond question. “Our Faith”, says St Gregory, “owes more to the faithlessness of Thomas than to the faithfulness of all the other apostles put together.” (St Gregory, Homil. 26 in Evng.) Because Thomas doubted, our Lord appeared a second time in the upper room; because Thomas doubted, they were privileged to see, and to touch if they would, the indelible scars of Calvary. “What our own eyes have seen of him, what it was that met our gaze, and the touch of our hands” (1 John 1:1) - so John wrote, long afterwards, with that unforgettable scene for his inspiration. In a moment, the verdict of the jury became unanimous; Thomas could cry out “My Lord and my God!” with the rest. Only, there is a postscript. “Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe all the same.” For our sakes, it was a good thing that Thomas doubted. But for himself he had come short of the ideal, he had missed an opportunity; surely we arc meant to see that. In however insignificant a degree, he was at fault. He had all the record of our Lord’s life and teaching in front of him; he had the unanimous testimony of those others, his tried companions in arms, and yet . . . some pride, some wilful obstinacy, some chagrin, perhaps, at having been left out when this experience was granted to the rest, made him withhold his assent. “I will not believe”; mysteriously, it is possible to withhold your assent by an act of the will. He ought to have capitulated.

Our Lord doesn’t complain. Our Lord wasn’t like us; he didn’t go about after his Resurrection finding fault and saying “I told you so”; he looked forward to the future. He looked down the centuries at people like you and me, who had no chance of seeing him in his incarnate state, and yet do manage to cry out, “My Lord and my God”; and he said, “What lucky people you are!” When he started out on his ministry, you remember, he gave us the eight Beatitudes, “Blessed are the patient, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peace-makers”, and so on. And now, when he is just going to leave us for heaven, he pronounces a last beatitude, “Blessed arc those who haven’t seen, and believe all the same.” To call a person “blessed” is a form of congratulation; it is as if we had acquired some treasure, been singled out for some honour. We arc lucky people: luckier, it would seem, than St Thomas, because he saw.

Our Lord, as we know, was fond of paradox; and this congratulation of his does seem rather unexpected. Earlier on, he said to his apostles, “There have been many prophets and just men who have longed to see what you see, and never saw it” (Matthew 13:17); we understand well enough what he means by saying “Blessed are your eyes” in that connection. To see our Lord in the flesh, to hear his gracious accents, to feel the touch of his hand—what an opportunity it was that they had, and we have missed! But that is not his last word on the subject. He singles out people like you and me for a special congratulation; because we have not seen? No, but because, not having seen, we believe.

Faith, not anything else, is the definition of a Christian. Even when our salvation was in the bud, the blessed Virgin was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth in the words, “Blessed art thou for thy believing”; (Luke 1:45) and from then onwards, all through the New Testament, it dominates the picture. Are Christians, then, in general the victims of credulity, people who will believe anything? Or are they people of normally critical instincts, who, from a sentimental prejudice, make a single departure from their principles by consenting to believe in Jesus Christ? That is how some of our neighbours think of us; it seems natural to them when Easter Day falls on All Fools’ Day. But we do not admit the imputation, in either form. We are prepared to argue the truth of the Resurrection from a multitude of converging evidence; argue it as plain fact, as a piece of ascertainable history.

What, then, they ask, is this ‘‘gift of faith” you talk about? What can be the use of it, what can be the need for it, except to fill a gap; to make you believe something which you would otherwise admit to be incredible? Nothing of the sort; faith is a gift which fortifies us in holding fast to a belief which we know to be true, when we are tempted to lose sight of it. Our minds are not electronic machines; they arc human instruments, with the weaknesses of humanity. True, the evidence of our senses, and the general agreement of human opinion, have a certain power of compelling belief. But when evidence comes to us by hearsay; when a promise, or a warning, or an assurance comes to us on the word of somebody else, however good reason we have for trusting him—then it is possible to withhold our assent; to say, with Thomas, ‘‘I will not believe”.

“Our faith”, St John says in today’s epistle, “that is the triumphant principle which triumphs over the world” (1 John 5:4). The world around us, so unfriendly to every instinct of religion, so full of cruelty and hypocrisy, so tone-deaf to the music of eternity— how it gets us down, makes us wonder if its worth while going on! And, within ourselves, the continual secret revolt of our nature against the claim God makes on our lives—we find ourselves half dreading, half hoping, that the cord will snap, and we too shall become materialists like everybody else. If only (we say to ourselves) I could see some divine interference in the course of history, some startling answer to prayer in my own life! If we could see . . . yes, if we could see! But our Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe all the same.”


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