One of the newspapers I read contains a daily column dedicated to quirky personal interest stories. This week there was a story about an online clothing retailer which promises its clients a selection of wardrobe choices curated to fit their individual tastes.* The online styling company appeared in the news as a result of some of its customers finding themselves dressed exactly like other customers who live and work in close proximity to one another.
The people who discovered their previously unknown fashion twins were more than a little confused. In some cases, two people who work in the same office showed up to work in identical clothing. Most of them maintained a sense of humor about it, but they were obviously disappointed that their personally curated wardrobes were not actually unique to them.
Individuality is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of our human nature. There have never been, and will never be, two individuals who are identical; even identical twins have personalities very different from one another.
One of the facets of our individuality is that personal uniqueness is something that has to be discovered and explored. It is not uncommon for people to spend a good portion of their adulthood coming to terms with their individuality. Sadly, there is no guarantee that the discovery of one’s individuality will occur without challenges or obstacles. In marriage, for example, the individuality of marriage partners can be a source of strength and growth for the relationship; it can also be a source of tension.
The same dynamic of indeterminacy can be seen playing out in wider society. Some people’s individual initiatives lead to major advances in medicine, technology, social justice, and prosperity. In other cases, individuality can work against the good of society. In today’s Gospel reading, Thomas faced a choice that could have led either toward good or toward evil.
For unknown reasons, Thomas was not with the disciples on the occasion of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance. (n. 20:24) It might be tempting to speculate about the reasons for Thomas’ absence, but even our best guesses would miss the point. In this Gospel story, Thomas was absent solely for the purpose of being present at a later date. The Gospel relates this story for our benefit: in order that we can see an example of a faith-filled choice regarding human individuality.
A week after Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, he appeared again. This time, Thomas was present. (Jn. 20:26) Thomas wasn’t the sort of person who was willing to be carried along by the crowd. Despite the fact that he is described as a twin, he wanted very much to be taken seriously as an individual. (Jn. 20:24) When the disciples told him that they had seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion, Thomas responded, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Jn. 20:25) His would be a unique, individual belief in Jesus or it would not be belief at all.
Thomas got what he wanted and needed, but it is important to note the situation in which he found his individual faith in Jesus: he was gathered with other believers. This is the point of the story; it is the literary reason for Thomas’ previous absence. It is the faith lesson that the Gospel wishes to teach us. While it is necessary for each person individually to come to know the Risen Jesus, knowledge of the Risen Jesus comes only in the assembly of believers.
The gathering of disciples in which Thomas perceived the Risen Lord was not merely the background against which the drama of Thomas’ faith played out. The gathering of the disciples was, and always is, the only place where the real Jesus can be encountered.
This is a lesson about attaining faith, rather than about attaining a sense of self-fulfillment. Thomas was adamant about asserting his individuality, but he came to faith only in the assembly of believers. In just the same way, our individuality desires a unique relationship with the Risen Lord, but we find that only in fellowship with other disciples.
I would go so far as to say that the purpose of our individuality is not in order that we might achieve self-fulfillment or self-esteem or self-actualization or any other idealized goal from pop-psychology. I would go so far as to say that our individuality exists solely in order to lead us into community with other believers.
Thomas’ individuality could have led him away from the disciples. In fact, it did so on the evening of the Lord’s first post-resurrection appearance. If he had not rejoined the assembly, his individuality would have prevented him from encountering the Risen Lord. Human individuality on its own, when disconnected from wider society, leads inevitably to self-destruction. For proof of this, one has only to look at the consequences in people’s individual lives of anti-social behavior; crime, substance abuse, and dishonesty harm society, but only after they destroy the lives of those who practice those behaviors.
Church community is not an option in the life of faith; it is the only place where faith is found and nurtured. Participation in the life of this parish is not a luxury reserved to a few; it is a necessity for encountering the Risen Lord. Fellowship with other disciples is not an ideal to admire; it is indispensable to those who wish to see Jesus.
There are some Catholics who fret that full participation in their parish community might threaten their individuality. There are others who value their parish only as a convenient means of delivering a menu of religious goods and services. These attitudes, and any other that ignores the necessity of personal involvement in the faith community, spring from a misunderstanding of human nature; such misunderstandings lead ultimately to self-destruction.
Thomas found credible proof of Jesus’ resurrection and validation of his individual faith only when he placed himself fully in the presence of the assembly of disciples. Any other choice than his is a choice to remain in unbelief.
* Ray A. Smith, “I Love My Unique, Personalized Stitch Fix Shirt – Oh, You Have One Too,” Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2018).