For centuries St. Thomas has been represented as the patron and forerunner of all skeptics and doubters and grumblers and fault-finders. Actually, this is a gross and serious injustice to a man whose life was so bitter, and who had to suffer his distress for our sake. For this skepticism and lack of faith in Thomas was not so much an attitude or arrogrance as an exemplification of that ordinary foolishness which God in His mysterious wisdom uses to provoke His creatures to reflect upon the majesty of divine wisdom. St. Thomas' doubt was conceived in sorrow, born in painful hesitation, and grew into a blessing. Before this apostle can be properly judged, one must remember not only that he doubted, but also why his sadness made him hesitate to believe. The generous crown of God's mercy must also be kept in mind.
Thomas, the Doubter
As already indicated, whenever one hears the name of the apostle Thomas mentioned, he probably begins to grow suspicious of him. Twice St. John called Thomas by a surname, "Didymus"-literally, "the twofold one," or freely translated into English, "the twin." One might even try to interpret the meaning of this expression as an indication of a personality at least mildly schizophrenic. But such an opinion would be groundless, and completely incorrect, as any thorough and thoughtful examination of the texts will show. Actually, St John was only explaining Thomas' Aramaic name to the Greek reader of his Gospel: Thomas, that is (in Greek), Didymus, the Twin.
Certain idle legends have spread the gossip that the twin brother of Thomas was Eleazar, or that his twin sister was Lysia. In the spurious "Acts of Thomas" even Christ Himself was put forth as the twin brother of Thomas. Christ and Thomas were supposedly so much alike that they were often mistaken for one another.
Such a ridiculous fable may well have taken root in a tradition of the Church at Edessa. According to this tradition, the proper name of the apostle Thomas was Jude-Jude being an other name for Thomas, that is, Didymus, or the Twin. And this led to a confusion with the apostle Jude, who was known by many titles: Thaddeus, a brother, or cousin, of the Lord. Quite abruptly, then, these legends assumed that this Jude was Thomas, a brother, even a twin brother, of the Lord.
Sacred Scripture has not passed down any information concerning the origin, parents, or early life of Thomas. He was the first one of the Twelve to enter the Gospels practically unnoticed, the leader of the silent, almost mute, apostles. The first seven apostles had been mentioned before their calling, but Thomas' name appears for the first time in the lists of the apostles like a ray of the sun on the edge of a forest, which no one had noticed before.
Legend has it that Thomas was an architect. Since the thirteenth century, artists have associated the carpenter's square with this apostle, who has been made the patron of builders. Scripture, nonetheless, suggest that he was a fisherman, not a full-fledged owner of a business, as were Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, but a helper. This supposition coincides with other statements that Thomas came from a poor family of the tribe of Juda or Issachar.
Perhaps Thomas' restrained and insecure nature resulted from the poverty of his daily life. In the fourth Gospel this apostle appears as an outspokenly melancholic person. St. John, the painter of many true and beautiful portraits, recorded a few very significant words about Thomas in three passages. Despite their brevity these words reveal the whole nature of this man. The Synoptics mentioned only the name of Thomas: Mark and Luke in the eighth place on their lists, and Matthew in the seventh. In the Canon of the Mass and in the Litany of the Saints, and also in the Acts of the Apostles, he is portrayed as an especially important witness of the Resurrection; he is placed before Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew, not after them, as he was in the Gospels.
Although his apostolic companions stood on his right and on his left, Thomas nevertheless remained almost alone and lost in the rank and file of the apostles. When he compared himself with the others-as melancholic persons like to do-he emerged only as their inferior. Had the other apostles assumed any privilege or prerogative he might have rightly claimed as his own?
Peter was the first in authority; John was the first in love. Andrew and James could sun themselves in the distinctions of their respected brothers. Philip had his happy friend Bartholomew, and Bartholomew could rely on Philip. Matthew was a rich and skilled man. James the Less, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon were closely related to the Lord, and certainly they came after Thomas-yet it was only the fine tact of Jesus that made Him appoint these last places to His own relatives. And finally, Judas Iscariot, an unpleasant and sinister character, again and again enjoyed the trust of all, in that he was permitted to carry the money-purse.
St. Thomas alone was without a title. He was the lonesome apostle, the last of all. If one mediates on the passage of the Gospel which conern the apostle Thomas, he will see that these suppositions-they are no more than this-are not without basis, though taken from a wide range of possibilities.
The first appearance of Thomas in the Gospels occurred immediately before the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had just fled from Jerusalem to escape stoneing and seizure by the Jews. He had gone to Perea. The grieving sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha of Bethany, had sent a special messenger to Him to inform Him that their brother lay very ill. To this news our Lord gave the dark and mysterious answer. "'This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that through it the Son of God may be glorified.'" Again it is not always for us to have a clear understanding of the ways of God. Lazarus was a very close friend of Jesus; but instead of going to him immediately, our Lord "remained two more days in the same place. Then afterwards he said to his disciples. "Let us go again into Judea.'".
The disciples were startled and confused. "'Rabbi, just now the Jews were seeking to stone thee; and dost thou go there again?'" And after Jesus spoke to them about the "sleep" of Lazarus, they stuck to their refusal to understand, the real meaning of that word. They tried to find a plausible reason not to return where they might be notices by the hostile Jews. "'Lord if he sleeps, he will be safe.'" Despite their fear and anxiety and insistence on retaining their safe position, our Lord did not hesitate to fulfill His dangeous mission of mercy. He left no doubt about the "sleep" of Lazarus. "So then Jesus said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.'" Then Thomas, the sad and faithful fellow-disciple, spoke out with the bravery of a martyr, "' Let us also go, that we may die with Him.' " Thomas, the apostle full of love and melancholy and courage!
Thomas was already expecting the worst. He was not led on by a consoling illusion, nor did he let himself be deceived, as the others, by palms or hosannas. He saw the dark storm, the darkest storm, forming on the horizon. When the Lord, despite all the urging and reminding of the disciples, wanted to "go again into Judea," Thomas was not going to let Him go alone. Let us all go and die with Him!
It was certainly not this way with Peter after our Lord's first prediction of His Passion. Peter feared for his Master, and for himself, too; "'Far be it from thee, O Lord; this will never happen to thee"" Thomas' remark was much more serious and realistic, much more mature, like a grain of corn ready to die for a new life, which dips to the ground to return to the place from where it came. In Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" St. Thomas-the second on the left of Christ-was portrayed fervently assuring the Lord of his faithfulness.
A similarly melancholic thought, spoken by Thomas at the Last Supper, was recorded by the evangelist John. The disciples were very dejected, thinking about being separated from their Master. Christ went out of His way to comfort them. His first words of solace concerned their reunion in the mercy of the Father.
"Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many mansions. Were it not so, I should have told you, because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, and I will take you to myself; that where I am, there you also may be."