In the Footsteps of the Apostles-Part 2
In the early days, Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and historian at Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota, told me, "the organizational structure, the great institution of the churchsignified for Roman Catholics today by the Vatican and its complex hierarchysimply wasn't there. There was an apostolic band of followers. There were missionary efforts in major centers, first in Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Rome, but certainly no sense of a headquarters. Instead you had this tiny, vulnerable, poor, often persecuted group of people who were on fire with something."
The Apostles were the movement's cutting edge, spreading the message across the vast trade network of the ancient world and leaving small Christian communities in their paths. "To study the lives of the Apostles," Stewart said, "is a bit like what we've been doing with the Hubble telescopegetting as close as we can to seeing these earliest galaxies. This was the big bang moment for Christianity, with the Apostles blasting out of Jerusalem and scattering across the known world."
Thomas the Apostle went east, through what is now Syria and Iran and, historians believe, on down to southern India. He traveled farther than even the indefatigable Paul, whose journeys encompassed much of the Mediterranean. Of all the Apostles, Thomas represents most profoundly the missionary zeal associated with the rise of Christianitythe drive to travel to the ends of the known world to preach a new creed.
Mark the Evangelist too spread the word, bringing Christ's message to Egypt and founding the Coptic faith. But for some Catholics, Mark represents most emphatically the saint as political symbol, powerfully linked with the identity of Venice. Although a figure from the ancient past, he retains a stronger grip on the consciousness of modern-day Venetians than Washington or Lincoln holds on most Americans.
If Thomas is the iconic missionary and Mark a political cornerstone, Mary Magdalene epitomizes the mystical saint, closely associated with grace and divine intercession. Other saints, including Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, play a similar role among Catholics, but none has exerted a stronger pull on the imagination, or created more controversy, than Mary Magdalene. Once maligned as a reformed courtesan, venerated today by millions worldwide, she was a significant presence in Christ's inner circle.
Although one tradition holds that she died in Ephesus, others maintain that she traveled from the Middle East to southern France. But establishing with scientific certainty that Mary Magdalene came to the hills of Provence, or that Thomas died in India, is likely to remain outside our grasp. Scientific analysis of relics is invariably inadequate, often confirming only that the bones are of the right gender and period. Advances in testing and archaeology, together with the discovery of yet unknown manuscripts, will continue to refine our historical knowledge of the saints. But much will remain inconclusive. How best, then, to understand these individuals if the reach of science is limited? As with most of the earliest Christians, we must rely largely on legend and historical accounts, acknowledging the power these mythic figures still exert today, some 2,000 years after their deaths.
THE GREAT MISSIONARY
Many historians believe that Thomas landed on the palm-lined coast of Kerala at a site now called Cranganore. He is reported to have established seven churches in Kerala and to have been martyred 20 years later on the other side of the country, in Mylapore, now a neighborhood in Chennai. At Palayur Church in Guruvayur, Thomas is said to have raised the first cross in India and performed one of his earliest miracles: When he encountered a group of Brahmans throwing water into the air as part of a ritual, he asked why the water fell back to Earth if it was pleasing to their deity. My God, Thomas said, would accept such an offering. He then flung a great spray into the air, and the droplets hung there in the form of glistening white blossoms. Most onlookers converted on the spot; the rest fled.
My guides in Kerala were Columba Stewart and Ignatius Payyappilly, a priest from Kochi in Kerala whose connection to Thomas is personal. He and his mother nearly died during his birth, but his grandmother and mother, the latter slipping in and out of consciousness, prayed fervently to St. Thomas. "And we were spared," Payyappilly told me.
Stewart is the executive director of his abbey's Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has been preserving religious manuscripts around the world since 1965. Payyappilly and his small staff spearhead the effort in Kerala, digitizing and preserving thousands of inscribed palm leaves and other manuscripts. Theirs is a race against a humid climate, which destroys manuscripts if they're not properly cared for. Since 2006 the team has accumulated 12 terabytes of digitized dataone million images of manuscripts. The oldest document in their possession, a collection of ecclesiastical laws, dates to 1291. These extraordinary documents are important to Thomas Christians, linking them to the founder of their faith.
In India, Thomas is revered as a bold missionary. In the West, he represents the believer who wrestles with uncertainty. "The classic portrayal of Thomas," Stewart said, "is the doubting Thomas. That's a little inaccurate, because it's not so much that he doubted the resurrection but that he needed a personal encounter with Jesus to make the resurrection real. So you might think of him as the pragmatic Thomas or the forensic Thomas. The guy who's so experiential that he said, 'I need to put my finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side.' And this experience gave him the fuel he needed to do amazing things."
Thomas's moment of incredulity has proved a two-edged sword in the history of Christian thought. On the one hand, some theologians are quick to point out that his doubt is only natural, echoing the uncertainty, if not the deep skepticism, felt by millions in regard to metaphysical matters. How can we know? That Thomas challenged the risen Christ, probed the wounds, and then believed, some say, lends deeper significance to his subsequent faith. On the other hand, his crisis of doubt, shared by none of the other Apostles, is seen by many as a spiritual failure, as a need to know something literally that one simply cannot know. In the Gospel of John, 20:29, Christ himself chastises Thomas, saying, "Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
His skepticism notwithstanding, St. Thomas still stands as the direct link between his converts in Kerala and the founding Christian story on the shores of the Mediterranean, clear across the known world of the first century. Unlike later Christian groups in Asia who were converted by missionaries, Thomas Christians believe their church was founded by one of Christ's closest followers, and this is central to their spiritual identity. "They are an apostolic church," Stewart said, "and that's the ultimate seal of approval for a Christian group."
By Andrew Todhunter
From: National Geographic Magazine