Seeing and Believing

Seeing and Believing

Third Sunday of Easter. Fr David Goodill exhorts us to be more like Sherlock Holmes and less like Doctor Watson

You can’t help feeling sorry for Dr Watson as his friend Sherlock Holmes explains his latest piece of deduction. A stranger appears at Baker Street and Holmes reveals facts about them that astound and amaze. Later Holmes explains to Watson how he arrived at these conclusions, stressing that he possesses no special powers of observation but is merely putting into practice basic abilities of observation and deduction. For Holmes the amazing thing is that most of us fail to understand what is staring us in the face.

The problem is not one of sight: Watson sees exactly what Holmes sees. Nor is the problem one of intelligence, we are told that Watson is a successful doctor and his powers of medical deduction are second to none. So why can Holmes perform these amazing feats of deduction that leave Watson (and the rest of us) in awe?

Firstly, he has spent years training his mind. Just as Watson is a highly trained doctor, so Holmes has trained himself in the art of deduction. Secondly, Holmes has a keen interest in humanity. This strange solitary figure has few friends, but has a profound knowledge of and sympathy for human beings, from the most powerful to the very poorest. Thirdly, the science of deduction made famous by Holmes is not deduction in a strict logical sense. Many of his most brilliant pieces of deduction involve the use of the imagination to make connections most of us fail to see.

Just as we feel sorry for Watson so in many ways we might feel sorry for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As they walk along Jesus joins them, but we are told that ‘something prevented them from recognising him.’ The problem here is not one of seeing: Jesus isn’t veiling himself to suddenly shine forth in his glory. No, the problem is that the disciples fail to understand what they are seeing. The risen Jesus is at their side, but their minds are closed to him and they will need Jesus to lead them step by step until they understand who he is.

Just as Holmes reproaches Watson for failing to understand what he is seeing, so Jesus calls the two disciples ‘foolish men’. He has trained them throughout his ministry to understand the teachings of the prophets that ‘the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory’, so he patiently explains to them the scriptures concerning himself.

What the scriptures reveal is that in Christ God reveals the depth of his love and concern for every person, especially for those who are poor. What seems like failure to the two disciples, and the end of all hope, is the source of all hope and the shining forth of God’s glory.

For all this careful explanation of the scriptures the two disciples still fail to recognise Jesus. The evidence is before them but they still cannot make the necessary connection; they lack imagination. Their minds are so weighed down with the violence of the crucifixion that they cannot imagine how God can bring new life from death. So Jesus gives them a sign, a sign that he has invested with a special meaning at the last supper: ‘He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.’

The sign is a very basic sign, but one that has a powerful effect on the two disciples and we are told that ‘their eyes were opened and they recognised him.’ The sign was his gift to them, just as it is his gift to all of us raising the imagination so that we see the reality of what lies in front of our eyes.

When we read the Emmaus story what strikes us as amazing is not that the two disciples finally recognise Jesus, but that they fail to do so in the first place. We know the end of the story and wonder how the two disciples could fail to recognise such an obvious conclusion. Yet how often in our lives do we fail to recognise the presence of Christ? More often than not we’re more like Watson than Sherlock Holmes, wandering through life focused on our own concerns, unable to see what should be perfectly obvious.

If fact, on our own, none of us has the ability to see the presence of Christ; the sight of faith is Christ’s gift to us. What we learn in the Emmaus story is that the gift works through the scriptures and the Holy Eucharist, which use memory and imagination to raise the mind, so that we understand what we are seeing: Jesus Christ offering his life in love for all people.

Readings: Acts 2:14,22-28 | 1 Pet 1:17-21 | Luke 24:13-35

fr. David Goodill OP is Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans, and teaches moral theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.