In the summer of 2004, I spent three months in a village called Rabanal del Camino in northwest Spain. Now Wikipedia tells me that the population of Rabanal is now 74, but when I was there it was three, so I say hats off to Rabanal for their 2367% increase over these past 15 years. When I was there the village had been abandoned for some time and the German archabbey of St. Ottilien had founded a tiny monastery there with three Spanish monks to tend to the pilgrims who came through on the famed Camino of Santiago and slept in the abandoned buildings. The monks even managed to open the doors of the crumbling Romanesque church there to offer prayer for the pilgrims.
Which is how I got involved. None of the monks spoke English, and so Brother José excitedly told the other two that he knew someone from Rome who was looking for a summer experience, and that he could pray with people and hear confessions in both English and French, vastly overselling my ability in French, but that's by the by.
One day a Canadian man in his 60's came into where my makeshift confessional was set amidst crumbling walls and introduced himself as Tommy. “Tommy. Not Thomas” he said as if the full name were somehow a swear word. I asked him where he was from.
“Canada,” he said, “near Toronto. A town you won't have heard of.”
“Try me,” I said, “I know Canada a bit.”
“You don’t know it,” he said gruffly.
“Fine,” I said. “What brings you here today?” I asked. “Would you like to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation?”
“I don't know what that means,” he said with an annoyed air.
“Confession,” I said. “Would you like to go to confession?”
“I don't do confession,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “Shall we just pray together then?”
“I’m not sure I believe in prayer,” he said.
I wondered if Tommy had somehow taken a wrong turn on his way to Leon, as his behaviour certainly didn’t seem to match up with the other pilgrims with whom I had spoken.
“OK,” I said. “Shall we just have a chat?”
“What could you possibly have to say to me?” he asked, and I had to admit I was running out of things.
“Well, Tommy, I am never at a loss for words, so I have loads to say – trust me. But maybe you could take the opportunity of having someone here to talk with to say those things that maybe you’ve never been able to say to anyone else. It can bring insight, I promise.”
“I don't do confession.”
“We've established that.”
“And I don't believe in prayer.”
“Uh huh. Do you,” I asked, “believe in conversation?”
“Not really. It’s overrated, if you ask me.”
“OK,” I said, quite exasperated. “Is there anything you would like to talk about – not in a conversational sort of way, but rather in a way that there's something inside of you that you'd just like to get out?”
“I suppose there is,” Tommy said.
“Fab,” I said, overjoyed to have finally broken through. “What is it?”
“Yes. Peanut allergies.”
“OK. What would you like to say about peanut allergies?”
Well, wasn't I shocked when the theretofore Tommy-of-few-words let loose on a rather difficult-to-follow theory about peanut allergies. He must have spoken for thirty minutes without taking a breath, and no stone was left unturned in a subject that I had to admit I hadn't given much thought to before. I tried breaking in every now and then with some questions, but Tommy didn't really have the patience to entertain my questions; he had a lot to get out about his peanut allergy theories.
Eventually he got to a point where I suppose he had said all he wanted to say on the subject, because he just stopped talking and stood up to go.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Not even close,” he said. “But it's all for now.”
“OK,” I said. “Can I say a prayer before you go?”
“I don't do confession,” he repeated.
“Yes, quite,” I said. “But I'm talking about saying a prayer.”
“I’m not sure I believe in prayer.”
“I know, but I do, and I was just wondering if I could say a prayer while you're in the general vicinity of me. For me, mind you, not you.”
“No, I don't think so,” Tommy responded. “I don't believe it would do you any good.” With that he walked out and a French girl walked in; I think I detected the slightest hint of fear in her eyes, perhaps about the severity of a confessor who kept people for more than thirty minutes.
Later, after compline, I wrote in my journal about my experience with Tommy, who – since he didn't seem to believe in anything, I referred to as Doubting Tommy. I’m not usually one to push prayer on people, but I noted that the more he and I had got further and further down the rabbit/peanut hole, all I could think about was that I really wanted to pray with this guy with an intensity that – I have to admit – was rarely present in the other pilgrims I encountered that summer. Don't get me wrong: it was lovely being a part of all those journeys, and I relished the opportunity to pray with all those people; but Tommy brought an urgency to my desire to pray. Every “I don't do” or “I don’t believe” was like a muezzin calling out from atop a minaret just beckoning me to some sort of prayer.
That’s what Saint Tommy was doing for me. And I got to thinking about that other Thomas – the doubting one – and I began to see him in a different light. Maybe his “I won't believe” did the same thing and served as a call to prayer for those around him. I like to think that his doubt strengthened the belief of his fellow disciples. Leave aside for a moment his brilliant preaching of the Gospel and his heroic martyrdom; maybe another thing that makes him saintly is that his holy doubt strengthened the faith of others.
It's worth a thought, and – I have to say – it's comforting. As there are times I struggle with my own doubts, I am soothed by the thought that maybe my battling with it all can somehow strengthen someone else. I might not be able to always brilliantly preach the Gospel, and I'm probably not going to be heroically martyred. Maybe my part in this particular pilgrimage is simply to galumph through the doubt and hope that said galumphing brings grace to others somehow. And maybe your galumphing does the same for me.
I think it's marvellous to think just how much fruit can come from our working our faith out together like this. We really have no idea what can come from it, it is, indeed like the proverbial mustard seed.
Or, of course, peanut. But let’s not go there.